Use email marketing to rally alumni with a compelling story

What we learned from Brandeis University

Having exceeded $1 million in online gifts for the first time in fiscal year 2011, the Brandeis University Office of Development already had a proven track record of success using email marketing to encourage online support.

However, development officers Aaron Louison and David Nathan knew they needed to experiment with different email and online techniques to keep their valuable alumni donors engaged – and giving.

They teamed up with Emma and a designer to create “The Louis Challenge” at the end of the fall semester of 2013.


The Louis Challenge, at a glance:

  • The development office challenged alumni to help Justice Louis Brandeis, the school’s namesake, find his way back to his home in the center of campus by making online gifts to the Annual Fund.
  • The challenge featured a virtual map of major landmarks on campus and an image of Louis virtually traveling to seven different locations on campus.
  • However, Louis could only “move” to the next milestone if enough online donations were received.
  • The year-end fundraising goal was to secure 2,014 separate online gifts by January 1, 2014. (Spoiler alert: They exceeded this goal with 2,025 gifts.)
  • They sent a series of emails to alumni over the course of six weeks in November and December of 2013.
  • They also used Facebook and Twitter to keep everyone posted on Louis’s progress before, during and after the campaign was complete.

Smart segmenting is key to effective fundraising

In order to keep people engaged throughout the campaign and avoid repetition, or worse, alienating their entire alumni base (yikes!), Brandeis knew it was vital that they segment their audience.

They segmented alumni based on attributes such as whether they would celebrate a reunion in the next year, or whether they had graduated in the last 10 years, and so on. They then tailored emails for each segment by using different language and variants of the header image.

So, though there were nine different email campaigns during the Challenge, there were at least four variant emails of each campaign going to the different segments. That’s a lot of emails to keep straight, all made easy by Emma’s list management tools.

A great story makes it about more than just money

The Louis Challenge allowed Brandeis to make the act of donating to their alma mater feel personal. They deliberately featured buildings and areas of campus that they knew would resonate with alumni, tying the locations to a specific Brandeis financial need.

Aaron Louison and David Nathan dreamed up a story to tie to their fundraising goal

As David put it, “It was a really easy way to feature iconic locations and connect alumni back to campus. ‘You remember this place on campus, but do you also know that you’re supporting students who are doing the same things you did when you were attending Brandeis?’”

In addition to email, David and Aaron navigated the sometimes-tricky waters of social media by rolling Facebook and Twitter into their campaign. “We usually avoid asking for gifts directly on social media,” said Aaron, “but just sharing the story of the Louis Challenge made it easy for alumni to rally classmates’ support on their own pages, so we were able to secure that all-powerful third-party validation.”

As donations poured in at each milestone, they created a sense of community and enthusiasm that hadn’t happened with previous campaigns (go Judges!). Social media was a key component that helped them keep those that gave early in the year a way to feel connected to the bigger story.

The takeaways

Break up a big goal into smaller pieces. Doing so allowed Brandeis to promote bite-size calls to action, and in the end, they exceeded their goal and gained valuable insight into what motivates their alumni.

Personalization is powerful. People are more likely to respond to an ask when it feels direct and tailored to who they are.

Evaluate results early and often. Aaron and David circled up with their team after each send to review results and make decisions based on response data from their Emma account and beyond. And with Emma, it was easy to make last-minute messaging tweaks and stay nimble.