The Art of Curating Your Email List

Breaking up is so hard to do. Except, it’s not really.

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Photo by 原裕 劉 on Unsplash

I have an email list of about 11,000 subscribers. About six weeks ago it was at 15,000, but I cut a bunch of cold subscribers. I built my list back up by about 2500 in the last thirty days. And now? Now I’m doing it all over again.

It’s more than a little scary, and hard on the ego, to reduce your email list by 1/3 or so. But, also? It matters. My goal is to have an engaged, thriving, active list. Thousands of subscribers who don’t open any of my emails doesn’t bring me any closer to that goal.

Last night I sent a Dear John letter to 1,067 of my email subscribers.

Here’s what it said:

Hello (first name),

I just want to check and make sure that you actually are a Ninja Writer, still. Looks like you haven’t opened an email in a long time. In the interest of not being a pain in the butt, I hate to send emails to people who just aren’t feeling it right now.

If you’d like to be removed from my mailing list, you can either click ‘unsubscribe’ below or do nothing — in a few days, I’ll remove you.

If you’d like to STAY on my list, just click here so I know that you’re still a Ninja after all!


If you click the link, you’ll see that it just goes to a page on my website. When they click, ConvertKit tags them as active subscribers.

That way, I won’t kick them to the curb next week.

Curating, or cleaning, an email list is not difficult to do physically. Emotionally is a different story. There’s ego involved. I’ve had about 20,000 people sign up for my mailing list in the last two years. Right now, there are about 11,000 subscribers.

The rest, I’ve cut.

Keeping a clean list has several benefits. It’s cheaper, of course. I don’t want to pay to have people who don’t open my emails on my list. It’s more ethical. I don’t want to fill up anyone’s email inbox with emails they don’t want. And it helps me to keep my email list more active and engaged.

Not superficially either. I mean, obviously, if 2000 people open my email, that’s a different percentage of 11,000 than it is of 20,000. But, also, it’s still just the same 2,000 people. I don’t care too much about just raising the open percentage by lowering the total number of recipients.

If I don’t have as many people on my list who only wanted my freebie, or who aren’t writing right now, or who just aren’t feeling my email-heavy group and are ignoring me all together, then I can do a better job of understanding what they want and need so that I can give it to them.

So, I thought I’d share with you how to easily and (mostly) painlessly curate your email list.

Tag your cold subscribers.

Cold subscribers in ConvertKit, which is my email server, are subscribers who have been on your list for at least 30 days, but haven’t opened an email in more than 90 days.

I’m not sure how other services identify cold subscribers, but I’m sure it’s similar. They haven’t opened an email in a certain length of time, or maybe they haven’t opened a certain number of emails in a row. (Say, your last twenty.)

Mark all of those by tagging them “Cold Subscribers.”

Set up a rule.

Instruct your email server to remove the “Cold Subscribers” tag if a reader clicks on a certain link.

Create a simple page on your website.

Make a simple page on your website. Don’t add it to your table of contents. Just a private, invisible page. Something to let readers click on, so they can be untagged.

Alternatively, if you don’t have your own website, you can just link to literally anything. One of your blog posts on Medium. A meme. It doesn’t matter. You just need to give them something to click.

Send a break-up email.

Write a short, to the point email, like the one above. Let them know that you’re trying to sort out whether or not they want to be on your list. Offer the link to click if they want to STAY on your list. Let them know they can either unsubscribe or you’ll delete them in a few days.

Use something in the subject line like: Are we still friends? Are you still with me? Is anyone there?

Something kind of cute and funny, but that let’s them know what you’re doing. I used, “Are you still a Ninja?”

Send it. Some people will open and click the link. They’ll stay on your list. Most won’t.

Send it again to the unopeners.

A couple of days later, resend the same email to the people who didn’t open it the first time. I like to send it in the morning first and in the evening the second time, to make sure I get everyone.

Delete your cold subscribers.

After about a week, take a deep breath and delete the people tagged “Cold Subscriber.”

Get to work building your list back up.

Just keep swimming, baby.

In case you’re having palpitations. Check this out.

Here’s the results about 24 hours after sending my email out.

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A one percent open rate. About ten percent of my email list just doesn’t open any of my emails. Not even my break up email. They aren’t feeling me or Ninja Writers right now, and it’s time to stop showing up in their inbox.

Seven people let me know they wanted to hang around, and I’m really happy they didn’t slip through the cracks. But out of 1,067 people, only 11 opened my email.

The people I’ll cut next week aren’t really on my list anyway. I’ll save a little money on my monthly bill to ConvertKit by letting them go — with love and best wishes — and I’ll have a tighter email list that I have a better chance of connecting with.

My plan is to repeat the above every six weeks or so.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.

Do you have a writing question you’d like answered? Send it to with DEAR SHAUNTA in the subject line.

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