Email_Marketing_Lists_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.

It’s no surprise to small business owners that an accurate and up-to-date email marketing list helps to save time. But did you know it could also pay off in savings and help to boost sales?

These days it’s not enough to have a big database of email addresses, marketers say. You also need the right ones. A lean, effective email list is populated with subscribers who have opted in to receive information from you, who have engaged with you in the past six months to a year, and whose addresses are up to date. Those are the subscribers who become and remain customers.

“I think small business owners are realizing that it is quality, not quantity, that’s important,” says Mark Satterfield, CEO of Gentle Rain Marketing in Atlanta and author of the forthcoming book The One Week Marketing Plan.

When companies let data management slide, Satterfield says, they’re wasting time on subscribers who aren’t interested. At worst, your messages could land in the spam folder, and your company could be blacklisted by the major email providers like Yahoo! and Gmail.

Marketing expert Carla Wood advises entrepreneurs to avoid the trap of thinking that more email addresses will amplify your message. As founder of ALL Strategy, a marketing firm in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wood tries to show business owners the value of purposeful data that is easy to track and measure in online marketing, from email open rates to sales conversions.

Getting to profitability

Knowing who’s in your database and how responsive they are gives business owners the agility to make adjustments to their marketing plan, Wood says. A list full of irrelevant contacts waters down the accuracy of the metrics you’re receiving. That leads some business owners to ignore the statistics altogether.

“Then, their results do not reflect what would actually help increase revenue,” Wood says.

She also recommends that business owners follow the thread all the way from capturing a contact’s email address to making a sale. If you don’t see a connection to any stream of revenue within six months to two years, based on your sales cycle, that contact may have gone stale.

Email_Marketing_Lists_PQ.jpgIdentify your most—and least—engaged subscribers

Many small business owners use a third-party service to manage their email lists. Susan Baroncini-Moe, a digital marketing strategist in Indianapolis and author of the book Business in Blue Jeans, urges business owners to use all of their available tools to measure open rates and click rates (how often links in your message were clicked on). If a subscriber hasn’t opened your emails in six months, Baroncini-Moe says that’s a good time to decide whether to move that address to an inactive list or just delete it.

Watch your bounce rates, which show how many of your emails were sent to inactive addresses, and remove those addresses immediately. High bounce rates are a red flag to email providers that you might be a spammer. Baroncini-Moe also advises marketers to research known spammer domains, which are used to populate email lists, and eliminate those from your database. Finally, delete any addresses which actually have the words “junk” or “spam” in them; subscribers sometimes create accounts just to handle marketing messages and never engage with them.

“It becomes an issue of keeping your garden weeded,” Baroncini-Moe says. “Check those things once a week, or daily if you’re able.”

Many list administration services also charge a higher rate for a larger list. If you keep it pared to essentials, you might be able to drop into a less expensive tier.

Satterfield recommends targeting your message to people who have expressed interest in your service or product. You can gauge this by offering something relevant in exchange for their email address: a free download, a coupon, or a product sample. That will grow an organic list that yields more results—and more sales—than purchasing a list of random addresses, Satterfield says. A company can also offer multiple streams of email content, and ask subscribers which one they’re most interested in receiving.

Ask permission

The cardinal rule of modern email marketing is to add only those people who opt in to your list. Baroncini-Moe recommends that marketers use two-step confirmation to ensure that subscribers are real people and that they genuinely want to get your emails.

But permissions go stale. Subscribers forget they signed up, or they begin deleting messages without opening any. That’s why it’s good to ask people on your list to reconfirm their interest after six months or so, says Tom Sather, senior director of research for Return Path, a consumer intelligence firm that analyzes email data for businesses.

Sather recommends all businesses have a win-back strategy in place to try to reconnect with subscribers who have faded away. It could be a special discount or a free download. A Return Path study released this spring found companies that employ win-back campaigns typically had good results, and it also gave them a way to ask subscribers to renew their opt-in with a request such as “Click here if you want to remain on our list.”

“It requires an action to refresh it, and it’s more proactive on the business’s end,” Sather said.

Emails are just the first step in the road to revenue, these marketers say. The real payoff comes in sending relevant content to the subscribers who are most likely to buy from your company, and even become ambassadors for your brand.

“At the end of the day, it creates more salespeople for your product,” Wood says. “You need to send the right message to right advocates so they can appropriately expose you to future clients.”