Your email list is smaller than you think… or Better Email strategy for 2020!

This is not the strategic news you wanted I know…  This is not the hack to quick email growth…

This is about real engagement and developing a better email strategy for 2020. Over the years best practices have stressed email list size. That size is all that matters and the engagement will sort itself out from there. We all face constant pressure from leadership to make this metric bigger.


I was in the position many of you are probably in now. I felt the very real pressure to grow my “list”. Quotes around list because If you’ve attended any of the Email or Matrix of Engagement classes I’ve offered you know I believe an email list is really all about cohorts. But I’ve come to the hard realization that the total number of emails in your database is great for making the board or campaign leadership happy. It’s a bad number to predict real engagement which means it is probably not the actual size of the email list…

Then what is the real number of people on your email list?

I’m going to share a few of the basic frameworks I think everyone should be working from. I go much deeper on the in both the Email Cohort and our Matrix of Engagement Cohort.

People who have opened an email in the last year.

The largest closest to an accurate number of your actual total email list is: People who have opened an email in the last year. If you’ve done long term email list management than you know anyone who hasn’t opened in the last 12 months is likely to never open an email from that email address ever again. I say from that email address there are smart ways to get those folks back but it takes a while to explain. 


Let’s say your email list has 150,000 and 100,000 people have opened in the last year. That’s your real number. Now you can try to get those other 50,000 people to open some emails but emailing them often hurts your deliverability with email providers. If you aren’t running a sophisticated testing regimen STOP emailing them.

Let’s dissect our list a little more. 

I think opened in the last year is a fine number to use organizationally. To get more real most people who haven’t opened in the last 6 months (180 days) are fairly unlikely to open again. You could probably factor that you might get 10-20% of them to open again this year.

Yep, it sounds a bit like a list size ticking time bomb. It is. Every week that passes, each bad email sent that doesn’t reach inboxes pushes people closer to the 6 month and final 12-month cliff. 

Let’s go back to that 150,000 and 100,000 people in the last year. Then let’s say 60,000 have opened in the last 6 months. That means 40,000 haven’t open in the last six months. If you can only activate 20% of those folks that’s 8,000 people. This all means a potential end of year real list sizes is 68,000. 



Now don’t fret. Sending better and more engaging email can for certain improve this for you but it helps give you a better baseline for the reality of your list size.

If this were my list I’d say something like:

  • We have contacts for about 150,000
  • 100,000 semi-active folks who’ve opened this year
  • 60,000 actives who have opened in the last 6-months. 
  • 30,000 high actives who have opened in the last 30 days. 

Doing this helps us better predict our next likely engagement for donations, sign-ons, or whatever ask we might be making. 

Don’t fret that your list is smaller. Let’s reorganize around and action and engagement and start thinking about that as a better baseline. 

First of all what will give you a better prediction of actions is thinking about people in the in cohorts like this:

  • 30 Day Active and Action Takers. If you are emailing frequently the number of people who have taken action in the last 30 days is your best predictable baseline.
  • 30 – 90 Days. These folks have set into atrophy and these are your best cohort of folks to pull back into the 30 action takers. 
  • 180 plus days. These are potential to activate but only if your action is doing well or if it is really important to send.
  • 365+ days. Basically not on your list. It can be worth a sporadic email every few months to reactivate.
  • 730+ days. Really, really not on your list. STOP emailing them.


Wanna go deeper? Join me in upcoming training and we’ll be going really deep in both of these cohorts. 


Matrix of Engagement 2020 Cohort

(Included with All – Access Membership)
We expanded our popular Matrix of Engagement Cohort from a 6-month to 12-month cohort. The Matrix of Engagement is a holistic digital strategy framework. Go beyond clicks, ladders, and short term goals. Evolve your digital strategy into a human-centered growth and engagement program.

Sessions start January 2019


Email Program Management Strategic Cohort

(Included with All – Access Membership)
Our 4-week Email Program Management course is becoming an even bigger 12-month cohort. Learn the essential strategy, tactics, and tips to manage a strategic email program. Monthly sessions and peer learning.

Sessions start January 2019


All – Access Membership

The All-Access Membership, includes our standard cohorts, live courses, self-paced courses, and classes. That means access to our Matrix of Engagement 2020 Cohort, Email Program Management Strategic Cohort, and Social Media — Strategic Cohort.

The All-Access Membership is only $95 per month. You can add team members for only $50.

Brad (Schenck) Caldana

Brad (Schenck) Caldana

Author and Senior Digital Strategist & Trainer at The Digital Plan

Brad is the author of The Digital Plan, founder of the website and training community.  Currently, Brad helps nonprofits, campaigns, and organizations of all sizes with their digital strategy, coaching, and training. 


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