As indie, small press, or otherwise “emerging” authors, we are told a lot how important it is to have an email list. It’s even a foundational piece of our DIY MFA Pixels to Platform course. It’s a core principle of platforming I hammer home for my coaching clients, too, in early sessions, and I emphasize it to any author who asks me.
So it stands to reasons that once you start growing a list, you want that list as big as you can get it, right?
Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that.
It’s tempting to grow your list as big as you can, any way that you can. And I’ll confess, watching those pretty graphs showing your growth grow-grow-grow hits a special spot in my brain’s reward center. It’s also nice to have a big number to drop in conversation with an agent or editor, if you’re lucky enough to have that talk.
But any agent or editor worth their salt is going to follow up that question with another one: What are your engagement rates?
And that’s where email subscriber lists get just a little more complicated than subscriber numbers.
Are your subscribers engaged?
A big subscriber list is nice, absolutely. But I think we can all agree that if those subscribers don’t open your emails, those numbers don’t really matter — they’re an illusion. If you aren’t careful, they can become a way to lie to yourself about your true reach.
When an agent or editor asks about your platform in this way, what they’re trying to deduce is how many of those subscribers you’re really connecting with.
How to determine engagement
When you’re looking at engagement, there are two key metrics to keep track of:
- Open rate: This measures how many of the people on your email list click to open the email from their inbox
- Click rate: Once the email has been opened, this secondary metric gauges how many people click on links included in your email.
What’s considered a “good” rate for these two metrics can vary. Mailchimp offers averages by industry: For the “Arts and Artists” category, the average open rate is 27.23%, and the average click rate is 2.85%.
What to do about an unengaged list
There is a lot you can do to keep your list’s engagement rate healthy, ranging from how you collect new subscribers to the types of emails you share.
But today we’re going to talk about what to do once a subscriber has already become inactive, and has stayed that way for a prolonged period. When this happens, the best thing to do is to give your email list a good scrub—clean it of its inactive subscribers.
Why remove inactive subscribers?
Removing inactive subscribers will improve your engagement rates, and improving your engagement rates helps you reach more subscribers—better subscribers—in the long run.
How’s that? When people repeatedly don’t open your emails and your overall engagement rate is low, this is a red flag to email services, and you’re much more likely to have your emails redirected to the spam folder. Which means even more people won’t read your emails, because they won’t see them in the first place.
Also, once you cross a certain threshold of subscribers, depending on your email service, you’re paying for each new subscriber with a scaled monthly fee. Do you want to be paying for all those freeloaders who are ignoring your emails? Nope.
Reroute that budget to contest submissions or Facebook ads or a writing course or large coffee, for crying out loud.
How do you clean an email list?
It’s not hard to give those inactive subscribers the boot. The first thing you want to do is identify inactive subscribers into their own list segment. Use your email service’s prompts to create parameters that autoselect inactive subscribers, such as “has not opened any of the last five emails.”
The exact available options will depend on your email service, and what makes sense as parameters will depend on how you use your list.
I email my list about once a month, sometimes two if there is an urgent or special interest announcement to make (like an upcoming event). So typically these parameters will mean that the subscriber has not opened a single email from me in four to five months.
This allowed a little bit of a grace period for those who simply got crazy busy for a while but were still interested.
Create an email to send to the list
One way to keep this simple is to have a subject line like “To unsubscribe, don’t open this email.” For the email body, I keep it short, to the point, and friendly. I also offer a second opportunity to unsubscribe, because the whole idea is to purge and make this easy. Some people just won’t be able to resist the curiosity of that subject line. (Me. I’m talking about me.)
Here’s an example of what I’ve sent my own list:
As you can see, I used it as a final opportunity to build awareness about my books. Just because someone doesn’t want to be on my email list doesn’t mean they don’t want to read my work—they got on that list somehow.
Remove inactive subscribers
Some people will use the unsubscribe link from the email body to remove themselves. But for those who are good at following directions and never opened the email in the first place, you’ll need to go back and remove them manually. To do this, cross-reference the list of those who opened the email with the segment list, and remove all who aren’t on it.
Boom. You just created a healthier list.
Platform Growth—The Healthy Way
Though it can be hard to say goodbye to an email subscribership metric you’re proud of, it’s much better to let inactive subscribers go. Instead, focus your energy on the subscribers who are excited to receive your next email.
To keep inactive subscribers from weighing you down, periodically re-run your unsubscribe email as needed to keep your list clean and active.
You’ll still see growth, but along the way, you’ll also improve your outreach and control your budget. And when that agent or editor finally asks about your reach and engagement, you’ll have stats to impress.
By day, Emily Wenstrom is an author social media coach and content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.