Using Email Marketing to Drive Virtual Event Planning Success

Photo of a computer with an unread email icon

Using Email Marketing to Drive Virtual Event Planning Success

When social distancing due to COVID-19 led St. Mary Catholic Schools in Neenah, Wisconsin, to switch from an in-person fundraiser, they turned to Writing by Design for assistance with their virtual event marketing.

Zephyrfest, the Catholic schools’ largest annual fundraiser, had been planned for May 2, 2020. Normally a large 750-attendee gala raises nearly half a million dollars each year, making the event is a big deal for the school. Then the coronavirus shuffled into town in late March, and the school sent an email announcing the fundraiser would have to be moved to sometime in fall. But by mid-April, school supporters were having second thoughts on the postponement and pushed to see if there was a way to host a virtual event on the originally planned date. With less than two weeks left before the proposed event, they approached Writing by Design for assistance and a tall ask: Could we, would we, assist them with creating an email marketing campaign that would lead to measurable successes they could build on for future events?

Taking a strategy-focused approach to email marketing

While Writing by Design has loads of experience in email marketing, we had never done it in support of a virtual event, nor on a 14-day game clock. But we were up for the challenge—one of the many that COVID-19 tossed our way in recent months.

The results? Absolutely miraculous! Using a Constant Contact newsletter issued just about every other day in tandem with coordinated Facebook posts, we engaged nearly 500 attendees who contributed almost $500,000 when all was said and done. Comments poured in during the online event from 14 states representing alumni and school supporters across the U.S. who had seen the email marketing campaign and joined the free online event on May 2.

So if your in-person event gets cancelled and you need to move your event online, here are some email campaign tips for virtual event marketing success:

  1. Start by setting your goals. Our short timeline made it imperative that we set these from the start, but even if you have adequate time in your schedule to promote and market your event, setting goals for your virtual event communications and marketing will allow you to measure your success after the event concludes. For St. Mary Catholic Schools, our number one priority was to create awareness that the event (which previously had been communicated as moving to fall) was taking place on May 2 and to sign up or register to virtually “attend” it. Once people registered, we were able to move into secondary and tertiary goals of selling pre-event raffle tickets, and then generating interest in silent auction items as the virtual event drew near.
  2. Make your list and check it 100 times. Email list integrity can make or break the success of your email marketing campaign. Poorly procured lists, expired email addresses or a failure to remove targets who’ve opted out previously can result in high bounce rates and negatively impact your open rates. Treat your email list just like you would the guests at a live event, with great care and proper handling.
  3. Personalize your subject line. Using an email marketing platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact, it’s easy to insert your target’s first name (see #2 about list integrity!) into your subject line. If you prefer not to for some reason, simply using the pronoun “you” or “your” can also help improve open rates according to Constant Contact.
  4. Speaking of subject lines, get straight to the point. Work for a phrase that’s only five to seven words in length and includes a verb or call to action (“Look what we did together!” or “Find out who won!”). Emojis, which sometimes improve open rates, should be used sparingly and monitored for results.
  5. Spend time on the preheader. It’s the line of text that shows below the subject line in people’s email inboxes and helps clarify the brief subject line. Again, work hard to distill this down to just a handful of words that matter to your target audience. Brevity is the key.
  6. Priority stack and limit your messages. Back to brevity, in our email marketing campaign, we noticed that the majority of our clicks occurred within the top block of messaging and descended as readers moved down the page. Limit your messaging to two to three actionable messages per email. Monitor click-through rates to watch where click-through diminishes and take note of what’s encouraging engagement from email to email. 
  7. Content matters. As a marketing agency grounded in writing, we pay homage to great content every day. It should go without saying that people won’t read your emails if you don’t give them a good reason to, but we will say it anyway. If you don’t bring your readers news, and I mean meaty content, each time you email them, they will lose interest and your organization will lose trust points with your audience. Engaging your audience means you have to think like them, really understand what’s most important to them and then serve up the content that meets them right there where they are. If you do that, then you’ll have an engaged audience who comes along with you for the ride right up until event day.
  8. Use images (photos or videos) of people to engage readers. Let’s face it: life is a story, and we love to watch it happen in front of us. Don’t just tell people about someone winning a big prize at last year’s auction — show them who it was! Better yet, get the winner to record a quick video showing it off and you can bet it will perform better than copy alone. 

Virtual event planning may seem overwhelming. Heck, everything feels that way in light of COVID-19 some days. But the truth is, when you stick to the basics and best practices for email marketing and social media marketing and really engage your target audience, miraculous results can be achieved.

Got an upcoming fundraising event? Tell us about it in the comments and whether you’ve decided to keep it in person or go virtual. And by all means, give us a call if you need some extra hands on board!

Headshot of Patti Purcell, Writing by Design president

Patti Purcell brings 25+ years of journalism and marketing skills together to provide national and international companies with outstanding concept writing and marketing communications services via the company she founded in 2006, Writing by Design LLC. She and her growing team, based in Wisconsin, tie strategic thinking, efficient processes and CrystalClear℠ thought and execution into all projects supporting clients large and small.