What do you do when your newsletter audience almost triples from 30,000 subscribers to 80,000? This was the fortunate dilemma we faced at Professional and Continuing Education in May of this year with the popularity of our online Master Gardener Vegetable Gardening class. But let me back up and discuss where we were, what happened and where we are now.

PACE has long had a gardening newsletter, primarily as a promotional venue, and it has always had an engaged readership. We had a little over 30,000 subscribers and strong numbers in terms of engagement. Our open rates hovered around 13% (3,500 people) and our click-through rates (the number of people who click on something in the email after opening it) was usually around 25%, or close to 1,000 people.

We also knew, through analytics provided by our content management system HubSpot, that 75% of our audience actually read our newsletter, meaning they spent more than 2 minutes engaging with it. These are strong numbers, but we always thought the newsletter could do more. It was a great way to let people know about our upcoming gardening classes, but we weren’t providing much benefit beyond that.

Then COVID-19 happened. When we were all leaving our offices and beginning to quarantine at home, Gail Langellotto decided to make PACE’s Master Gardener Vegetable Gardening class free temporarily so people stuck at home could enjoy the spring weather and get out in the garden. It struck a chord. Between March and June over 40,000 people enrolled in the course and we added 50,000 people to our gardening newsletter list.

At this same time, the PACE marketing team was beginning to work more closely with others in Extension Communications and the Extension Computing Technology Unit, now in a virtual setting. Capitalizing on these new relationships and the rising popularity of our gardening classes, we forged a small team to work together on a revitalized version of the gardening newsletter. We soon realized that we could do more than promote upcoming classes, especially with the added expertise of Extension Communications folks.

We decided to revise the newsletter to focus more on providing benefit and resources to our audience to help them garden. We would utilize existing resources such as monthly gardening calendars, Extension publications and upcoming news articles. We would also continue advertising upcoming PACE gardening and agriculture focused courses to let people know about professional development opportunities they could pursue.

We also made use of a new email template in HubSpot that PACE had as part of our website redesign. This template was much more clean and engaging. Plus, using some of HubSpot’s new tools, it is easily customizable month-to-month when we have different pieces of content coming in and out.

Even though we added 50,000 people to our newsletter list who may be relatively new to gardening, our engagement metrics have gone up. Our open rates have been consistently between 20-30% (16,000 – 24,000 people) and our click-through rates have mostly been in the 17% range (4,000 people). We have also increased the frequency in order to stay more engaged with this new audience, moving from once a month to every other week. We have plans to move to weekly, if possible.

Having a larger team working remotely on the newsletter has also been a great opportunity to improve processes and make use of more planning and reporting. To that end, we’ve been using AirTable for our content calendar. This allows everyone on the team to view the different components of the newsletter ahead of time and contribute their own edits, thoughts and ideas. It also allows us to see all the upcoming newsletter drafts at a glance at our monthly check-ins.

We have a fantastic team working on this newsletter, and it’s been great to see it evolve so much this year. The pandemic has been and continues to be a devastating part of 2020, but it’s nice to see more people getting interested in gardening. And it’s great to be able to provide that audience with the excellent content Extension has to offer.

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Author: Rich Collins