Phillip Smith

Managing large e-mail lists: One list to rule them all

Originally posted on the New Internationalist Tech blog

Over the past several years, I’ve worked with many organizations and campaigns that have seen their e-mail subscriber lists grow dramatically. As these e-mail lists grow past the thousands of subscribers mark and head into the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, new strategies for list management are often required.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Avoiding e-mail list data corruption and – continuing on that theme – I’ll attempt to start documenting some of the approaches that I have explored to keep large lists growing, manageable, and insightful.

This week I’ll focus on making them more manageable.

Ad-hoc beginnings

Many big e-mail lists come from humble beginnings. Perhaps they emerge from an online campaign that “went viral” or the result of a great promotion or contest. Often, in the scramble to get an e-mail management system (EMS) into place, there’s little time to think about the “right way(tm)” to set things up. Eventually, these (often ad-hoc) initial configuration decisions, can limit an organization’s ability to proactively monitor and analyze their subscriber data, or – equally as important – can impact the subscribers’ self-care experience.

Though some will argue there are many “right ways” to approach e-mail list management, over the years I’ve come to understand that – for organizations with tens or hundreds of thousands of e-mail addresses – there really is only one right way. And that is: One big list.

One list to rule them all

Depending on your EMS, you may be presented with a dizzying array of options for what to do with subscribers, where to put them, and how to manage them, and that’s why I believe it’s so important to keep things simple in whatever system you’re using. Specifically, that starts with ignoring all of the enticing buttons, links, and documentation that lure you toward creating more than one list of subscribers. Trust me: it’s a mistake.

One organization should only have one list of e-mail subscribers. I’ll explain why… limiting your e-mail subscribers to one list means:

  • Less confusion about which list to use for a particular campaign
  • Greatly improved reporting and analysis opportunities
  • More manageable deliverability and list auditing processes
  • Easier backups (you’re backing up your e-mail list, right?)
  • And, most importantly, easier subscribe and unsubscribe options for the subscribers (and fewer places to search for them, should they send you an request to update their record)

So, when setting up an EMS from scratch, my advice is to stick to one list, and avoid the one-list-per-campaign or one-list-per-region approach. Read on and I’ll explain how to make it work. (And for those that don’t agree, I’ll see you in the comments section below!)

Interests, editions, and more

Inevitably, the reason that an organization ever ends up with more than one list is because there’s a need to segment subscribers according to some specific event, or interest, or characteristic of the subscriber. Typical examples for an organization like New Internationalist would be:

In each of these situations, it would be typical for an organization to create a new “list” in their EMS and to subscribe people to that list based on some action the subscriber took (like donating); this would often happen in an automated fashion, or would be accomplished via a regular import of new subscribers to the appropriate list.

Unfortunately, this list-itis only leads to the opposite of the opportunities that I’ve presented above, that is: confusion, lack of good reporting options, deliverability challenges, and – all too often – poor experiences for the subscribers when trying to manage their subscription(s).

The magic concept here is segments. Each of the potential lists I referenced earlier are simply characteristics of the person who subscribed. For example, this person is a donor, they attended an event, and they live in Toronto, Canada. Knowing that, I can use segmentation to target messages to this person, and to other people with similar characteristics.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is, to be sure: simple and powerful. And the real power of this approach becomes visible as soon as you want to target characteristics that would typically be stranded on different lists, e.g.: catalog or online shop customers that aren’t already donors or magazine subscribers, who live in Canada and haven’t already received some kind of subscription promotion campaign in the past.

Try to figure that out with your e-mail subscribers scattered across five or ten lists.

Custom fields and segmentation rules

The secret to keeping all of your e-mail subscribers on one big list AND being able to deliver the right campaigns, to the right subscribers, is custom fields and segmentation rules.

For all of their differences, most (good) e-mail management systems offer these two building blocks in one form or another, or by one name or another. In their most basic form they are:

  • The ability to add custom information to a subscriber record (think First Name and Last Name, only these are characteristics that you define)
  • The ability to use simple, or advanced, logic to build a rule about who will receive a mailing (typically referred to as a “segment”)

For example, a simple rule might look like:

The value in the field “Donor” is equal to “1”

This would be equivalent to a list of e-mail subscribers who have donated (or donors that you have an e-mail address for). A more advanced rule might look like:

The text in the “Country” field equals Canada, and the value in the field “Donor” is equal to “1”

This would be equivalent to a list of e-mail subscribers who have donated that live in Canada. And a more advanced rule might look like:

The text in the “Country” field equals Canada, and the value in the field “Donor” is equal to “1”, and the value in the “Subscriber” field is not equal to “1”, and the value in the “Received subscription offer” field is less than “1”

Advanced rules like this can be used to finely tune campaigns based on the specific characteristics of that subscriber, in New Internationalist’s case this would be to send a subscription offer to people that have donated (possibly during an online fundraising campaign unrelated to the print magazine) that aren’t currently subscribing to the print magazine, and only where they haven’t already received an e-mail promotion.

And this is only the beginning of where the concept of one big list and segments start to out perform the many-lists approach. The other improvements I’ve mentioned are better reporting and analysis, increased deliverability and easier auditing, as well as improved user experience for your subscribers.

I’ll dig into each of these over the coming weeks and months. Hope you stay tuned.

Comments? Please post them over on the New Internationalist Tech blog


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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