The Advancement Events team hosts a series of exclusive tailgate-style events each football season prior to select home games. Donors, friends and alumni have the opportunity to gather and mingle with Ohio State’s top leaders while enjoying a short program, entertainment, food and beverage. It was designed as a stewardship tool, providing a central experience that all colleges/units can leverage regardless of size or resources.

Project: A coordination between Advancement Events and the Email Marketing team to formulate a strategy for the 2017 Pregame Huddle Season
Goal: Improve the performance of the Pregame Huddle email series created in 2016
Marketing objectives: Increased awareness of the Pregame Huddle Events and improved engagement with the email series
Audience: Donors, friends and alumni of The Ohio State University
Strategy: Revisit data from 2016 and analyze it to identify opportunities to best promote the series in the 2017 season
Partners: University Marketing Email Marketing, Advancement Events

Optimizing emails for conversion

The Challenge

The Advancement Events team hosts a series of exclusive tailgate-style pre-game huddle events during football season as a stewardship tool. Donors, friends and alumni have the opportunity to gather prior to each home football game and mingle with Ohio State’s top leaders while enjoying a short program, entertainment, food and beverage.

This season, the team faced the challenge of increasing attendance significantly over the prior year. That meant improving email conversion performance to achieve the desired boost in registration. The question: Which performance metric would serve as the best indicator for success?

Step 1: A look at last year's emails

Analyzing the email data from lat year's campaign, we found:

  • Open rates sharply declined after the first send
  • Click-to-open rates were lower than average*
  • Registration rates were reported lower than desired

* According to a 2017 audit of Ohio State Blackbaud Internet Solutions (BBIS) email data, the average click-to-open rate for event emails is 6.2%.

Intro email

Pregame Huddle Email 1 - 2016
  • Detailed information about every Pregame Huddle event made the email long to read
  • The reason audiences were invited may not have been clear enough with a vague callout in the intro paragraph: "Because of your unwavering commitment"

Email 2

Pregame Huddle Email 2 - 2016
  • Shorter
  • Most clicks were on the small "get more details" text link at the bottom
  • 168% increase in click-to-open rate over the intro email

While we can only speculate on why there was such a high increase in click-to-open rate since an A/B test was not conducted, we can hypothesize that Email 2 experienced more qualified traffic (recipients knew what to expect after receiving the first email in the series). However, based on what we know about email behavior, it was also likely due to the reduction in text, a focus on one event with a singular call-to-action, and the option to learn more. On average, recipients spend 11 second reading an email, so having clear and concise messaging that effectively guides the recipient to the next step is important.

Subject line

Outside of the first email (novelty of something new) and post-season emails (always high performing), the emails with the highest open and click-to-open rates during the series had an opponent name in the subject line.

“Huddle up before the Northwestern game”

“Your Special Invitation to the Rutgers Pregame Huddle”

Step 2: Forming a strategy

It is worth noting that the number of recipients designated to receive emails in 2018 increased dramatically over 2017. While a larger audience can lead to more registrations, but is usually the result of a less targeted audience. Our number one objective was to increase conversion that meant getting more recipients to follow the journey from open through to click-to-register. So using last year’s data, we focused on the following improvements:

New Pregame Huddle email

For the overall series –

  • Start with an introductory email emphasizing why they\'re invited
  • Show what the huddles are visually to keep copy tight, generate interest
  • Promote one event at a time
  • Provide the option to get more information/full schedule
  • Test subject line to optimize the series

For game-specific emails –

  • Make it clear the event is hosted is on game day near the ‘Shoe
  • Rotate images to immerse user into the event experience
  • Define what the event is and why the recipient is invited
  • Link to full schedule/more information
  • Test buttons to optimize single, clear call-to-action

Step 3: Iterative optimization

Over the course of the email series, we tested one thing at a time, sometimes testing the same thing more than once to get an accurate read on the results.


  • LEARN MORE generated a 70% higher click-to-open rate and was applied to all subsequent emails in the series
Button Test - Learn More
Button Test - Register Today

Subject line test: Highlighting the event (Come party before Saturday’s game) vs. the game (The Buckeyes battle the Terrapins)

  • Focusing on the event brought qualified traffic into the email resulting in: 4% lower open rate, but 17% higher click-to-open rate
Subject Line Test - Event
Subject Line Test - Game

Subject line test Control (Huddle up before next Saturday’s Snap!) vs. spirit-injected (O-H! Come tailgate with us)

  • The spirit version generated 2% lower open rate but 13% higher click-to-open rate, however was used sparingly to avoid fatigue.
Subject Line Test - Control
Subject Line Test - Spirit

Step 4: Tracking Conversion — How many took action to register?

From data provided, we were able to calculate the email conversion rate by identifying which registrants for each event received the corresponding event email: # of registrants/# of unique clicks in the email. The average conversion rate for the campaign was 2%.

While we were not able to benchmark the rate of conversion to the prior year (due to tool constraints), the data provides helpful insights on how many people followed the journey all the way from email open through to click-to-register.

The Results

Building on the iterative learnings, we were able to maintain a higher click-to-open rate:

  • Intro email click-to-open rate was 884% higher than last year’s
  • 67% of clicks in intro email were on the button
  • Even though there was a lower open rate average than last year, the click-to-open rate average for the series increased from 5% to 13%

And learned what helped drive conversion:

  • The "winner" in our test results based on open rate or click-to-open rate didn\'t necessarily have the highest conversion rate
  • The "learn more" button yielded a higher conversion rate
  • The game-focused subject line drove more conversions than the event-focus one
  • The control subject line actually trumped the spirit version

More importantly: While we\'re currently limited to using open and click-to-open rates as our key performance indicators, this information highlights the importance of running tests to learn how best to achieve your objective whatever that may be (in this case increasing conversion). Now, we will be able to track conversions - an important success metric - on future email campaigns.

The takeaways

1. Set a goal

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • How will you measure it?
    e.g., Increase e-newsletter engagement, increase click-to-open rate by 10%

2. Use historical data to inform your strategy

  • How did this email perform in the past?
  • What areas could be improved?

3. If you’re working on an email series, start with an introductory email

  • Keep copy tight by utilizing visuals and/or directing to a web page with more information
  • Focus on one event or action at a time

4. Plan for testing!

  • Testing things like subject line, from name, and copy can help incrementally increase open/click-to-open rates over time

Note on the power of segmentation:

Knowing game ticket holders are more likely to attend the game, we can infer that they are more likely to be interested in the Pregame Huddle event before the game. For the Penn State huddle, the events team pulled a list of ticket holders to test this hypothesis.

We supplemented the season’s recipient list with a list of Penn State ticket holders. The ticket holder list was too small to use on its own without compromising the primary goal of increasing registrations. In order to be able to read the results by audience, emails went to each lists separately:

Standard Audience
Open rate: 18%  Click-to-open rate: 12%

Ticket holder audience:
Open rate: 30%  Click-to-open rate: 33%

Not too surprisingly, the ticket holder group had a 64% higher open rate and 174% higher click-to-open rate over the main list. This illustrates how segmentation based on things like interests and behavior can be effective.

For more information on testing:

Optimizing your marketing emails with three tests

How to land testing wins in 2018


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