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Why Engagement, Not List Size, Is the Key to Growing a Healthy Email List

Growth is important for your business. But growing your business isn’t just about sales. Growth touches every corner of your business—your brand awareness, customer base, revenue, products and services, and internal headcount are all areas that will grow as you expand your brand’s footprint.

But sustainable growth doesn’t happen with a “growth at all costs” mindset. If you grow too fast, too soon, your brand might not be able to handle it.

It matters how you grow and the experience you can deliver to your customers along the way.

One of the ways you can genuinely and memorably connect with your customers is by delivering personalized experiences through the channels you own, like email for example. And a healthy email list is the foundation of all great email marketing campaigns.

Growing your list of email subscribers is an integral part of expanding your brand’s reach and of your ability to connect with a larger audience. Your list size matters, to a certain point. But over time, if your aim is to grow with intention, your focus will most likely shift to customer engagement because it’s the key performance indicator (KPI) that truly reigns supreme in your email campaigns.

Simply put—it’s the quality, not quantity, of your email list that matters as you look to grow your email marketing program and subsequently, your brand. Read on to discover:

   • Why focusing on list size alone is not a healthy growth tactic

   • How to build an email list that’s focused on subscriber and customer engagement


List size alone won’t help you grow your brand

I know it feels counter-intuitive to say that a massive email list won’t help you reach your growth goals. But I say it with an asterisk.

The asterisk is that a massive email list won’t help your brand reach its growth goals if the majority of people on your list are unengaged subscribers.

If your email list is comprised of individuals who are consistently marking your emails as spam or who are just flat out not interacting with your content, then you could negatively impact your sender reputation and email deliverability.

Why is that? Email deliverability is the ability to land in your recipients’ inbox. Email service providers decide whether your email lands in your subscriber’s primary inbox or in the dreaded spam folder. And it all boils down to engagement.

If your recipients aren’t opening or clicking on your emails, if they’re just sitting, ignored, at the bottom of someone’s email, or if they’re bouncing, then service providers like Gmail and Outlook are going to flag your emails as junk—put simply.

And it’s a snowball effect. Once these service providers begin to flag your emails as spam, your sender reputation takes a hit, and then no one sees your emails.

At this point, your list size doesn’t even matter, because even the recipients who might want to receive your content won’t have the chance to.

That was all very doom and gloom, I know. But I hope what really hit home was the fact that list size is nothing without customer engagement.

I always prefer to start with the bad news and follow up with the good news. So my good news is that I’ve collected some strategies that’ll help you grow your email list with engaged recipients—while balancing customer engagement with list size.


Build your email list with a high level of customer engagement

When it comes down to it, there are two key steps you can take to grow your email list while simultaneously fostering customer engagement: Make sure your subscribers opt-in to receive your email communications and segment your email list.

1. Confirm email subscriptions with an opt-in process 

Having your email subscribers opt-in to receiving your messages is essential to the success of your email campaigns. Why? Because it allows your subscribers to confirm that they intentionally chose to receive your messages.

Without that confirmation, it’s difficult to be certain that someone subscribed on purpose. Here are a few things to do (and not to) to ensure your subscribers have signed up for your emails:

Don’t use purchased lists

A purchased list is a collection of email addresses that your brand can buy from a vendor. It sounds fishy because it is fishy.

None of these individuals have given you their consent to receive marketing communications, and these lists violate many email service providers’ (ESP) Terms of Service. They’re a surefire way to get your recipients to mark your emails as spam.

Do use a double opt-in

A double opt-in is a process in which new subscribers have to confirm their email address after signing up.

This ensures that new subscribers actually want to receive your content, and that their email addresses are free of spelling errors. These subscribers are typically more engaged with your emails and are higher quality leads for your brand (think sustained engagement and growth).

Yes, a single opt-in signup process will most likely yield a larger quantity of subscribers (since they don’t have to confirm their interest), but those subscribers may not be as engaged and you risk collecting a higher volume of invalid email addresses.

Don’t send promotional emails to customers (unless they’ve chosen to hear from you)

Many marketers make the mistake of assuming that just because someone has made a purchase from their brand, they’ve opted-in to receive marketing emails.

This isn’t the case and violates the CAN-SPAM Act—technically, you don’t have permission to send your customers promotional emails or newsletters unless they’ve explicitly signed up for them.

The one caveat here is that you can provide your customers the option to choose for themselves.

On your checkout page, try including a section where customers can opt-in to receive marketing emails. But default to leaving this box or section unchecked to eliminate the possibility of customers accidentally subscribing to your newsletter without their knowledge.

2. Segment your email lists based on customer engagement 

As your email list grows, the more diverse it’s going to become. And that diversity is wonderful because it gives you the opportunity to flex those creative muscles and create a more personalized content program based on the varying interests and actions of your audience.

One effective way to segment your email campaigns is by—you guessed it—customer engagement. Here are a few ways you can define engagement based on how your subscribers (customers included) have interacted with you.

Recently opened an email

The most common way to define engagement is by the most recent open date. Someone who has opened one of your emails in the last 30 days is probably interested in your content (i.e., what sales you’re running, if you’re offering any discount codes, any VIP perks).

Individuals who have not opened one of your emails in the past 90 days could potentially benefit from a winback email instead.

Recently clicked into an email

You can also define engagement by click-through rate (it’s actually a stronger sign of interest rather than simply opening an email). Your subscribers may be prone to open emails more often than they click them, so you can broaden your timeframe for determining whether they’re engaged—around 120 days.

Recently viewed a product on your website

A subscriber’s or customer’s activity on your website is another way you can categorize engagement.

While this might not be the sole factor you use to determine engagement, it’s a great “or” condition to zero in on those subscribers who might find your emails most relevant, while also expanding your audience. If they’re perusing your site, your brand is likely top-of-mind.

To narrow your targeting down even further, you might try only including people who have visited your site a certain number of times. For example, your segment with the highest customer engagement might contain subscribers who have opened an email in the past 90 days or who have visited your site in the past month.

Recently purchased a product (and subscribed to your newsletter)

Why I included this customer engagement segment is similar to why I included those who have recently visited your site—they help you reach subscribers who are thinking about your brand.

Nothing says, “I’m super interested in your brand” quite like a customer making a purchase. Adding this action as an “or” condition broadens the reach of your emails.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that these customers must’ve also subscribed to your email list in order for you to send them promotional emails.


Customer engagement and list size are not mutually exclusive

Growth is important to any successful email marketing program—namely growing the size of your email list.

But this doesn’t mean blasting everyone on your list with the same email and the same content, time and time again. The quality and engagement of your email list is by far more important than sheer numbers, from both a deliverability and a subscriber experience perspective.

It’s possible—and imperative—to grow your list size while also ensuring your subscribers are engaged with your content. Once you find that balance and see for yourself how the two can coexist in harmony, you’ll be well on your way to growing a stellar email marketing program.

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