Let’s cut to the chase.

People aren’t very good at email marketing.

If you’re one of the 2.6 billion people who use email, you already knew this.

In fact, it’s not even a surprise to the marketers who send the emails. Only 4% of companies would rate the performance of their email campaigns as “Excellent.”

Not a good look for marketers. Not a good experience for readers. We can, and should, do better. We need to build better email lists if we expect our marketing machine to properly function today, tomorrow, and in the future.

Learn More About HubSpot's Marketing Contacts Tool


Source: Econsultancy

How to Be a Better Email Marketer

A great email is all about sending the right message to the right person at the right time. That’s why segmentation is critical to a successful email strategy: it helps you create context for the emails you send. Sending better emails means focusing just as much on the context of your message as the content you deliver.

Consider this: when consumers were asked to rate the statement: “Most of the marketing emails I receive include no content or offers that are of interest to me” – 63% agree or strongly agree.

Notice that these people didn’t say that the content wasn’t bad, simply that it wasn’t relevant. You can write the greatest email in the world, but if it doesn’t resonate with your audience it will be a waste of theirs, and your, time.

Think about the emails you receive in your inbox. Obviously you pay more attention to the emails that are relevant to your needs and interests. Simply apply that same principle to the emails you send. Consider it the golden rule of sending effective emails: market to others as you would like to be marketed to.

The more you focus on the context, the more you will reap the reward. Just look at these two studies on the impact of segmentation on email metrics. The first is from Mailchimp, who found that improved segmentation increased good engagement and decreased bad engagement with email sends.


The second study comes from Skidmore, which found that click-rates and open-rates decreased as the list size increased.


Source: Skidmore

Improving your segmentation strategy is an immediate and impactful way to improve your email program. With that in mind, here are the 20 lists that every marketer should have as the foundation of a successful segmentation strategy.

Lifecycle lists

What are they?

Lifecycle Marketing is the term given to how you communicate with your contacts — from their first point of contact all the way through their lifespan as a paying customer. Lifecycle lists are a way for your business to track what stage of the lifecycle a contact is in. This typically includes a list of your blog subscribers, leads, marketing qualified leads, customers, and evangelists.

Why do they matter?

Lifecycle Marketing is your framework for deciding why you are sending an email, who should receive it, what you want them to do, and how you will measure your success.

So how can building lifecycle lists improve your email marketing?

Most of the new leads your business generates won’t be ready to purchase your product or service. More precisely, 73% of your leads will not be sales-ready when first generated.

Your job is to educate and provide value to these leads to generate interest in working with your business. And email is one of the most effective ways for you to nurture leads.

Successful businesses recognize that their job isn’t done once someone purchases. Marketing and sales are only the first touchpoints your company has with an eventual customer. So Lifecycle Marketing also refers to making sure customers see value when working with your company.

The good news is that happy customers, or evangelists, can be an instrumental part of growing your business. Beyond the regular re-sell and upsell value, happy customers will “sell” your vision, product or service to other potential buyers. That’s why loyal customers are worth up to 10x as much as their first purchase. It’s not just their continued purchases, but also their ability to market and sell through their own evangelism.

Which lists should you build?

1) Subscribers
You should have a list of everyone who subscribes to your blog. This will allow you to automatically email them when you publish a new post, which can provide a serious boost in traffic and links.

2) Leads
Your leads are contacts who have engaged beyond subscribing to your blog. This means they have filled out a form with more than just an email address, often for some sort of content-based offer on your website. Companies typically use the lead lifecycle stage for general, broadly appealing, offers. Then, as each lead demonstrates a higher degree of sales readiness and qualification, they will move to further stages.

3) Marketing Qualified Leads
Marketing Qualified Leads, commonly known as MQLs, are those people who have raised their hands (metaphorically speaking) and identified themselves as more deeply engaged, sales-ready contacts than your usual leads, but who have not yet become fully fledged opportunities. Ideally, you should only allow certain, designated forms to trigger the promotion of a lead to the MQL stage, specifically those that gate Decision Stage offers like demo requests, buying guides, and other sales-ready calls to action.

4) Customers
You should definitely build a list of all of your paying customers! So you can track it’s growth, exclude them from lead-specific promotional emails, and to send delightful customer-only extras.

5) Evangelists
Evangelists are those contacts that are advocates for your business - they sing your praises from the rooftops! They are usually a small but vocal group who will refer new business to you unsolicited. Leveraging their networks often bring in new customers and help you reach leads you may not have been able to otherwise. It’s worth noting that some Evangelists might not be customers. This list of people can help you promote new offers and content, giving a huge boost to the reach of your newest initiative.

Buyer persona lists

What are they?

Buyer personas are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers. A buyer persona list categorizes your contact database using contact properties that indicate a contact's buyer persona.

Why do they matter?

Personas help everyone at your company—in marketing, sales, product, and services—internalize the ideal customer you’re trying to attract, and relate to them as real humans. Having a deep understanding of your buyer persona(s) is critical to driving content creation, product development, sales follow up, and really anything that relates to customer acquisition and retention.

So it’s not too much of a leap to say that it should drive your email marketing strategy as well.

In fact, when asked how they segment their contacts, marketers cited “Audience definition/type” a.k.a, Buyer Personas, as the primary way the slice and dice their database.


Which lists should you build?

6) Primary Persona
This would be a list of the people most likely to be ideal customers. You can create this segment by asking the right questions on your lead generation forms. For example, if “Company Size” is an important part of determining a contact’s persona, that would be a valuable piece of information to capture.

7) Negative Persona
A negative persona, or exclusionary persona, are the types of people you do not want to spend time marketing and selling to. Their goals, challenges, pain points, budget, or some combination of factors exclude them from being a good customer. They may never buy your product or service, be too expensive to acquire, to expensive to support, or be unlikely to see value in what they bought.

Engagement Lists

What are they?

Engagement lists track and segment your contacts based on how they have interacted with your various marketing channels online.

Why do they matter?

A good segmentation strategy uses both implicit and explicit data. It’s probably best to start with some definitions.

Explicit data is information that is intentionally shared between a contact and a company. For example, think of the information that a contact fills out on a landing page or Contact Us form. Even if that information is gathered from somewhere like LinkedIn or Twitter, it’s data a person has willingly shared with the community at large. Here’s where things get interesting.

What prospects tell you about themselves is only the surface of what you can discover about them.

Implicit data is information gathered from user behavior.

Engagement lists are all about harnessing that implicit data to send better emails.

Which lists should you build?

It’s worth noting that engagement lists work just as well in the inverse—meaning that knowing who ISN’T engaging with you is often as valuable as knowing who is interested. For each of the channels below, consider tracking the date of their first visit/engagement, as well as the date of their last engagement. This will allow you to target your messaging to your most engaged contacts, attempt to re-engaged the least engaged contacts, or eventually suppress them.

8) Website engagement
The typical website engagement metrics that are used in these lists include number of pageviews, date of first visit, date of last visit, referral source, and any specific pages that a contact has viewed. 

9) Email engagement
The typical email engagement metrics that are used in these lists include the number of emails bounced, delivered, opened, and clicked by a contact, their first and last dates when a contact took an email action, and specific emails they have engaged with.

10) Social engagement
The typical email engagement metrics that are used in these lists include a contact's number of clicks across various social media channels, their number of connections and followers, the date of their more recent social click, and their profile links. 

11) Blog engagement
The typical blog engagement metrics that are used in these lists include number of blog views, if they are a subscriber, their subscriber preferences, their date of first visit, date of last visit, referral source, and any specific blog posts that a contact has viewed. 

12) Social Influencers
Social influencer lists use many of the metrics from the social engagement bucket to create a list of your most engaged and connected social media contacts. These are folks you should consider cultivating a relationship with since they can provide a serious boost to your content strategy. 

Email Health Lists

What are they?

Email health lists track the long-term health and sustainability of your email marketing program.

Why do they matter?

For a couple of reasons. First, the average contact database decays at 22.5% every year. This happens a number of different ways—contacts unsubscribe, change jobs, or abandon their email address. Of course, keeping the decay of your database involves the generation of new leads, but using lists can give you a deep understanding how WHY certain segments might be churning out faster than others, and how you can help improve their engagement with your emails.

Secondly, poor performance and engagement in one segment of your email database can impact the rest. Email deliverability is the measurement and understanding of how successful a sender is at getting their marketing email into people’s inboxes, and it’s an incredibly important thing to track. HubSpot’s Postmaster Tom Monaghan put it well:

“If you can’t hit the inbox, it really lowers the chances that person will ever become a customer. Ignoring deliverability problems can spread, actually keeping your messages out of the inboxes of folks who really want them.”

In the email world, past performance does influence future results. If your emails are received and loved by your old recipients, new recipients are way more likely to see emails in their inbox…. [But], badness breeds more badness. Poor deliverability is like an infection. Before you know it, folks who would have engaged, who would have LOVED your emails, won’t even see them.

Which lists should you build?

13) Unsubscribes
These people have taken the effort to remove you from their inbox. They could be unsubscribing for a couple of reasons. Perhaps your content is not resonating with them. Or you set the wrong expectations when they signed up for your list. Maybe you never got permission to email this group of people in the first place. Whatever the reason, unsubscribes are a valuable warning sign that something is wrong with your email program. Pro-tip: If your unsubscribe rate drops dramatically or even reaches zero, you are in big trouble. That means your emails are not even making it to the inbox. You’ve got bigger deliverability problems that need to be sorted out ASAP.

14) Hard-bounced contacts
A bounce is an email that for some reason was rejected by the recipient’s mail server.

By building a list of contacts who have bounced, you can do additional analysis to determine why these contacts churned. Did they all come from one source? Did they all unsubscribe from a certain campaign? Has your reputation as an email sender been tarnished? Keeping a close eye on your bounced contacts is a critical part of a long-term approach to email marketing.

There are four types of bounces, each with their own unique reasons and next steps to remedy. They are:

  • Recipient bounces
  • Content bounces
  • Reputation bounces
  • And temporary failures

15) Ineligible contacts
This list should aggregate all of these different metrics to create a master list of churned contacts. Consider this the decay rate of your contact database. Any good Email Service Provider will automatically block churned contacts from receiving emails from you. There are three ways in which a contact can become ineligible to receive emails.

  • When they opt-out or unsubscribe
  • When their email address bounces

Or worst of all, when they mark your message as spam.

16) Unengaged email contacts
These are the people who haven’t opened your emails in several months. Maybe they opted in to receive emails a while ago, or maybe they opted in without even realizing they did. Like from making a purchase or from subscribing to your blog. Maybe the content isn’t relevant anymore. Either way, if they aren’t engaging, you are probably sending them greymail. What is greymail, you ask? Greymail is email that you opted in to receive but don’t really want. If someone opens one email from you, and then doesn’t open any of the next 30 emails you send them, you are probably sending them greymail. And that can be a dangerous thing for your business to do—both for that individual relationship and for your ability to get into people’s inboxes. Here’s how it breaks down: Inbox Providers (so, whoever provides your email address) are really good at identifying greymail. Over time, they use the actions of all recipients across emails sent from your domain to better categorize your company’s emails as the type that people want to receive - or the type they don’t. Greymail isn’t technically spam, but to your recipients it might as well be. By tracking which contacts haven’t engaged with your emails in a while, you can stop sending them greymail by either re-engaging them or stopping sending them emails. You can combat sending greymail by:

  • Sending re-engagement campaigns to unengaged contacts and then stop sending emails to the ones that don’t re-engage
  • Testing to optimize the frequency of your sends
  • Increasing segmentation and personalization to send content that is actually valuable to your readers
  • Removing contacts from your database who are no longer engaged

17) List of contacts by source
This list is technically under the Email Health section, but grouping your contacts by their original source is equally valuable for messaging, too. These lists will allow you to send a contextualized and relevant message, but it will also allow you to suppress or even remove leads that come from a source you determine ultimately isn’t qualified.

18) Overall growth of your eligible email contacts
This list will aggregate and then inform you on the size of your marketable database. That way you can track how all of the different trends in your marketing, like new leads generated, ineligible contacts, and disengaged contacts interact to create your accessible pool of contacts you can email.

Behavior Lists

What are they?

Behavioral email is the practice of sending automated emails to your contacts based on their interactions across multiple channels: like social media, email, your website, and beyond. Behavioral lists are segments that track your contact's specific behaviors, like forms they have filled out, pages they have visited etc.

Why do they matter?

According to a MarketingSherpa study, 39% of marketers said that “automatically sending emails based on triggers” is the most effective tactic for improving email engagement. And yet, an Econsultancy survey which asked marketers “Which of the following practices are a part of your email marketing efforts?” found that only 20% of email marketers use behavioral targeting.

There’s a breakdown here, between what’s effective and how marketer’s act. Consider this: in a traditional email campaign, the marketer develops an offer like an ebook, infographic, or whitepaper. Then they create a segment of people that might find that offer valuable. Then, they email that group of people, often out of the blue.

I like to call this a Random Act of Marketing, and behavioral email is here to make sure that never happens again.

Behavioral email is all about adopting a user-focused approach to sending email. In other words, it is the actions of your leads that dictate what emails they receive, not a decision made by a marketer.

It is, in essence, the realization of the holy grail for email marketers: the segment of one.

Which lists should you build?

19) Track engagement with core offers
Working with your sales team, you should be able to identify the offers that require immediate follow-up. Additionally, if you are running a campaign or promoting an event, lists will allow you to set goals, track registrations, follow-up, and communicate with that specific group of contacts.

20) Track engagement with specific elements (button clicks, page views etc)
Your company’s website can be one of the most effective lead qualification and lead nurturing tools for your company. Building lists that track engagement with specific elements will allow you to nurture visitors based on their activity. For example, if a marketing qualified lead visits your pricing page, you would want to follow up with them immediately. Or if a lead visits your case study page, you might want to send them a lead nurturing workflow that sends them a relevant case study to their industry.


Taking the time to build out and improve your segmentation strategy is perhaps the most impactful work a marketer can do on their email program. It will improve your engagement, conversions, deliverability, and ROI. 

And the best part? The work you do to build these segments will carry over into your other inbound initiatives. You'll have super-targeted groups of people you can use to create smart content, improve your reporting, do social prospecting and cross-channel marketing. 

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Originally published May 25, 2016 10:00:00 AM, updated October 21 2020