A Grass-Roots Email Campaign to Fight Urban Blight

You don’t need to be a million-dollar corporation with a large marketing budget to market effectively with email. Even one-man operations can create model campaigns.

Take Bill Cocose, for instance. He took a cause he believes in, added a bit of creativity, and threw in some old-fashioned elbow grease in his first email marketing endeavor. The grass-roots approach to compiling an initial list and the viral aspect to the mailings produced a marketing effort that organizations of all sizes can use as an example.

Bill is the founder of Brownfields.com, a nonprofit online business portal for government agencies, other nonprofit groups, and investors wanting to combat urban blight. For example, an interested group might turn the site of an old gas station into new retail space. The Brownfields.com web site is packed with property listings, updated news stories, industry links, and more.

Back in October, Bill attended Brownfields 2000, an annual U.S. Environmental Protection Agency trade show in Atlantic City, NJ, devoted to cleaning up contaminated vacant lots and industrial sites. He announced the launch of his site and spent much of the three-day conference shaking hands, trading business cards, and asking attendees if they wanted to sign up for his email list, which at that time was stored on a legal tablet attached to a clipboard. In this manner he got about 1,000 people to sign up, many of whom were officials with agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

He then took those names, entered them into his database, and began sending out mailings about every other week. At first the mailings were simple announcements or updates of news stories, but he soon began sending out a newsletter, now called the Brownfields Weekly, that promoted what was new on the site. And also during this time, he started working with EmailFactory.com, a company that offers start-to-finish email marketing solutions.

EmailFactory suggested running a contest. An “ad” was run at the bottom of each mailing and later toward the top of each newsletter. Individuals who signed up to win the Eco-Cruise Vacation, a seven-night Caribbean cruise for two aboard Royal Caribbean’s newest cruise ship/oceanographic laboratory, were taken to a bounce page where they were offered more chances to win by referring others.

Of the original database, about 25 percent of the respondents opted out. (And in my opinion, that isn’t too bad given that people hadn’t even seen what they were signing up for.) Of the remaining members, however, nearly a quarter of them signed up for the contest, and around two-thirds referred an average of two additional people to visit the site and sign up for the mailing list.

As a result, the list has grown from about 1,000 names to about 1,800 in the span of a few months. Plus, it registers only a handful of opt-outs each week. The site is seeing an increase in traffic each week, and on the day the newsletter is mailed out the site receives about 200 unique visitors.

How could Brownfields.com, a nonprofit organization, afford to give away a cruise? Bill paid the $500 deposit out of his own pocket. He says that either one of two things will happen: He’ll end up paying the balance, or — as he hopes — the contest will create enough interest that he can approach Royal Caribbean, demonstrate how much great publicity he has garnered on its behalf, and gratefully accept the company’s offer to cover the whole amount.

Ultimately, Bill is trying to sell sponsorships or receive grant or foundation money to keep his site up and running. Thanks to the publicity generated by his email marketing efforts, he’s off to a good start.

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