Despite the many articles titled “Email is Dead!” or “Email is Dying!” or “Email Jumped the Shark in 2010,” I still find email marketing to be a powerful tool. When done right, it allows organizations to share information directly with the people who really want to hear from them. I just sent out the first issue of our new Chemistry Alumni E-News, and I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the process and the project.
Step 1: Identify the Need
As I came into this new role, I knew there would be a lot of opportunities to push our departmental communications in new directions. Since there had never been a communications specialist role before, the department had never had the capacity to generate stories and communicate with our alumni and donor audiences regularly. We had always sent a rather exhaustive yearly print newsletter to our alumni, but that was about the extent of our regular communications. It was rather apparent that we needed to communicate with our alumni and friends more frequently. Additionally, I had already begun writing stories about what was happening in the department. Thus, we already had great content out on our website, but unless an alum visited our website regularly, subscribed to our news via RSS, or engaged with us via Twitter or our Facebook page, they might never have seen those stories.
Step 2: Set Up a List
In February, as I was getting ready to send our yearly print newsletter to the printer, I went ahead and set up an opt-in form on our website to allow alumni to sign up for the new e-newsletter. I also put a teaser for Alumni E-News in the print newsletter that included a call to action for alumni to sign up. A few people signed up, but it wasn’t a roaring success.
Step 3: Survey Alumni
In March, I sent a very brief survey out to about 10 alumni who had either already signed up for Alumni E-News or who were engaged with us on social media. I asked them how often they would want to receive the Alumni E-News issues, what types of content they wanted to see in each issue, and left room for additional thoughts or ideas.
Alumni respondents said they were most interested in:
- Faculty profiles
- Department news
- Student profiles
- Alumni events
Respondents were not as interested in notes from the chair, department seminars/colloquia, and university news.
Step 4: Build the E-Newsletter
As a team of one, if there’s an easy and effective way to do something, then I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I’ve used (and loved!) the MailChimp email service before, so I stuck with that. I’ve heard good things about Constant Contact, Vertical Response, Emma, and a few other services as well, but I like that MailChimp lets you send to lists of fewer than 2,000 subscribers for free. I started with one of their responsive email templates and customized the template a bit. View our first issue.
Things to consider:
- Branding: Would a recipient know this email is coming from your department just by glancing at it? Does it align with your university’s visual identity?
- Content: How many stories will you include? What types of stories? Will you include photos or videos?
- Tone: Will your stories, blurbs, or other content sound formal? Fun? Exciting? Traditional? Conversational?
- Customization: How much time can you devote to customizing the template? Will other team members be able to navigate the template easily?
Step 5: Build the List
At this point, I still only had a few subscribers for Alumni E-News. About a week prior to my anticipated send date for the first issue, I sent out an email to alumni of our department telling them about the e-newsletter and inviting them to sign up using a form on our website. About 10 percent of the alumni who received the opt-in email signed up to receive Alumni E-News. Our subscriber count is currently in the hundreds rather than in the thousands; however, I would rather have 50 subscribers who are expecting to get our e-newsletters and are looking forward to hearing from us than 5,000 subscribers who don’t know how they got on our list and aren’t as excited to hear from us.
I also began talking about Alumni E-News on our social media channels leading up to the first issue. Finally, at our graduation reception the week before the first issue was scheduled to go out, I asked graduating seniors and grad students if they wanted to sign up for Alumni E-News. On their end, it was a simple yes or no. When the first issue went out this week, it was probably the very first alumni communication piece any of these graduates had received from our department or institution. We talk so often about shepherding relationships with individuals along a path, as they go from prospective students, to enrolled students, to alumni, and perhaps eventually become donors or advocates. This was a simple way to engage with graduates at one of those important transition moments.
Step 6: Send It Out
This is the easy part: schedule that email to send! I looked at MailChimp’s post “When is the best time to send emails?” and decided to send on a Wednesday at 1 p.m. CST. Day and time are definitely two factors that are worth testing, but you have to start somewhere!
Step 7: Reflect and Test
I’m already thinking ahead to our next quarterly issue, and there are so many things I want to test over time: day and time to send, subject lines, different types of content, etc. As the list grows, there will be new considerations as well. It may eventually make sense to segment the list by degree type, location, or some other factor. For now, I’m okay with having established a good starting point. And there’s a bonus: because I started with a list of subscribers who opted in, so far the email has a 68% open rate and a 29% click rate. It’s a start!