Why You May Need to Delete Half of Your Nonprofit’s Email List

When you first do an email engagement analysis, it’s not unusual to find 30%-50% of your list is unengaged.

Why You May Need to Delete Half of Your Nonprofit’s Email List
5 mins read

Email engagement metrics are essential to your ability to get your messages delivered.

When Facebook changes its news feed algorithms, it’s all nonprofit communicators talk about.

But much more important changes are underway elsewhere: Over the last few years, big email providers like Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo! have been changing the lines of code that decide which emails get delivered and to whom, and they get smarter every day.

The big question your nonprofit should be thinking about is whether it’s worth it to delete a significant portion of your email list to increase the likelihood of your messages arriving in people’s inboxes. Let me explain.

Like social media, new email rules are all about engagement. On Facebook, “engagement” means likes, comments, shares, and views; it’s the currency in today’s attention economy. Email engagement used to only mean opens and clicks, but nowadays email providers aiming to ensure you get messages you actually want also track how often you delete emails from someone without reading them and how often you reply to a sender. They know when you hit the spam button and when you rescue emails from your spam folder.

Just like how Facebook changes what you see in your news feed based on your past interaction with posts, email companies are changing what you and others see based on how we all interact with the content in our inboxes.

Email engagement metrics are essential to your ability to get your messages delivered, and that means the number of people on your list who engage with your messages is critical. Your overall engagement rate is a much more important metric than your open and click rate for any particular email.

Take this overly simplified example; there’s a lot of math, but I explain it all in words:

Nonprofit A has a consistent open rate of 12%. But it’s more or less the same 12% of their mailing list opening email every week, with the other 88% rarely opening an email.

Nonprofit B also has a consistent open rate of 12% week to week. But a much bigger percentage of their list is opening at least one email per month.

Both organizations are in trouble, because 12% is well below the nonprofit average of 16%! But which nonprofit is still far better off?

Without a doubt, Nonprofit B has a healthier email marketing reputation and strategy, because a much larger percentage of its list engages with at least some of its content in a relatively short amount of time, usually measured in months. Their odds of landing in the inboxes of new subscribers are much higher than Nonprofit A’s.

Let’s say Nonprofit A is clueless and does nothing. But the communications director at Nonprofit B reads blogs and newsletters like this one and decides to analyze their email engagement.

The communications director scrutinizes her database and discovers that 40% of her mailing list hasn’t opened an email in the last six months. Her list is 10,000, so that’s 4,000 people.

She pulls the 4,000 from next mailing and sends to the engaged 6,000. The usual 12%—1,200 people—open the email. But now this math is 1,200 divided by 6,000, which is a 20% open rate. By eliminating the inactive portion of her mailing list, her open rate is now back in the healthy zone, and she didn’t have to change any of her content!

She’s smart, so she takes the next step—she does a re-engagement campaign over the next month to those 4,000 inactive folks. At the end of the month, 500 people (12.5% of the previously unengaged) have opened an email.

She moves the 3,500 who didn’t respond to the re-engagement campaign to an inactive “do not mail” list. The 500 that re-engaged go back to the normal list. So now she is mailing to 6,500 people.

Now, she has the original 1,200 openers and about 75% of the newly re-engaged—another 375 subscribers. Her new open rate is 1,575 divided by 6,500, or a very respectable 24% open rate, which is double where she started.

Yes, that’s right. She doubled her open rate from 12% to 24% by essentially deleting 35% of her mailing list! More importantly, her overall engagement is much better.

When you first do an email engagement analysis, it’s not unusual to find 30%-50% of your list is unengaged. So, let’s return to our initial question: Would you have the guts to delete half your email list if you knew it would improve your sender reputation, engagement, and open rates?

About the Author

Kivi Leroux Miller is the founder and CEO of Nonprofit Marketing Guide. Through training and coaching, she helps nonprofit communications directors and their teams both learn their jobs and love their jobs.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

5 thoughts on “Why You May Need to Delete Half of Your Nonprofit’s Email List

  1. By your logic, you are improving numbers but not results when you just cut loose your non-respondents. Anyone can manipulate numbers to paint a better picture; the key is to help more people want to open the email and connect to why they believed in you in the first place.

    1. Of course you want more people to open and to genuinely engage! But you would want to measure that improvement as well, and if you are starting with bad data because of a poorly managed list, all of the engagement improvement data would be skewed as well. Start with a cleaner list and all of your measuring and benchmarking will be more accurate and meaningful.

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for reading. Your question is a little unclear, but all email services I’m aware of have stats as part of the service, including how many emails are delivered, unique open rates, and unique click through rates. Check with whatever service you use to send email for your organization.

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