September 25, 2007
Case Study

HTML vs Text Email: Which Works Better in a Short Conversion Cycle?

SUMMARY: Event marketers and others who need to convert products quickly can learn from a minor league baseball team who hit an email campaign out of the park.

See how they used text email first (to attract BlackBerry and mobile users) and then HTML to get a 262.3% lift over the rest of the season. Plus, how they landed a corporate sponsor in less than 48 hours.
When the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team, clinched a spot in the International League’s championship series, Assistant General Manager Jon Bishop had less than a week to sell tickets to their first two playoff games.

Unlike Major League Baseball teams, his organization faced three major obstacles:

- Tickets sales drop after Labor Day because children are back in school.
- They can’t offer playoff tickets as part of their corporate group packages, which make up 35% of their ticket sales during the regular season.
- Competition increases from other area sports.

Bishop knew email was the only way they would be able to sell tickets that fast, but he wasn't sure if HTML or text-only email might perform better in such a short window of opportunity. The front office also wanted to sign up a $10,000 corporate sponsor, but such partnerships rarely manifest over a few days. "They usually take months or years to work out."

In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, Bishop and his team A/B tested HTML and text-only emails and found that open and clickthrough rates were basically the same. By digging through the data more, however, they determined that:

- Text-only emails worked better to update fans on team news and prep them for upcoming games.
- HTML emails sold more tickets just before the games.

Using that data, here's the approach they followed:

-> Email #1. Text-only email to mobile users

In advance of the semifinal series, Bishop and his team prepared a text-only email in case the Bulls were victorious. It was fashioned as text-only to tap active weekenders with a BlackBerry or other mobile devices. He hit the send button at about 1 a.m. to make sure it was one of the first messages fans saw the next morning.

"We wanted to get a jumpstart on people who would be checking email on Saturday and Sunday because time was of the essence."

They sent 46,969 fans who had purchased tickets online in the past two years a five-paragraph email with:
o A quick recap of the playoff-clinching game, including star players’ names in hyperlinks
o The call-to-action "Order tickets now" link
o A hyperlink to allow recipients to purchase for the first game three days later
o A hyperlink to allow recipients to purchase for the second game four days later

Bishop wanted an action-oriented subject line, so they went with: "FAN ALERT: Bulls Sweep, Face Yankees or Braves for League Championship"

-> Email #2. HTML reminder on the day of event

On the day of the first playoff game, Bishop and his team wanted to remind fans of the schedule with an HTML follow-up email. After analyzing open and clickthrough rates from the entire season, they sent the message at the peak response time of 10:33 a.m. Following an industry best practice, they first removed the names of consumers who purchased a ticket after the first mailing.

Earlier in the season, they had seen favorable test results when a player’s name was used in the subject line, so they went with: "Evan Longoria’s Home Runs Lead Bulls to Championship Series."

Both the alert and re-mail messages directed consumers to their usual tickets procurement landing page.

-> Email #3. Corporate pitch with special offer

To sell the sponsorship, Bishop and his team crafted a text-only email with the four-game offer for approximately $2,500 per game and sent it to their in-house list of 112 recent partners.

The email outlined 16 general advertising opportunities, which covered everything from signage to printed-tickets placement to mentions during 60 television commercials. But they also offered a championship ring -- exactly like what the players and coaches receive -- if the Bulls won the series.
The one-two punch of the text and HTML messages overcame the slow fall revenue blues more than Bishop imagined. The two emails sold 262.3% more single-game tickets than their average 2007 email campaign. Even better, 56.9% of consumers who visited the landing page bought a ticket.

"If we would have seen less than half of those numbers, we would have been asking, ‘Man, what was it that we did that was so right this time?’ " Bishop says. "It definitely exceeded expectations, and it was important because of the time of year."

It's not shocking to see that 88.5% of the ticket sales came from the first text-only message since most consumers would buy the first time they saw the email or not at all.

The HTML follow-up email on the day of the game managed to sell 11.5% of the tickets. "We were more than satisfied with the fact that the re-mail was able to do as well as it did just eight or so hours before the first pitch. It’s a strategy that we will continue to use and develop."

The email to potential corporate sponsors garnered three serious inquiries, and a deal was signed less than 48 hours later after the email was sent. Although the possibility of getting a championship game ring didn't seal the deal, the sponsor who signed up told Bishop really liked the offer.

"I really didn’t know if we’d be able to land a sponsor in that amount of time. The fact that we got three companies to respond right away was great and opened our eyes in terms of using email more in that area of our business."

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Durham Bulls' email series:

Bronto Software Inc. - email service provider who executed the campaigns on the back end:

Durham Bulls Baseball Club:

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