Beginner’s Guide to a Clean Email List, Part 1

It’s not laundry.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: even though I might use the words ‘cleaning’ or ‘hygiene’ when we’re talking about email lists, I prefer not to. Sure, if someone says an email list is dirty, we all understand what they mean (more or less), but there’s a judgment – and a suggestion of a solution – inherent in those terms that I think are inaccurate and misleading. What I tend to think of as “The Laundry Analogy” fails in a few ways. It makes effective email list management sound optional.

I mean, how bad is it, really, if your email list wears the same clothes two days in a row? Or maybe it slouches around the house in sweats and socks for a weekend and doesn’t remove hard bouncing addresses? Are the ISPs going to notice? (Yes.)

1) It fails to address causes.

Things get dirty. It’s normal, natural, and – unless you live in a NASA clean room – pretty much unavoidable. This isn’t true for mailing lists. If your list has dead and misspelled addresses in it, spamtraps, and folks who never even look at your email except to delete it unopened, that could have (and probably should have) been prevented.

2) It suggests washing is a solution.

If you take the Laundry Analogy too literally – and I’ve spoken with many  intelligent folks who have – you could fall into the habit of mind that says, “If I just wash the list every now and then, it becomes clean, and everything will be restored to normal.” This is emphatically not the case. You’re much better off keeping the quality of your list consistent and your reputation steady, rather than making email delivery into a rollercoaster ride.

3) It confuses effectiveness with cleanliness.

Like any analogy, this one simplifies a truth to make it easier to communicate. Unfortunately, in this case, it also loses the essence of it. Your goal shouldn’t be to have a clean email list; your goal should be to build and maintain an effective list – and one side – effect of that is that your mailing patterns and behaviors become more acceptable to the receiving community.

Part of the reason we talk about clean and dirty lists – and I’m as guilty as anyone of doing that – is that ‘effective’ seems like it’s harder to define than ‘clean.’ When you’re selling ad space on a CPM basis, a bigger email list might seem more effective, because it brings in more revenue, but if you’re getting paid for clicks or selling your own products, a more responsive audience counts as more effective – because it brings in more revenue. This article is about email delivery (and email deliverability), so it’s natural to assume that when I say, “effective” I mean “get into the recipient’s inbox.” That’s part of it, but the fact is, the definition of ‘effective’ I have in mind is a little more than that.

An effective list gets the email delivered, usually into the inbox, and has an attentive, responsive audience – which means it’s more likely to bring in more revenue.

Even on a CPM list, where an effective (cleaner) list will almost certainly be smaller than an ineffective (dirtier) list, the greater responsiveness will typically mean you can charge a higher CPM, so your overall revenue is higher.

So how do we create and maintain an effective email list? How do we tune up an existing list to turn it into an effective one – or salvage one that’s gotten way off the rails? You might already know some of the answers, but since this is a beginner’s guide, we’re going to walk through it anyway.

Next: It Starts With Permission


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