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published: March 2004
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October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


Targeting Museum Visitors with Email Marketing

Matt Crenshaw and Cheryl Obermeyer, Chicago Historical Society, USA



The Chicago Historical Society is a major museum and research center specializing in the diverse and evolving story of Chicago, a city that reflects urban areas across the country, as well as significant times in American history. People of all ages are able to experience the rich past, and gain new perspectives on the present through our wide variety of exhibitions and programs. In an effort to meet the on-going challenge to raise awareness of these offerings, management started a new initiative to investigate the potential of integrating an emarketing program with our traditional marketing efforts. The mandate was simply to find new and innovative ways to present and promote the museum. This paper reflects our efforts as a case study for examining how other museums can initiate or invigorate their emarketing efforts.

Keywords: Emarketing, promotion, web content, audience development


As web usage increases, email continues to be the most prevalent online activity. Though much has changed online, email is still quick, cheap, and doesnĖt require a high connection speed, so itĖs not surprising that tens of millions of people use it everyday. How can museums take advantage of this powerful tool? At CHS, an emarketing team began to look at how to turn a monthly information piece that went to a few thousand recipients into a communications tool that could provide meaningful historical content, highlight special offers, and keep visitors engaged and interested in the museum. This initial investigation quickly grew into a major undertaking, identifying a long list of opportunities that encompassed nearly every function of the museum. The emarketing components considered were search engine optimization, eMedia placement, strategic linking, and email marketing. We identified email marketing as the central component and our primary focus, having the greatest potential and benefits.

The planning phase

The emarketing effort at the Chicago Historical Society has been both exciting and rewarding, giving a variety of museum staff the opportunity to develop a new program that will further a broad range of institutional goals. The core team represents marketing, the web, publications, technology, and membership. Together, we learned that we could achieve a powerful 'marketing mix' through coordinating our emarketing efforts with current direct mail, web development, and marketing plans. Following three months of extensive research, brainstorming sessions, an assessment of our existing technical resources, and a 'readiness check' of departments throughout the organization, the team developed a program proposal that was presented to management and approved. We quickly moved to establish a first phase implementation plan. The most significant findings and lessons we learned through these two processes are presented below.

Comparing email marketing with traditional marketing

Email marketing has distinct and well-documented advantages over traditional marketing methods, namely global reach, personalization, interaction, and measurability. A comparison between email and direct mail shows that email marketing costs less and produces quicker results with higher response rates. Statistics from groups such as Gartner Group, Forrestor and the Direct Marketing Association highlight these advantages in greater detail. On average, the cost per unit is $.25 for email and $1.25 for direct mail. The time required for 75% of the responses is only 3 days for email as opposed to 3-6 weeks for direct mail. Response rates for email range from 5-15% while direct mail remains at only 1-2%. CHS is accustomed to the direct mail costs of preparation, printing, and postage. The museumĖs membership program has been primarily driven by direct mail, but in planning an institutional emarketing effort, we hoped to significantly reduce many of these costs by migrating a large percentage of members online.

Starting with well-defined goals and objectives

The emarketing program at the Chicago Historical Society has combined research and a unique set of strategies and technologies to arrive at three specific goals:

  • Reaching new audiences
  • Increasing CHS visibility
  • Strengthen relationships

The following objectives were identified to support these goals and guide our planning.

  • Increase subscribers
  • Cultivate prospects
  • Raise awareness
  • Improve services
  • Educate and inform
  • Generate revenues

Establishing key success factors

  • Acquire and maintain adequate data on visitors and prospects
  • Carefully choose the tools and appropriate delivery system
  • Be prepared to make process changes that support the initiative
  • Maintain emphasis on creative content and effective messages
  • Monitor the effectiveness of different promotional strategies
  • Sustain a shared responsibility for success throughout the organization

Setting strategies for list building

Collecting adequate data about people interested in CHS is the only way to achieve desired emarketing goals. We discovered there already existed a plethora of visitor contact points in the museum, all of which could be seen as opportunities to collect valuable email addresses. In order to reach people with an expressed interest in the museum, we focused on recent visitors, store customers, and most of all, members. After identifying prime opportunities in the museum building, we began to consider various unassisted methods for data capture. Incorporating the use of source codes to identify individuals in all in-house systems allowed us to track the growth of our subscriber list and extract targeted lists for campaign messages.

Contact Points

Data Capture

Front desk museum visitors

Website visitors

Research center

Research inquiries

Program attendees

Pop-up screens on website

Museum store customers

Email signatures

Corporate event clients

Printed materials and forms

Adult group tours

Multi-use postcard

CafČ customers

Staff contacts

Table 1

A few small Web site changes proved to have a positive effect on boosting the number of newsletter subscribers. Working with an outside design firm in a very low-cost, high-turnaround effort, we were able to add a newsletter link to the primary navigation and centralize feedback through the Web site ('contact us'), allowing us to collect the information required of subscribers. We placed a small, inobtrusive pop-up window on the most popular areas of the website for additional data capture.

Our largest financial investment in the program was the design, printing, and delivery of a postcard that encouraged people to sign up for the email newsletter. The postcard was sent to our best in-house direct mail prospects, new movers to the area, and displayed at the front desk and other reception areas in the museum. The postcard included an offer for free admission or a store discount, so that it not only encouraged online sign up but served to promote future museum visits as well. List building is the critical first step in any emarketing effort, and we found positive results by collecting email addresses through every means possible: in the museum, through various in-house databases, through the museumĖs website, and by augmenting these efforts with traditional direct marketing. With these addresses in hand, we could begin to focus on creating communications that would strengthen museum-visitor relationships and begin a cultivation track, ultimately moving visitors from initial contact to interested party, on to engaged member and beyond.

Choosing the delivery system

Many of the building blocks to emarketing, such as web capabilities, database systems, email, and a strong marketing program, were already in place at CHS. These alone would be enough to implement an emarketing program, but would not give us the data management and reporting features needed to sustain a successful program. Like many institutions, we currently have disparate systems that house our contact information, which makes data management a key issue in selecting a system. With limited financial and staff resources available, and without any previous experience in emarketing, we were hesitant to sign any contracts or make a significant investment in a system. We used short-term needs to determine the criteria for selecting a delivery system: cost, data management, user interface, use-based fees, technical support, and growth potential. There is no shortage of email marketing solutions available, many of them reasonably priced, and we evaluated a total of ten. We chose Vertical Response (http://www.verticalresponse.com), a very cost-effective solution that most precisely met all of our stated needs.

Vertical Response system features include:

  • Auto-format AOL and text
  • Message forwarding
  • Advanced formatting
  • List management
  • Simple user interface
  • Tracking and reporting
  • Unsubscribe and bounce
  • Templates and layouts
  • No contract - low cost

Defining the process

As with many technology solutions, the features and design of a particular system may dictate how the internal processes will develop. With that in mind, we opted to establish our emarketing process after the system selection was complete. Our emarketing program was not designed to replace any current marketing activities. One of the greatest challenges we encountered was integrating this new program into existing workflows. Emarketing has been incorporated into most of the planning that takes place in the museum throughout the year. We found that marketing and web staff represents the best combination of knowledge and skills to develop suitable emarketing materials. At CHS, Information Services staff have also been involved, due to time constraints in these areas. However, the time investment for technical staff was heavily weighted toward the front end of the project. The Vertical Response interface is well designed and offers intuitive tools for development and visitor tracking that allow non-technical staff in corporate events, the store, and membership to consistently distribute e-newsletters with only minimal assistance.

Coordinating newsletters, campaigns, and surveys

Each newsletter, campaign, or survey follows a cycle of Plan, Create, Launch, and Evaluate. Our newsletter, CHS Quick Hits, is published the first of each month. The newsletter opens with a personal greeting from our president, Lonnie Bunch, which sets the tone for the piece. We highlight exhibition openings and new programs, and include articles that are deemed to be 'insider news,' such as our presidentĖs visit to the White House, recent acquisitions, project updates, etc. We prepare a 'Trivia' feature that directs readers to content on the CHS website, and an alternate 'What is It?' feature that displays items from our collection not easily identified. Both of these have been popular, evidenced by the high click-through ratings that we can follow through Vertical Response. The monthly newsletters routinely highlight membership and special offers from the museum store. By collecting geographic information (zip code) during sign up, CHS has been able to determine that a large percentage of newsletter subscribers hail from outside Chicago and beyond Illinois. This information underscores the importance of crafting messages that appeal to people beyond the local audience by highlighting museum features and opportunities that are available through the website.

In addition to CHS Quick Hits, we frequently develop emarketing campaigns with specific audiences and objectives in mind. These objectives, determined on an as-needed basis, may focus on increasing program attendance, recruiting volunteers, acquiring new members, selling merchandise, driving website traffic, or reinforcing a previous message. These campaigns typically are delivered mid-month and tracked independently from the newsletters. Once the results are digested, an action plan can be developed that capitalizes on the success of the campaign and determines specific changes that can be made to improve future mailings.

Surveys at CHS, in the past, consisted of a printed form that was completed by program participants and then entered manually into a spreadsheet by museum staff. Emarketing tools allow us to improve the follow-up time and efficiency of processing these responses. After a program, we send an email message thanking attendees for their participation with a link to an electronic survey that can be filled out online. Integrating surveys into our special emarketing campaigns has provided valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our programs, while developing stronger relationships with those who attended.

Crafting a message that is both personal and compelling

The goal of any marketing communication is to deliver the right message to the right audience, but this is especially true in the case of emarketing. The rise of 'spam,' unwanted email messages, makes it much more challenging to get messages opened and read, even if visitors have taken the time and effort to sign up for them. Be sure to use a subject line that truly communications what is inside the email. If you choose to use a more ambiguous teaser, be sensitive not to use words or phrases that might be misconstrued and automatically deleted by some email clients. At CHS, we strive to make each message both personal and compelling, as if the reader were sitting right across the table. Creatively cross-promoting an exhibit, associated programs, products, and member events within a single piece increases the value of the message for all recipients. With the quick response time of email, last-minute information works well. The greatest benefit of shorter publishing time is that the best content for emarketing is readily available, with press releases, printed materials, and web content already completed. Typically, only a few alterations will make these pieces suitable for online publishing if you focus on selecting a mix of attention-getting graphics and short, compelling copy. The message should always end with an encouraging note to send the email to friends and colleagues, the WebĖs example of 'word of mouth' promotion.

Recipients using different email clients will see slightly different versions of the same message. Luckily, Vertical Response allows CHS staff to preview messages in HTML, text, and the America Online format before sending them. Statistics show that HTML formatted messagesÛthose that use color, images and often look like Web sitesÛare more effective than text-based messages. Currently, 80-82% of our subscribers are able to receive HTML messages. Vertical Response is organized in such a way that the design of the newsletter is a template, so that museum staff can focus their attention on adding customized images and textual descriptions. While the HTML piece is the most eye catching and the most visually appealing, it is important to preview alternate versions before sending, as often critical information can be missing when design elements and images are removed.

Connecting to Web pages and services

Every email message should focus on a 'call to action.' Often, these messages aim to get recipients clicking through to a landing page on the museumĖs Web site. The landing page can be an existing page on the Web site or a page custom built to provide more information on features described in the emarketing message. Either way, the landing page must echo the key ideas from the original email in order to close the deal (conversion). Any desired response or transaction must be made as simple as possible.

Building on the results

Within days of launching an email campaign, responses can be measured and actions taken. CHS received several responses unrelated to the sent message. These ad hoc replies can be crucial to beginning or re-invigorating relationship-building cycle. Receiving positive comments can be a great motivator, and negative responses provide useful feedback for making improvements. To best develop internal benchmarks for evaluating results and conducting future campaigns, consider these direct responses in conjunction with industry statistics and sources for information (a handful of these resources are listed at the end of this paper).

Below are some statistics from our newsletter distribution.









Sep ë02







Oct ë02







Nov ë02








Dec ë02







Table 2


Emarketing has become a central component in a communications strategy that incorporates print advertising, direct mail, and website promotion. Making the most of email as a new communication channel, it facilitates dialog with new visitors and building deeper relationships with our constituents. While emarketing is extremely cost-effective and can offer value beyond print or other media advertising, it is not a replacement for these traditional activities, but should serve as reinforcement for offline efforts. Emarketing has proven to be a valuable program at CHS and an integral part of our overall marketing efforts.

Additional Resources


Bly, Robert W. (2001). Internet direct mail: the complete guide to successful email marketing campaigns. NTC Business Books.

MacPherson, Kim. (2001). Permission-based Email marketing that works. Dearborn Financial Publishing, Inc.

Usborne, Nick (2002). Net Words, Creating High-Impact Online Copy. McGraw-Hill.


DoubleClick (2003) Email Trends www.doubleclick.com/us/knowledge/default.asp

AvantMarketer www.avantmarketer.com

Forrester Research www.forrester.com


eMarketing Association www.emarketingassociation.com

American Marketing Association www.marketingpower.com


Marketing Sherpa www.marketingsherpa.com

MarketingProfs www.marketingprofs.com