Why and how to clean your contact lists for better email deliverability


Keeping a clean list(s) of contacts in your ActiveCampaign account is essential for successful and impactful email marketing. Sending emails to a clean list ensures that you send emails to only individuals who want to hear from you—not only will this boost your engagement rates, but it will help improve your overall deliverability, sender reputation, and inbox placement.  

Why you should clean your contact list(s)

Maintaining a clean list of contacts is imperative for good email marketing and has several benefits, some of which are:

  • Higher engagement rates (more opens and clicks) with your emails
    Removing inactive contacts from your list means you're sending emails to contacts who are more likely to open your campaigns and click on a call-to-action. The contact count will decrease when you remove inactive contacts, but that's ok. You're keeping the contacts who matter most and will positively impact your overall deliverability. 
  • Stay ahead of list churn
    Email marketers should expect to lose about 30% of their contact list over a year. This is normal, to a point. Churn is the number of contacts who bounce, unsubscribe, or go stale on your list. Regularly cleaning your list can remove stale, unengaged contacts before they harm your sender health.
  • Better insight into your email marketing strategy
    Sending emails to a list containing unengaged contacts can make it hard to see how well your campaigns are performing, making it difficult to know what to change in your strategy. By removing inactive contacts, you will see more accurate reporting and get a better pulse on what's working and what's not.  

If you don't routinely clean your lists, you will risk decreasing open and click rates and increasing spam complaints and bounces. These all contribute to poor deliverability, a bad sender reputation, and having your domain blocklisted by ISPs.

How to clean your contact list(s)

Tracking contact engagement and removing inactive contacts is a best practice that all email marketers should implement. This will help you see which contacts are engaged with you and which hurt your program and domain reputation. 

ActiveCampaign has tools that you can use to both remove inactive contacts from your list(s) right away and track engagement over time. 

Do First: Implement Engagement Tagging automations

We recommend that all email marketers set up the Engagement Tagging automations as soon as possible. These two free, pre-built automations track contact engagement over time by applying four tags to contacts: Engaged, Recent Activity, Disengaged, and Inactive. These tags are either added to or removed from contacts based on how much time has passed since they engaged with your email or visited your website. While these automations already have intervals for you, you can change them to fit your needs better.

To leverage these tags, you can:

  • Create a segment of contacts with the Engaged tag, and send campaigns to that segment only. By doing so, you exclude sending to contacts tagged as Disengaged or Inactive which can help your deliverability rates
  • Use different communication channels, such as site messages or SMS, to reach out to contacts who are tagged as Disengaged or Inactive
  • Add contacts tagged as Disengaged or Inactive to a re-engagement automation series. If they don't re-engage with your communications, you can unsubscribe them from your list(s)
  • Increase or decrease a contact score when these tags are applied to contacts
  • Send automated re-engagement campaigns to contacts with the "Inactive" tag. Watch the "Managing your contacts engagement through automated tags" video for more information

Do Second: Engagement Management tool

If you need to remove inactive contacts right away, you can do so with the Engagement Management tool. This can be done while you implement the Engagement Tagging automations.

The Engagement Management tool cleans your list(s) by removing contacts who have never engaged with your emails or who have not engaged with your emails within a specific period. You'll know you'll need to use this if you start to see a decline in your open and click rates and a rise in your bounce and spam complaints. 

We recommend using this option as a quick fix while implementing the Engagement Tagging automations. 

Do third: Secure your subscription forms

Malicious hackers create "bots" that add a single email address to thousands of online forms. This single address will get flooded with emails and be rendered temporarily useless. Think thousands of messages a minute.

Understandably, this can be concerning and create deliverability issues if some of these signups happen to be live addresses that mark your email as spam. We'll answer some of the common questions you may have.

Because of this, it's essential to implement CAPTCHA on your inline subscription forms.

Importing lists when migrating to ActiveCampaign

If you're migrating to ActiveCampaign from another platform, carefully review each list you're about to bring over and break each into three separate categories: Subscribed, Bounced, and Unsubscribed. Then import each category separately. Doing so will help you avoid sending emails to bounced and unsubscribed contacts, which can harm your deliverability and sender health.

Migrating subscribed contacts

For subscribed contacts, you'll want to import them into your list with a "Subscribed" status. This can be done by selecting "Import As Active Contact" on the import page when you upload your CSV file.


Contacts you'll want to import with a Subscribed status are those who: 

  • Explicitly opted into receiving marketing emails from you (meaning, no rented or purchased lists)
  • You've emailed in the last year
  • Engaged with your communications within the last 12 months

When importing these contacts, you'll want to add a tag to show that they are Subscribed and came from your former platform. For example, the tag could look like this: subscribed_youroldplatform.

We recommend you import the following information from your previous platform (if available) when you import subscribed contacts. This information can be included in your CSV import file and can be mapped to a custom field you create in your ActiveCampaign account:

  • Engagement score
    Some email marketing platforms, such as MailChimp, give contacts engagement scores. You can import these scores into your ActiveCampaign account and use them to create your contact scoring system. In addition, you can use this information to create segments of your contacts. Doing so will make it easy to send emails to your most engaged subscribers first to warm up your sending server properly. We recommend this deliverability best practice to all clients who migrate to ActiveCampaign. Read this Deliverability in your first 30 days help article for more information.
  • Most recent engagement date
    Once imported, you can use this data to create segments of your contacts. As you warm up your sending server, you'll want to send emails to contacts who most recently engaged with you, for example, within the last 30-60 days. These contacts are more likely to engage with emails you send from your ActiveCampaign account, which will help you establish a long-term, healthy sender reputation.
  • List opt-in date
    You'll want to include the opt-in list date in your import because it helps to prove opt-in consent.

Migrating bounced contacts

You'll want to add contacts who received a bounced status on your previous platform separately to your Exclusion List. An exclusion list is a list of email addresses prevented from receiving campaigns and automation emails from you. Each ActiveCampaign account comes with an Exclusion list.

In addition, you'll want to apply a tag to these contacts upon import, noting that they bounced from a list on your previous platform. For example, the tag could look like this: bounced_listname_youroldplatform.

When importing these contacts, you will want to use the "Import as Excluded" option in the "Import Options" dropdown. You do not need to select a list under the "Select List(s)" option for this import.


Migrating unsubscribed contacts

For contacts who received an unsubscribed status on your previous platform, you'll want to import them separately to your list as Unsubscribed contacts and apply a tag to them upon import that shows they previously unsubscribed. For example, the tag could look like this: unsubscribed_youroldplatform.

When importing these contacts, you will want to select the list of the contacts unsubscribed from under "Select lists" and use the "Import as Unsubscribed Contact" option located in the "Import Options" dropdown.


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