University of Dayton: Alumni Newsletter Cuts Costs

For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about what some dot-coms are doing in the world of email marketing. Yet, here’s something new. How can a single university use true one-to-one marketing strategies to repeatedly drive alumni to its web site, all while saving (and generating) the bucks?

The University of Dayton’s (UD) alumni site has deployed an email marketing attack that has few equals in academia. By sending out targeted and relevant email newsletters to alumni (In theory, each individual could receive a unique email message.), the university is able to efficiently update subscribers. This prompts increased loyalty, leading to investment in the forms of increased donations, sales of school paraphernalia, as well as other savings.

First, for all you commercial sites out there, I know it may seem far fetched to compare an institution of higher learning to a business. This isn’t intended as a model for all e-commerce sites to follow, yet the universities are businesses. Yes, the two types of organizations have different goals, different relationships with their target audiences, and different types of information about their members. However, if you’re looking at this case study from the viewpoint of an e-commerce site, you may find that you can learn a valuable lesson or two.

Phase One: The Assignment

For two years, the university had done surveys (phone and some by email) to find out how receptive alums would be about receiving information electronically. It discovered that about 42 percent wanted updates via the web or email, and concluded there would be enough readership to invest in upgrading the static, one-size-fits-all email newsletter.

Phase Two: The Homework

Next, it was time for the university to get to work. With almost no additional resources (The program is largely run by Tim Bete, the e-marketing manager who had previously been hired to develop communications.), the staff went about gathering content for the newsletter that they thought would be relevant to university graduates. It culled through existing news stories (including those posted online by local newspapers or placed on various subpages of the university web site) on the athletics page and on a religious page.

After, the staff coded those stories in several ways (geographic area, alumni chapter, graduation year, area of giving, donor level and even birth date). A story on the Ohio Supreme Court declaring Ohio’s system of funding schools unconstitutional might receive an education tag. A story on reunion events might be coded according to graduation class. Another piece on UD undergraduates investing and managing real money might get a business tag.

Then, it was time to assemble the newsletters for the 8,000 registered users. Using software created and customized by Cyber Design (which focuses exclusively on the higher education market), the university could create customized newsletters for each recipient.

And here lies one of the major differences between universities and dot-coms; universities tend to know a heck of a lot more about their subscribers. They know when they graduated, what school they attended, in which areas they have donated, and more. Given that information, it is relatively easy to create newsletters that are as close to ideal one-to-one marketing as possible. About half the stories go to everyone, but for instance, a recent story about a religious art exhibit in a certain part of the country went to just 25 people.

Phase Three: The Test

Several weeks ago, the first of the newsletters were mailed out. (The University plans to continue about every two weeks.) As with any other email marketing campaign, one of the main items to be scrutinized is the click-through rate.

Bete says the university is quite happy with the results: A highly targeted story such as one that goes only to graduates of a particular school, will get click-through rates that are eight to 20 times higher than those garnered by general stories. Plus, the unsubscribe rate is almost non-existent at 1/1000 of one percent.

Then there are the financial results. Much of the data is anecdotal (One alum who had been “lost” by UD found the site, registered for the newsletter and then donated $5,000.), so it’s tough to calculate how much this newsletter will generate for the school. According to Bete, the university did save an estimated $18,000. For example, only a click is needed for alumni to change their addresses online rather than through traditional paper mailings.

Phase Four: The Grade

At this point, it’s still too premature to give this campaign a final grade. If the newsletter grows to 20,000 by January of 2001 (as Bete expects), it could significantly save the university in printing costs for the traditional newsletter. Also, the increased contact with alums could lead to a significant rise in donations. For now, we’re content to audit this email-marketing course next semester.

Calling all email marketers: Do you have an email marketing case study that might be featured on ClickZ? If so, please contact me at

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