Cheetah Chatter: A Wildlife Newsletter Grows Up

A year ago, I lamented how small businesses have it tough with email marketing. They typically don’t have the budgets big players do. Today, a new look at how nonprofits and other low-budget operations can create viable email newsletters.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is a 1,700-acre natural area in Glen Rose, Texas. This wildlife conservation facility exists largely on donations. It doesn’t have the support that, say, a city zoo has, and its marketing budget certainly doesn’t have a great deal of money.

In the past, Fossil Rim had distributed an email newsletter, but last fall the organization realized it wasn’t getting enough return on its investment. One IT person was running the newsletter; it was time-consuming and took resources Fossil Rim didn’t have. So the conservationists folded the newsletter and started over.

The organization teamed with a local marketing firm, e-Marketing Strategies and started almost from scratch. First, they cleaned up Fossil Rim’s list. Fossil Rim sent a holiday card in December to approximately 1,000 database members. The card was essentially a “thank you for your support” message. It mentioned the group would soon send a new, monthly email newsletter. It also included a noticeable link recipients could click to unsubscribe from the list. Fortunately, the list was relatively clean. It numbered just a handful of hard bounces. Only two recipients unsubscribed.

Next, the two organizations designed a template. It includes the basic elements of a good newsletter: a recognizable header and footer, clear navigation features, an uncluttered layout, attractive graphics, and more. You can view the first issue, released in January, here. Some article titles are: “1984-2004, Now & Then”; “New Kids on the Block”; “20 Yrs. of Adventure”; and “What are Ostrichsicles?”

At first, there was no real formula for the content. Much of it came from the print newsletter (and still does). Fossil Rim scrutinized links to see which were the most popular. Now, the newsletter has regular story departments, such as “Cheetah Chatter,” “Distinguished Resident,” and “What’s Gnu?” along with rotating short articles and a consistent Q & A section.

To see how the newsletter’s content has evolved, check out the six-month anniversary edition. The initial copy draws the reader in more quickly and better illustrates the newsletter’s personality:

Dear Supporter,

The month of June has been great at Fossil Rim. We received close to ten inches of rain at the beginning of the month. Yes, ten inches! It was a glorious day, okay, maybe not so glorious because it did look as though we were going to have to build an ark at one point but still, we were thrilled to get the rain….

We’ve got babies and I mean, babies abound! We have pups (maned wolf), calves (wildebeest and gemsbok), fawns (white-tailed and Sika deer), and tiny baby chicks (Attwater’s prairie chickens).

Don’t you want to see them…? Come soon. Babies are only babies for so long.

The newsletter has another significant change. At first, the newsletter appeared to come from Patty Fair. Having a person associated with the newsletter gave it a personality, but Fair was the marketing manager and not the best fit. After a few months, Fossil Rim realized the newsletter’s value and created a dedicated staff position. Staff member DeAnna Hansen became the editor and the personality for the newsletter. Now, you can click her name in the newsletter and send her an email message.

The Web site also made an important change in the first six months. Fossil Rim allocated additional resources to improve its site. The organization built a new home page with improved navigation and new pages that complement the newsletter. Plus, the group creates landing pages for special promotions and events. In some cases, similar promotions appear on the home page and in the newsletter to increase reach.

The work put into the e-newsletter is paying off. Not surprisingly, the organization won’t disclose exact cost figures, but the phrase I kept hearing was “extremely limited budget.” On this budget, the newsletter now averages about a 50 percent open rate and a 34 percent CTR. The “Name the Giraffe” mascot contest generated about 150 unique responses. Plus, the newsletter has more than doubled its subscribers to about 2,500 members, and it continues to grow.

Although these numbers may not impress mega-corporations or those with large marketing budgets, they work for this nonprofit. Fossil Rim got it right: Babies are only babies for so long.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies 2004 in San Jose, CA, August 2-5.

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