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From A to B: ASU Alumni Association

Every day, the ASU Alumni Association forges a stronger university community through signature events and programs that connect more than 400,000 alumni worldwide with shared memories and experiences at their alma mater.
To effectively engage with such a broad network of Sun Devils, the Alumni Association was among ASU’s early adopters of Salesforce. In September 2014, the organization launched the tool, working with university partners such as Information Resources Management and the ASU Foundation to set up data extensions within Salesforce Marketing Cloud that would provide access to key information related to graduates and association members. After reaching a comfortable stage in the initial build-out, the group began sending emails through Marketing Cloud in March 2015.
From the onset, the Alumni Association’s primary goal was to enhance existing email communications to its constituents.
Anywhere from four to six categories of emails (e.g., event announcements, newsletters, etc.) are sent out each week, with five to 20 unique emails being sent out per day within certain categories based on demographics such as geography or special interests. There is a lot of consideration that goes into each message — and into determining which inboxes will receive it. But the association once struggled to obtain real-time data around what was happening after it pressed send.
“With our previous tools, we weren’t able to figure out what our alums wanted to hear from us,” explains Matt Hodson, digital media manager for the Alumni Association. “We didn’t know what really resonated. We knew whether or not they were opening our emails, but we didn’t know why.”
Since implementation, the association has developed a greater understanding of what ASU alumni want to read about through Marketing Cloud analytics such as open and click-through rates.
“We can really dive in and determine whether the content we’re sharing is actually what our constituents want to see,” says Hodson. “In a way, we’re intruding on their inbox, so we want to make sure there’s value in the content they’re receiving.”
One of the biggest difference makers in reaching this objective thus far has been the ability to run A/B testing with email subject lines.
“We had no easy way of conducting an A/B test in the old system,” says Hodson. “We had one approved subject line for an email. So with our newsletter, for example, we’d send it out with that approved subject line, and open rates were 10 percent, if we were lucky. Now with Marketing Cloud, we can test two subject lines against each other with a small subsection of the population receiving the email. After a custom period of time, such as from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 24 hours, the system automatically takes whichever subject line performed the best and sends that version out to the rest of the email list.”

For emails that have undergone A/B testing, open rates have predictably increased.

“Even if it’s just a percentage point or two, with the volume of emails we’re sending, that’s quite a few more opens,” Hodson says. He adds that once the association feels confident in its subject line A/B testing, the next stage will be to take the same approach with the full content of the emails.
Alumni communications have additionally benefited from the best practice email templates offered through ExactTarget, part of Marketing Cloud.
“Our former templates had hidden code, so there was very little we could do to customize them,” says Hodson. “ExactTarget has fresh, customizable templates that are mobile optimized, and we can get the HTML from the backend to edit it if needed so that it is even more to our liking.”
There have also been unforeseen advantages to using the tool, such as more convenience in reporting to management. While previously staff had to gather and format data manually, they are now able to schedule a detailed report to be sent automatically from Salesforce each month, which they can then forward on to leadership.

Up next for the Alumni Association is a more in-depth focus on email automation, yet another feature within Salesforce that was not available prior to implementation. This process would include being able to further segment email communications to send automatic event reminders to people who haven’t already clicked through to register.

“It will help us pinpoint those who haven’t interacted with us yet and avoid doubling up communications to people who have already responded to our initial message and don’t need to hear from us again,” says Hodson. “By doing so, we can utilize the tool to its fullest extent while better serving our constituents.”
If Hodson could give anyone who is just starting out with Salesforce one piece of advice, it would be to forgo all apprehension in favor of exploration. Though in hindsight he believes there was a lack of adequate training among staff when they first launched, he has quickly realized the best way to get to know the tool is to learn by doing.
“Every week I find something new,” he says. “There’s a lot there and sometimes that can be a little daunting, but the more you utilize it, the more you’re going to appreciate what it is that’s available to you.”
The more you know, the more you can grow. Don’t be afraid to dive right in.