E-Mail Sends the Right Messages to Guelph University's Alumni

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Like many alumni communicators, Jennifer Brett Fraser at University of Guelph in Ontario struggled to keep alumni informed in a timely and consistent way without overloading them with too many messages.

Brett Fraser, who is manager of events and communications in the university's Alumni Affairs office, said that though the alumni magazine worked for in-depth features, its lead time was too long to make it useful for specific information about events or current affairs.

Brett Fraser also regularly was inundated with requests from campus organizations wanting to send "news" to alumni, some of which she wasn't sure was truly of interest.

Though the Alumni Affairs staff had collected thousands of implied-permission e-mail addresses, they weren't using them in any organized way. An alum might get an invitation to the ski team reunion one day and an announcement about a new dean at the veterinary college the next.

Brett Fraser was concerned about whether various campus groups were sending the right message to her constituents and whether the mailings looked professional. She was afraid alumni would tire of getting so many messages and opt out, breaking a valuable communications link.

Alumni Affairs needed a vehicle to promote events and current affairs in a timely fashion, with consistent branding, and one that recipients would welcome. And the budget was limited.

Solution. Inbox Marketer already had helped other universities solve these problems when it approached Brett Fraser in 2003 with a suggestion for a permission-based electronic newsletter. Inbox offered a full-service package including HTML template design, e-mail database setup and hosting and forward-to-a-friend setup and tracking. Inbox also would provide project management and a dedicated account representative, plus the option for the university to gradually take more of the work inhouse. Alumni Affairs agreed to a pilot for a quarterly online newsletter.

Alumni Affairs naturally wanted the newsletter template to share the look and branding of its other publications. Inbox also thought of things such as processes for ensuring permission and getting approvals.

Inbox deployed the first issue in August 2003. The university then took the newsletter quarterly and increased the frequency again a year later. As of this summer, the university sends newsletters to 25,000 alumni eight to 10 times a year, with a goal of having 30,000 names by the end of the year. The university is launching a single-issue online newsletter for new graduates that outlines services particular to them. After this mailing, they will receive the regular alumni newsletter.

Alumni Affairs finds the electronic medium especially useful for younger grads, who move frequently and are more likely to provide up-to-date e-mail addresses than street addresses.

Results. The university's "Alumni E-News" averages open rates of 49 percent and click-through rates of 15 percent. Feedback from alumni has been consistently positive, with many saying they love the e-newsletter and feel much more in touch. Alumni Affairs thinks this is because of rigorous permission standards and the newsletter's quality.

Brett Fraser also ensures that the Web site is up to date before each newsletter mailing because of the inevitable traffic increase. On average, each issue drives 2,240 unique visitors to the site. Alumni also are more likely to update their address information right after receiving the online newsletter. Bounce rates average 4 percent.

Several Guelph campus groups also are pleased. Staff at a university-run science camp said hits to their Web site rose so dramatically after an article appeared in the newsletter that they thought something was wrong with their tally. Other organizations also are more likely to think of alumni as an audience for news and events now that they have an effective communication device.

Inbox noticed some initial surprises, like that click-through numbers on research articles were higher than expected and some events rated higher interest than others. This helps Alumni Affairs justify editorial decisions, not just in the online newsletter but in the magazine as well. For instance, only 13 people clicked on an article about a new dean. Now it's easier to tell people that few readers care about a new vice president. Articles on athletics and research, however, are consistently popular.

Alumni Affairs also likes the quick turnaround times. If a major report on university funding is coming out on a Friday, for instance, the department can plan a newsletter for the Monday after.

The time commitment for alumni staff is minimal. People at other universities tell Brett Fraser that an online newsletter must be time-consuming because they know how much work is involved in their own print publications. They're amazed to learn she can do the whole thing in a day. When she receives a submission from a campus group, she simply writes three lines of copy and provides a link and possibly a photo, then hands it over.

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