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How a Little Nudge Increased Email Subscribership 500%

The University of Alberta has a daily news email it sends out every morning to recap the stories that were posted the previous day on

The email was started in September 2011. Subscribers signed up through an integrated call to action on all story pages and a few other places on the university website.

It grew slowly in its first year to more than 400 subscribers by November 2012. This was still small in comparison to how large the university community, city, and province is, as well as the readership the news site gets on a daily basis – approximately 30-50,000 unique page views per month.

Here’s a look at one of the Daily News Emails:

university of alberta

The Nudge Experiment

Before the experiment, a call to action was on every news story and on a few pages across the site as a button or link. This resulted in a couple of subscribers per day at most. The calls to action sent visitors off to a short form where they had to provide their name and email address. This was simplified to just an email in the launch of our responsive site, but subscription rates stayed relatively low.

Here’s a look at the sign-up form before the nudge was set up:

daily news subscribe

One afternoon while reading the KISSmetrics blog post about Qualaroo’s new idea to use the tool as a nudge instead of just a feedback or survey tool, we saw a potential to use it for the daily news. Given the low subscription rates and the energy to put out the daily news, we wanted to find new, simple ways to promote the email, especially to those already reading the news.

Although the main audience is campus faculty, staff, and students, we found a large quantity of traffic came from search, sometimes as much as a third of our traffic, with a quarter of that actually being new traffic to the site. Many of the stories have keywords with specific names or research terms that get searched on daily. Some readers come in for one story and leave, so we needed to look at a way to engage a reader who obviously has an interest in a topic or piece of UAlberta information.

We decided that after a reader visited a story and stayed on the page for 10 seconds, we would have a nudge pop up saying, “You seem interested in UAlberta news. Would you like to sign up for the Daily News email?”

popup questions

After just a few days, we saw the results and realized we had triggered quite an uptake in subscriptions. We generally were seeing one or two sign-ups maximum per day before the nudge was set up. Now, we have days where we see as many as 12 to 15 sign-ups.

Here’s a look at the response rate over nine months:

survey results

The Process

This remains a somewhat manual process. Every couple of days, we export the .csv file and upload it into our mail client, checking against duplicates and any current subscribers. Since this is constantly growing, we are beginning to look at ways to import the addresses more quickly.

We’ve also used this as a case study to share with clients who will be picking up the same strategy on a couple of key news/magazine sites around campus.

The Results

As noted, this short and sweet nudge saw phenomenal response immediately. The sign-up rate for those who responded has stayed steady above 20%. The subscriber list has grown almost 500% in less than a year. The open rate for the email has stayed steady above 30%.

What began as an experiment, stuck as a constant call to action. We continue to monitor this to see if sign-up and open rates decline, but with continued positive growth, it’s still running.

daily news subscribers

The Takeaways

  • Don’t be afraid to test. The simplicity of the survey/nudge tool allowed us to quickly implement the nudge with little development time. Had we debated and not tried something new, we might still be stuck with less than 1,000 subscribers.
  • Don’t underestimate desktop users. At the time, the mobile version of the survey/nudge tool had not been created yet. Although a growing portion of views to our responsive site are mobile now, desktop views remain high. Implementing a feature to a select audience can still produce big results and leverage future marketing ideas.
  • Experiment with other cases. Speaking of future marketing ideas, we are experimenting with other subscription and lead capture cases around campus. Some are working, others aren’t, and some need tweaking. It’s all a learning experience for both us and the members of the campus community. You never know which one could produce gold.
  • Calling the Right Action. It can be difficult at a content-rich organization or company to identify and pinpoint the right business goal with a client. Unlike a product site or campaign page, the content on some pieces at a university can get quite verbose or organizational centric. If you can make only small tweaks to the content with a client, look for ways like nudges, sidebar items, or other means to push the visitor toward a bigger goal than just the information on the page. The results could surprise you.

About the Author: Jason Buzzell is officially the Web Content Writer/Editor for University Digital Strategy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is part of a four-person digital analytics team that works with faculties and departments across the campus to optimize content and marketing campaigns. He is informally a wannabe Digital Strategist who loves using data through surveys, web analytics tools, and other UX exercises to produce awesome content. You can follow him @Buzzilinear or connect with him on LinkedIn.

  1. That’s really great information. Anything that moves is going to get more attention from spaced out readers.

  2. Qualaroo is great. It’s a shame they changed their pricing structure, making them not really viable for smaller businesses. It would be great if there was a cheaper alternative. Maybe some sort of WordPress plugin that does the same thing?

    • Hi Damien,

      Thanks for your feedback on pricing. The example above can be done with our $79/month package. With a 500% increase in leads, it seems like a pretty good deal. But of course I’m a bit biased.

      BTW, this article was a nice surprise for us. We didn’t know that University of Alberta was working on this article for the KISSmetrics blog.

      Sean Ellis
      CEO of Qualaroo

  3. Good job, you have achieved very good results. I have a question, Have you had complaints from readers and subscribers tired of seeing the same question?

    • Hi Andy,

      The nudge is set up to only show once for a visitor and after they stay on a news section page for 10 seconds. Once someone responds they won’t be “nudged” again.

      Now, people do use different machines from time to time or clear their cache, so it does pop up occasionally. Since it’s rather unobtrusive to the reader, it hasn’t caused much complaint.

      We continue to monitor unsubscribes (minimal) as well as open rates and they have stayed steady. The original plan was to try this for a little while, but it has been so successful and the trend up continues, so we have it still going for now.

      This is pretty simple, but we’re doing some other cool stuff with a few other tools, and integrating them together. I’m looking forward to the next year.

  4. Hi Sean, thanks for chiming in. I hadn’t even seen the smaller plans as your pricing page starts at $199. I now see there is a $49 small biz plan too, which is great.

    It would be even better if you considered a free basic plan for freelancers etc who have a limited marketing budget and low traffic, in the same way that tools like ClickTale have a scaled down free plan. But I’m a little bit biased too!

    • Hi Damien, first thing I did when we acquired KISSinsights was try to make the free plan better. Unfortunately it caused revenue to shrink but taught us that there wasn’t as much price sensitivity as we thought. So we invested heavily in product development and moved to more of an enterprise pricing model. Since January revenue has increased about 500% month over month. Unfortunately that leaves some of the smaller opportunities behind, but we realize we can’t serve the needs of everyone. We do offer a free trial, so that should help you figure out if we can give you a positive ROI.

  5. Grant Tilus (@granttilus) Oct 17, 2013 at 7:18 am

    Love the nudge idea using qualaroo. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this method.

  6. This is an interesting take on the use of Qualaroo for a more subtle version of the pop-up which is so effective, yet many hate to use.

    One thing to be aware of though is that for some Email List Companies you will be limited in your ability to upload contacts. For instance, Aweber will still require the email contacts are sent out a ‘click to confirm’ email rather than just immediately adding the new subscribers to the list.

  7. I am so stoked to see a Canadian example! Us Canadians feel unloved in the digital space sometimes ;)

  8. Derick Branson Oct 20, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Yes, Nudges do work wonders. But personally I dislike these kinds of pop-ups, especially when I’m reading something very carefully. Just a couple pf days back I was going through a renowned online news paper. A pop up or nudge whatever you say blocked the entire skin. I was so annoyed that I left the site immediately. By sharing this experience I’m not saying that Nudges don’t work. But there are many readers who respond like me too. I think website managers should keep this aspect in mind too before implementing it in their websites.

    • Thanks for the feedback Derick. We definitely are cognizant of these kind of issues and carefully monitor feedback and data.

      The nice thing about the nudge and our design, which was carefully thought out, was to not be disruptive to the reader like the example you noted.

      We’re big believers in providing non-obtrusive, in-context content rather than in-your-face ads or pop ups.

      Thanks again.

  9. Great article, I’ve experimented with various methods to get our opt-in’s up – this technique of a timed nudge can work well, it’s all about your call to action which, as you point out in this article, requires testing.

    I really like the personalized call to action – going to test something similar as we have not tried something quite like this.

    Thanks for your information.



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