The Little E-Newsletter That Could

I typically focus on one aspect of a case study, such as using coupons in email marketing or growing a mailing list. I struggled a bit with today’s case study, however. I couldn’t figure out whether I should position it as “email marketing on a shoestring budget” or “publicizing an event via email.” Finally, I realized you’re going to get a bit of both.

Long-time readers are familiar with the University of Dayton’s work. The university hosts a biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. A couple years back, I wrote about its free screen saver promotion. At the time, the university’s marketing manager, Tim Bete, also director of the workshop, mentioned that for this year’s workshop, he hoped to eliminate all print advertising and direct marketing and use the email newsletter as the main promotional vehicle.

That’s exactly what he did.

Bete and his colleagues sat down and asked themselves how to create an interesting, useful newsletter for people interested in humor/human interest writing. But the publications couldn’t tax the organization’s resources. Staff time is limited (Bete is essentially the only person who works on the newsletter). The newsletter had to be inexpensive to create in terms of time and money and easy to put together.

The university came up with the idea of creating a sort of “Reader’s Digest” newsletter for its subscribers. Reader’s Digest primarily comprises stories printed elsewhere, condensed for quick reading. Bete culls through the best sites for his newsletter readers, writes short descriptions, and compiles these into the newsletter. You can browse the archives.

Bete points out the goal is not to appeal to a wide audience. Rather, the newsletter’s tailored to a small group of writers. Along with links to other sites, it usually includes a short column or article by Bete and a free book from Writer’s Digest for randomly selected subscribers. The newsletter has about 3,200 subscribers, a healthy number for a niche audience.

Bete attributes some of that success to the fact the newsletter includes links to many relevant sites, even those that could be considered competition to the workshop. The text-only newsletter takes just a few hours to create, so it costs little in terms of time and production.

Let’s look at this year’s workshop. Subscribers are a ready-made audience, so the university decided to promote the event solely through that channel. The newsletter didn’t say much about the workshop for the past 18 months. As the date approached, Bete began including promotional news. The university had made some changes to the workshop and was a bit concerned about how potential attendees would view them. Once a one-day event that cost $75 per registrant, it’s now a two-day, $249 event.

Concern was misplaced. Thanks to the newsletter, the 2004 workshop sold out two months in advance and took in over $75,000 in registration fees. Over 60 percent of attendees will come from outside the state. (The top 10 states, after Ohio, are Michigan, Texas, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, and Washington.) Two attendees are coming from Europe, and 100 people are on the waiting list!

“Our concern was we might be forced to use print advertising, because we’ve seen spam and dropping click-through rates negatively affecting the industry,” Bete says. “But the newsletter worked much better than we could have imagined.”

There’s another aspect of the campaign I’d like to mention. Although it doesn’t strictly relate to email, it’s helpful in marketing on a budget. For the first time, the workshop allowed online registration and online credit card payments via RegOnline, an ASP offering online registration software. For a $100 setup fee, $2.50 per registrant, and 1 percent of the credit card fees, RegOnline took care of all registration details, including printing badges and creating registration reports.

Bete points out the workshop handles only 300 registrants. Using a newsletter as a sole marketing vehicle may not work for every workshop or conference. But it certainly worked for this one, and the university.

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

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