The Whys And Hows Of List Hygiene

September 06, 2016

When working on an email marketing campaign, once the list of recipients is loaded, there’s a tendency to never quite think of it again. Databases often fall victim to an “it’s checked off the list” mentality. To be fair, if you’re working with a solid Email Service Provider (ESP), there’s not a lot of list micromanaging that needs to happen, but it is important to be aware of list hygiene and stay on top of it. For those who feel as though they’ve just read Latin, here’s a quick overview of list hygiene, why you should do it, and how you should do it; or better yet, how to delegate it to your ESP.

List hygiene in short is the constant scrubbing of your list of people who do not want to be on your list or should not be on your list. The two basic reasons for this are:

  • CAN/SPAM compliance: It’s the law to remove anyone who marks your email as spam or unsubscribes. After they’ve raised their hand, you cannot email them again, so it’s best practice to remove them immediately after they’ve marked your email as spam or unsubscribed.

  • Protect your metrics: If your list is full of emails that would/will bounce, your metrics will be completely inaccurate, so what’s the point?

Starting with the first point, and likely the most obvious: If recipients opt for marking your emails as spam or unsubscribe, remove them immediately. A good ESP will remove the contact from your list immediately without alerting you, and without any action required from you. This is what you want. That way, the next time you want to deploy an email, you don’t have to feverishly remove unsubscribes and mark as spams manually.

The law aside, if recipients do not want to be on your list, you should not want them on your list. If they don’t want to hear from you, they won’t open your email, and they certainly will not click anything, so your metrics will plummet. To further back this point, do not create or use an ESP that forces people through the opt-out gate asking why they chose to unsubscribe. If someone does not want your emails, do not pester him or her, just let the person go. We’ve all been there; think about how infuriating it is to try to unsubscribe from a list, and then be bothered by answering why you’re leaving. Worse yet is the “Sorry to see you go, are you sure you don’t want to hear from us?” confirmation. Every time we go through this, it leaves an even worse brand impression.

Tarnishing your brand value is not worth it to keep a subscriber. Don’t take it so personally! The last point here: If you’re using an ESP that does not automatically remove unsubscribes and mark as spams behind the scenes, why are you using them?

Now that we’ve covered the obvious realm, let’s move on to the less obvious realm and the point where ESPs tend to offer a range of coverage: bounces. There are two bounce types: hard bounces and soft bounces.

Hard bounces are email addresses that simply do not exist, stemming from a wide range of reasons, such as the email address has a typo or the person no longer works at that company, etc.

Soft bounces, on the other hand, are a bit more obscure and harder to pin down. These can range from an inbox being full, your email being caught in a spam filter, etc. Although hard bounces are more vague, a good ESP will still give you the approximate reason why each individual email address bounced.

To take this further, ESPs all handle bounces differently. You need to be aware of how yours handles bounces and the amount of work you’ll need to put in (or not) because of it. At Straight North, we always use Campaign Monitor. One of the reasons we do so is because it’s absolute perfection with how it handles bounces. For hard bounces, those email addresses are removed from your list immediately and placed onto the “suppression” list. For soft bounces, because unlike hard bounces those are valid email addresses, Campaign Monitor will allow you to email them three times. If after three times, an email does not go through, it’s a safe bet your emails never will go through, so the email address is also added to the suppression list. Over time, your suppression list will grow, containing all hard bounces, soft bounces (after three times), unsubscribes and mark as spams.

There are two huge advantages to having this suppression list:

  • You can always review it and modify it, if needed. For example, if someone accidentally unsubscribed, you can find him or her on the suppression list, and add this person back onto your list (as long as he or she has given you permission to do so), so these contacts do not fall into a black hole.

  • In Campaign Monitor, every list you load is scrubbed against the suppression list. So, if someone has previously landed on your suppression list, if he or she happens to be on a list you load anytime in the future, the contact is automatically removed from that new list. This brings great peace of mind, as you know you’re spam compliant and are protecting your metrics.

Oh, and did I mention this is all automated? This saves hours upon hours of time, all while ensuring compliance and protecting metrics. All ESPs handle bounces differently, so before you sign on with one, make sure you understand how it’s handled and that you’re comfortable with the work, or lack of work, you’ll need to maintain a clean list. The cleaner your list, the more accurate your metrics are, which will help you truly see your leads instead of hunting for leads in a sea of invalid emails.

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