December 04, 2012
Case Study

Email List Hygiene: Why the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development deleted 47% of its house list

SUMMARY: Slashing a large email list can be daunting, even if the marketer knows many of the contacts are of low quality. However, it is better to have a smaller, but cleaner, list, as opposed to a bloated list with bad or irrelevant data.

In this case study, see how the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development used quality leads to rebuild after dropping nearly half its list, and how it continues to forge ahead with a policy of stringent list hygiene.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter


"High numbers in a database, it looks really significant from the outside, until you start to drill down and realize that performance is really the key," said Jennifer Littlejohn, Director of Marketing, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

The Department of Tourist Development for the state of Tennessee was going through a common problem for marketers: It knew its email list -- while large -- was being dragged down by low-quality leads.

According to the MarketingSherpa 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, "A company that maintains a clean list of quality subscribers, to which it only sends relevant content, will outperform a rival that does not maintain list hygiene and sends batch-and-blast communications."

A significant issue in starting this campaign was in conveying this principle to others.

Before beginning its list hygiene with a reactivation campaign, the marketing team had to convince key decision makers that a significantly smaller but overall better-quality list would be more valuable. In the case of the Department of Tourist Development, those key decision makers were partners in a co-op email, Tennessee Travel Tuesdays, and state legislators that set the department’s budget.

In this MarketingSherpa case study, Littlejohn speaks to how the team clearly conveyed the importance of list hygiene while implementing a system to grow its list with quality leads.


With a large database of 500,000 names, the Department of Tourist Development began its campaign to deal with the low-quality leads within it.

"All of our statistics and all of our open rates were really low," Littlejohn said.

The motivation behind this campaign was getting the best information to the people who really needed and wanted it, and stop wasting resources on those who didn’t, Littlejohn said.

"Overwhelmingly, every initiative we go into is, 'We are getting people to come to Tennessee to do more, spend more money and stay longer.' A way that we get to do that is all kinds of engagement practice, and really focusing on email being a retention conversion tool," Littlejohn said.

Step #1. Convey the importance of list hygiene to partners

With one of its email programs being a co-op with other tourism partners, the database size is an important aspect of its pricing. A vital first step in the hygiene process involved communicating exactly how a hygiene campaign would be beneficial.

"We had a lot of stakeholders and people invested in this program. We really needed to communicate that well enough to where they didn’t see a huge drop and wonder what was going on," said Littlejohn.

Since dialogue with partners in previous years had focused on the large list size, the main concern was how to clearly convey the importance of dropping that size in favor of real value.

"I think we did a really good job on the front end of communicating that with our partners, which led to a lot of trust. … It really is the language that you use, and making sure it is very consistent," she said.

Proactively address concerns

Since rates had been based off the large database size, for the first year of the hygiene campaign, the department reduced the rates for the email placements in anticipation of the need and concerns of co-op partners.

"We did that proactively so that there wouldn’t be any complaints, and there really wasn’t any backlash at all from the partners," said Littlejohn.


Being in a government agency, the Department of Tourist Development answers to the state legislature as well as its partners, especially concerning its budget.

The legislators were another group that needed to be extremely clear on the necessity of list hygiene and how a significant drop in list size in 2010 was an element of efficiency, not failure.

"Annually, Tennessee presents their marketing budget … and it is published, and it is public knowledge. So there is definitely a lot of accountability," said Littlejohn.

Answering to the legislature on this campaign that had severely reduced its list required communicating the importance of list hygiene in a way that would be extremely clear to an audience who was not all email marketing savvy.

To do this, the department compiled metrics from the campaign (for example, increases in requests for travel guides, or open rates) to display exactly what had been done, and how it would provide better value for the email program and the department as a whole.

Knowing the audience they were speaking to, this value was one of the main aspects Littlejohn said they focused on when presenting to the legislature.

"Definitely, this group votes for quality over quantity," said Littlejohn, adding that another important aspect was conveying that the campaign was an asset to their common goal of engaging tourists with the state of Tennessee.

Step #2. Send reactivation emails

The reactivation email was sent to addresses that had not opened an email in the past year. Out of the 500,000 names in the original list, 240,000 (or 47%) were identified as being poor leads for the inaugural reactivation email in 2010.

From the beginning, Littlejohn said the hygiene practices centered on simplicity. It was important to "keep it simple in the beginning, to really focus on the email content, watching our metrics and making sure that our messaging was working."

The reactivation email features:
  • A prompt to "confirm your subscription"

  • The ability to update email preferences

  • A request for the year’s tourism guide

The department also conducted further A/B tests on subject lines to understand what would appeal most to visitors, and make sure they had "solid footing."

Out of the group of 240,000 that were sent the reactivation email, 4,000 confirmed their subscription in 2010, and the rest were removed.

Step #3. Implement rebranding to grow list

After the hygiene reactivation campaign was initially implemented in 2010, Littlejohn said a lot of thought went into updating the design of the emails for 2011 and 2012 to further grow the subscriber list.

To give a facelift to the design, it was decided the theme of the new brand would be "Tennessee is playing your song."

Minor changes were made in 2011, and the team decided, with the major drop in subscription, to wait until 2012 to send another reactivation email, when a total design overhaul and implementation of the new theme was planned, as well.

The marketing department hoped an update in creative aspects would be an asset when sending reactivation emails and its main call-to-action, vacation guide requests. In 2012, the team also integrated a prompt to visit the mobile site.

Previously, the emails did not feature many images, which was a mistake to Littlejohn.

"Tennessee is so beautiful, in terms of just our landscape that we really wanted to move towards utilizing more images," said Littlejohn.

Integrated into the design were:
  • More content wells

  • A large image at the top

  • A cleaner look, with simplicity in mind

  • Links to specific information the receiver had requested (e.g., Civil War Reenactments)

  • "With our seasonal emails … we try to do something that is really behind the scenes or above and beyond what they would get in just their typical vacation to Tennessee," Littlejohn said.

    In the department's co-op emails, Littlejohn said very simple content wells were kept, to focus on the purpose of the emails, which is driving traffic back to the its partner’s websites.

    Step #4. Integrate a consistent system of email hygiene practices

    Littlejohn maintains there is always work to be done on keeping up with list hygiene, "We still have some of the low-quality leads in there."

    The top five tactics used by marketers for list hygiene, according to the 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, are:
    • Provide an easy unsubscribe process

    • Measure and remove hard bounces, clean lists regularly

    • Remove inactive subscribers

    • Maintain an opt-in only subscriber list

    As of 2012, the reactivation email will be an annual planned element of the department's program, and that frequency was decided based off the needs of the department, and the desire to keep the list above 250,000 addresses.

    The same criteria as the initial 2010 hygiene campaign was kept in the 2012 reactivation emails, and they were sent to a group that was identified as not having opened an email in the past year.

    This year’s reactivation email was sent to 109,255 subscribers. Of those, 829 subscribers confirmed their subscription.

    "It just takes time. It has taken a couple of years to weed out all of these low-quality leads while not letting [the list] drop below 250,000."


    "Having high numbers, especially from a database perspective, it sounds great, and … people don’t seem to question it. But when it is really high, you should always question it," Littlejohn said.

    Currently, two years after dropping by nearly half, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development’s database is at 326,836 (a growth of 22% from the list size after removing emails in the first hygiene campaign). Littlejohn remains confident the department has taken the right email hygiene strategy thanks to its metrics:
    • 63.3% conversion rate for vacation guide requests from the 2012 reactivation email

    • A gain of 1,400 people who signed up for the Tennessee Travel Tuesdays co-op email

    • Saving $1,800 per month, around $21,600 a year, by not sending unnecessary emails to very low-quality leads

    After losing 47% of its email list in the reactivation emails, Littlejohn feels confident in the value of the list that remains, with a 3% growth in the average open rate for its emails from 2010 to 2012:

    2010 email
    • Open rate: 11%

    2012 email
    • Open rate: 13%

    If your list is lean, according to Littlejohn, the focus returns to providing valuable information to the right people.

    "Quality over quantity is the way that you need to look at it," said Littlejohn, adding, "You are wasting dollars distributing an email that people aren’t opening. … It is much better to have a higher-quality database. The number in your database isn’t relevant if your emails aren’t performing."

    Creative Samples

    1. 2010 Reactivation Email

    2. 2012 Reactivation Email


    Tennessee Department of Tourist Development

    Tennessee Vacation

    Paramore – Tennessee Department of Tourist Development’s vendor

    Related Resources

    Download a free excerpt of the 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report

    Email List Hygiene: Remove four kinds of bad addresses to improve deliverability

    CRM and the Marketing Database: Data hygiene, behavioral analysis and more

    How to Reactivate Inactive Subscribers (via MailChimp)

    Email Marketing: The 3 most successful tactics of 2011 (with case studies)

    Email List Reactivation Incentives: Gift cards vs. whitepaper vs. nothing

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