November 23, 2021

Engaged Lists Start With the Subscribers

In the email business, there's no guarantee that bigger is better. A list needs to have size, but high engagement is the goal. Subscribers always come first. Marketers must constantly ask themselves, "what's the value for our subscribers?"

According to the Data & Marketing Association (DMA), delivery rates, open rates, and click-to-open rates dipped in 2020 for the first time in a few years (2021).The slight decline reported could be attributed to the global pandemic, but it serves as a reminder. To be successful, organizations must adopt a subscriber-first approach.

Bloated Lists Inflict Twice the Damage

A large list is worthless if promotions only reach junk folders. Dormant and abandoned email addresses coupled with spam complaints kill an organization's chances of reaching inboxes. If marketers aren't reaching inboxes, they also aren't reaching high engagement subscribers. Far from increasing engagement, at its extreme, focusing on list size alone has the reverse effect—It'll exhaust engagement.

The Subscriber-first Approach

The first step in building engaged lists is answering the question: what's in it for the subscriber? Why should people part with their contact information? It could be for a newsletter jam-packed with useful articles, an exclusive discount, or a whitepaper. Whatever the incentive a marketer chooses, she needs to make sure that it is clear to folks visiting the website.

Don't ask for too much information up front. Ask for too much, and people will abandon the signup or, worse, provide bad information.

Don't force folks to create accounts or become customers to receive promotions. There'll be opportunities to ask them to create an account later. The first step is to assuage subscriber hesitancy.

Avoid pre-checked opt-in boxes (or passive opt-ins).They grow lists, increase complaints, and hurt sender reputations. At the very least, have folks actively check the opt-in box themselves.  

Avoid multipage registrations. If a marketing team wants a multiple-page registration, include a progress bar. A two-step process might be more effective. Ask for minimal information upfront, then follow up with a request for more information. In the follow up, offer an extra incentive (e.g., coupon code or free shipping). The request could be part of a welcome email series.

Start With Those Who Know the Brand

When building an email list an organization should start with people who are familiar with its brand. Focus on customers, website visitors, folks making online purchases (or at a store), and people interacting with the brand on social media. These people are more likely to engage with promotions and less likely to mark promotions as spam.

Organizations should consider including an email signup in the header or footer of their website. Light boxes or popups work but come with the added risk of annoying site visitors.

Confirmed Opt-ins Prevent Headaches

Confirmed opt-in (or double opt-in) means that subscribers are sent a confirmation/welcome email that includes a link that they must click to activate their subscription. Inevitably, some people won't follow through.Those who confirmed that they want to join the list are less likely to mark emails as spam and more likely to engage with them. Confirmed (two-step)opt-ins have the following benefits over single-step opt-ins:

  • Higher engagement
  • Fewer unsubscribes
  • Fewer complaints
  • Lower risks of junking
  • Strong protection from spam traps
Comfirmed opt-in activation email example
(This is a mock-up of a standard confirmed opt-in activation email.)

Welcome Emails, a Marketer'sFirst Impression

After securing the opt-in, welcome emails are a marketing team's opportunity for a positive first impression. Welcome emails are the most effective type of promotional email. They have 320% more revenue per email than other promotional emails (Zajechowksi, 2015). And their open rates are between 50 and 60% (Chief Marketer, 2010).

Besides delivering the value promised, the first welcome email must set the expectations for all future sends. An organization should tell subscribers how frequently they will receive promotional content and detail its privacy policy.

Additional welcome emails are the place to provide that extra incentive in exchange for more information. They're also an opportunity to tell subscribers a brand's values or show some of the best content (e.g., popular videos, articles, or products).

The job of welcome emails is to nurture a relationship with subscribers and, ultimately, build brand loyalty. This can only be achieved by adopting a subscriber-first email strategy.

If a team’s goal is to foster engagement, it should send from a monitored address. Let subscribers know that they can reply to an email and encourage them to reply. Use a person’s name or a contact address, e.g., or

Traits of Effective Welcome Emails

Unsubscribe, a Layer of Protection

No marketer wants his or her list to shrink, but it happens.Peoples' circumstances and interests change. The best email marketers can adapt quickly. Emails need to have a prompt unsubscribe or risk being marked as spam. An easy-to-find, quick unsubscribe link helps protect a list from spam complaints. And spam complaints hurt a sender's reputation and deliverability but unsubscribes do not.

Every promotional email legally must include an unsubscribe link. This is part of The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM). Organizations can incur fines up to $43,792 per email in violation.

CAN-SPAM Requirements

According to Litmus, about 40% of consumers find it difficult to unsubscribe from a list. A difficult unsubscribe process will increase spam complaints and hurt a sender's reputation. The challenge for email marketers is deploying unsubscribes in their promotions effectively. The subscriber needs to come first, even when leaving. Burying the unsubscribe in the footer beneath the mailing address is not the best method, though it's common.

The following are guidelines for a subscriber-first unsubscribe practice:

  • Add a second unsubscribe link some where else in the email body (and there's nothing wrong with the top).
  • Use at most a two-click unsubscribe process.
  • Don't require folks to log in before they can unsubscribe.
  • Set up/manage an email preference center.
  • Consider adopting a list-unsubscribe.

List-unsubscribe is a command in the header that directly unsubscribes (or removes) a user from a list in a single click. There are two kinds of list-unsubscribe: mailto (wide support) and a URLLink (limited support).

  • The mailto method generates an email to the sender that says the email address is unsubscribed from the list.
  • The URL link directs users to a landing page where they may have to confirm (click again) to be removed from the list.
List-unsubscribe example
(Gmail, by default, places a list-unsubscribe next to the sender name.)

Preference Center, a List'sLife Support

A preference center can keep subscribers engaged by giving them control of their email experience. It enables loyal customers who might have otherwise unsubscribed to remain on a list. An email preference center allows subscribers to select the content they'll receive. For example, a subscriber could opt to receive only sale emails or training emails. It's allowing subscribers to pick the list segment (e.g., sales) they'll actually engage with.

3 Common Reasons Consumers Unsubscribe

Just giving folks the opportunity to receive fewer or targeted emails will save lists. Providing the option to receive fewer emails would prevent about 4 out of 10 consumers from unsubscribing. And 1out of 5 consumers said personalized, or target emails would keep them on a list (Mapp, 2016).

The following are recommendations for a subscriber-first preference center:

  • Give subscribers the option to receive fewer emails (often called "opt-down"). Many companies allow users to select the number of emails they would like to receive (e.g., once a week).
  • Let subscribers pause their subscriptions. For example, a marketing team might let folks pause their accounts for three months.
  • Enable self-selection (or self-segmentation). Allow users to tailor their email experience to receive only the promotions that interest them (e.g., industry newsletter or sales promotions).
  • Include a link to "update your email address." Over time, people abandon or change their email addresses. Brands should make it easy for subscribers to keep receiving their content.
Email Preference Center Example
(Above is Apple's preference center. It provides three choices for subscribers to select, i.e., self-segment).

Adopting a subscriber-first approach is the only way for marketers to achieve sustained success. The biggest mistake marketers can make is discount their subscribers. Michael Barber, former Senior Vice President, Chief Creative Officer at Godfrey, explained the problem: "Too often, marketers deliver one blanket message to their entire subscription base. They don't realize that every time they deliver something annoying or not seen as personalized or not seen as directly targeted to that subscriber, then the subscribers start to ignore their future messages. If they feel their time is being wasted, they're not going to go back to that brand consistently."

Next in this series metrics and subject lines.


CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business.(2021, January 15). Federal Trade Commission.

Kustka, M. (2020, September 4). The dos and don’ts of unsubscribes. Litmus.

Kustka, M. (2021, August 6). When it’s time to let go: 5 tactics to improve the unsubscribe experience. Litmus.

Mapp. (2016). 2016 consumer views of email marketing.

MarketingSherpa & MECLABS Institute. (2016, December). Customer satisfaction research study.

Subler, A. (2019, July 9). Email marketing: Too much of a good thing? Content Marketing Institute.

Validity & Data Marketing Association. (2021,July). Email benchmarking report 2021.

Voigt, K. (2016, November 15). Why an unsubscribe is better than being marked as spam. Litmus.

Welcome emails: Best practice vs. Common practice. (2010, November 22). Chief Marketer.

White, C. S. (2017). Email Marketing Rules:Checklists, Frameworks, and 150 Best Practices for Business Success (3rd ed.).

Zajechowski, M. (2018, September 26). The power of the Welcome Email [Infographic]. Smart Insights.