Email: To Prune or Not to Prune

Pat yourself on the back. After a few years of hard work and carefully crafted marketing campaigns, you've built an email list thousands of addresses deep. Now you can kick back, send out a few emails and watch your profits grow.

Well, not exactly. The unfortunate truth is that while you may have an impressive collection of email addresses, chances are that a significant portion of them are inactive, and that many of your messages end up in abandoned inboxes - never to be seen by human eyes. The solution to this widespread problem is a relatively simple one: Prune your email list of inactive recipients.

Why prune at all?
Pruning an email list means eliminating addresses that don't add any measurable value to a marketing campaign - beyond adding to its size - because they are inactive or are rarely accessed by the recipient. But what's the real point of pruning?

"Sending email marketing campaigns to a list that is not regularly cleaned can negatively skew your activity stats and ROI, and also hurts your company's sending reputation," says Paul Turnbull, product marketing manager for email marketing firm Campaigner.

A good statistic to pay attention to is email openrate averages. Mathew Patterson of Campaign Monitor states that an average open rate per email is between 20 and 40 percent. So, if your rates are significantly below that, it may be time to get out the pruner.

For example, when you remove invalid or inactive addresses from your list, you will end up sending out fewer emails per campaign. The percentage of opened emails, however, will almost certainly increase, providing a more realistic representation of how many users are actually opening them.

Regularly cleansing your email list will also improve your company's reputation as a sender, which has a direct effect on deliverability. A trimmed-down email list with little to no invalid addresses will help reduce the risk of recipient Internet service providers or email service providers identifying your messages as spam.

Pruning your email list of superfluous entries will also add more literal value by saving money for your business. The fewer emails you send, the lower the price you will pay to your email marketing service, which holds true whether you calculate savings by email volume or list size.

The pruning process
The most difficult part of pruning is identifying the email addresses that need to go. Like anything else in Web business, the answer lies in analytics. "First, look at the big picture of how often you are emailing to your list, then decide what you consider to be 'inactive', " says Anissa Starnes, regional director for Constant Contact.

"For some, that may be three unopened emails," she adds. "For others, it may be 10. It depends on how many emails are being sent within a period of time." Regularly studying your campaign activity and subsequent analytical data will better enable you to associate the unopened emails with their addresses. The more campaigns you send out, the easier it will be to identify the invalid recipients.

"Watch your reports after each mailing to correct or delete non-existent email addresses," Starnes says. "I also recommend identifying and segmenting those contacts that haven't opened an email after multiple mailings."

Pruning precautions
However, if you want to prune regularly, it is important to do so with care. After all, if you take an overly aggressive approach to pruning without giving thoughtful consideration to which addresses you ditch, you'll certainly lose a significant portion of your list - including some recipients who may still have value to your business.

Thus, the best practice when selecting which addresses you'll be pruning from your list is to contact the recipients before dumping them. Attempting to reengage these mostly inactive users first gives you the opportunity to find out if they're actually invalid destinations or just disinterested in your content. If, in fact, they are valid addresses, it gives you an opportunity to interface with them on an individual basis and perhaps get your brand back into their good graces. This often requires a specially targeted campaign for a single user or a small group of users.

By reaching out to these recipients, you will likely understand whether your campaigns are going ignored or unnoticed - a potentially enormous difference. Issues that often result in unopened messages can include seasonal interest, delivery problems such as a full inbox, or the fact that the emails are automatically landing in a recipient's junk folder.

So, always exercise caution when it comes time to pruning your email list. But, as Starnes points out, "The good is going to far outweigh the bad."