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Email Marketing: Does List Size Matter?

Updated on February 27, 2016
heidithorne profile image

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.

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.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 16 months ago from USA

      This was relevant to me because I lead a nonprofit parent group of about 200 families associated with a school and we are always struggling with current email lists ,,, how to keep the list current, get emails read and acted upon, etc. etc.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 16 months ago from Chicago Area

      FlourishAnyway, nonprofits and small businesses always struggle with email lists. It can be quite a job to keep up with updates, getting engagement, etc. as you noted. One of the most discouraging things is the snail's pace at which some of these lists grow, especially when following best practice opt-in procedures. So hang in there! Thanks for adding that real world example to the conversation. Cheers!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 16 months ago from Olympia, WA

      A little humor in that title, eh?

      I'll have you know I don't have an email marketing list. How's that for brutal honesty? I could give you an excuse but why bother? I just haven't done it despite knowing I should.

      How's the winter there? They tell me spring is approaching. I'll believe it when I actually see it.

      Happy Sunday, my friend.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 16 months ago from Chicago Area

      Happy Sunday to you, too, billybuc! Email marketing doesn't work for everyone. But I've signed up for your blog post updates via email. So you kind of have an email list already. The winter is finally losing it's grip. In the high 50s today. Hope springs (pun intended) eternal. :) Thanks so much for taking time from your day to check in. Have a great rest of the weekend!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      If I ever have an email list I hope I remember what you've shared, Heidi. Your advice is excellent, as always.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 16 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hello AliciaC! If you're active in blogging with your own site, you'll certainly be building an email list. Glad you found it helpful. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, as always! Have a great week ahead!

    • Richard-Bivins profile image

      Richard Bivins 15 months ago from Charleston, SC

      For me it's a numbers game and the larger the list the better. Of course it would be great having a small dedicated list of true followers that share everything I write. It also depends on how you use your list, the frequency of your contact, and the up-sell if you have one.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 15 months ago from Chicago Area

      Agreed, Richard, we'd all rather have a larger list than a small one. And, you're right, the frequency of contact and follow up are so critical to the success of any email marketing. Thanks so much for adding your insight to the conversation! Have a great day!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 15 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I've really got to get this sorted! Or a blog or something!

      Thanks for the tips


    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 15 months ago from Chicago Area

      Don't we all, Lawrence! :) I just had to cull through my email lists last year when I was converting to a new email broadcast provider. Totally understand. Good luck with your blog, email or other adventures! Cheers!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 14 months ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful tips.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 14 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Larry! Glad you found the tips helpful. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend!

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