August 19, 2014
Case Study

Email Marketing: Behavior-triggered emails and corporate partnerships boost email list 2,400% in three months for nonprofit

SUMMARY: Statewide program Healthier Tennessee has the goal to inspire people to eat better, move more and quit using tobacco. To do this, the marketing team developed a "Small Starts" initiative, buoyed by behavior-triggered email sends and a "Fresh Starts" giveaway.

Beginning with only the short list of coalition partners and a small subscriber base, this case study will show you how the campaign realized an email database spike of 2,400% during the initial three-month launch period.
by Courtney Eckerle, Manager of Editorial Content


"We're still in our infancy, and learning the ropes," said John Chobanian, Senior Director of Marketing and Digital, Healthier Tennessee.

With its genesis in 2013 as a primary initiative of The Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness under Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Healthier Tennessee was launched soon after out of the government and as its own nonprofit organization.

"Tennessee is consistently ranked one of the least healthy states in the nation, and we've been there for the last 20 or so years," he said, adding that this is a problem that dramatically affects job recruiting, educational attainment and state budget.

Chobanian explained that one-third of Tennesseans are getting no physical activity, 34% are overweight, another 31% are obese, and then about one in four adults in Tennessee smoke, and one in five high school students smoke.

"So all that together means we've got a major problem. We've got to do something about it. We're after meaningful behavior change," he said.

In order to enact that change, Healthier Tennessee wanted to directly market to individuals, as well as through venues such as workplaces, faith-based organizations and schools that could help them educate and encourage people to get healthier.

"Our big overall goal out of all of that, with all of that background, is to get Tennessee out of the bottom [unhealthiest] states," he said.

Starting off, the team sought to do initial research prior to launching a campaign, beginning with television ads to understand a baseline of what Tennesseans understood about the health crisis facing their state.

"The specific challenge we were faced with was obviously Tennesseans as
a whole are probably aware of the problem facing them. But we weren't even certain that [the initial research] was a great way to direct both the creation of TV creative and also from the digital side," he said.


The initial effort for Healthier Tennessee was called "Small Starts," and the team created a fitness goal-focused website app around it.

"We were trying to introduce the brand to as many Tennesseans as possible, and we wanted to do that in a way that was different from a lot of other health and wellness sites," Chobanian said.

Health and wellness fads focus on ways to quickly improve your health or waistline, he added, but the team "wanted to take it in a completely different direction," which was that fitness isn't a too-good-to be-true or an unattainable goal.

Working toward that goal for the strategy and creation, the marketing team came up with the idea for Small Starts.

Small Starts conveyed the message of attainability, with fitness broken down into incremental steps that gradually added up to a big change, that would hopefully drive down the negative statistics and drive up Tennesseans' health education and efforts. There are currently 63 different Starts within three categories.

The development of the Starts, such as, "Make time for a short walk," and "Sweat for 30," was inspired by questions such as, "What are some small things people can do throughout their day?"

Those three categories are:
  • Exercise

  • Food

  • Tobacco

"Our three key focus areas will hopefully lead to big change down the road," he said.

The team also put together what they called the "Fresh Start" giveaway, featuring weekly health-focused prizes, as well as an overall prize, to help build up initial interest and subscribership. Email was used as the primary way to communicate with users and giveaway participants.

Step #1. Integrate all marketing efforts

Chobanian said Healthier Tennessee launched a TV awareness campaign, consisting of both a 30-second spot and several 15-second spots in mid-October of 2013. The campaign picked up in early January to coincide with the launch of Small Starts and the Fresh Start giveaway.

"During the promotion period, [the television campaign] actually encouraged people to visit our site and start using Small Starts for a potential to win prizes," he said.

The next phase was integrating email co-registration into the website application, which was directed to from websites, digital ads, Facebook and Google Display ads, according to Chobanian.

Co-registration was a large part of the team's list-growing strategy, and has remained a consistent asset, he said. People were asked to sign up as Small Start users prior to being eligible to entering the giveaway, the incentive of which helped in building the list.

"We landed on Small Starts being the frame of how we wanted to engage people and introduce the brand to a wider audience — an audience that maybe wasn't in TV spots, but was more online and possibly even more engaged [there]," he said.

Small Starts lives as a Web application on, and to enter the giveaway, users have to be a Small Starts user. As an incentive, sharing content to social networks, or email shares earns users more entries.

When a user completes a Small Start, an email is sent to them and states, "Share your Small Start to win, [name]!"

The email copy encourages the subscriber to share Small Starts "for an extra chance to win the Fresh Start Giveaway Grand Prize and this week's Fresh Start Prize Pack!"

It then lists that week's prize, for example, a home workout kit with equipment and apparel, and a link to see more prizes and "Go To My Small Steps."

Step #2. Use incentives to build momentum

The team realized this campaign was an uphill battle, with Healthier Tennessee being a relatively new brand.

"For a lot of folks, this is the first time they'll encounter the Healthier Tennessee brand," he said. "Are we going to motivate them to take the chance with us, and at least try some of these things?"

A lot of ideas on how to generate that motivation were thrown around, Chobanian said, including involving a public figure to "put a voice behind it."

However, what the team ultimately decided on was to incentivize participation in the program with the Fresh Starts giveaway.

"We ended up with weekly prize packs that were themed. So, for example, we had one prize pack that was helping people enjoy the great outdoors in Tennessee. We had another one that was more home-gym-centric," he said.

As people added Small Starts to their list and also shared those Starts, they increased the number of entries they had in the giveaway, and then, Healthier Tennessee had drawings every week for five weeks.

The email for the third week of the giveaway was sent to those signing up for Small Starts and was titled, "Real Rewards for Healthy Habits" and encouraged them to "Enter the Fresh Start Giveaway!"

The fourth-week email read, "Sharing is Nice (and it could help you win big prizes, too!)"

The copy stated, "Pick your first Small Start from our menu of simple, healthy, everyday actions and you'll be automatically entered to win big prizes — like your own personal health coach, plus hand-picked weekly prize packs!"

All of the emails had a similar style, focusing on images and simple copy, Chobanian said. The team believed that was important to maintain recipients' interest, and keep the messaging in line with the Healthier Tennessee brand standards.

Step #3. Send triggered emails based on behavior

From the beginning of the effort, the team took a multilayered approach, Chobanian said.

"We did several emails that were just triggered emails based on different actions that [users] would take," he said, adding examples of behaviors that would trigger an email are:
  • Initial sign-up

  • The addition of a first Small Start

  • The completion of a Small Start

  • Account inactivity

Because it is a Web application, and not a native iOS or Android mobile app, there weren't any built-in push notifications.

"We use email quite extensively just to keep people engaged and coming back to the tool," he said.

Email was the most direct way to reach out to users, both with the behavior-triggered emails and the emails announcing each week's winner and the next week's prize pack.

In general, Chobanian said, during the Fresh Start promotional period, Healthier Tennessee sent two to three emails a week. After that ended, they dropped the send frequency to a couple a month, outside of the behavior-triggered sends.

"It was generally quite positive in terms of building a list and there weren't any spikes in unsubscribes, so I think the message overall, the frequency was right, and the message was short, sweet and to the point," he said.

Step #4. Form partnerships to amplify message

To grow the awareness of Healthier Tennessee, it was decided that partnering with established brands could be a good way to build their own.

The team had to be sure partnerships didn't dilute their efforts or voice, but rather, "really assist and amplify what we're doing," Chobanian said.

Healthier Tennessee partnered with a statewide company that has health and wellness complexes, with the objective of leveraging talent, both for health with content, and also for the "Fresh Start" grand prize.

Through that success, the team had the idea that partnering with organizations could be a good way to build up participants, subscribers and brand equity.

"These partnerships were not a part of the initial strategy, but we have a fairly deep bench of partners here in the state that are willing to assist with the effort. They're believers in the cause, and they're willing to spread the messages as far and wide as possible," he said.

By leveraging these partners, Healthier Tennessee was able to have corporate email lists made available to promote to its audiences. The team worked with employees inside companies, like communication officers and HR professionals, to send out emails to large groups of employees.

"Because venues were and still are a big key for us, that was just a natural way to make folks aware that, 'Hey, there is this new program out here. It's called Small Starts by Healthier Tennessee. Go sign up,'" he said.

Most big organizations have limits on what can be sent out in emails, so the team had to work with each company individually, adapting sends to fit.

"Early on, it was a lot of effort, but we saw a really sizable growth in those efforts. So we continued doing it throughout the promotion and even up until [recently]. We were really fortunate, growing in that organic way, and for a nonprofit, a pretty cost-effective way," he said.

Chobanian and a team member would work on the partner relationships, filling out custom emails with any requests made, such as unique graphics or copy.

"We've done just all sorts of different things, at least early on being new, we were like, we'll take it on. We'll figure a way to make it happen," he said.

There were even a few sizable partners, he said, who wanted to get an idea of the exact reach of a particular email, so the team would build in minor tracking features. This way, he added, they could report back to the partners on how effective the health initiative was within their company.

"That was another great way to really incentivize buy-in for [partners]. When they saw the effectiveness and saw, wow, we drove this many users by this one email, how can we amplify that? That was extremely helpful," he said.


"For us, the overall takeaway was really validation of the approach. And I know that might sound quite funny for a giveaway in this sense. But the development of Small Starts, and going out there with this idea of small health challenges that can lead to big change is somewhat untested," Chobanian said.

The results the Healthier Tennessee team were able to achieve in the first three months of this effort was a 2,400% lift in the email database, growing to a list of 18,000 — substantial growth in a small amount of time for a startup, he explained.

Because of the success they have had with partnerships, the team has built another website tool based on the Small Starts model called "Small Starts @ Work, and it's a very similar tool that is targeted specifically at HR decision-makers and wellness experts inside companies of all sizes," he said.

The current tool is presented similarly to Small Starts, he added, but instead of being for an individual, they're directed and designed in a way that can apply to an entire office.

"On the email side of things for us, inspirational messages and inspirational methods that rally people to take a specific action" were at the heart of this campaign, he said, adding that using behavior-triggered emails helps to keep the audience aware and engaged in the effort.

"For us, it was the more approachable kind of look, and I think that speaks a lot to the audience that we were after and how we were motivating them," he concluded.

Creative Samples

  1. Small Start giveaway page

  2. Share Small Starts email

  3. Third-week Fresh Start email

  4. Fourth-week Fresh Start email


Healthier Tennessee

Redpepper — Healthier Tennesee's email marketing agency

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