March 16, 2016
Case Study

Email Marketing: How a 130-year-old event increased revenue by 30%

SUMMARY: The State Fair of Texas is 130 years young, home of iconic 55-foot statue "Big Tex" and has delighted more than three million visitors each year. How do marketers keep excitement levels up year after year?

To encourage ticket sales, the team incentivized email sign-ups through the opportunity to win free tickets every 30, 65 and 100 days. This also kept customers engaged with Fair content year-round, building excitement to the main event and increasing overall revenue for 2015 by 30%.
by Courtney Eckerle, Managing Editor


"The State Fair of Texas is a 130-year-old event that started in 1886 at Fair Park in Dallas. We've been at the same location for all 130 years," Jason Hays, Director of Creative Services, State Fair of Texas, said.

The Fair is a 24-day event that operates the last Friday of September through usually the third Sunday in October.

As both the longest running fair and the largest annual exposition in North America, the Fair offers everything you'd expect like family fun shows, entertainment, live music and agriculture shows and activities. However, it also hosts college football games at the Cotton Bowl, holds the largest auto show in the Southwest and is widely known for its food creations (i.e., fried everything-you-can-imagine) through independent concessionaires each year.

"We are engrained in the culture and community not only in Dallas, but throughout the states and well-known through the nation," he said.

There are about three million visitors to the Fair each year, Hays said, and "that number has been pretty stable over the past 20-some odd years. Three million in 24 days — it's quite an event."

Operating on 277 acres, a lot of that space is filled with entertainment for visitors, he added. With a population of nearly seven million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, three million visitors to the Fair translates into a very wide audience.

"It's important for us to meet all of the demographics that encompass the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex," Hays said about their marketing strategy.


As a 130-year-old event, the marketing team has a lot of the history to play off of, but they also have to keep it fresh and keep people excited each year.

The State Fair of Texas is a well-known and successful event, Hays said, that brings its own set of challenges. Because they had such high attendance numbers, the team hadn't seen a strong need to advertise or market to their audience.

"That changed in the past few years. We noticed it was doing a little bit of a disservice to us in the fact that we weren't able to tell our story if we weren't marketing in an appropriate way," he said.

The team decided to turn to email marketing, which prior to this effort, Hays added, "We had toyed with it and used it in a very general way."

They viewed it as an excellent way to tell the Fair's story during the fair season, which they consider to be the 60 days before the fair all the way through the Fair.

Also, the question became, "How do we use the other 300 days throughout the year to share what the impact of your visit to the fair is doing in our community?"

That question is where the team specifically saw how email marketing could help convey that message, he said. Additionally, they had a need to collect as many names and information on the email list as possible because 2016 will be the first year to use print-at-home tickets.

"Knowing that we were going into 2016 with that program, our main focus of what we were doing with marketing was adding to the database," he said.


"The major goals from the previous year were to add to the database and then also offer up the value of the Fair," Hays said.

To do this, the team incentivized email sign-ups through the opportunity to win free tickets every 30, 65 and 100 days.

The motivation of this was to combat a notion, that "the Fair isn't accessible for some families because of cost. And we knew that we had discount and value programs … available, but we weren't promoting those correctly. So those were the two goals going into 2015. We want to grow the database but we also want to share these value programs that we've got," he said.

Step #1. Utilize email to promote on-brand content

As a leading nonprofit organization, the Fair has a mission to "celebrate all things Texan," Hays said.

Each year, there is a theme that fits into that mission, and for this campaign, it was "Passport to Texas," which would celebrate Texas exploration and encourage state tourism.

"We had a separate email that would go out to that same audience each month that promoted special events going on in Texas. It was called the #exploretexas email and cooperated with a couple of tourism organizations within the state to promote special emails about travel throughout the state," Hays said.

Hays gave the example of the March 2015 email, which focused on Texas' Independence Day. That email covered the historic locations someone could travel in the state that were associated with Texas' independence.

"It just gives us the opportunity to do some efficient marketing not only for what our event is, but the spirit and mission of what the State Fair stands for and share that message. It's efficient and economic for us to do it in the off-season of the fair," he said.

Step #2. Utilize incentives to encourage list growth

With those two sends going, the question then became, he said, "How do we get people to sign up for our list in the off-season?"

The team set up a Big Tex Insider email newsletter, which would talk about the happenings around the nonprofit, such as scholarships, livestock and special events going on in the park.

Where did the name come from?

"Big Tex is a 55-foot cowboy that lives on our grounds. He's our mascot for the State Fair. So we used that brand identity to create this Big Tex Insiders email club," he said, adding that subscribers would also receive discounts and promotions, not only for tickets but also to the merchandise store.

The team first instituted a welcome email for the newsletter, which told customers what to expect from Big Tex Insider emails. This email averages a 55% open rate.

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Another feature they came up with was collecting subscriber's birthdays at sign-up in order to send them a special birthday message from Big Tex.

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Initially, when beginning the Big Tex Insider newsletter, "We really pushed … 'We want you to sign up because you're going to get your deals, promotions and all that kind of stuff.'"

But what the team began hearing after launching more personal, less-sales driven emails like this is that people enjoyed that kind of outreach. The data backs this up as well, with the birthday email averaging a 42% open rate.

"That was a little bit surprising to us, that people really liked [it] as much as they did. Once we changed to the focus of, 'Get this birthday message from Big Tex if you sign up to be a Big Tex Insider,' those numbers started increasing quite a bit," he said.

Step #3. Create contest as an incentive to subscribe

Once the team got closer to fair season, they began using promotions and giveaways through the Fair's social media platforms, using email sign-up for entry.

As an example, Hays said the team gave away a family four pack of season passes, $100 worth of coupons for food and rides, a parking pass and a goody bag — the retail value cost of which was somewhere around $250.

"The first time we did it, we got 16,000 entries, which all went into our database. We noticed that tradeoff with doing enter to wins and stuff like that to gain those emails was extremely valuable to us," he said, adding that the results caused them to do three more giveaways.

The giveaways were done at three intervals prior to the Fair:

"From July to August, we gained 11,000 [subscribers]. The next month, we gained another 15,000. Then going into October doing one more, we had gained another 6,000. That's how we grew the email database," he said.

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Even if an entrant didn't win the contest, they would be sent another email after the contest ended that included a promo code for tickets, as a thank you for entering.


"Personally for myself, for an institution that's 130 years old and is very successful in providing quality entertainment, bringing an audience and stuff like that, it was incredible to see how [this campaign] could increase that number even more," Hays said.

Revenue at the 2016 State Fair of Texas was up almost 30% over the previous year, he said, adding, "I think a lot of that had to do with how we reshaped the marketing of the Fair in the past two years."

The Fair was able to sell 25,000 season tickets more than the previous year, quadrupling the previous sales record of 6,000 season tickets. The team went from 52,000 subscribers in January to 113,000 in December, which was a 118% increase over the previous year's numbers.

"Email marketing plays a massive role in how we promote the Fair. It's mind blowing to see how that's changed. It's just really interesting how something that's 130 years old and rich in assets … when you think you know it all and got it all because you've been doing it forever, how a tool like this can push you even further in the success of the organization," he said.

Creative Samples

  1. Welcome email

  2. Birthday email

  3. 100 days contest email


State Fair of Texas

Emma — The Fair's email vendor

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