Email Brings Some Sunshine to Families Facing Autism

Email marketers get a bad rap. Consumers blame them for producing more spam than Hormel. Uppity digital marketers belittle them as common batchers-and-blasters. For one young company in the suburbs north of Toronto, however, they have been dream-builders. For that company’s clients, they have been prayer-answerers.

Sunshine Learning Centre opened its doors in the Durham area of Ontario, just north of Toronto. Its founders held degrees in sociology and behavioral analysis, not marketing. They had wondrous solutions to offer the parents of autistic children, but no ideas for how to reach them. They also had a unique business challenge: Keep customers engaged for four years and their revenue contribution will quadruple.

Parents pay Sunshine $44 an hour to have their instruction therapists provide individualized help to their autistic children. The average family books four to six hours a week with Sunshine because it’s all they can afford. Once a child is officially diagnosed with the condition, however, the Canadian government foots the bill for 20 hours of instruction per week. “But it can take four to five years to get that diagnosis,”says Sunshine Executive Director Elisha Chesler.

At the outset, Sunshine had no budget to run broadcast ads, even within its confined geographic target. So it focused its funds on email and, like many a new company, centered its messages on trial and conversion.

“Their emails were very marketing-focused—come and enroll, sign up for this, sign up for that. Unsubscribes were high,” says Robert Burko, CEO of Elite Email, whose company was engaged by Chesler to improve results. ”We changed it around, so that emails became more informational. Unsubscribes went way down and sharing rates went way up.”

Sunshine created different versions of bi-weekly email newsletters +and Elite used A/B testing to maximize results. Some emails contained two articles of interest to parents, so Elite would test which one got better click-through rates and run with that one. It also tested running both articles with a marketing message inserted in-between.

“Sometimes an email would only be opened by the original opener,” Burko says. “We tested to see what made people eager to share. We went from three-paragraph articles to one paragraph with a ‘read more’ link.”

Sunshine published articles—whose topics ranged from diagnosis to government funding to personal stories—on a permanent-sharing URL to facilitate posting on social media. The company measured sharing of the URL as a percentage of total list sharing. One article on government funding achieved a social share of 250%, meaning that it had been transported way out of Sunshine Learning Centre’s geographic target.  But while many of those readers might never become Sunshine customers, Chesler sees the added reach as a way to burnish its brand as a thought leader and set it up for future growth.

Personal stories of families and children touched by autism, too, rate high on the sharing scale. “I was actually surprised by how much people involved with autism were interested in how other families were doing,” says Chesler. “I thought they’d be more interested in events and studies.”

Elite’s testing found that mothers of autistic kids were usually the ones receiving the emails. Sunshine staged a campaign have dads sign up, too, then grandparents hopped on, and Sunshine’s list of sharers snowballed. On average, 30% of the readers of a Sunshine newsletter are new to the company’s list. Articles on the most compelling topic draw 50%. “We now can attribute shifts in sharing to the type of content in the newsletter,” Chesler says.

Autism is what’s known as a “spectrum disease,” in that the nature and degree of every child’s condition is different. Parents of autistic kids, therefore, are hungry for every bit of new information they can get—whether condition or funding related. Embracing that fact informed Sunshine’s email strategy and made it a force in the community discussion of autism.

“It enabled the people we wanted to talk to to take us seriously,” Chesler says. “It validated us as someone they can approach.” As a result, she adds, marketing messages in emails are few and subtle and that makes Burko very happy.

“Our claim to fame is having helped this business grow and helped these families,” Burko says. “We have many bigger accounts doing a lot more in click-through rates and conversions, but this one is special to us. Everyone at Elite loves working on the Sunshine account.”

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