June 24, 2014
Case Study

Email Marketing: Database hygiene improves membership communications and reduces record duplication rate to 0.2% for WGBH Boston

SUMMARY: Nonprofit public radio broadcaster and television program producer WGBH had marketing programs running across multiple channels, but none of them were coordinated.

In this week's MarketingSherpa Email Marketing case study, see how the marketing team aligned all of their marketing touchpoints so they could better engage, increase funding and help reinvigorate public media.
by Courtney Eckerle, Manager of Editorial Content


WGBH Boston, a nonprofit and one of the leading public media stations in the United States, needed to rebuild its donor relations and management platform to better engage its audience.

WGBH is a local broadcaster on multiple television and radio stations in Boston, as well as running WGBY in Springfield, Mass., and WCAI Cape and Island radio stations. Many of its programs are now being picked up internationally as well.

There were many different areas to work on, according to Cate Twohill, Director of Technical Product Development, WGBH, and one of the goals was to ensure the success of public media stations across the country.

"Public media stations are incredibly important — as PBS members, they pay system dues in order to air television programs we produce, and some of that money comes back to us, which allows us to continue to make new and more programs. It's an ecosystem that works very well," Twohill said.

As a nonprofit organization, WGBH has a membership program that requires part of the team's marketing efforts every month to be aimed at renewing the memberships of people who have given to the organization in the past 12 months.

WGBH had a huge problem in its donor relations, however. Its marketing programs running across all channels weren't coordinated.

"So a person who was included in an email campaign could also be in a direct mail campaign and could then be called as part of an outreach program," she said.

The team needed to coordinate all of these so they could better engage their audience, increase funding and convert more memberships. The disconnect started when WGBH converted from its legacy fundraising system to another that couldn't support direct mail fundraising.

"The vast majority of our campaigns are delivered through some form of direct mail. It's still alive and well and I think we have to acknowledge that, especially for the traditional nonprofits that rely on direct mail as a primary channel," she said.


The team worked to bring all the pieces together by accomplishing three main goals:
  • Overcoming the duplicate problem — WGBH had more than 80,000 duplicate records leading to huge logistical challenges. It currently has a .2% duplication rate.

  • Creating a single record of engagement — For example, having duplicate records for a person who is a leadership giver to WGBH who also donated to another WGBH-managed station near their vacation home during a pledge drive. WGBH needed to manage those records as the one person or family that they are.

  • Communicating on all channels — WGBH can now select core groups of donors and then communicate with them on all channels. This lets them measure response without relying on a single channel.

Step #1. Select a tool that works for all marketing channels

In the beginning, A problem that Twohill and her team ran into was many of the tools they came across were either primarily direct marketing, or primarily email. Finding a way to integrate all of the channels and meeting all of their operational goals proved challenging.

"Once we got through this process, we realized the flexibility that [our vendor] not only supported digital, it also supported direct mail well," she said.

That is when her team took the extra time to "really figure out what was the right tool. We didn't want to put our marketers back in that same situation again. And the team was absolutely open to change. I think the trick was just making sure we changed to the right tool."

Another consideration was making sure that no additional staff was needed to operate a new system. The biggest challenge was just confirming that new staff members coming on were properly trained and could operate the platform.

Step #2. Coordinate direct mail and email efforts

Twohill said the second goal was to marry a direct mail campaign with an online campaign , whereas before, campaigns in the two channels were being allowed to run separately and concurrently.

As a nonprofit organization, WGBH wanted to implement all available marketing efforts into its annual membership renewal program for people who had given in the past year.

The way the team set up the campaign was the first renewal notice was sent in an email message, and then if the member didn't click through to renew their membership, WGBH would send a piece of direct mail.

A necessity for campaigns to be effective was for all of the channels to work in unison, and the team needed to "figure out how do we integrate all of the channels rather than treat them like completely separate trains on separate train tracks," she said.

Operating in a vacuum

Remembering the issues that arose and the confusion from having separate channels, the team tried to avoid these problems from occurring again with this new campaign.

Previously, mail was set so far in advance that "we would decide to just send them concurrently rather than waiting for some activity before you pulled the file for mail, and because we would [do that], the timing of it was never right," Twohill explained.

For this campaign, it was important for the team not to send a piece of mail until the email went out, and they could respond to that behavior, instead of anticipating it.

Step #3. Work to consolidate donor duplications

The team found 80,000 duplicate accounts in the system, and the primary goal became reducing that number and introducing far fewer duplicates into the system in the future.

"We feel like that was advantageous because if you think about the cost of managing all of those duplicates accounts, not knowing that it was a long-term donor who actually gave, and it looks like they just gave last week for the first time, there's a challenge in maintaining the conversation with that person," Twohill said.

She added operationally, WGBH needed to streamline and clean up its data to improve communications and expenses. Once the team discovered the 80,000 duplicate accounts, they hired almost one dozen part-time workers over three months to manually merge duplicate accounts.

However, the efforts have been worth it because going forward, "we now know that Bobby and Robert are the same person without having to manually look at every record," she said.

Step #4. Ensure data is understood and intelligently managed

One of the biggest benefits of reducing donor duplicates was "feeling like we really understand what's going on with our data," Twohill said.

By merging duplicate accounts, the team had much more information and data on consumers and felt like they knew the person better.

Twohill explained, "Our data is just much cleaner and much more focused on the specific data that we can get. So if we send somebody an email message and there are, say, five links, we know they clicked on one of the links and not the other four, so we'll track that detail," she said.

That way, the next time WGBH communicated with a member, it could utilize that behavior and mention that particular content piece. Now that all the channels are connected, that next communication could be either email or direct mail.

"Whether that goes out in a piece of mail or it's in the next email message, we're starting to now focus our messages more directly, rather than a very scattered shot," she said.

For instance, instead of just assuming everyone likes "NOVA" — the longest running science series on television that is produced by WGBH — they can send that information with the behavioral data to back it up. This type of data-driven messaging shift is "where the strength is coming from" in recent campaigns.

Use data throughout the membership experience

Because of the data change, the team's current project is building up a number of portals for the WGBH website, scheduled to launch in July 2014.

So for the first time, Twohill added, members are going to be able to come to the website, create a user name and password, and be connected to their given account within the WGBH system in a more productive and intelligently designed way.

Customers will be able to change credit card information on their sustaining gift, ask questions about membership or about WGBH giving programs, she said.

Twohill explained, "We can tie that back to their giving history to be able to say, 'Well, we know you like 'NOVA' because you've told us that. How can we provide you better information?' and then when fundraising happens, 'Would you like to support 'NOVA'?"


Raising funds in the Boston area is competitive, Twohill said, with a lot of causes and a limited number of constituents.

"Whether they're viewers or listeners who also give to the museum, who also give to local hospitals, who give to educational organizations, it's a real challenge to try and be out in front and ensuring that philanthropic support from your local constituents continues," she said.

That is why, she added, it is important to not just ask for donations just "because we're here" but simply because WGBH has found a way to connect with members and show its importance in their lives and recognize them as individuals.

"To secure support from your constituents, you really need to show them that you know them. I think all that we're doing now with our technology is helping us do that in a very focused way," she said.

That focus is quite literally paying off, she added, with overall revenue showing great promise and strong future projections.

"We think it's attributable to better messaging, better targeting, better decisions in our campaigns, but also because we have better access to the data we can make those better decisions," she said.

Another result of this effort was reducing the membership duplication rate to 0.2%.

According to Twohill, an important aspect of all of the changes and conversions was the need to continue running the fundraising campaigns at the same time, without any hiccups.

"Keep the trains running. Keep it nice and simple and then, when possible, start doing your testing," she concluded.



RedPoint Global — WGBH's data management platform

Salesforce.com — WGBH's CRM platform

Related Resources

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015 — Want to see more presentations like this one? Attend Email Summit 2015, Feb. 23-26, Las Vegas

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