Adam T. Sutton

Email Marketing: Improve deliverability by deleting subscribers?

One of the key takeaways from last year’s MarketingSherpa Email Summit was that improving engagement with email subscribers could improve deliverability. Email service providers now consider all the positive and negative interactions with your messages when deciding whether to mark your messages as spam.

This means subscribers who rarely open or click email messages can drag down your emails’ reputation. What can be done about this?

Remove unresponsive names

First of all, as noted in the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, the effectiveness of tactics used to improve deliverability varies significantly. However, one marketer told our researchers:

“Removal of non-participating subscribers has had the most influence on improving deliverability and email performance rates in all aspects of email marketing. In other words, get rid of the deadbeat email addresses and everything improves, and the spam companies leave our email alone.”

Deleting unresponsive subscribers might seem extreme. A typical rationale is that they have not unsubscribed and they might convert some day. Since email costs nearly nothing to send, why not hold on to the names?

My assumption, based on years of interviewing all types of marketers,  is that regularly emailing subscribers who’ve not acted in six months or longer is more likely to hurt your email program than it is to help it. The good news is that you do not have to delete them outright — at least not right away.

Win them back or kick them out

You can try to reactivate unresponsive subscribers with a win-back or re-engagement campaign. This way you can hopefully salvage some good names from the trash heap.

A more radical tactic is to ask all subscribers to re-opt-in. This was done in one instance by an email marketer at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra who had a mostly unresponsive database. Although he eventually cut about 95% of his subscribers, it gave his team a solid foundation from which to build an effective program and helped double online sales.

The hardest part about these strategies is the last step: deleting the subscribers who do not respond. You might be persuaded to think that these names cannot be worthless, that they must have some value. And they do have value: negative value. Continuing to email them is only going to hurt, so let them go.

Related resources

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2011

MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report

Email Marketing: Why should I help you?

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Email Marketing



  1. December 15th, 2010 at 06:10 | #1

    With Email marking its easier to make sales from repeat customers rather than from new customers.

  2. December 15th, 2010 at 07:26 | #2

    I suppose you might be onto something here. Trying to win them back before finally deleting is worth a shot, but since they have been inactive for so long, who’s to say that they will become active, engaging and worthwhile subscribers. Difficult decision to make but great advice here.

  3. Ronisha Thomas
    February 9th, 2011 at 23:17 | #3

    I agree.In fact, couldn’t the same idea be used in all aspects of marketing? Obviously everyone who signs up for mailings aren’t always waiting at the mailbox or watching their computer screen for the next response. I believe that determining when to let go of customers is the biggest obstacle here. What is your suggestion on the amount of time that a company should give to a subscriber before giving them the boot?

  4. Adam Sutton
    February 11th, 2011 at 09:31 | #4

    Hi Ronisha — the amount of time should vary for every company, market and audience. There are different approaches you can take, as mentioned above. You can also do some down-and-dirty analysis to find out how much time elapses before you can be statistically certain an inactive subscriber is not going to become active again.

  5. October 8th, 2013 at 11:19 | #5

    By not being active do you mean people on your email list that do not make purchases? I have about 13038 people in my email list. I send out 2 newsletters a month and the vast majority do not respond but I do get a few orders each time. So are you suggesting I may want to delete eveyone and anyone who has not placed an order in the past say 6 months? The problem I see is that some of our products could last a customer a year or even longer. Maybe I should looka t customers who have not ordered in a couple of years.

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