The Little Newsletter That Could

Risk management and insurance brokerage consultant Aon prides itself on its client-centric focus and one-to-one relationships. That’s why the company has historically relied on its originators and product managers to build awareness of its products and services — primarily through in-person visits and telephone calls with existing and prospective clients.

As Aon’s growth accelerated through 2000 and 2001, however, the company struggled to please clients while simultaneously engaging new prospects. With a rapidly growing client base and an increased workload for its product and sales managers, that special one-to-one approach was under strain. The pace of Aon’s growth was clearly becoming limited by the amount of time its managers had — both to evangelize products and to tend to clients.

Observing this trend, Patrick Donnelly, the director of Aon’s technology and telecommunications group, began to cast around for a solution. What he found was that the company had already developed an informative, homegrown newsletter. Aon’s originators and managers had been using desktop software to send this informal resource to anyone who might benefit from new info about risk management issues — including clients, prospects and staff alike.

Donnelly decided to formalize the company’s viral newsletter into a branded content source for the industry and to begin building the subscriber list.

“The challenge was to find a way to communicate in a relevant, topical, value-added format,” Donnelly said. “Aon had the industry knowledge but only a limited experience with email marketing technology.”

After a review, the company tapped YesMail to manage and execute the newsletter. Donnelly hoped that by partnering with an established email provider, the company could effectively build a list, launch its formal newsletter, and monitor readers’ behavior. More than that, Donnelly hoped the emerging email channel could alleviate the information burden on the company’s originators and various managers.

Called Aon NetNews, the newsletter would provide subscribers with information on emerging risk management issues. Rather than drive immediate revenue, the regular mailing would create a value-add for the company’s target audience (a roster of elite financial institutions that includes risk managers, investment banks, venture capitalists and law firms).

“Aon was providing information,” said Michele Frost, YesMail’s vice president of CRM. “Data, articles, anything that would be of interest to their target customers. This effort grew into the newsletter, which then took on a life of its own.”

Building the list was painstaking. Donnelly had a mandate from corporate to always err on the side of caution when opting people in.

“Everything was offline opt-in,” he said. “We were in no way going to step on the gray line that lies between spam and legitimate email. We would not even add existing customers to the list.”

Instead, the company’s managers collected business cards, allowed people to sign up at trade shows, and relied on viral growth. While the actual subscriber base for the newsletter is only 2,000, Donnelly estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people read parts of each issue.

“A lot of our subscribers are internal employees,” he said. “They will take the content and forward it to a prospect in a personalized email, perhaps with a note about a prior relevant conversation they had.”

This was the key to relieving the pressure on some of Aon’s managers and originators, and YesMail’s tracking features confirmed it. According to Frost, forwards account for the bulk of the newsletter’s readership. She says this is a testament to the quality of the content.

“There’s a lot of serendipity to viral communication,” she said. “Massive forwarding is usually driven by great bargains or an entertainment factor. In the case of Aon’s newsletter, the viral effect is purely B2B. That’s impressive.”

All the same, if NetNews was to gain traction among such an elite business demographic, relevance was key. Therefore, YesMail’s plan for NetNews involved extensive reporting on recipient behavior. From the launch date, each news item in the newsletter has been monitored to determine what subscribers were reading, resulting in more targeted content in subsequent editions.

It paid off. In six months, Aon reached 40 percent of its target audience, a very challenging and selective clientele. The average click-through rate for 2001 was 35.1 percent. January 2002 surpassed this standard with a 68 percent click-through rate, a rate which has been matched by mailings up to the present date.

Aon just sent out its hundredth edition of NetNews, an email program that is not really marketing, but has a lot to do with branding. The company also recently completed a transition to YesMail’s self service platform — called YesConnect — which Aon said offers even more flexibility, in terms of delivery and data analysis, than it had previously.

“We continue to post very strong results,” Donnelly said. “The investment in the email channel is certainly paying off.” And Aon didn’t have to sacrifice its personal touch to get there.

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