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Association Management: How to Grow Your Association Using Marketing Automation

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Why Marketing Automation is the New Currency for Association Management & Growth

The concept of marketing automation may seem nebulous and untouchable for those of us who haven’t had experience with it. Terms like C4C (content for contact), lead scoring, and workflow management may seem far outside of the confines of our comfortably traditional marketing approaches.

Yet, when we really break down the core of marketing automation, we see that it’s not far off what we—as marketers, technologists, and beyond—have been doing all along. The difference—marketing automation means we’re now integrated, as are the tools we use every day. Our channels and platforms aren’t just talking with one another. In some cases, they’re sharing the same brain.

The Path to Digital Transformation for Associations

From a functional perspective, a marketing automation platform—not to be misconstrued with an email platform—bundles together multiple tool sets so that your communications, your engagements, and your campaigns are all connected by data. The platform operates much like a microsite. You can tag for optimization, build a navigational structure, publish pages, track pages, and create and manage workflows, all aligned with a single effort or campaign that’s anchored by a relevant and meaningful story.

If that’s still a little bit too ambiguous, here’s a good visual to help illustrate what can be a very obscure idea for those associations on the perimeter of adoption.



Digital transformation turns traditional association marketing upside down

There’s no questioning there’s been a fundamental shift for associations over the past decade. Much like our for-profit counterparts, we’ve gone through—and are stilling going through—the digital shift albeit a few years later. On the digital maturity model, moving from an association centric to user centric tier is just the first step when it comes to digital evolution. Associations are in now in the age of digital transformation.

So let’s review how we’ve gotten here…

 In the past, marketing departments (if they even existed) within organizations were siloed and codependent. IT departments held the keys to software purchases, training, and budgets, and only a handful of highly ‘technical’ (and not necessarily business- or marketing-minded) super users had access to the tools that collected, ran, and stored data. Cut to—another once obscure turned mainstream concept known as social media.

The introduction of social media outlets induced inclusivity and unsheltered access to people and data, unleashing an entirely new cultural marketing evolution. Marketers soon realized control over outbound communications wasn’t enough. They needed to take the inbound wheel. They needed to start with the data and follow with the message.

Suddenly, skill sets started to evolve. Marketers upped their tech proficiencies and took the helm on data coming through the door. They started phasing away from communication frequency and volume and focusing on metrics, nuances, and buying behaviors. They became the purveyor of the data and their platforms. Engaging, nurturing, and ultimately procuring revenue started evolving their roles as marketers. They no longer needed to be association experts. They needed to be customer experts at the most individualized levels.

As skill sets evolved, organizations started evolving in parallel. Communication and editorial departments were supplemented with ‘for-profit’ modeled marketing arms. Marketing and IT departments reorganized for better collaboration. Technology stacks went beyond the big three (association management system, event management system, and content management system) and started connecting their systems with enterprise marketing systems and marketing automation platforms. Intimate, integrated, intelligent marketing was underway.

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Build Your Own Business Case for Marketing Automation at Your Association

Now that we’re in the age of digital transformation, it’s no longer about larger associations with deeper pockets evolving to user centricity. Now smaller associations are achieving the same level of automation as the big hitters. Digital transformation within association management is no longer an anomaly. It’s a movement. And it’s being adopted at a mass level.

So, we know it’s happening all around us. We know that to sustain ourselves as organizations, we need to at least consider the concept. But what are the guiding factors to help us know when (and if) to pull the trigger? There are two very simple, very common factors to consider when determining the need for a marketing automation platform. As an organization, you want to:

  • Gain insight

  • Grow revenue

Now, improving operational efficiency may be a “nice-have, nice-fix” scenario once an organization starts adopting marketing automation, but it’s not enough of a reason to justify the move. While your staff hours, time, and grievances may be reduced with automated sequences, you’re still not in the sphere of true marketing automation until you’re gaining insight and/or growing revenue. Improving operational efficiencies can certainly reduce your bottom line but there has to be a revenue growth tie in order to check off the box.

Gaining insight into your membershipthe coffee shop approach

Growing your membershipEvery strategic plan, every marketing plan, every campaign starts with an objective. If one of your objectives is to get more intel on your constituents, that in itself warrants investment in a marketing automation platform. Organizations need to start thinking beyond email opens and clicks. Those metrics are only measuring the effectiveness of that particular communication on the most surface level at that. Those metrics don’t get organizations into the minds of their potential buyers or members.

As a marketer, it’s in your best interest—and your organization’s best interest to go beyond simple email tracking. Getting to know your members and/or prospects will better position you to service them. You want to go beyond standard audience segmentation demographics. You want to dive deep into their challenges, nuances, engagement levels, learning preferences, just to name a few.

Imagine if you were able to sit down with every one of your members and prospects for a one-hour coffee chat once a week. That’s the level of familiarity you want—and can get—through marketing automation. Whether you use the information for your programmatic content strategy or your lead generation plan, you need to get up close and personal with your audiences. Particularly if your membership demographics are shifting, you’re seeing declines in retention, or your organization doesn’t seem to be growing organically as it has in the past.

Growing revenue at your associationthe clean slate approach

inbound-600In less than a decade, the global economy is going to see a fundamental shift as the baby boomers exit stage left into retirement. As most businesses in the world are preparing for these cultural workforce shifts, associations are preparing in a different way.

Most associations who historically basked in the glory of organic growth and the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, are now reeling from the reality that they need sustainable growth strategies. Whether the dollars are going into diversifying revenue, program development, or member acquisition, associations are shifting mindsets for self-preservation.

Outbound prospecting alone is no longer a viable option. Database decay is a real thing—about 20% of email marketing databases or lists go bad in x of time. Buying lists isn’t just ineffective…it’s illegal according to CAN-SPAM. So, as an organization, how do you access and convert net new members? How do you bring in individuals who aren’t currently already in our database?

You go inbound.

Marketers need inbound strategies to identify the buyers in line with their offerings and nurture them into conversion. Inbound methodology, the most critical part of marketing automation, is about generating leads through content and engaging your prospective buyers until they’re ready (on their timeline) to make a purchase decision. It’s the new digital formula. You make the connection. You relate to them. You educate them. And if they identify themselves as a good fit based on the content you’re putting out there, you invite them to take action. Not only do you have optics into their journey, you can track conversions, true ROI, build history on buying cycles…you can even collect data on why they ‘may not’ be interested in your association and make necessary organizational shifts in line with your findings.

This is key for the newer “end of the alphabet” generations who don’t want to be handed droves of information on irrelevant programs and services. They’re instant gratification seekers who are fast moving and deliberate in everything they do. They want you to take the time to get to know them and provide them with offerings that fit their profile. In turn, they want to get to know you on their time. If the time is right, the content is right, and the program is right, you’re on your way to growing revenue.

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Marketing Automation Can Impact the Entire Organization

It doesn’t stop at the association marketing plan. It impacts all departments and business areas. It’s not just about investing in the platform. It’s about infusing it within your organization and using it to its full capacity. You’re getting the most out of a marketing automation platform if you’re able to accomplish the following.

 Identify buying patterns for building an association marketing plan

Once your buyer is in your automation funnel, whether as a member or a prospect, you’ll start

to learn more about their lifecycle, including:

  • Length of buying cycles

  • Customer conversion rates

  • True ROI

 Right-side and rejuvenate your programs and services

Sometimes you need to look at your overall product sets. In the case of associations, product

sets are the programs they offer and the intellectual capital from the community (i.e.

conferences, webinars, advocacy programs, career services, etc.). Automation can help you:

  • Determine whether you’re existing products and services are relevant and for what audience(s)

  • Build new programs and services based on incoming audience preferences

  • Revisit your content strategy (i.e. your tracks offered within your annual event)

 Get optics into tomorrow

How do you plan for the future if you don’t have sight into what’s to come? What does your

5-year strategic plan look like? Marketing automation can help you:

  • Collect trends that can help you forecast what’s to come

  • Learn about incoming audiences to help you shape future offerings

  • Start shifting the mindsets of existing stakeholders who may or may not understand changes that need to be made

 Appeal to today’s—and tomorrow’s—shopper

The ultimate impetus of marketing automation is that entire shopping experience has

changed and associations need to adjust for that. They need to:

  • Get data so that they can be far more predictive in the market about the buyers who are going to consume their offerings

  • Engage with their buyers on the most individualized and intelligent levels

  • Build and execute on growth and retention plans fast and effectively

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Go Beyond Marketing Automation Theory and Actually Put It Into Practice At Your Association

Putting everything known about marketing automation into practice is the next chapter for associations. There’s not a one size fits all software that addresses associations’ needs to both attract and retain members. In fact, we often recommend to our clients that these two goals are separated and nurtured through different tools.

In some cases, our clients are attaining these goals by combining different software solutions like marketing automation platforms, email service providers, or other specialized products like our Intelligent Contextual Email (ICE). When taking a step back, the birds-eye view of the digital formula is a collection of software solutions that play together to continuously produce results at every stage of the member and prospective member journey.

So how exactly do these tools all work together?

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Marketing for Associations: Marketing Automation Platforms

Examples: SharpSpring, HubSpot, Marketo, Act-on

Marketing automation software is a lead generating and lead nurturing engine. The automation functionality allows organizations to create compelling landing pages with forms that capture leads; promising an industry eBook, webinar, or content-rich “hook” that draws the potential member into what the association has to offer.

Lead nurture workflows then funnel the lead through a nurture sequence with multiple touch points. Every interaction adds iterative value leading up to the hard ask at the end of the funnel.

Through marketing automation, organizations are leveraging the inbound methodology to organically drive leads at the top of the funnel to ultimate conversion, whether signing up for membership, registering for an event, and/or purchasing a product. Throughout the process, organizations are collecting more data points that tell us more about their buyers as they progress through the funnel.

Email Service Providers for Associations

Examples: Adestra, Blue Hornet, Constant Contact

Email service providers are work horses for large volume communications to nurture, retain, and present value to members. Often with automated sequencing functionality, these providers can be confused with authentic marketing automation platforms. Instead, these platforms are best for segmenting, personalizing, and sending dynamic content to those with previous buying relationships (i.e. members).

In some cases, organizations are leveraging these email service providers to filter and clean lists before transferring contacts into marketing automation platforms with justifiably rigid list purchase policies. In these instances, email platforms are used to drive prospects to landing pages and forms held within the marketing automation software. While the practice of purchasing lists is sunsetting in terms of universal acceptance, this is just an example of email platforms and marketing automation platforms working together.

The key takeaway is that email service providers are typically used for large volume email sends (with already qualified and invested audiences) and marketing automation software is better leveraged for focused, personalized, nurture and drip campaigns (with prospective and net new audiences).

Marketing Personalization Tools for Associations

To augment member retention efforts, and to tap into the growing need for more intimate communication, associations are seeking out hyper-personalization tools for their member communications.

Many 0f our clients are powering their member newsletters with tools such as our Intelligent Contextual Email (ICE). Our clients are finding that layering this tool with their platforms is adding member value simply by incorporating data that already exists.

Members are no longer getting blanket updates with often irrelevant information. They’re getting deliberate and personal messages that are completely unique to them, their chosen preferences, and their profiles. That’s individualized, intelligent, intimate communication at its finest.

Consumers get this experience all the time. Take car insurance companies like Geico. Geico will send you a personalized reminder when your insurance payment is due along with past interactions connected to your account. That’s a high-value, meaningful touch point.

Imagine if organizations could include member dues renewal dates, CPE credit totals, and personally chosen article topics based on their members’ chosen preferences? Incorporating this caliber of customization lets them interact one-on-one with all of their constituents with zero manual work.

Marketing personas anchor your association’s story

Automation isn’t automation unless it pivots off of well-defined personas. Persona development isn’t necessarily interchangeable with audience segmentation because audience segmentation tends to yield basic demographic information.

 Persona development uncovers more information about the buyer’s nuances, challenges, soft attributes, and opportunity areas, just to name a few. Well oiled buyer personas paint the complete picture of your buyers (not necessarily your current members), dictates your content marketing strategy, and inevitably guides content-rich educational or thought leadership content that anchors your campaign.

For associations, a buyer persona can go a step further to shape programmatic content as part of an organization’s overall content strategy. In other words, knowing your buyer can be a key ingredient to help shape your actual program offerings, whether conference tracks, webinar series, mentor programs, etc.

Content Marketing for Associations: Content is your fuel

Once organizations have the collective software “engine” to generate leads and retain members, they still need to provide valuable content to fuel the engine. Whether curated content, event news, and other relevant assets like eBooks, industry reports, and webinars, association content creators are more equipped than any other industry to execute on effective content marketing strategies.

From the moment a prospective member reads an email, fills out a form, or visits a website, they’ll go down a personalized nurture experience; also called the buyer’s journey. And it doesn’t end at conversion. Once a prospect becomes a member, the content they receive is vetted and hand-picked, propagating their perceived member value.

The power of marketing automation lies in the data. Marketing automation allows visibility into every digital touch point in the buyer’s journey; where historically, insight was either vague or at an aggregate level. Through marketing automation, organizations are now tracking touchpoints via social, email, websites, forms, content downloads, and program engagements. By arming associations with greater knowledge into their prospects’ behaviors, associations are better equipped to service the needs and interests of their users.

With a data-driven feedback loop into content asset performance, association marketing teams can better inform and optimize their campaigns in the future. By generating and repurposing quality, compelling content, associations can fuel the entire experience without any physical interaction. The digital evolution puts the experience into the buyer’s hands. In fact, 70% of the purchasing decision has already been made by the user before a conversation has even taken place.

This content methodology can be likened to that of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books published in the 80s and 90s. Much like these books where the outcomes of the story was put in the protagonists’ hands, content marketing puts the journey in the buyers’ hands.

The key to association marketing starts with an email address

Associations are primed to give everything away as part of their overall value of membership. Shifting into a consumer product marketing mindset means demanding an email address for nearly everything put out there. The associations that shift to these ‘give-and-take’ mindsets from the one-sided exchanges are better equipped for growth. The question then becomes how do organizations continue to provide their members with value while focusing on non-member acquisition efforts within minimal overlap? The answer, although not simple, is definitely possiblecreate a programmatic content strategy in addition to your content marketing strategy that bilaterally addresses both audiences.

With marketing automationand inbound marketingorganizations are focusing not only on retention, but on prospecting. The marketing team may have known from a high level Google Analytics view how many visits were coming in per month on the website, but they had no way of capturing those website visitors. Identifying those visitors through a form submission (that in return pays out an attractive piece of content) earns them the email address, which in turn, gets a potential buyer into their engagement funnel.

Lead scoring member engagement levels

Quantifying efforts in marketing automation goes one step further with lead scoring. This standard platform feature assigns points based on the deemed importance of each piece of content, engagement level, and touch point within the overall equation. Through this designation, marketers are able to build a hierarchy with their buyers and interact with them according to their score. Through lead scoring, marketers are also able to identify unqualified customers so that they’re not putting effort into unaligned audiences.

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How to create a scalable way for associations to interact with members through their lifecycle

Nurturing leads, retaining members, and delighting buyers aren’t new concepts. Organizations have been practicing versions of these principles for years. The difference lies in synchronization. Through automation, associations’ efforts are captured in single automated, data-driven workflows. Otherwise known as buyer journey, this harmonized means of engaging at the most individualized levels continues as the primary differentiator in modernized digital marketing techniques.

Getting buy-in for marketing automation

Of course, before you can do anything, you need stakeholder buy-in. It’s not enough that your marketing department, or even your IT department, is on board with automation.  Your entire organization has to see value in the methodology. If you’re interested in building a business case with your leadership, volunteers, and staff, get in touch with us and we’ll set-up a buy-in consultation.

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Real-world association marketing automation success story

Real-world association marketing automation success story

How the WIA marketing teamof nonebecame a strategic marketing powerhouse


marketing automation success-storyFounded in 1974, The Wallcovering Installers Association (WIA) is the only trade association dedicated exclusively to the interests and needs of wallcovering installers and those involved in the craft.

It’s also important to note that, from a WIA staffing perspective, there was professional marketer on staff. Although they had great support from volunteers and administration, they lacked the expertise, and frankly, dedicated resources to effectively market to the WIA community and beyond.

WIA’s stack and the big move

In the past, WIA didn’t have a strong need for a membership growth plan. The rise of wallpaper in the 1970s and beyond steadily--and organically--grew their membership base with loyal and successful wallcovering installers. However, realizing that the majority of their current members were between the ages of 48 and 58 and planning their retirement, they forecasted a 63% membership decline happening in less than a decade. This shifted their strategic priorities considerably. Understanding that they needed to not only acquire but appeal to net new audiences, they worked with HighRoad Solution,

an association management service provider, to stack their deck with a marketing automation tool that elevated their digital footprint and augmented their member acquisition efforts.


Marketing with Intelligence

Prior to adapting a marketing automation platform, WIA had done very little in terms of digital marketing. While their executive board was very involved and engaged, they weren’t sure how to use digital marketing tactics to shore up the gap between retiring and new members. To acknowledge the work ahead of them, and capitalize on the current resurgence in the wallcoverings industry, WIA’s board gave themselves a five year window to build a sustainable framework using modern digital marketing tools and practices. HighRoad built that framework within WIA’s chosen marketing automation platform, SharpSpring.

How they did it

By rounding out their personas, prioritizing what personas to pursue first, and creating content strategies for their priority personas, HighRoad and WIA were able to build relevant, data-driven buyer journeys within SharpSpring. Each of the journeys not only nurtured their prospects through the funnel, but provided WIA key insights on their personas and their content. This directly helped them round out their programmatic content; particularly content targeting newer generations.

Specifically, HighRoad worked closely with WIA to:

  • Identify key marketing personas, identify their needs, and translate those needs into content

  • Create premium content assets, including blogs, interactive infographics, handbooks, and video testimonials

  • Design automated lead funnels

  • Develop and manage metrics and lead scoring principles to track success and gain insight into the sales cycle

  • Distribute lead magnets across all available channels, including organic and paid social channels

Success by the Numbers

After running an initial campaign to establish baseline metrics for a 3-month period, HighRoad and WIA:

  • Increased web traffic by 27% year-over-year

  • Drew in 50 net new leads

  • Converted 2 net new members

  • Grew WIA’s Instagram audience by 34%

  • Generated 100,000+ impressions on their lead magnets ads

But those are just the hard numbers...it doesn’t stop there.

With this framework built, WIA is now in a position to further amplify their campaigns through collected

data and actionable insights. These insights directly translate into a better understanding of:

  • Customer conversion cycles

  • What content resonates for each of their personas

  • What programmatic content they need to build and improve to appeal to their new audiences

Key Takeaways on Growing Your Association Using Marketing Automation

WIA’s challenges weren’t anomalous to the association community. They were looking to gain insight and grow revenue. Once again, these are two very crucial business goals that are increasingly common threads for associations. They’re also the primary justification points for marketing automation.

Based on what your organization is facing, do you have a business case for automation? If you find you’re a good candidate for automation, make sure you strategize internally and set clear goals before adopting a new platform. Remember, your marketing tools are only as good as your use of them.

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