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Email Lists: When Smaller Is Actually Better


Have you been attracted to headlines like these?

  • 50 Tips to Help You Get 50,000 Email Subscribers for Your List
  • 20 Ridiculously Easy Ways to Get More Email Subscribers
  • How to Build an Email Marketing List as Quickly as Possible
  • 10 Irresistible Incentives That Will Grow Your Email List—Fast

Of course you have, and I understand why: For us content marketers, eyeballs are everything. The more people we have reading, listening to, and watching our content, the better.

But what if the best way to grow a loyal audience for your content is to let your subscribers go, or even to shove them out the door? I learned the hard way that bigger isn’t always better when it comes to email lists. Now, I want to share how to pare your list to make it more effective for your business – and your target audience.

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to #email lists, says @renwripress. Click To Tweet

Let’s begin.


I’m the co-publisher of Renegade Writer Press. We’ve published books for years, but only started getting serious about the business this year.

When my business partner, Diana Burrell, and I sat down to talk numbers, we had over 7,000 subscribers on our MailChimp mailing list, but our open rate was only 20 to 25%, which was much lower than the 32% average open rate across industries. Our click-through rate was a piddling 2 to 4.5%.

I had just talked with another professional in our industry who said she racked up an over 50% open rate. How did she do it? She only kept people on her list who wanted to be there.

My business partner and I quickly created and downloaded a segment of subscribers who hadn’t opened any of our emails in the past couple of months, and then unsubscribed those members. We then wrote an email to those inactive subscribers letting them know that in the interest of not cluttering their inboxes, we had unsubscribed them from our mailing list. (We sent this email via our business Gmail account.) Finally, we provided a link where those readers could quickly re-subscribe if they wanted. 


Our email list dropped from more than 7,000 subscribers to around 1,200 – and our open rate jumped from between 20 and 25% to between 55 and 60%. The click-through rate on our last newsletter was 7.1%.

Did we lose some people who didn’t want to unsubscribe? Probably, because MailChimp’s reporting isn’t perfect. If those subscribers really wanted to be there, they would notice the missing emails and re-subscribe. That’s how hardcore we were about only wanting subscribers who want to read our content.

Even better, our book sales have been increasing steadily since we kicked off subscribers who were less than passionate about our content and our products. We’ve made other changes to our business that may account for the increase in sales, but the point is that our sales did not decline.

Why smaller is better

Keeping people on your list who truly don’t want to read your content or buy from you hurts your business in several ways, including:

Keeping people on your #email list who aren’t interested in your #content hurts your business. @renwripress Click To Tweet
  • Having a load of subscribers who aren’t really interested in your content and offerings skews your analyses. When you survey your subscribers, the replies are not necessarily from people interested in ever buying from you.
  • Creating content for a diverse and numerous audience weakens your success because you’re writing for a lot of people who just don’t care.
  • Paying for inactive subscribers is an unnecessary cost. When we reduced our list to 1,200 dedicated readers, we saved the $75 per month we were paying for hosting of a list of 7,000-plus unengaged subscribers.

Are you convinced that bigger isn’t always better, and that not all subscribers are equal? Good. Then you’re ready for the five ways to encourage – directly and indirectly – your less-enthused subscribers to leave.

1. Create content for the people who love you

If you aren’t worried about retaining every last one of your subscribers, you can better understand who your ideal subscribers are and target your content to them. You may tick off some subscribers, but that’s the point. If they don’t like your content and the products or services you offer, then wave bye-bye.

2. Make it easy to unsubscribe

One of the biggest scams targeting consumers is marketers who make it difficult to unsubscribe from their brand’s mailing lists. Follow these tips:

  • Make the unsubscribe link visible and easy to find. Stop hiding a tiny link in the footer, camouflaged in a color that’s barely distinguishable from the background.
  • Allow for one-click unsubscribes. Don’t ask soon-to-be former subscribers to click to confirm that they really, really want to leave – or worse, ask them to click even more times to be 100%, absolutely sure.
Don’t ask soon-to-be former subscribers to click to confirm they really, really want to leave. @renwripress Click To Tweet
  • Don’t take “up to 10 days for the changes to take effect.” You can add new subscribers to your list instantly and you can process a purchase instantly. You should be able to unsubscribe someone instantly, too. At a minimum, don’t use the 10 days – as I suspect some companies do – to put the wannabe unsubscriber into a re-engagement campaign.
  • Don’t require wannabe unsubscribers to enter a password or to use Captcha authentication. Evil hackers are not unsubscribing people without their knowledge or consent. This level of verification is unnecessary.
  • Invite subscribers to leave. Once in a while (if not every time), note near the top of an email that if a subscriber is no longer interested in your content, or doesn’t have time to read your content because they’re overwhelmed by their overflowing inboxes, they can unsubscribe with a single click (and be sure to include the link). Let them know you’ll miss them and hope they’ll be back – and move on.
Occasionally invite your #email subscribers to leave & make it easy, says @renwripress. Click To Tweet

3. Make prospective subscribers work for it

What if, instead of begging people to join your mailing list, you make it difficult to join? What if you create a situation where your ideal audience self-selects for your mailing list?

This idea stems from a recommendation in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work to reduce email distraction by creating a filter – in other words, by requiring the sender to take another step before emailing you.

A more radical step to be sure. But what if your brand required potential subscribers to read an FAQ before subscribing, or to wait for a letter in the mail from your brand to confirm their interest? When you set up filters like this, you can be assured that the person really, really wants to connect with your brand.

4. Stop giving away the cow

“Join our list and we’ll send you a free report!”

“Stay on our list and we’ll shower you with goodies!”

Those are great ways to keep people on your mailing list – and leave your team catering to hordes of subscribers who are only on your list for the freebies (including content freebies), and ignoring your ideal audience in the meantime.

Stop offering freebies and hosting contests to entice more people to give you their email address. Once you’ve culled the list, it’s OK to send out offers to your smaller audience because you know they really want to be connected to your brand. In our book publishing business, we now use our smaller list to search for beta readers, who will of course receive a free book, because we’re confident now that our subscribers aren’t just looking for handouts.

5. Keep it clean

Every six months or so, segment the subscribers who haven’t opened your last certain number of emails (that threshold is up to you). Send these inactive subscribers an email to let them know you plan to remove them in 30 days. Want to get even more hardcore? Do what Diana and I did: Simply unsubscribe them and send them a re-subscribe link in case they want to get back on.

You will probably, as we did, get apologetic responses from people saying something like, “So sorry, I’ve been really busy lately and would like to stay.” That’s great because those are engaged subscribers – and you shouldn’t remove them from the list.

Also, don’t be afraid to unsubscribe people who you know, way down deep in your soul, are not good for your business. That subscriber who responds to every email with a complaint? Bye. The one who emailed asking for a $1 refund after buying your $3 gateway product, because he saw your dollar-off promotion two months later? See ya. The reader who pings you after every email to say they wish they could afford your products but simply can’t? Sayonara.

This isn’t to say that people who ask for discounts or refunds, send in complaints, or can’t afford your products shouldn’t be welcome on your mailing list. After all, we also write content because we want to entertain, inform, and educate readers. Engaged readers – even if they are not buyers – are welcome to keep reading our content. However, when it costs us more time and money than it’s worth to keep these subscribers happy, it’s time to say goodbye.

We write #content to entertain, inform, and educate readers, says @renwripress. Click To Tweet

Make your emails work for you – and your readers

If you employ any of these tips, you’ll gradually see your subscriber base narrowing to an audience of engaged, devoted readers. What I’m suggesting can be risky if you’re dependent on reporting big numbers to impress management, or if you do it carelessly and turn off the wrong people. But if you want to cultivate an email list that’s truly valuable to your business – and to your targeted readers – keeping your mailing list smaller is better for your business.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute.