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Back to Basics: Building a Successful Outreach Campaign on Good Data and a Personal Touch

4 min readNov 5, 2019


As a communications team, we regularly engage stakeholder audiences around research that provides specific findings or recommendations. But this past year, we were faced with a new challenge: would we be able to drive engagement around products that provided our audience with more questions than answers?

To help celebrate the Urban Institute’s 50th anniversary, we launched Next50, an initiative that explored two major questions:

- What would it take to advance equity and upward mobility and achieve racial justice and shared prosperity in the decades ahead?

- What knowledge do changemakers need to catalyze bold solutions?

Our communications plan for Next 50 — and for the other research projects Urban undertakes — was based entirely on knowing our audience, digging into the data, and customizing our outreach to be personal and relevant.

Of course these tactics aren’t new. Our strategy was really about applying email outreach 101 in a research setting. But because it’s more time consuming than sending a newsletter or an email from your organization’s account on a mass scale, a lot of nonprofits miss the mark.

Communicating our Next50 work was a priority for Urban, so we had a dedicated budget and resources to develop and execute our strategy. To get our product into the right hands (in our case, key influencers, funders, and policymakers), we felt carving out the capacity for this personal and informed outreach was essential. We set aside about 40 hours for developing audiences and crafting custom communications for each round of Next50 outreach. And it was worth it.

Our Next50 stakeholder engagement campaign was one of the most successful outreach efforts undertaken by Urban’s communications team in recent years. We made dozens of new connections with federal, state, and local government officials, advocacy organizations, and nonprofits.

Here’s how we did it:

1. We tracked existing relationships with key influencers.

When our research teams met with key influencers to explore innovative solutions that could advance the Next50 initiatives of upward mobility, equity, and shared prosperity, we tracked and logged those engagements. We added influencers to campaigns in Salesforce. We logged roundtables, phone calls, and meetings as engagements and tagged to our contacts to the associated campaign.

Researchers developed Catalyst Briefs from these conversations, which identified specific strategies and areas where our leaders needed more knowledge and data to advance the efforts outlined in the Next50 initiative.

Months later, when the time came to distribute the completed Catalyst Briefs, our influencers became our ambassadors. Our researchers sent each contact a personalized note the day or two before publication and asked them to share it with their networks. We facilitated this by providing sample email and newsletter language and links to the Next50 website and the specific Catalyst Brief they helped develop.

2. We mined publicly available data to find new influencers and organized our data so we could conduct custom, personal outreach.

About three weeks before each Catalyst Brief was scheduled for release, our team held brainstorming meetings with the researchers to identify key agencies and organizations who could fund, benefit from, or partake in the knowledge-building priorities laid out in the brief.

Instead of focusing on a broad audience, we took a deep dive into databases of government officials and organizations’ websites to track down the right two or three people from the groups we identified. For instance, for the “Climate Adaptation” Catalyst Brief, we pulled the chiefs of staff and mayors from cities that partake in climate initiatives.

Critically, we organized our data by key message and used email merges to send personal notes. Email merges can be used to quickly personalize emails to a large number of contacts by replacing key fields with individual names and messages.

The legislative director of a Congressional committee chair needs a very different note than the president of a small nonprofit working on the ground, for example. It also helps let the recipient know that these aren’t mass marketing emails. Using first names and organization names, in addition to specialized messages, helped us build personal connections.

3. We tracked responses from our stakeholders and followed up.

We tracked email responses and meeting requests in Salesforce. When the next Catalyst Brief was released, we knew exactly who had already expressed interest, whether the new publication was relevant to their area of focus (thanks to our organizational tactics described above), and we followed up personally on conversations that had already begun. This loop sparked a new round of connections. In the Climate Adaptation case, mayors responded with requests to meet with Carlos Martín, the lead Urban researcher on the brief.

The bottom line is that the Next50 content our researchers produced is extremely compelling. Setting aside the time to develop a deep knowledge of our data and personal outreach helped us get this work into the hands of people who could use it to drive change.

-Katy Napotnik

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