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Southampton City Council’s Journey to Email Marketing Success

In her presentation, “Unitary Government Success Story: Southampton City Council,” at this year’s annual UK digital communications event, Communications Manager Rosanna Coppen shared the story of Southampton City Council’s journey to creating a successful email marketing program. rosannacoppen

Prior to switching to the GovDelivery system in July of 2012, all of the Council’s group emailing was done through Microsoft Outlook. This created a number of challenges. First, every service had its own email list, so there was no centralised management and many duplicate email addresses. Second, there was no easy way for recipients to unsubscribe from the emails, which, as Rosanna said, meant that the Council “was effectively spamming some of its citizens”. Third, Outlook’s email size limits made it nearly impossible to add images and make the messages visually appealing. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there was no tracking system in place to collect data about whether or not the emails were being opened with links being clicked. So the Council had no idea if the information they were sending out to their citizens was actually useful.

Rosanna joined the Southampton City Council in 2011, after working in the private sector for years. It didn’t take long for her to see that not only did the Council need a completely different email marketing system; it also needed one that was specifically targeted to public sector organisations. “My goal was to create a centralised system with a cost-effective, controllable marketing tool. But most importantly I really wanted a system that was most effective for the end-user”, she said.

So, after identifying the Council’s email communications challenges, Rosanna compiled a recommendation paper that included an audit of the organization’s existing email lists. She then worked with outside consultants to research potential email marketing system that might meet the council’s needs. But, Rosanna noted, “Many of my colleagues spent a lot of time on their Outlook emails, and if I was going to ask them to change, I really needed to take them on this journey with me and explain why I might be thinking about things differently”. So she formed an internal user group of co-workers and got their insight before presenting her recommendations to the Council Management Team.

After trying a three month pilot of the GovDelivery system that resulted in 75% of citizens polled responding that they felt more informed, it was clear to Rosanna and her colleagues that it was the solution that best fulfilled their needs, and more importantly, the needs of their users.  “For me, it was a no-brainer”, she said. But although the Council Management Team fully supported Rosanna’s recommendation, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to finance it. Rather than giving up, however, Rosanna got scrappy. After taking a closer look at the money the Council was spending on its print and design budget, she identified enough areas where they could save money to make the switch to the new system.

A year and a half after the Southampton City Council implemented their “Stay Connected” email marketing system and the results are speaking for themselves. The Stay Connected email topic now has 65,000 unique subscribers, with 35 different email alert topics to choose from; they’ve created a visually appealing, recognizable brand through their custom designs; and they consistently achieve an open rate between 25% – 60%, which blows the 5% industry average out of the water and indicates that their citizens are finding the information useful and are engaged with the community.

“We now have a centralised communications strategy that supports a research-based model and a much better understanding of our effectiveness. It allows us to stop doing things that aren’t working, change what we’re doing if it could be better, and continue doing what works”, Rosanna said.

So what did the Southampton City Council do to make their system so effective? They drove people to their messages by placing a prominent subscription button on the home page of the Council’s website, linking to it throughout the other pages, and pushing it out through their additional communications channels. They started cross-selling their alerts more with the addition of banners listing all of the possible topics at the bottom of each email. They gained more subscribers by working with partners and participating in the GovDelivery Network. They worked with their design team to create a recognizable brand and keep the visual components of the emails fresh. And, finally, they “put the user at the heart of everything”, Rosanna said.

To learn more about the Southampton City Council’s communications journey and Rosanna’s advice for starting a journey of your own, watch the video of her presentation here.