Writing Contest Finds E-Marketing a Winner

Sometimes it isn’t all about the glory. Sure, those in media relations may dream about scoring a write-up in The New York Times or having their company featured in a snazzy Super Bowl commercial, but the less glamorous targets are still very worthwhile — such as simple but effective email communications.

The University of Dayton has proven this point time and again. Last year I wrote about how its alumni newsletter cut marketing costs, and it didn’t stop there. When money was tight, the university came up with a creative, low-cost e-marketing strategy.

Each year, in conjunction with the Washington-Centerville Public Library, the University of Dayton’s National Alumni Association runs a writing competition honoring alumna Erma Bombeck. The annual Erma Bombeck Writing Competition has a small budget, and it’s devoted to operating expenses with little left over for promotions.

So E-Marketing Manager Tim Bete and others decided to focus on using the Internet for publicity. The public relations department figured writers happen to be a group of individuals who are online a lot — my experience certainly backs this up! — so it sought out Web sites and mailing lists devoted to writers and writing. Bete says his personal favorite for finding sites is Northern Light because it automatically notifies him by email when it finds new results.

The university didn’t target all types of writers, but rather looked for those who it thought best fit the profile — humor writers, women writers, even groups as highly targeted as stay-at-home moms who write. It came up with 72 relevant groups, some composed of just a few members and others the hangout for hundreds or even thousands.

Press release in hand, the marketers contacted the mailing list moderators and Web site owners and asked if those in charge would be willing to distribute the release. In case you skimmed over that last sentence, let me emphasize it: The mailing was not foisted upon unwitting readers. In each case the group’s owner gave permission to post the release or posted it herself. In the end 35 of the 72 groups published the release, typically by sending it via an email mailing list to members or posting it on a discussion board.

And here’s where solid tracking to measure the effectiveness of this strategy comes in. The news release sent the readers to the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop Web page, but not before an invisible redirect URL pushed them through the alumni Web server, where a unique news release number was logged. This was possible because the university used an inexpensive redirect software program from LiquidMatrix as part of its ActiveAlumni package. This allowed the university to differentiate those who visited the site because of a print ad from those who saw the online news release.

Here are the highlights of the results:

  • Last year’s competition, which had no e-marketing component and a larger print one, saw 350 entries. This year’s competition received 698 entries — nearly double last year’s.

  • This year 40 entries came from Canada, the Netherlands, the Bahamas, Australia, Puerto Rico, and South Africa. The competition went from a regional to an international one in one year.
  • More than half of the entries (385) were generated from the e-marketing program alone.
  • The redirect technology allowed the university to see which sites/mailing lists were the most productive. Two sites produced more than a quarter of all the e-marketing visitors to the competition Web site.

And the publicity program was created, Bete estimates, in about 20 hours, including the time needed to produce the site and press release.

“The next time we do this will be easier,” he says. “Based on our results, we can totally eliminate direct mail. If you don’t have a big budget, this is the way to go.”

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