April 22, 2010
Case Study

Email/Ad Combo Retains Customers, Attracts Prospects: 5 Steps to 20% Conversion Rate

SUMMARY: Even when you have the same marketing message for prospects and existing customers, you may need to reach these groups through different channels.

Read how a state-based student lender launched an integrated email, direct mail and advertising campaign to drive traffic to an online loan application microsite. They attracted current customers and new prospects to the site and achieved a 20% conversion rate. Includes samples and metrics from emails they used.

At the beginning of 2009, Penny Hauck, Director, Marketing, Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA), had a clear goal for her team’s marketing efforts: They needed to tell college students that MEFA could help them pay for school.

MEFA is a not-for-profit state authority that offers college savings and loan programs. The team’s previous marketing strategy emphasized education over describing specific loan options: MEFA runs approximately 400 educational seminars each year to teach students how to apply to and pay for college.

"What makes us different is the education component. We would provide tips and definitions and try to really educate the borrower on making the right decisions so they’re a smart consumer," says Hauck. "So at the end of the day they’re loyal to MEFA and the reason why is we’re giving them some background and education around why they made the right choice."

The problem was, many students thought MEFA only provided information -- not the loans as well.

The team needed a new approach to raise awareness about MEFA’s loan products and generate loan applications from students.


Hauck and her team, including Jessica Hipp, Manager, Communications, designed an integrated campaign to reach current customers and new prospects. They created a single microsite to receive all campaign traffic, but used different outreach channels to get the message about MEFA’s loans in front of the two target audiences.

They also wanted to use multiple channels to increase touch points in hopes of increasing response rates.

Here are the five steps they followed:

Step #1. Build new loan microsite

The team felt their loans were among the best available. They believed that educating students about loans in general would help prospects realize the advantages offered by MEFA loans and increase conversions.

Following this strategy, they created an educational microsite to receive all traffic driven by the campaign’s advertising. Features included:

- Company information

The site’s four-tab design displayed different information. The first tab, "About MEFA," served as the page default, and briefly explained MEFA with messaging such as "Loans you can afford, from a source you can trust."

- Loan fees and rates

The second tab displayed a chart of current interest rates and fees for several education loans.

- Loan calculator

The team built a simple calculator to estimate a student’s monthly payments on a given loan amount.

"We find that monthly payment [information] is really what is driving people," Hipp says. "They know how to fit $100 into their monthly budget, whereas an interest rate is more conceptual."

- Useful information

The team also created a tab titled "5 tips for choosing college loans" which explained topics such as variable interest rates and tiered payments in easy-to-understand terms.

- Contact and application information

Each page of the site hosted a column on its right side that included:
o Contact email and phone number
o Buttons to apply for a loan or check loan status

That way, visitors could connect with MEFA or apply for a loan on any of the four tabbed pages.

Step #2. Host educational seminars on college loans

As mentioned, the team held several hundred seminars each year. At the start of the campaign, they shifted the topic of their seminars from getting into college to paying for college.

They held four seminars across Massachusetts, targeted at recently-accepted college freshman and their parents. This group was most likely in need of education financing.

They designed an email invitation to promote the seminar that emphasized how the April forums were the "first ever" and would help students "understand their award letters and help them make their final decisions" on where to attend. The call-to-action linked to a seminar registration page.

"Because there’s a May 1st deadline for everyone to decide which college they’re going to [attend], the time element was already built in," Hipp says.

They sent the invitation to two groups of their existing customers:

- College savings account holders

MEFA offers college savings programs. These customers who were recent high school graduates were prime candidates for the seminar.

- Current loan holders

The team also invited current loan customers, as they would likely need to finance another year of school unless they had already graduated.

Step #3. Email/direct mail campaign to current customers

In addition to its seminar program, the team created an outbound email campaign to direct traffic to the new loan microsite.

- The team sent nine emails to their undergraduate loan or college savings account customers from April to the end of August.

- Graduate student customers received three emails, as they have historically lower response rates, Hipp says.

- The team’s emails featured short messages emphasizing five benefits of MEFA loans, and included links that took visitors to specific sections of the loan site, such as:
o Payment calculator
o Application form

"We started with the tips and did some A/B testing," Hipp says. "We found later in the campaign that people really wanted to know what their monthly payment was going to be. So we started to emphasize the calculator more and more as we got closer to when bills were due."

- The team also sent several direct mail pieces to current customers that included a letter from MEFA and an insert with information about rates, fees and product features. The letter included a unique URL to drive recipients to the campaign microsite.

They hoped the combination of direct mail and email would help increase response rates among customers who received both.

Step #4. Online/offline media buys to reach prospects

To reach students not yet in their database, the team purchased local media to distribute messages about MEFA’s loan programs. Here are the channels they pursued:

- Billboards

The team purchased advertising on five billboards in greater Boston, and two in western Massachusetts. Both areas have high concentrations of colleges. The billboards included:
o Landing page URL
o 800-number
o Limited imagery and text
o Message: "College loans you can afford from a source you can trust"

The team used a unique URL for their billboards to help track performance.

- Local radio

The team purchased drive-time radio advertising in the Boston market. The team had two ads, one with an educational message, and one with more emphasis on visiting the team’s loan information site.

Both ads featured:
o Calming, friendly female voice
o Landing page URL (unique to the team’s radio ads)
o 800-number

- Local online banners

The team also purchased banner advertising on local websites from Boston and Western Massachusetts. The ads were linked to the loan information site and emphasized:
o Affordability
o Loan education
o Monthly payment calculator

Step #5. Adjust messaging according to loan application schedule

The team kicked off the campaign in April, which is when MEFA starts accepting loan applications. Early on, the team’s email messages emphasized education to help students understand college loans.

By late June and early July, students started receiving bills for the upcoming fall semester. Those bills are typically due near the end of August.

At this point, the team shifted its messaging away from education and toward a call-to-action that emphasized loan products. These messages urged students to find out how much they would pay for a new loan by using the team’s calculator.

Using house email and online/offline media outlets, the team sent a strong message about their loan products to both existing customers and prospects:
o 20% of microsite visitors started the loan application process.

"This was really the first time we’d done this kind of concerted effort, especially with email and direct mail retention," says Hipp. "It became a benchmark year, and I think we set the benchmark high."

- Online display ads drove 44% of the traffic to the microsite. The team felt this figure was driven, in part, by the awareness raised by their local radio and billboard advertising.

- Email messages drove 36% of traffic to the microsite:
o Clickthrough rates on the different messages ranged from 1.50% to 10.35%
o 5.25% of all customers reached via email started the loan application process
o 6.44% of customers who regularly read MEFA emails started the process

- Direct mail drove 5% of the microsite’s traffic.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from MEFA’s multichannel loan promotion campaign

Members Library -- Merge Email, Microsites and Social Media for Product Launch Success

Members Library -- Improve Customer Acquisition and Retention by Combining Triggered Email and Outbound Promotions: 4 Steps

PARTNERS+simons: Partnered with MEFA to develop strategies, build and launch the campaign and tracked the outcome


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