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Sep 08, 2003
Case Study

Olive Garden Radically Revamps Email Newsletter Format & Gains 57,000 Customer Referrals in 90 Days

SUMMARY: The Olive Garden restaurant chain has produced absolutely beautiful email newsletters for the past two years. They had lovely photos of the Italian countryside, and lots of fun recipes and articles. They were even personalized by subject for each name in the database.

Only problem -- consumers slowly stopped opening, clicking and passing newsletters to friends. What do you do when you've got a great newsletter but your target market doesn't like it?

(Yes, includes before-and-after samples)

"Our newsletters were struggling with more opt-outs than opt-ins," says Wendy Babb, Olive Garden Associate Brand Marketing Manager.

Olive Garden was one of the first major restaurant chains in the US to test email newsletters, and they'd really done their best to make the program work.

First in 2001 they invested in a well-publicized Win-a-Trip-to- Italy sweeps with an entry form that not only asked for permission to send email, but also asked consumers what topics they'd like to get email about, such as wine, recipes, and Olive Garden news.

Then they developed seven variations of a monthly newsletter (link to sample below) so consumers received the variation that matched their chosen profile. These variations were:

1. Olive Garden news
2. From the Vineyard
3. Italian Recipes and Tips
4. News and Recipes
5. News and Wines
6. Recipes and Wines
7. News, Wines, and Recipes

Each issue was packed with compelling articles instead of just sales promotions. "The style of the newsletters were copy-heavy and storytelling," says Babb.

The goal was to feel so valuable that the list would grow virally as readers forwarded copies to friends and family, who then might sign up for their own copies.

Instead, despite Olive Garden's best efforts, the list size was steadily falling. How do you save a shrinking database?


Babb and the marketing team wondered if long copy which worked well in early email days might be a liability now that consumers are so inundated with email to read.

Babb says, "People are busy, with little time. They need quicker information." So, the team decided to revamp everything about the newsletters dramatically - starting with making them an easier read…

-> Step 1. Revamping the newsletters completely

In a perfect world you might want to personalize everyone's newsletter content - but in the real world you have to pick your marketing battles for maximum impact.

So, Babb and her team decided to make their job easier by sending just one single version of the newsletter to everyone. This way they could focus time and energy on more critical tasks such as - testing subject lines, tweaking lay-out, list acquisition strategies, and integrating with offline campaigns.

Next they revamped the newsletter from stem to stern, including:

o Matching offline branding

It was renamed 'The Family Table' to reinforce Olive Garden's long-running TV ads branding the restaurant with the values of “coming together, dining together, sharing as a family.”

o Fewer, more focused words

Although Babb's team decided to continue publishing useful articles about wine and recipes, these were posted to the Web site and merely linked to in the newsletter. All newsletter space was now focused on Olive Garden news such as new menu items, special offers, etc.

o Bigger photos

The old newsletter featured a small photo of Italy. The new version featured a large photo of an Olive Garden dish running down the entire left side of the message, and three smaller photos bottom left.

o More enticing subject headings

The subject headings of the old newsletter were simply the names of the newsletters repeated each month. Now the team decided to vary subject lines for every send. Examples, 'Flavorful New Italian Dishes at Olive Garden' and 'Last Chance to Try New Shrimp and Crab Ravioli'.

"We make sure that it's news," Babb says. "Visit soon! You can only get it for a limited time."

o Promoting viral forward to a friend

The team made sure the first and best link on the bottom left side of the newsletter is 'Send to a Friend,' with a small photo icon of two people enjoying a glass of wine.

-> Step 2. Coordinating with offline promotions

Now that the content focused on the restaurants rather than general articles about wine and recipes, the team began to coordinate subjects and send-times with offline promotions.

Babb gives an example, "Check out your local newspaper because Olive Garden will have a coupon in Sunday's paper!"

-> Step 3. Streamline the sign-up form

The old newsletter sign-up form asked visitors to enter salutation, first name, last name, address, city, state, zip code, email address, and birthday (not required, but also not explained). Plus, they had to check areas of interest and answer two questions:

- What prompted you to register?
- What do you like most about Olive Garden?

Although it was a database marketer's dream, consumers were less than thrilled. Many visitors quickly left the page instead of joining the list. So, the team decided to simplify the form as much as possible.

The new form asked only for first name, last name, email address, and zip code. It still asked for birthday, but the question was prefaced with, "Let us share our Italian generosity with you on your birthday."

Babb was also careful about the wording on the page: for example, "You'll know about special offers" rather than "We'll give you special offers."

"We're still testing online incentive stuff. We're excited about the possibility, but need to first address the potential risk and inherent fraud," she says. "We want to encourage people to sign up without promising them anything."

-> Step 4. Promoting the new newsletter

The first issue of the new newsletter launched June 11th 2003. To jumpstart its success, the team created an integrated online/offline promotional campaign.

For three weeks, all Olive Garden locations distributed promotional handouts with each guest check. These handouts directed guests to the Olive Garden Web site to "sign up for a chance to win Olive Garden gift cards." When they reached the site, patrons were told, "Win an Olive Garden gift card. Sign up for our newsletter."

The same offer was promoted in the newsletter to entice pass- along readers to sign up.

Plus, newsletter readers themselves were asked to refer friends to the form. The four readers who had the most referrals actually sign up for the newsletter would win $100 gift cards.


"The results have been phenomenal," Babb says. "We've seen great success by delivering a focused message using an integrated marketing approach.”

Some specifics:

- Varying the subject lines helped roughly double open rates. Past newsletters averaged around 18-20% opens. The new newsletters ranged from 37-41%. (Note: the fact that the list has a higher percent of new names would also affect opens, because sign-up recency can be a key factor.)

- The launch issue on June 11th had the highest overall click rates: 24.8% of total opened clicked through to the featured item and 13.7% clicked through to the recipe page.

The July issue has had second best clicks, with a 21% of total opened clicking through to the featured Shrimp and Crab Ravioli and a 14.6% clickthrough to the recipe page.

- In June alone, Olive Garden's average monthly new subscribers rose by more than 150%

- The new sign-up form has a (very high) 68% conversion rate. This means 68% of visitors who see the form, complete it.

- 17% of people who were already on the list resubmitted their information to try to win the prize.

- More than 57,000 people have referred friends so far, compared with 3,290 referrals over the previous 12 months. Each issue of the newsletter is generating anywhere between 400-500 traceable forwards using the button (and a great many more untraceable ones.)

One determined reader went referral-crazy and alone was responsible for 900 new subscribers.

- More than 20,000 new sign-ups were generated by the four million printed promotions handed out at Olive Garden restaurants in June.

You've got to integrate in order to grow, Babb says. "That's why in October when we launch this year's sweeps, we plan to communicate the online promotion in restaurants, again telling guests to visit our Web site."

Useful links related to this article:

Before and after samples of Olive Garden Newsletters:

Blue Hornet Networks, the firm that helps Olive Garden with their email campaigns

Olive Garden
See Also:

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