How to Build a Healthy Email Marketing List

How to Build a Healthy Email Marketing List

Content Writer: Kristin Hulse Kristin Hulse Blog Contributor

A healthy list is essential to effective email marketing. But what do we mean when we say a list is healthy? Does that mean the list has had all its shots? Kind of.  A healthy list is made up of people who have opted-in, who have remained active with your content, and who continue to express interest in remaining a subscriber.

Building the list.

A healthy list includes email contacts that have opted-in to receive messages from you. We call these “subscribers.” But what do I do if I don’t have many (or any) subscribers? Tons of people ask us if it’s okay to purchase a list. Short answer: NO. It would be super creepy if a stranger walked into your home uninvited and started a conversation. When you purchase an email list, that’s exactly what you’re doing. The same is true of scraping emails from websites and contact forms. Unless somebody specifically gave you permission to email them, you’d better think twice. Here are some criteria for lists from MailChimp (our favorite email service provider).


  • People who opted in to your list on your own website
  • People who signed up to get emails from you on an offline sign-up sheet
  • People who purchased one of your products, attended an event or received a service from you, and gave you their email address so they could receive updates from you

NOT Okay:

  • Emails purchased from a 3rd party
  • Emails rented from somebody else
  • Emails collected from a database
  • Emails collected from Facebook or LinkedIn
  • Lists of customers who had no idea they’d hear from you
  • Lists of registered voters from your local government
  • Emails scraped from websites or contact forms
For the full description of lists that don’t make the cut, read this. Need some concrete examples? Knock yourself out.
Here are some ideas for building a healthy list the right way:
  • Set up a sign-up form on your website
  • Link a sign-up form to your Facebook account
  • Try using Twitter Lead Gen cards
  • Use the Chimpadeedoo app on your tablet or smart phone to sign people up in person. (Their info will feed directly into your MailChimp account)
  • Request email addresses with Renown when people check in or leave a review
  • Use a QR code by your cash register for people to access a sign-up form with their phones
  • Put a QR code on marketing materials (mailers, posters, table tents, pizza boxes…)
  • Send an email to your contacts asking them if they want to sign up (don’t forget the sign-up form link)
  • Include an option to sign up for the list on the bottom of service agreements
  • Include an option to sign up for the list in your POS system. (Make sure people know what they’re getting. Cat people don’t like getting emails about dog food, yah dig?)
  • Incentivize email collection. Your employees or sales people will be more likely to make the effort if there is a little something in it for them, too

Keeping the list healthy. 

Now that you’ve built a healthy list, what are some of the things you need to do to maintain it? First, make sure that you remove email addresses that have reported abuse or unsubscribed. Sometimes people get tired of hearing from you or just aren’t interested anymore. When you have unsubscribes from the email list, note that on your master list so that you don’t accidentally email them again later. We make sure all unsubscribes are removed from the send-to list as part of list management. Sending to an email address that has already opted-out could be pretty awkward. It would be like continuing to get those pesky cheese-of-the-month samples after you cancelled the subscription. Who wants old cheese sitting around?
Next, it’s a good idea to have people update their preferences every couple months, especially if they haven’t been an active list member. An active list member opens emails pretty regularly and clicks on the Call-to-Action (CTA) more often than not. Inactive members generally don’t open emails, and they don’t click on CTAs if they do. Preferences may include the preferred frequency of emails, area(s) of interest or which store location they frequent. If you haven’t sent email to contacts in six months or more, it’s time to have them re-opt in. Six months is a long time not to hear from somebody. We don’t suggest going that long between sending emails, unless you like being forgotten.

Finally, clean bounces and stale addresses from your list. A bounce happens when an email cannot be delivered to an email address. This can mean the email is invalid, has been deactivated or has a full inbox. Bounces drag down your sender score. Sender score impacts the deliverability of your emails, or how likely it is that your contacts will actually receive what you sent them. Scores are based on a handful of factors, but half of them have to do with bounces. The sooner you get bounced email addresses scrubbed from your list, the better.

Email list engagement. 

A pretty good indication of email list health is overall engagement. While we all want to see sky-high email open rates and loads of clicks, it isn’t realistic to expect subscribers to stay this excited all the time. Over a three month period, you can expect to see a decline in overall click rates. This is true for all of your subscribers (unless one is your mother). According to a MailChimp study of subscriber engagement over time, overall click rates start around 5% on the first campaign and decrease to 3.5% by the 100th campaign.

What about unsubscribes? None of us wants to see those people leave our list, but some unsubscribes are normal. MailChimp shows an average of 3 unsubscribes per 1000 subscribers each campaign (a rate of 0.3%). However, it’s still normal if your unsubscribe rate is up to 2%, or 20 per 1000 (Campaign Monitor).

In a breakdown by industry, the same MailChimp study discovered that there’s a much sharper decline in engagement over time in e-commerce, daily deals/coupons and retail than media and publishing. Why? People’s needs change over time. Let’s face it. After dropping some dough on that super cool TV, you probably won’t be in the market for another in a month. That’s why it’s so important to use a whole internet marketing strategy. So what do you do to keep your email engagement up?

The Golden Rule. 

Give them what they want. Your subscribers signed up to get emails from you for a reason. Maintain your subscribers trust by delivering what you said you’d deliver. Maybe Suzy signed up when she bought cat food at your pet store. The clerk asked if she’d like to sign up for emails to receive product updates, coupons and special offers. She said yes, gave her email and was thrilled to get a 10% off coupon for her next bag of Kitty Kibble. Suzy expects to keep getting cat-related info and offers. Don’t get tricky and start sneaking in promos for the newest organic dog food. Stay focused. If Suzy indicates that she’d also like to receive information about dog food (maybe in that subscriber preferences update email we talked about earlier), then you should definitely keep her in the know about the best new stuff for Fido. But even then, stay focused on what the subscriber ACTUALLY wants versus what you want to promote. When you give the people what they want, the people are more likely to convert. And that makes everybody happy.