E-Mail to the Rescue

When Karen got a call last November from her client Neal Callander, director of professional development of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), she knew she had a marketing emergency on her hands.

NACUBO had its big Endowment Forum coming up at the end of January. When Karen was called in, little marketing had been done to the group’s target audience: chief business and financial officers of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Now it was just before Thanksgiving. Considering the Christmas holidays were in the middle of the event’s promotion cycle — and most colleges shut down for an extended holiday break — that didn’t leave much time to get the message out.

Keep in mind the traditional event promotional cycle is five to six months, not two. And most conference promotions are multi-touch — including postcards, letters, and brochures — which would require a few weeks for printing, production, and letter shopping.

Quickly assessing the situation, Karen took the risk and suggested the only way to get the job done was an all-email campaign. At this point, NACUBO had only done text email and had no design capabilities — so Karen suggested a simple letter template that had worked for some other clients.

On Friday, November 15, Karen and Neal hammered out a marketing strategy. By Monday, the first draft was being mulled over. By Thursday, November 21, the email blasts went out.

On January 30, the Endowment Forum took place with 232 paid attendees — almost double the forecast registration goal of 120 — and the highest attendance in the event’s history.

What made these simple email messages a success? Because there was no time for testing, we can’t know exactly. But below are some ideas that came out of the project debriefing.

Good Audience Segmentation

The people most likely to attend were financial officers who had participated in a recent NACUBO Endowment Study, which was being unveiled at the event. Though the survey’s results were compelling, the keynote was more so. The versioned subject line for this email was “NES Participant: Yale’s Swensen at NACUBO Endowment Forum.”

The subject line quickly telegraphed three main points:

  • This email is for you — the survey participant

  • The keynote is from a top school (with a big endowment). David Swensen is also very well known in the field and wrote an important book.
  • Here’s the name of the event.

The second most-likely audience was NACUBO’s “prime reps” — financial officers who are the organization’s primary contacts at the universities — who did not participate in the survey. The subject line for their email was similar but also mentioned the upcoming January date.

The third most-likely audience was the corporate sponsors of the Endowment Study. These sponsors are interested in networking with prospective clients, so their subject line was “NES Partner: Meet Campus Financial Officers at January Forum.”

Adding Urgency to the Offer

Since the keynote speaker had written a well-regarded book, Karen suggested a “Fast 50” offer of free copies to the first 50 registrants. Neal enhanced the offer by making them autographed copies. This kind of offer, a direct mail “staple,” is especially suited to the immediacy of email.

Playing Up the FUD Factor

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt combine to create the FUD factor. The message’s first sentence conveyed both a main concern and the solution offered by the event:

With the prolonged economic downturn challenging the financial well-being of U.S. colleges and universities as never before, skilled endowment management has never been more crucial.

Other points from the message:

  • Highlighting the marquee-name speakers is always a good idea.

  • Stressing the urgency, the copy reminded the reader “with the holidays right around the corner…”
  • The sidebar copy added some excitement. A stellar review of Swensen’s book (by “archrival” Harvard president) sold Swensen’s value as a keynote. “A masterful work by the master himself. We at Harvard wish that David Swensen would find a new job.” Additionally, a “Top 10 Reasons” list reinforced the event’s main benefits.
  • A forwarding message was included to overcome the “I can’t make it” objection by suggesting other staff should be invited. Neal mentioned afterward it’s typical for CFOs to decide to go — then forward the email to their secretaries to do the actual registering. Other registrants forward the email to their bosses for approval.
  • The who-should-attend list appeared at the bottom to show the high caliber of the invited audience — and to encourage readers to invite their colleagues and staff.
  • Links to “brochure” PDFs on the Web provided complete agenda information — important not only for the decision-maker but also for higher-ups giving approval, when necessary.

Beyond a Successful Experience

Registration increased almost 100 percent over goal. In addition, the email achieved an important mission: It didn’t generate any complaints from members! NACUBO — like most membership organizations — is sensitive to over-mailing its members. This is especially important since an unsubscribe response to one email could mean NACUBO foregoes the ability to communicate with its prime rep at the university at all — and it usually communicates on myriad issues, from public policy to membership and publications. (An agenda action item is to create a more member-friendly unsubscribe message — which allows readers to select the NACUBO programs, products, and publications they are interested in learning about and unsubscribe only from the irrelevant ones.)

Out of this successful experience, email use is growing at NACUBO. Besides individual email blasts, the organization is now offering a “Learning Links” newsletter, which covers a number of products and programs in one communication. With growth has come the recognition that though a home-grown email template works with strong copy, better design and the ability to track email metrics were called for. Now an email solutions provider has been called in to upgrade the professionalism of the blasts.

Meet Karen at ClickZ’s Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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