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Jul 02, 2009
Case Study

Launch, Measure, Analyze, Modify: 4 Steps to Improve Autoresponder Series

SUMMARY: Trying to determine the best communication plan for prospects can be daunting, but strategic thinking and a little patience can put the data you need at your fingertips.

See how the marketing team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University used data from a new autoresponder series to learn more about their prospects’ behavior and preferences. By modifying their communication plan based on that data, they’ve cut the average time it takes a prospect to submit an application 76.4%.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Worldwide Campus has 140 teaching sites around the world. As a result, it receives information requests from prospective students in just as wide a geographic range.

A few years ago, the university had no centralized system to respond to those information requests. But when they adopted a new online application platform and request-for-information form, the task of managing those requests and communicating with prospective students fell to Karen Doolittle, Marketing Research Manager.

Doolittle saw an opportunity to improve her team’s communication plan by creating an autoresponder series and using lead nurturing techniques that moved prospective students toward the application process.

However, she knew they shouldn’t start blasting out messages without understanding their audience and creating an appropriate strategy.

"We had not had any process in place to do this. It had always been sort of fly-by-night," she says. "But given that the request for information form and its related electronic messaging, managing, and reporting functions were now available to us, it was up to me to determine the most effective way to utilize this."


Doolittle and her team spent two years researching email best practices, implementing a communication plan, gathering data, and modifying communication tactics based on those results.

Their goal was not just to encourage prospective students to submit applications, but to answer key questions about the university's version of the sales cycle:
o How long do prospects stay engaged with university communications?
o How long does it take for a prospect to begin the application process?
o How long does it take a prospect to complete an application once they’ve started it?

Here are four major steps they took to use their email communication plan to answer those questions:

Step #1. Create a communication plan

To generate data about prospects’ behavior and the school’s sales cycle, Doolittle first created a communication plan for two prospect actions:
o Submitting a request for information
o Filling out an online application form

Based on previous research into email best practices, she knew she wanted to use an autoresponder series for both actions.

The series for prospects who submitted a request for information featured:

- Eight email messages spread over the course of 24 months

- A front-loaded schedule to capitalize on prospect’s interest. Email sends followed this schedule after receiving an RFI:
o Immediately
o One week
o Two weeks
o One month
o Two months
o Six months
o 12 months
o 18 months

- Prospects received emails according to that schedule, or until they submitted an online application.

The series for prospects who started an online application but did not submit it featured:

- Six emails over the course of three months.

- The following schedule:
o Immediately
o One week
o Two weeks
o One month
o Two months
o Three months

Step #2. Mix email content for lead nurturing

The long communication cycle required the team to develop a mix of lead-nurturing email content. They needed to alternate strong calls-to-action with broader branding messages about the university that could keep prospects engaged over longer sales cycles.

"We chose not to put a call to action in every one of our messages as we didn’t want to beat people over the head with emails asking them to submit an application," says Doolittle. "We’re trying to guide the audience without being overwhelming."

For example:

- The first email response to a prospect’s request for information was highly personalized, with several relevant links and calls-to-action, including:
o A link to the online application form.
o A link to the local campus requested by the prospect
o A link to financial aid information if the prospect expressed a need

- Two weeks later, the team sent a broader, branding message that highlighted the fact that six Embry-Riddle alumni are current and former astronauts.

- One month later, the team sent a reminder email offering to answer questions and providing a link to the online application form.

(The team used a similar blend of direct calls-to-action and branding messages for the online application autoresponder series)

Step #3. Run program and analyze data

With the communication plan and content in place, the team ran the autoresponder program for an entire year to gather data about prospect’s behavior.

During that time, Doolittle examined several metrics on a monthly basis, including:
o Volume sent
o Delivery rates
o Open rates
o Unsubscribe rates
o Bounce rates

By the end of the year, analysis of that data revealed two important trends:

- The chance of converting prospects to applicants declines after roughly two months.

Doolittle examined the average length of time between a prospect filling out a request for information and submitting an application. Roughly half (46.3%) submitted an application within two months. But the remaining applications were received very gradually, over the course of years (See Creative Samples link for a graph illustrating this cycle).

- Open rates decline significantly at the one-month and two-month marks.

As with any autoresponder series, Doolittle expected open rates to decline over time. However, the biggest drops occurred at the one-month email and at the two-month email.
o Avg. decline in open rate for first three emails = 1.9%
o Avg. decline in open rate for one-month email = 4.2%
o Avg. decline in open rate for the two-month email = 7.0%

Step #4. Adjust communication plan based on data

Doolittle reached two conclusions after observing those two trends:

- Prospects begin to disengage with the university after 30 days. As a result, the team would need to further front-load its communication plan to encourage conversions.

- Additional channels were needed to offset significant declines in email open rates.

In response, the team altered their communication plans:

- They further front-loaded the RFI responder series, adding an email at the three-week mark.

- They added telephone calls to the RFI communication mix. Calls were placed:
o 24 hours after receiving an RFI
o One month after receiving an RFI

- They began sending postcards in addition to emails later in the RFI cycle. Postcards were sent:
o Three months after receiving an RFI
o Nine months after receiving an RFI
o 15 months after receiving an RFI
o 24 months after receiving an RFI

- They further front-loaded the email schedule for students in the application process, adding:
o An email on day three
o An email on day 10
o Removing the 90 day email

They also further modified other elements of the messages according to email best practices. For example:

- They ensured Embry-Riddle was the name in the "from" line for all messages. Some of the university’s units wanted to put their own identification into "from" lines.

- They included additional relevant content in the first message for the RFI autoresponder series, such as:
o A link to a video about the school
o A link to an online brochure about the program in which the prospect had expressed interest


"I’m very optimistic we’re heading in the right direction," says Doolittle.

Creating, analyzing, and modifying their email communication plan has helped the team shorten the average time it takes a prospect to submit an application:

- Prior to implementing the automated email campaign, it took an average of 127 days for a prospect to submit an application after requesting information.

- That gap dropped to 81 days after running the autoresponder series for one year.

- The time was reduced again to 30 days after modifying the schedule and adding touches.

- Similarly, the time it takes for someone to complete an application after starting the process has also dropped:
oAvg. application start-to-finish time before
autoresponder series = 14.1 days.
o Avg. application start-to-finish time now: 3.5 days

As impressive as that achievement is, Doolittle is just as enthusiastic about the value of the data collected during the two-year process. Understanding when users begin to disengage from email communications, and establishing baselines for metrics such as open rates and opt-outs, will help the team continue testing and improving their email programs.

"Before I didn’t feel that we understood our market well enough," says Doolittle. "Now that we have baseline behavior information, we can start to creatively test our messaging and track any behavioral changes."

Useful links related to this article:

Creative Samples from Embry-Riddle’s email programs

ApplyYourself Recruiting Solutions: Provided the online enrollment and email platform


See Also:

Comments about this Case Study

Jul 02, 2009 - Scott Lovingood of says:
Excellent article on someone besides Internet marketers using autoresponders. I really liked the data on the open rate fall off and when those interested in information lost interest. I would suggest front loading the email sequence even more. When a customer is hot, you need to give them the opportunity to buy. An email every day for the first 10 days showing the benefits of the university, the education, etc should be sent. Offering special reports or other rewards could re invigorate those later in the process. Not sure what software they used, but resending the unopened emails would also increase uptake.

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