The Zoo’s News

Wow. I sent out a call for case studies last column, and you all responded with enough ideas to keep me busy for months. Thanks! I’m still wading through your the messages, but I was able to get a start on them. This week’s column focuses on one oft-requested topic: email marketing on a low budget.

The Birmingham Zoo is a nonprofit in Birmingham, Alabama. As Ed Noles, the marketing and public relations manager, pointed out to me in his message, nonprofits are well suited for email marketing because of their special relationship with members and constituents. My guess is consumers tend to be less likely to think of nonprofit messages as spam as they aren’t necessarily focused on selling something to turn a profit for the sender.

When Noles joined the Birmingham Zoo in July, the zoo hadn’t yet done much email marketing. Noles previously worked for another local nonprofit and had some experience with sending an email newsletter. So he and his staff began looking into ways to put together a newsletter that would get the word out — without breaking the bank.

One of the first questions that came to mind was how to inexpensively produce a newsletter. There are two main components to this: software and labor. The organization found excellent solutions for both.

On the software side, the zoo found it qualified for low-cost software from Macromedia, makers of Flash, Dreamweaver, and other well-known products. It did so by using TechSoup, a clearinghouse where a number of hardware and software companies donate products to nonprofits. Noles says he read about TechSoup on the Macromedia site and submitted a proposal. He ended up buying Macromedia Studio MX for Windows, which retails for approximately $900, for $90.

“Each company restricts its donations to specific causes and recipients, but it’s well worth the time to see what your nonprofit qualifies for,” Noles notes. Yes, I’d call a 90 percent discount worth it.

Then, of course, there’s cost in terms of employee time to consider. Noles keeps things simple; content is primarily repurposed Web site material Noles plugs into a basic template. You can check out a sample of the newsletter here. All told, Noles estimates he spends less than two hours to put together a mailing, which is sent every two weeks or so.

That leads to distribution, another important factor in considering cost. The Birmingham Zoo uses Microsoft’s bCentral List Builder system at an annual cost of $300 for up to 10,000 messages per month. The zoo has a distribution list of a little over 3,000 recipients. This allows the organization to send messages up to three times a month, more than sufficient for its needs.

Noles says he’s not aware of a less-expensive way to communicate with an audience and still get the automation, tracking, and reporting required to efficiently run a campaign. He adds he hasn’t run into problems with blocked messages submitted through bCentral.

Newsletter success is measured not only in cost but also in performance. The zoo email newsletters have recorded a near-zero unsubscribe rate and have CTRs that approach 19 percent. In my opinion, this demonstrates the approach works well for both the zoo and its members.

A couple of notes: Though this column illustrates how an organization can inexpensively run email marketing campaigns, the approach won’t work for everyone. TechSoup is a large part of the equation, and it’s limited to nonprofits. If you have a larger list or must highly segment it, bCentral isn’t necessarily the wisest option. Also, bear in mind this column doesn’t endorse any particular software or program. Rather, it’s an example of how one organization runs its email marketing on a shoestring budget.

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