List Attrition

DJ over at Bronto blog has a post up about list churn / list attrition. She quotes a statistic published by Loren from MediaPost (the original post is behind a subscription wall) that a list will lose 30% of their subscribers year over year. This is similar to a statistic that I use, but the context I have seen the published statistic in is slightly different. DJ offers suggestions on how to reduce this churn. All the suggestions are great, but I think that they slightly miss the point. There are multiple processes that can be described as list churn. One is churn DJ addresses, that is people unsubscribe from a mailing list. The other is people abandon their email addresses. Individual mailers have some control over the first type of churn, but almost no control over the second.

I think the study Loren was quoting describes the second phenomenon not the first. In 2002, ReturnPath published a study that showed 31% of people changed email addresses in a single year. Understand, this does not mean that 31% of recipients on any particular list will actively decide to unsubscribe from a list or report it as spam or otherwise unsubscribe from that list. This is 31% of all email address owners will get a new address and abandon their current one. There are a few reasons for the churn.

  1. Email addresses provided through an employer do not carry to new employers.
  2. Recipients change ISPs.
  3. Recipients change email addresses at ISPs, often to avoid high levels of spam.

Engaging users may help convince them that mail is worth enough to subscribe with their new address. However, senders will still see addresses drop off their lists. The person behind the email address is no longer using that address.

Not all subscription and delivery problems are under the control of the sender. Address abandonment is one of those problems.


  1. Stefan Pollard says

    I totally agree about the different types of attrition issues. When recipients change ISP’s due to spam issues, they rarely take the time to close their free account. The address remains “valid” but nobody is picking up the email. Increased storage on free accounts has increased the time it takes to detect this problem which is why so many experts stress the importance of knowing which recipients are “active” vs. “inactive”.

    Removing inactive subscribers is another type of attrition, but with different strategies and outcomes and often not counted in studies like the one mentioned.

  2. DJ Waldow says

    Laura and Stefan –

    DJ here. First off, just to end the jokes here at Bronto, I just wanted to clear up that I’m a guy.

    You both make excellent points. I would also agree that there are a few types of list attrition, some in the control of mailers (“unemotionally subscribed”, bacn), some not (inactive/changed accounts, bounces). I should have made that more clear in my post.

    Either way, I hear clients all day long talk about “growing their lists.” While that is important (with a 30% list attrition), I guess I’d like to hear marketers talk more about sending relevant, timely, targeted email. I’d like to hear that they are thinking about strategic ways to keep their subscribers engaged. Is that too much to ask?

    Love to hear your thoughts…

    dj – “the guy” at bronto (ha ha)

  3. Sloppy List management practices that can get you blacklisted | MailChimp Blog says

    […] block him.” People ditch or change or lose their email addresses after about a year (see this post on address-abandonment from Word To The Wise.). If you haven’t been sending regular email campaigns to your customer list, you’ll […]


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