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A Test-and-Learn Approach to the Annual Letter


Guest Post:  Katie Butterfield, Elizabeth Cahill and Edith Asibey 

At The Atlantic Philanthropies, we are well into the foundation’s final chapter—a major experiment in limited-life philanthropy.  The proximity to the end of the foundation’s life has brought a sense of urgency to share our work, experiences and lessons in a way that would be meaningful to our very diverse audiences across the world. We asked ourselves:

How can we provide useful and relevant information to disparate audiences while fostering a sense of community and a shared purpose?

While we pursue a variety of avenues to communicate our work, and engage with sub-sets of our audiences with specific products, we view our annual letter as the most important communication product that anchors our main messages.  The letter is distributed electronically and, since 2010, has been a replacement for our annual report.

This year, we decided to take a test-and-learn approach: we revamped the letter with new design and easily shareable multimedia content that we felt would help better achieve our objectives. The letter had a clean and inviting ‘look and feel’ with a modular presentation that would let users pick and choose which content to share with their own networks.  With content, we centered on first person narrative and told real stories about what the work means to people’s lives.  Finally, we devised a user-friendly way to access and share evaluations, reports and
Butterfieldother learnings.

We were very intentional in our outreach efforts, using a combination of email and social media promotions.  Upon launching the letter, we set out to track several metrics, including page views with unique “mediums” and campaigns” for each story, email open rates and click-throughs, social sharing and engagement, and anecdotal feedback. Here is some of what we’ve learned.

Readers Respond Positively to Real Stories
People emailed us to say that stories made the letter extremely “human” and that the videos and photos brought the “work to life.” Stories with videos were shared nearly 50 percent more than those without.

Readers Are Very Interested in What We Are Learning
Reports about Creating Excellence in Dementia Care, Building a Movement for Civic Engagement among Older Adults and Ex-Combatants in South Africa were also among some of the top performing content.

Email Still Matters
With so much emphasis on social media distribution channels, it’s easy to forget the value of good old-fashioned Cahill_Elizabeth_3email. We sent targeted emails to five different segments (active grantees, past grantees, funders, philanthropy advisors and stakeholders) and used two different subject lines for each group so we could test which worked better. For people who were most invested in our work and/or best positioned to help amplify our message, key Atlantic staff sent them personalized emails including proposed draft tweets to make it easy for them to share the letter. Our email campaign accounted for nearly 60 percent of visitors to the online letter in the first two months, and folks who received personalized emails from key Atlantic staff stayed on the page nearly twice as long as other visitors. This targeted approach seemed to have made a big difference and leads to our next lesson.

Foundation Staff Are Great Promoters
Encouraging staff to send personalized emails to influential figures in our fields announcing the letter, and including customized tweets that those people could share with their networks, helped us reach a level of engagement that we couldn’t have attained by ourselves. These people clicked through and shared the letter via Twitter, Facebook, and email. In addition, many took time to send back their feedback on the letter, giving us valuable anecdotal data on the letter’s impact.

Don’t Over-Complicate MetricsEdith_Asibey
We wanted to understand what parts of the letter got shared the most, so we set up separate bit.lys for each place you could share a story with unique “mediums” and “campaigns” in Google Analytics. We also hand-crafted tweets and Facebook posts for each section of the letter instead of using our Add This social sharing plugin. This helped us learn some interesting things, such as: few people clicked on the share buttons at the very top and very bottom of the page; and that stories about our work in Northern Ireland and learnings about ex-combatants in South Africa outperformed other content. However, producing and analyzing this was very time-consuming. We could have gotten 80 percent of what we needed to know by just relying on our Add This and will seriously consider the simpler route next time around.

As a limited life foundation, Atlantic is increasingly focused on highlighting the impact of our grantees’ work, celebrating successes, and sharing what we have learned to work as well as what hasn’t worked.  This test and learn approach has provided valuable insights not only for the distribution of future annual letters, but for broader communications efforts that seek to engage, inform and maximize the impact of what we have done and our grantees have achieved.


Katie Butterfield is a communications executive, Elizabeth Cahill is the senior web strategist, both at The Atlantic Philanthropies  and Edith Asibey is the foundation’s former chief communications officer.

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