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Email Marketing: Does List Size Matter?

Updated on February 15, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is a business author with 25 years experience in marketing and sales including a decade in the hotel and trade show industries.


Would you prefer having a marketing email list that has 1,000 subscribers OR one that has 100? This is not a trick question. Of course you'd love to have the 1,000 subscriber list instead. But is list size always a measure of a list's success?

List Size May Have Little Effect on Open Rates

I started email marketing for my business in 2005 and I've had lists of varying sizes over the years. Consistently I've achieved open rates between 20 to 35 percent (sometimes more, depending on the list), regardless of what the list size was. In fact, as my list size grew, the open percentage sometimes experienced a drop. A drop like this can sometimes be attributed to the fact that even though the numbers increased, the same loyal subscribers were still the only ones actually opening the emails. So watch both open percentage and actual number of opens to assess. Some email marketing platforms also allow you to see exactly who opens the emails. This can be an enlightening exercise, too.

Plus, when I did a massive cleanup of some lists I had maintained for a decade or so, asking them to officially opt in to a new list system, I dumped hundreds of unresponsive or disinterested subscribers. Yet, when emailing to the pared down list, the open rates stayed consistent.

List Size May Have Little Effect on Click Through Rates

One of the most telling email marketing stats is to monitor Click Through Rates (CTR). The CTR measurement is an indicator of list and offer relevance. Like open rates, CTR is usually expressed as both a percentage and actual numbers to get a more accurate assessment.

I've noticed that even if my list is larger, sometimes the CTR in actual numbers stays the same, even if the CTR in percentage drops. So what does that tell me? It could mean that the existing subscribers who have always been responsive to my emails are still the only ones interested.

Getting Email Subscribers is Tough

Even though you should always be soliciting subscriptions to your email list, don't get totally depressed if it's not growing at an alarming rate. People are about as protective of their email addresses as they are about their cell phone numbers. Plus, some are so overwhelmed with email that they can't even imagine adding one more email to their already bursting inboxes. (I once saw a friend's email inbox that had over 6,000 emails sitting in it to be read. Yikes!) It may not be that they don't like you or what you have to offer. So when you get subscribers voluntarily opting into your list, rejoice!

Email Subscription Incentives May or May Not be Effective in Increasing Subscriber Numbers

You might be thinking, "Well, if I give away a cool incentive for signing up for my emails, that'll get 'em in." Sorry, not always true... or it will be only temporarily true.

When I offered a free ebook for signing up, I had a pretty good opt-in result. But then I also experienced more unsubscribe (opt-out) requests. What they would do is sign up to get the freebie and just as quickly opt out. Sure, the ebook was designed to encourage sales of the products and services I offered. So they would have something in their hands that would keep me on their radars. But wouldn't you also admit that there have been times when you yourself received an ebook email incentive offer, signed up, downloaded it, and then filed the document away, never for it to see the light of day again?

Only experimentation will bear itself out as to whether email signup incentives will be effective in building your email list.

Email List Size Stats to Watch

You can't just use one email list stat to accurately assess whether your list is effective. Here are some examples of what to watch:

  • List Size Compared to Unsubscribe Requests. If dramatic list growth is followed by higher unsubscribes, people may be responding to your incentive without having any real interest.
  • Opt-in Rates. Monitor if opt-in rates are growing or dropping over time. This can indicate a number of things, including effectiveness of opt-in offer or incentive, a market that is mature or stalling, whether networking efforts are working, etc.
  • Open Rate. Look at both the actual number of opens and the percentage. Both may be growing, but both may have different rates of growth. If your actual number of opens is not growing, in spite of a growing list size, it could signal that your loyal followers are still opening your emails, but maybe not the new subscribers. If your email broadcast system allows it, you may be able to see who actually opened your emails to verify what is happening.
  • CTR. Don't be alarmed if your clickthroughs are much, much lower than your open rate. Even if people open the email, they may not act on it. They just might be curious about what you're talking about in this email, but may not be in a place to buy.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


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