Erma Bombeck’s Screen Saver

Growing a mailing list on a tight budget is easy. You just grab email addresses off the Internet — costing you hardly anything more than your time — and bombard them with your message, hoping that some percentage of recipients will be vaguely interested in what you have to offer and sign up for your list. Right?

Of course not. (Yes, I know you know that!) Spam, the dark side of email communication, hurts not only recipients, who have to wade through scores of unwanted messages, but it hurts marketers as well. Their reputation suffers individually and as a whole.

Sometimes it seems like spam is the only option. Maybe you can’t afford to rent a large opt-in list, you don’t have a large enough list for a list exchange, or you don’t have the budget to pay for advertising. Well, spamming should never be an option. You can learn from the University of Dayton how to grow a list, responsibly, on a small budget. In this case, the key was in the enticement.

This case study is a follow-up, of sorts, to one I wrote a few months ago. You may recall the university was promoting a writing competition honoring alumna Erma Bombeck. The marketing department sent out a press release to mailing list moderators and Web site owners and asked if those in charge would be willing to distribute the release.

I repeat: In each case the group’s owner gave permission to post the release or posted it herself. The approach netted a significant increase in competition entries. It also provided a subscriber base to the university’s free mailing list. The one-way list was used primarily for updates about the contest and writing workshops.

Let’s fast-forward a few months. Here’s where the incentive comes in.

As part of the 2002 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, the University of Dayton created an Erma Bombeck screen saver especially for writers. The screen saver, which works on both PCs and Macs, is full of Erma Bombeck’s words of wisdom, such as “Writers do not have a market on procrastination. Even brain surgeons take a coffee break.” And, “I was thirty-seven when I went to work writing the column. I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair.”

Writers could obtain a free copy of the screen saver by signing up to receive the free Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop email newsletter. The newsletter, which is published about once a month, includes information on the annual Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, online chats with authors, humor writing tips, and details about the writing workshop. This announcement was promoted to current subscribers and to various email list owners, including those found via Yahoo Groups, Topica,, and

(By the way, the newsletter is managed through Yahoo Groups. Tim Bete, the e-marketing manager, says this works for him because the service is free and he has a small budget. In addition to allowing him to send out the newsletter and easily manage subscribers, it has the ability to survey members, host chats, post files and photos, and download email addresses).

Writers signed up for the screen saver and newsletter — in droves! Before the screen-saver announcement, the list had about 125 subscribers, which took about eight months to build. After the announcement, the list blossomed. Within a week, 300 new members subscribed and downloaded 260 screen savers. Over 600 new members signed up in six weeks. If I’ve done the math correctly, this works out to about a 492 percent increase.

When the first couple of newsletters went out to this larger group — now at about 740 members — they brought in 32 registrations for an upcoming conference in March 2002. That translates to $2,400 in revenue. Out of 740 (and growing) subscribers, only six have unsubscribed so far.

If you’re working with a large budget, those numbers may not impress. Those who operate on a shoestring will appreciate the significance. The whole program didn’t cost much. The screen-saver software cost about $600, and the University of Dayton has used the software to create a variety of screen savers. The newsletter costs little more than time to put together.

If you want to grow your mailing list, skip the spam. This approach is much healthier for all involved.

Related reading