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Time to Clean Your Email List? Why We Deleted 40% of Our Subscribers

Late last year, we decided to delete 40 percent of our email subscribers. That’s approximately 90,000 people who’ll probably never get an email from us again. Why on earth did we do this? Today, I’ll share the four key reasons—they might help you decide if cleaning your email list makes sense for you and your business.

It’s Cold Out There (If You’re Not Reading Our Emails)

When I talk about deleting 40 percent of our email list, I don’t just mean a random 40 percent. This was a targeted trimming—we were focused on a set of subscribers we call our cold subscribers.

🥶 + 📧 = 👎

These were the people who hadn’t taken any action on our emails in a while. How long? In our case, we’ll refer to the dashboard of the email list management tool we use, ConvertKit.

ConvertKit uses a star rating system to score each person on your list. Here’s a breakdown of that scoring system:

  • ⭐️ = Subscribers who have not engaged with your content in the past 9 months.
  • ⭐️⭐️ = Subscribers who have engaged with your content in the past 9 months.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ = Subscribers who have engaged with your content in the past 6 months.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ = Subscribers who have engaged with your content in the past 90 days.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ = Subscribers who have engaged with your content in the past 30 days, or purchased one of your products.

Five-star subscribers are great, while one-star subscribers are not great.

You can see how our email audience broke down across these five categories in this screenshot of our ConvertKit dashboard.

screenshot of ConvertKit's email marketing dashboard showing subscriber scoring on a curve of 1 star through 5 stars
This chart from our ConvertKit dashboard shows our subscribers in five groups based on how much they engage with our email content.

We had a lot of highly engaged subscribers—that’s great! But also a lot of unengaged ones.

And so we decided to prune out the one-star subscribers, the ones who aren’t reading emails or taking action on our content.

Now, sometimes your email service provider’s indication of whether someone is active or not can be inaccurate. We’ll get to that toward the end of this post.

But first…

The Four Reasons We Decided to Clean Our Email List

Let’s talk about the four main reasons we decided to prune cold subscribers from our email list, and why you might want to too.

#1: They were costing us money

First of all, we are paying for every subscriber on our list. That means the more subscribers we have, the more it’s costing us.

If we have a lot of subscribers sitting on our email list but not taking any action, essentially we’re paying for them to not read our emails!

To be honest, that just doesn’t sound like a great use of our money. So if these subscribers aren’t going to read our emails anyway, let’s not include them on our list any longer.

#2: They were decreasing our open rates

Another reason we might want to prune our subscribers is that inactive list members are decreasing our email open rates.

Your open rate gives you a general sense of how many people are engaging with your email content.

What’s a good email open rate? It depends. The range across industries tends to be between 15 and 30 percent, and the average is usually around 20 percent. And what’s a good open rate for you depends, not surprisingly, on your business and your unique goals. 

Let’s go back to that dashboard and look at SPI’s open rates before we cleaned our email list.

screenshot of ConvertKit's email marketing dashboard showing average open rate
This screenshot of ConvertKit’s dashboard shows the average open rate for all our emails.

The average open rate across all of our emails was a little less than 18 percent. 

Again, this may or may not represent a low open rate for you and your business—but for us, it told us that we could be doing better.

Now there are a lot of factors that can affect your email open rate. And there are things that can make your open rate misleading. But as a rough measure of the health of our email list, 18 percent was a little lower than we wanted it to be.

#3: They were hurting our sending reputation

The third reason we care about cold subscribers and whether or not people are actually reading our emails is because they affect our sending reputation. Say what?

Sending reputation (or sender reputation) is a broad term for how email clients like Gmail judge us as a trustworthy email-sending entity (or not).

When an email comes in from our domain, is the receiver’s email client going to flag it as spam, or send it to the top of the inbox? Does it think the email is something the subscriber wants to read? Or is it going to shuttle it into the Promotions tab?

The more of our emails that get sent right to the inbox, the more they’ll get read. This will improve our sending reputation, which means that future emails are also more likely to make it to the inbox. It’s a positive feedback loop we want to feed.

But if emails are getting ignored, unsubscribed from, or marked as spam, then our sending reputation is going to suffer.

That’s another reason we want people on our email list to actually, you know, want to read our emails—and not let them flounder in their inbox, or worse, click unsubscribe or flag them as junk.

Sending reputation is a bit of a complicated situation, so check out ConvertKit’s Deliverability Defined podcast for more information for a deeper study of your sending authority and what that all means.

#4: They were (probably) not interested in hearing from us

The fourth reason—and it’s an important one—is that we don’t want to bother people who aren’t interested in getting our emails.

In SPI’s case, if somebody was interested in our content nine months ago, but then decided not to start an online business, we don’t want to keep bugging them. There’s no reason to keep sending emails that are just going to stack up in their inbox.

So we can do them (and us) a kindness and unsubscribe them.

Are They Actually Cold Subscribers? It’s Worth Checking

So those are the four reasons we decided to prune out the cold subscribers from the SPI email list—and why you might want to do the same.

But before you go ahead and remove a bunch of people from your list, there’s one more important step you should consider. It gets to the question of whether or not those “cold” subscribers are actually cold.

You see, for any given subscriber, that designation might or might not be accurate. Your email service provider can’t always determine without a shadow of a doubt that an email has been read, for instance. Email is complicated!

That’s why it can be worth it to check with your subscribers first before booting them from your list. You can do this with a reengagement campaign—a series of emails that gives subscribers a chance to verify if they actually want to stick around before you give them the boot.

Want to Clean Your Email List? Let Us Help

If this whole process of identifying cold subscribers and running reengagement campaigns is starting to sound kind of complicated, have no fear.

Help with Cleaning Your Email List: The Video Series

Our three-video series on cleaning your email list covers everything you need to know and how to go about cleaning your email list.

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Even More Help with Cleaning Your Email List: The Email Series

If you want even more support, check out, where you can sign up to receive our three-part companion email series. 

This series includes:

  • All the email copy we used in our reengagement sequence
  • The ability to copy the automation into your own ConvertKit account
  • Links to more resources on pruning cold subscribers

We’ll be talking more about email deliverability here on the blog later this year. In the meantime, we invite you to check out a few more handy resources:

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