Personalization: Just Part of the Picture

The folks at the University of Dayton have done it again; they’ve put together an email marketing campaign that we can all learn from.

This time the lesson is largely about personalization.

A while back, a ClickZ reader wrote into our forum about how disappointed she was in email marketers. On her birthday she eagerly went to her computer to see the numerous greetings she would surely have, since she’d supplied her birthday information to a number of companies and organizations. She didn’t get a single message. Shame on us marketers, she wrote. (Kim MacPherson also mentioned this story in a recent column.)

Had this ClickZ reader graduated from the University of Dayton, however, she would have received at least one card. The University has been testing and sending out birthday greetings to 4,000-plus registered alums since last August, and the results are quite interesting.

In Sight, In Mind

First, the overview. Besides being a way to brighten someone’s day, the happy-birthday messages were created to encourage recipients to download a free “Buildings of UD” screensaver that includes 11 rotating images of the campus. Users can employ their function keys to be taken to portions of the UD site (F1 goes to the alumni Web site, for example, and F4 takes users to the campus Webcam), or they can simply admire the images on the screen. Either way, the screensaver (created by a $300 piece of software called Screen Saver Studio Professional that’s published by Softdisk) helps keep the UD brand in front of people.

So the university came up with two birthday greetings, each of which promoted the screensaver. UD alternated the two, sending out message A to one recipient, message B to the next, then message A to the next, and so on.

I challenge you to take a look below at the beginning of each message and guess which one did better.

    Message A

    From St. Mary’s Hall on the University of Dayton campus, it’s the top five most-famous people born on August 23

    5. Louis XVI, King of France
    4. Gene Kelly, dancer, actor
    3. Shelly Long, actress
    2. Queen Noor of Jordan, royalty and wife of the late King Hussein
    1. Jim Smith, UD graduate

    To celebrate your birthday, click on the following link to download your FREE UD screensaver ( The “Buildings of UD” screensaver works on Windows ’95, ’98 and NT systems and includes 11 rotating images of campus…

    Message B

    We are sending this email decree
    Because you have a UD degree
    Happy birthday to you
    May your wishes come true
    And, here’s something to download for FREE

    To celebrate your birthday, click on the following link to download your FREE UD screensaver ( The “Buildings of UD” screensaver works on Windows ’95, ’98 and NT systems and includes 11 rotating images of campus…

OK, if you’re thinking that because it was more personalized, the first message did better — “better” being defined as convincing more people to download the screensaver — well, I have to confess that’s what I thought, too. And I was wrong. Its download rate was only 36 percent versus 50 percent for the second version.

E-Marketing Manager Tim Bete hypothesizes that it’s because the free screensaver wasn’t played up as much in Message A. And since the first message was harder to create — both because it involved more research and because the process of creating the emails is not fully automated — his department stopped sending it after a month.

Subject to Testing

Then his group experimented with the subject line, and again the results were surprising. Take your best guess here…

    Subject line A: FREE UD birthday screensaver!
    Subject line B: Happy birthday!

The thinking, Bete says, was that the mention of the free screensaver in the subject line would cause the download rate to increase. It didn’t. The download rate was the same for both subject lines — about 47 percent.

Bete says he learned four important items from these mailings. One, be upfront about your offer. Two, personalization doesn’t have to mean using personal information within the email; sending an email on the recipient’s birthday was the best way to personalize the message. Three, the screensaver allows the university to get valuable desktop space without competing with Yahoo and other portals.

And four, this is a great way to build relationships. Bete gets thank-you notes every day from happy alums. And keeping those you’re communicating with happy so that they come back for more is what it’s all about.

Related reading