How to Get Your Email List Squeaky Clean (and Improve Engagement)

Building an email list from scratch is no walk in the park, so it’s easy to treat every subscriber on your list as a valuable win.

In reality, there could be large segments of your list that are unengaged, invalid, or spam. Which actually causes more harm than good. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep your email list healthy and engaged. This includes removing some people from it (we promise it’s not as scary as it sounds). But the sooner you do it, the sooner you can count on your emails being delivered and read. 

Why you should clean your email list 

So, why should you prune your list? Here are the top 3 reasons.

Save money and increase ROI 

Marketing to subscribers who aren’t interacting with your emails is akin to screaming into a void. And this can really eat into your margins. If you filter your list by recent engagement and find that many of your subscribers haven’t opened or clicked an email in the past 90 days, it’s probably time to cut them loose. If you’ve been regularly emailing unengaged subscribers, you’re not only losing money but also putting your sender reputation at risk. 


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Increase email deliverability 

Email servers notice when people don’t open or click on your emails. This signals that customers aren’t engaged in your emails or your content, and affects deliverability, causing your emails to bounce or end up in junk folders.

Deliverability issues can be tough to fix, so it’s important to identify and delete problem contacts as early as possible. 

Improve analytics and reporting

It’s easy to get discouraged watching stagnant open or click-through rates. When your data is overwhelmed by large numbers of inactive subscribers, it can be hard to see accurate results of your marketing efforts. Maintaining list hygiene gives you a clear picture of how your active subscribers are reacting to your content, so you can adjust accordingly. 

How to clean your email list 

Before you actually remove anyone from your account, it’s important to see if there are any contacts you can re-engage. There might be some happy customers who haven’t been opening or clicking your emails. You can try bringing them back through a winback email (which we’ll get to in this section).  

Once you’re confident these folks are gone for good, it’s time to let go of your legos and remove them using a Sunset workflow. 

Here’s how to do it: 

Step 1: Create a segment for inactive subscribers.  

You want to find contacts who have received several emails but haven’t engaged in any way in the past 90 days or so. 

This is especially critical to do with the release of Apple’s iOS 15, as it will become more difficult to use open rates as an engagement metric. Pruning your list of inactive contacts now will help to ensure a smoother transition.

Step 2: Send a winback email or campaign

This is your last chance to grab the attention of your inactive contacts, so now is the time to break out your most eye-catching subject lines and best performing offers. Give them an incentive to come back, such as an exclusive discount. 

Be sure to set up your workflow so that anyone who engages with these emails is switched to active and excluded from receiving further re-engagement content. 

Step 3: Create several emails, with a 3-4 day delay between sends 

 Let these contacts know they are about to be unsubscribed due to inactivity and give them the opportunity to change their subscription preferences. 

Feel free to get creative with the copy, but save the bright and colorful HTML emails for your active subscribers. Although it may seem counterintuitive, there are several benefits to using plain text, or text-only, emails for re-engagement campaigns. 

Why you should use text-only emails:

  1. They act as a pattern-interrupter - they get attention precisely because the reader is not expecting this type of email from a brand.

  2. They are less likely to get stuck in the promotions or junk folders and land in the recipient’s primary inbox.

  3. They feel more personal and conversational. You can even ask a question and encourage responses, which are great for relationship building AND your email deliverability. 

Step 4: Split the workflow into two paths: customers & non-customers 

You can increase personalization, and therefore your chances of engagement, by setting up two separate paths in this automation for customers and non-customers. 

The type of emails in each path, as well as their timing and sequence, should be similar, but the language will differ based on whether you’re talking to someone who’s previously shopped with you versus someone who hasn't. 

For example, you might send one email to customers saying, “We’ve noticed that you shopped with us last March but we haven’t seen you around lately.” And for non-customers, you might tweak that to say, “We noticed that you signed up for our emails but it doesn’t look like they’re catching your interest. What is something you’d change about our content?” 

Here's the overall automation structure:

Email 1: 

“Hey, we’ve noticed you haven’t been around lately and we miss you. Since you were away, we’ve launched X and introduced Y - check them out.” 

Email 2: 

Give recipients a fun fact about your brand, a recent update or a strong piece of social proof. This is a good place to offer a discount, too, or free shipping on any order - keep in mind that these recipients will likely shop small at first, since they’ve been unengaged for so long.

Email 3:

“We’ve noticed you haven’t been engaging with our emails, and we only want to send the most relevant content. We don’t want to flood your inbox, so we’ll hit pause for now. If you want to receive emails, simply click on the link below and you’ll be re-added.” The link can simply lead to your homepage, but the click will act as a trigger to remove this person from the flow.  

In the last email, you want to give recipients an “out.” Simply tell them you want to be helpful but you’ll welcome them back with open arms if they decide to resubscribe. 

One way we do this is instead of saying “we’re unsubscribing you”, we say “we’re hitting pause on sending you emails”.

Step 5: Use short, direct, personal subject lines 

Here are some that worked really well for us at Luck & Co:

  • Is this it?

  • Hey, question for you

  • Still interested?

Looking for some more inspiration? Here are some more email subject lines to try out.

Step 6: Unsubscribe people who don’t engage 

Allow 5 to 7 days at the end of the flow so recipients actually have time to re-engage. With most email platforms, you can add an action at the end of the flow that will automatically unsubscribe people who did not re-engage. As an alternative, tag recipients or add a custom property, and then build a deletion list with these people. 

The segment will keep updating automatically, and you should exclude or delete that segment from your email sends.

You can manually unsubscribe this segment every once in a while, or wait until the Black Friday season, email them one more time, and then unsubscribe. 

Many brand owners will feel tempted to do this. Their rationale - if they haven’t engaged with other stuff, they WILL engage once we give them 30 or 40 percent off. 

In our experience here at Luck & Co, this doesn’t really work. Sunset segments like that get a 3-5% open rate, and they don’t convert, even on Black Friday. So I recommend removing subscribers who’ve completed the Sunset automation and haven’t engaged right away. 

Want to know something awesome? If you're a Drip customer, you can launch this pre-built workflow to clean your list today.

Looking for more information on email list cleaning? Check out Kasey's video