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Email List Pruning: A Corny Horticultural Analogy

Whether you’ve got a green thumb or not, we’re all familiar with the idea of pruning: trimming back plants and trees to eradicate dead foliage and encourage attractive shapes and new growth.

And a hot topic that keeps popping up on my radar is email list pruning. The theory is essentially the same as in the garden—select cuts should encourage better results.

It’s become a widespread belief that email list pruning is a necessity when it comes to maximizing program performance. But just as it’s possible to do more harm than good with some heavy-handed limb-chopping, slashing away at subscriber lists can be damaging to your bottom-line objectives.

How did email list pruning get so much traction in recent years?

The idea of email list pruning has its roots (har har) in the deliverability specialty.

When marketers find themselves in the thick of a deliverability crisis, a pretty standard tactic in the deliverability triage playbook is to suppress or delete subscribers who haven’t shown recent engagement while concurrently addressing other contributing factors (like eliminating any sketchy strategies that got you in hot water in the first place!).

The idea got legs. And over time, it evolved. Eventually, the idea of keeping lists extra-lean became mainstream—even when there’s no sign of deliverability trouble.

Today, loads of marketers delete subscribers regularly without much thought. Does this sound like you? I’d challenge you to reconsider.

Ask yourself why you want to trim lists.

Smaller lists mean you’re messaging fewer folks who’ve shown an interest in your brand. So why would you want to limit your reach? So far, I’ve only heard these three answers to justify email list pruning.

Which one is yours?

  1. I’ve got deliverability problems.
  2. It’s a “best practice.”
  3. I want to save money.

1. I’ve got deliverability problems.

If you’re experiencing some serious inboxing challenges, then, by all means, you should investigate whether a lack of engagement is a factor. If it is, then absolutely consider aggressive suppression while you sort it out, ideally reserving subscriber deletion for when all else fails.

But don’t forget—a lack of engagement isn’t actually solved by cutting subscribers from your list. If folks are opening and clicking so infrequently that you’ve been banished to the spam folder, then you’re making some much bigger mistakes.

These might include crummy acquisition strategies, irrelevant and unpersonalized messaging, poor design and rendering, a lack of retention and re-engagement strategies, and any number of other factors that might leave subscribers feeling blah about your brand.

Are you digging deeper to sort out why you’re losing subscribers’ attention and making a plan to address those issues? Or simply dumping disappointed subscribers and calling it a day?

2. It’s a “best practice.”

I often come across marketers looking for advice on how to explain to their higher-ups that email list pruning is a thing that MUST BE DONE. They’re struggling to make a case in favor of an ultra-lightweight list and need support articulating why it is a BEST PRACTICE. Because the boss just doesn’t seem to get it!

Sorry, friends, but there’s a reason the boss challenges this thinking: because it defies logic.

If you caught my session at Iterable’s Activate 19 conference this year, then you’d know I have very, very strong feelings about BEST PRACTICES.

You can check out a recording of my sweary rant here: (Emphasis on sweary! You’ve been warned.)

The core message of that session is that “best practices” aren’t always in your *best* interest.

There are two questions to ask yourself about any so-called best practice:

  • Does this advance my business objective?
  • Does this serve my audience?

Generally speaking, business objectives tend to involve metrics and goals such as revenue, retention, and customer lifetime value. Are you going to increase revenue, retention or LTV by sending to fewer people?

And if you aren’t seeing any signs of deliverability trouble, are you serving the folks who gave you permission to send email marketing by removing them from your lists? The same ones who said they want to hear from you?

I’ll concede that someone reading this article is able to answer those questions with a yes—and they have data that proves it. In that case, carry on, fine ladies and gents. There are always exceptions and you should believe your data.

But if you aren’t even looking beyond basic engagement data, then you’re not considering the money that you’re likely leaving on the table by ditching subscribers. And that’s why the boss isn’t feeling it when you say you want to aggressively prune email lists.

I had the chance to work recently with a client that was deleting subscribers who hadn’t opened or clicked within 90 days. However, they abandoned this practice about five months before our meeting and we were able to see the before-and-after result. The marketer I was working with was bummed when we looked at month-over-month metrics. Open rates had dropped. Click rates had dropped.

“Yeah, I’m kinda worried about that,” she said.

“I’m not,” I replied, as I advanced to the terrifically nerdy pivot charts that showed open VOLUME was up tremendously. Click VOLUME was similarly growing. Unique purchases? UP. Revenue? IT WAS POPPIN!!!

So yeah, you won’t max out open and click rates when you aren’t aggressively cutting subscribers—but those aren’t the metrics that matter the most.

Ultimately, it’s all about dat shmoney, people. You shouldn’t be looking myopically at deliverability above all else just as you shouldn’t be looking exclusively at engagement above all else. Step back so you can see the forest for the trees (the wild, lush, unpruned forest, that is!).

3. I want to save money.

The third explanation I’ve heard to justify cutting subscriber lists is the cost of marketing to a larger list. Whether you’re paying your email service provider a CPM or a rate that is relevant to the size of your database, it certainly does cost more money to mail more subscribers.

But if you think that saving a buck or two per subscriber is a prudent financial decision for your brand, you’re thinking about the problem the wrong way. Allow me to explain.

This is a Tesla.

Email list pruning - Tesla analogy

Source: Unsplash

Pretty sweet ride, no? How would you like to own a Tesla? Sounds cool, right? If you really, REALLY wanted a Tesla, how would you go about getting one?

Would you start saving up by clipping 35-cent coupons for Charmin toilet tissue each month? How quickly would that pocket change turn into a car payment?

Now let’s consider that you’re spending $1.25 for the newspaper that contains the 35-cent coupon. That, folks, is where you start calculating the cost of acquiring those email addresses you’re so eager to delete. Suddenly you’re not saving anything at all. You’re not even breaking even.

Wouldn’t a better strategy be to earn more money to achieve your goal? Say, a big promotion or new job? Wouldn’t a hefty boost in income get you behind the wheel of that Tesla faster than trying to scrimp and save a few extra dimes and nickels each month? How could you leverage your talents and skills and network to level-up your career?

The point here is that bigger lists produce bigger revenues—when they’re leveraged correctly. If you’re fixated on a coupon-clipping state of mind, then you’re missing the opportunity to maximize ROI. And in fact, you might be making short-sighted decisions that are a waste of money entirely.

Instead, consider what can you do with seemingly disengaged subscribers to revive them. Surely we should try a little fertilizer and sunshine before we start hacking away at the branch that’s not blooming yet?

If you didn’t catch what I’m getting at here, “fertilizer” would be re-engagement strategies, improved personalization and relevance, and all-around surprise and delight.

Okay, I’m sold. What now?

It’s true that it probably doesn’t make much sense to treat those who aren’t showing email engagement the same way you treat those who are. As I mentioned, a re-engagement campaign should be your first line of defense in dealing with those who seem to have lost interest in your brand (while deleting is a last resort).

Still not getting traction? Consider less-frequent messaging for this segment, especially if inboxing is slipping. There’s not a one-size-fits-all formula for what that frequency should be, but a minimum of two to four messages a month will keep your brand present in the inbox and aid you in keeping lists healthy by capturing any hard bounces as they crop up.

And don’t forget, frequency should ramp back up when you do see engagement.

Still not getting the engagement you’re looking for after a re-engagement campaign and reduced frequency? Rinse and repeat, my friends. It’s fine to re-launch re-engagement every three to six months when you don’t get the engagement you’re looking for in between.

Look at the big picture too. Just because you’re not getting engagement in the email channel doesn’t mean subscribers aren’t engaging with your brand at all. Perhaps they’re on your website, on your app, in your brick-and-mortar location. Maybe they’re following along on the socials or clicking on remarketing ads.

Talk to the stakeholders who own the other channels—can you share data or collaborate on strategies that might drive better engagement and retention?

Remember—more and more subscribers have taken an inventory mentality since the advent of the promotions tab. They know the messages are there when they want them.

And they’ll often let them pile up for ages with little more than the occasional skim. We email marketers did this to ourselves—we pounded away at inboxes with promotional messages for years and ISPs responded with the tabbed inbox.

Unread email doesn’t necessarily mean our messages are unwanted. Sometimes they’re just tucked away until the right moment.

Also, there’s a metric that we just don’t know how to quantify: inbox impressions. There’s no straightforward formula for calculating how many subscribers have skimmed your From Name and subject line and are keeping your brand top of mind for future reference. Maybe they’re not engaging or buying today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen ever.

If they’re not unsubscribing or complaining, and your deliverability isn’t tanking, should you assume they want off your list?

Now let’s take this analogy aaaaaaall the way home.

Sometimes you do need to lob off some fully dead branches, it’s true. But make a bad cut, and you might remove precious flower buds that will never see the sun (yeah, that’s a revenue analogy, folks!).

The aim is to cultivate a rich, mature garden, and that takes time—just as it takes time to establish a long, loyal relationship with your customers. And those relationships are impossible to cultivate when we, the marketers, cut them short before there’s a chance for them to grow and blossom.

If you’re interested in diving into the topic of frequency more deeply, check out the next Iterable webinar. I’ll be joined by Tasmin Singh from Iterable’s Customer Success team to talk about over- and under-sending email and mobile marketing channels. And be sure to check out our on-demand webinar on re-engagement campaigns.

You can also catch my insights on re-engagement strategy during my pre-con email workshop for the Digital Summit conferences—I’ll be presenting in Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, D.C., Detroit, Boston, Raleigh, and Dallas. Hope to see you at one of them!

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