November 09, 2010
Case Study

How Cutting a House List 95% Helped Double Sales: 5 steps

SUMMARY: Marketing databases can be neglected for years. Email subscribers might receive barely relevant emails at seemingly random intervals, and performance suffers. But you can turn it around.

See how a marketing team took a large list of poor-performing email contacts, re-engaged the list and revamped its email marketing. Find out why cutting the list by more than 95% helped the team eventually double online sales.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter


When Mark Newman, VP, Marketing and Communications, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, joined the team at the performing arts organization in 2008, they had an email database that reached into the tens of thousands of contacts.

However, the list suffered from an unclear strategy, Newman says. The team had relied on a "spray and pray" approach, reaching all contacts with the same emails and managing sends without a schedule. The result was a large list with poor performance.

"Our response rates were very low in relative terms," Newman says. "We had people who had been receiving email from us for some time, but we weren't very confident in how well they were received."

This presented a challenge, Newman says. The chronically low metrics undermined tests on subject lines, copy and calls to action. The team needed a new baseline to build from.


Newman and the team decided to launch a re-engagement effort coupled with a new email marketing strategy. They asked every subscriber in the database to declare they wanted to continue receiving emails from the Orchestra and specify the type of content they wanted. Those who did not reply were removed from the database.

Here are the steps the team followed to turn its large low-performing list into an efficient, high-powered marketing channel:

Step #1. Plan new content strategy

The team knew that one great way to engage subscribers is to segment them based on their interests and send them relevant content. The team established the following database segments to send separate newsletters:
o Classical
o Pops
o Family
o Happy hour (for young professionals)
o Outdoor summer series
o Yuletide
o Educational and community activities

Newsletters would have similar templates with unique content and subject lines (see creative samples below). The team set a schedule to send newsletters every two weeks. Establishing these segments and setting a schedule ensured that subscribers would receive content they wanted on a regular, predictable basis, which the team hoped would keep subscribers more engaged.

Step #2. Send re-engagement email to most-active subscribers

The team wanted to send an email to all subscribers asking them to opt-in to receive one of the new newsletters. Breaking the process into three phases, Newman felt, would be a good strategy.

First mailed were database's most active subscribers -- those who had opted-in, contacted or purchased within the last year. The team sent an email which included an offer of a free ticket to a performance. It also included:
o Subject line: "Email never sounded so good with SymphonEmail! Confirm Now!
o Mention that the newsletter has been redesigned
o List of newsletter benefits
o "Yes" and "no" buttons for recipient to indicate preference

Those who clicked "no" were automatically removed from the team's database. Those who clicked "yes" were brought to an account preferences page which listed the seven available newsletters they could subscribe to (see creative samples below).

After subscribers opted back in, they immediately started to receive the new biweekly newsletter.

Step #3. Send re-engagement email to other subscribers

The team planned to send the re-engagement email twice more to reach the remainder of its database.

The second send targeted a portion of subscribers who had not yet received the re-engagement email, as well as those who did not respond to the first. It went out approximately six months after the initial email.

The third and final send targeted the remaining subscribers who had not received the re-engagement email, as well as those subscribers who had not responded to the first or second sends. It went out approximately six months after the second email.

Using this process, the team sent subscribers three emails over the course of 18 months. Those who did not respond were removed from the team's database.

- Warning: Database size drastically cut

This strategy cut approximately 95.9% of the team's database -- an enormous cut for any email marketer. Newman was concerned, but he and his team knew they were starting from a solid foundation.

"The reward was we were now getting people who really wanted to get emails from us. These are engaged people," he says.

Step #4. Respect and grow the list

The team stuck to the promise it made to subscribers. It delivered targeted content on a consistent, biweekly basis. The additional value the team brought helped the list grow naturally through referrals. They also helped boost subscribers with the following tactics:

- Online sales

Customers buying tickets online are asked for their email addresses and whether they'd like to subscribe to one of the newsletters.

- Ticket giveaways

The team regularly holds contests at festivals and outdoor concerts it participates in. Contestants are asked to fill out an entry slip with their name, contact information and email address.

Winners are often announced via email. After the contest, the team will then send an engagement email to contestants, similar to the one described above, which encourages them to subscribe to one of the newsletters.

- Phone calls

The team uses the phone to build its email list in two ways. First, callers into the box office are often asked if they would like to provide an email address, and subsequently, if they would like to sign up to receive a newsletter.

Second, the team also has out-bound callers for fundraising purposes. At the end of calls, these telemarketers also ask for email addresses.

Step #5. Practice good list hygiene

Consistently delivering targeted content helped keep reengaged subscribers engaged. In addition, the team regularly scrubbed its list to remove duplicate and non-working email addresses.

Non-working email addresses are easily identified by the bounced emails they generate. Duplicate email addresses can easily be found by sorting the database by email address in a spreadsheet. This process can also be automated by some email marketing platforms.

This ensured that the team did not have any dead weight in its database which would drag down performance metrics and efficiency.

"Our email program paid for itself easily and generated incremental revenue beyond. It's an invaluable asset to us," Newman says.

Online sales have more than doubled to 35% of all the company's purchases since the re-engagement started. 40% of all subscribers have purchased tickets from the Symphony.

While the team initially cut 95.9% of its list size, it has grown the list by more than 500% from that low point. The list is now approximately 24.8% of its size from when the team started--but it is far more responsive, Newman says.

Furthermore, Newman says the program has helped the company's reputation.

"The image of our organization has been enhanced by the fact that we have such a robust campaign in place."

- Sample promotion

The team's email list is now a channel through which it can consistently promote shows and sell tickets. A recent discount promotion sent in the team's Pops newsletter for a series of Wayne Brady shows offered two floor tickets for approximately 20% off. The effort captured about a .4% conversion rate.

"On its own, that doesn't sound like a big number. But if you compare it to the costs we incurred from sending the email and the amount of time we invested [there is a huge return]," Newman says.

Useful links related to this article

1. Re-engagement email
2. Unsubscribe landing page
3. Account preferences page
4. Wayne Brady promotion

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