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Case Study: A Nonprofit Crafts a Compelling DM Strategy and Exceeds Its Conference Goals by 25 Percent

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Company: The Points of Light Foundation
Contact: Todd Potochnik, Chief Creative Director
Location: Washington, DC
Industry: Not-for-profit
Annual revenue: $20,000,000
Number of employees: 125

Quick read:

The Points of Light Foundation's annual event had grown moribund, and the house list stagnant, says Chief Creative Director Todd Potochnik.

Potochnik and his team were able to boost attendance from the previous year's conference by more than 25% and garner an 85% "satisfactory or above" approval rating from attendees by hiring an agency comfortable working with nonprofits, altering the DM strategy, focusing on "inspiration" for the conference materials, and implementing email blasts.

Challenge:


The Points of Light Foundation's annual conference had become more of reunion than a fundraising event: The same people attended, year after year, and the 2005conference, in D.C., had an attendance of only 2,000.

Worse, the direct mail database used for announcing the conference saw "a significant number" of DM pieces returned in 2005, says Potochnik.

The Foundation organizes the conference in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service. With so many stakeholders involved, the process was far from smooth.

Finally, the 2006 conference would be held in Seattle; consequently, many of the usual East Coast attendees would likely be unable to come.

When Potochnik took over the role of chief creative director for the foundation, the planning for the 2006 conference had already begun. He had to do something, and quickly, to make 2006's event a success.

Campaign:

The first thing Potochnik decided to do was to bring in some outside help. He chose Ted Deutsch, owner and operator of Deutsch Communications, to assist him in getting conference attendance up where it needed to be.

Together, they decided that Seattle could actually be a strong selling point for the 2006 event. Many potential attendees on the West Coast already loved the city, and many East Coasters were intrigued by it. But for Seattle to provide a real draw, it and the event itself had to be promoted the right way.

Step #1: Hire an agency familiar with not-for-profits

Potochnik and Deutsch immediately hired an agency to implement the direct campaign.

Ricci Communications understood the not-for-profit landscape, and it could deal with the last-minute approvals and missed deadlines that tended to plague the complicated event-planning process that the foundation and its partner followed.

"We looked at other agencies that maybe had bigger creative fire but didn't have the flexibility or experience to navigate with the sometimes rocky nonprofit terrain," says Potochnik. "We knew that bringing them on would be disastrous."

Step #2: Alter the direct mail strategy

Potochnik and his team then tacked improving the direct mail strategy. They did this in several ways:

  • Improved the registration form. In the past, the team sent a large, unwieldy DM piece, complete with registration form. This time, the mailer was smaller and less bulky.

    The feeling in previous years was, "'The people that come to our conference aren't as sophisticated, they don't know online.' And that was a huge mistake. We brought the marketing effort closer into the 20th century," Potochnik says.

    A registration form was still included as a control measure, but it was smaller, and it offered the options of registering online or downloading the registration form and mailing/faxing it in.

  • "Sexier" content, different message. On the cover of the trifold mailer, the team used a gorgeous picture of Seattle with Mount Rainier in the background. "One of the things that Seattleites love most is Mount Rainier," says Potochnik.

    So the team chose this photograph to create "a local push to make up for the people who couldn't come from the East Coast." The eventual conference theme, "Climbing Mountains, Lifting Lives," grew out of the image.

    The beauty and grandeur of Mt. Rainier and the vibrancy and idealism that people associate with Seattle inspired the slogan used in the DM piece: "Get Inspired, Get Connected." (In contrast, 2005's slogan had been the drier, more businesslike "Solve Problems, Serve Communities, Strengthen America.")

    The brochure promoted Seattle as a perfect destination for the Points of Light conference because the city urges its citizens to contribute to the greater good through volunteering—a clear alignment with the foundation's goals.

  • Targeted mailings. Rather than simply mailing to the house list, Ricci bought lists specific to the Pacific Northwest and did a regional mailing, supported by an email blast campaign.

    Each email in the series promoted a different aspect of the conference (speakers, networking, forums, etc.). The final blast, two weeks before the event, reminded people that walk-ins would be accepted.

Results:

The conference drew nearly 2,700 attendees, more than a 25% increase over the previous year. A large portion of those were new attendees who brought with them new enthusiasm, and there were more walk-ins than ever before. "It was a great conference," says Potochnik, "with a lot more energy."

He adds, "The regional mailing proved to be very, very successful. It made the difference."

The bulk of responses came via online registrations: "We've learned that the form is unnecessary."

Lessons learned:

1. Get those with no marketing experience "out of the room"

The brochure committee originally had 12 members, meaning that approval on creative took ages. Now, the committee making decisions is smaller and more knowledgeable.

2. Shake things up

Shaking up the status quo made all the difference, says Potochnik. Next year, he plans to shake things up even more. "We're not going to do one big mailing. We'll do bold creative, more of an announcement, and mail it several times," he explains.

3. Sell the event

Don't just tell people that the event is coming. Direct mail should <i>sell</i> the event.

Next year, Potochnik is confident the conference will attract 3,000 people.

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