How I brought back an old email list back from the dead to 40% open rate


Building an email list is a lot of work. Work that you wouldn’t abandon, right? But sometimes, companies go through changes, people leave, other people come in and a treasured list gathers dust. Or worse an email list you haven’t been giving enough love to, starts to withdraw with low opens and CTRs. Do you toss the list and start over?

Abandoned email marketing list

Building an email list takes a lot of time and effort, if people chose to hear from you at some point, why not try and rebuild the connection so you can market to them again?

HubSpot recently talked about how they scrapped an entire list of 250K email subscribers because contacts had technically opted in but were not engaged with their emails.

HubSpot Unsubscribed Emails

Honestly, it’s hard to let go of a sizeable list of people who did show interest in joining the list at some point but have since been ignored. And in some cases, your boss may look at you like you are crazy for doing so. But there is a solution that can help you re-connect and meet your boss halfway.

Here’s what I did when I came across a list of 20,000 subscribers, generated over the course of five plus years but had since been untouched for the last two years.

So, your email marketing list is old or unengaged

Industry stats point to email lists deteriorating a t a rate of 22.5% each year from abandoned email addresses to opting out of email lists.

To test out how healthy the list was, I broke up the list into segments of 2000 subscribers each.

Step 1: Break the list up into segments

Rather than send a spray and blast email to the entire list by breaking up the list you can test different messages, and send times. This will help you see what messages and times work, but also give you a chance to refine the message. For simplicity I opted for one send per segment spread out over the course of 3 months.

Emailing to an old list - Puzzled man

Dude, how did you get my email?

The biggest fear with old lists is SPAM, which hurts your email deliverability, and hurts the relationship you could have with potential customers (also the guilt of being an evil SPAMMY marketer).

Step 2: Reintroduce yourself and give subscribers an obvious way to get out

Your first email re-introduction email will need to do a lot of heavy lifting to avoid your biggest fears coming true.

I created an email that reintroduced the company, talked about the new direction we were taking and gave subscribers a chance to unsubscribe. I went through a lot of refinement and tweaking to make it interesting, relevant, and personable. My goal was for the recipients to understand why I was emailing them, and to give them a chance to leave. I also explained what they could expect if they stayed.

The unsubscribe button was big and obvious and referenced twice in the email.

The goal is to reach people who want to hear from you’re a part with those that do not. It was part apology, part-let’s-try-this-again, part it’s-ok-if-you-would-rather-not-be-friends.

There were six email sends (thus far); here is the average sum of all the sends:

  • 0.19% SPAM complaint rate (fairly high for an active list, but considering it was an old list…)
  • 0.66% unsubscribe rate
  • 10% open rate
  • 2.4% Click rate (Although the only link prominent link was to unsubscribe so I was not tracking this too closely)

Of those that opened a good percentage of them clicked on the links to the new website.

Takeaway: 5 questions your reintroduction email should answer

  • Who are you?
  • Why should I open your email?
  • Why am I receiving this?
  • Why should I care/give you the time of day?
  • How do I stop hearing from you, if I want to?

Test subject lines, or send times and/or refine the message. I sent it to the first list during the conventional email send time Tuesday 9 AM, but tested the next 3 batches during other send times to see which times fared the best overall.

Step 3: Respect unsubscribes and the email recipients that did not open.

The list was surprisingly healthy with a 96.86% delivery rate, and a relatively low SPAM complaint count (20 complaints from a total of 10,020 successful deliveries).

Based on the performance of the campaign, I moved only the contacts that opened the email and did not unsubscribe into a new email list. For every 2000 emails ends, I received 10% of contacts that were open to sticking around.

If a subscriber did not open the email I added them to a backburner list of contacts that I plan to reach two more times (maybe even throw a Facebook targeted campaign in the mix) before I give up.

Those that unsubscribed were permanently removed from the list, never to be seen again.

Takeaway: Reward your subscribers with helpful, useful emails

Instead of sending them summary of your blog posts, why not create emails that have content only they can get? Focus on building the habit of rewarding the recipients for opening your emails with super helpful information.

Step 4: Nurture the people who stuck around (Don’t be boring)

I started the first few email sends by sending helpful information. The emails received a 40% open rate.

Email Campaign Metrics form an Old list

Granted it’s from a list of people who had opened my first email, it still is pretty good given the circumstances.

I also include a very descriptive explanation of why he/she is receiving the email at the bottom of each email send.


Done well, you can bring an old or disengaged email list back from the dead

Building an email marketing list takes a lot of time and resources. Keeping it healthy can have a phenomenal impact on your email metrics and ROI. You can use these tactics for old email lists or for email lists you’ve been marketing to whose open rate has dropped considerably.

Image credit: Life of Pix, and Bark


Daisy is an Inbound Marketer with a love for HubSpot, email marketing, content marketing, SEO and PPC. She helps clients build and execute HubSpot Marketing Strategies. She also makes a mean curry.

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