Picture This: An Email Postcard Campaign

Now here’s an email campaign worth writing home about.

What started off as a personal vacation turned into an email-documented journey and a way of life for the husband-and-wife team of Priscilla Sarsfield and Ken Mahlenkamp. Although this is not an email marketing campaign in the traditional sense — Priscilla and Ken weren’t marketing a product or service but composing educational messages — the creativity of this email “newsletter” is a model for commercial and noncommercial groups alike.

Back in 1997, Priscilla contacted different Internet-savvy education professionals in each state and asked them what they would see in their states if they only had one week. She and her husband put all those ideas together, and then the couple quit their jobs and hit the road with their RV, Harvey. They traveled to all 50 state capitals and the areas surrounding the cities. Each week, with the aid of programmer Kurt Stephens, they put together five virtual postcards from each state. It’s these postcards, which were sent to teachers, parents, students, and other interested individuals and posted on the Postcards From America web site, that make up the model email newsletter that we’ll look at today.

Each weekday, Ken would take digital pictures of the state’s capitol building and other noteworthy sights, such as the Vicksburg Bridge across the Mississippi and the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Okla. Later that day, back in their reconstructed RV (the couple ripped out the living room space and installed an office in its place), Priscilla would write the caption and a personal message, and the two would sort through the images and choose the day’s best.

Next, using basic tools such as a notebook computer and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop graphics software, Ken would put the postcard together in a process that took on average several hours, sometimes as many as six, other times just a couple of hours. Once the layout was set, the postcards were uploaded to the ISP’s server and sent to subscribers via email and posted on the web site.

Mailing list members had three options for viewing the messages. When subscribing, they could choose to receive text mail (with links to the postcard’s home on the web), HTML mail, or mail with a JPEG attachment. (Interestingly enough, Ken says in the beginning, about half of the subscribers fell into the latter category, but now about 70 percent receive the postcards via HTML-enabled mail clients.)

Now, you don’t have to take my word that the messages are compelling; let’s take a look at a few of them so you can get an idea of their flavor. Here you see Hammy Faye Baker beating out Kevin Bacon in Hendrick’s Pig Racing event, held every day at the Nebraska State Fair. Here is what Halloween looks like in Quechee, Vt. Interested in history? Then take a look at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Individuals en masse also found the messages interesting, so much so that the Postcards From America subscriber base has risen dramatically. When the project first started, Ken and Priscilla had only 30 subscribers; by the end of the trip, that number had reached 13,000. Plus, the web site continues to receive many hits, even though the first trip is over.

That’s right — the first trip. Ken and Priscilla are in the process of planning a second trip, one that will feature the “Wild Side of America,” and a third trip is in the early planning stages. If all goes as hoped, the couple will be sending postcards to thousands of people for years to come.

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