<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=520757221678604&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Understanding Association Email Marketing

The complete guide to Email Marketing for Associations

Every email you send is a chance to attract new members and strengthen bonds with existing ones. Find out how to make the most of email marketing, and common mistakes to avoid.

- -

Understanding Association Email Marketing

How do you talk to your members?

There are several ways. You communicate with them at conferences and other live events. You might send them a printed magazine in the mail, or maybe you have a vibrant and responsive social media presence. 

Chances are though that the majority of your communication is by email. From simple reminders to lengthy newsletters, each member will receive dozens of emails from you over the course of a year. And each one of those is a chance to do some marketing.

Digital interaction makes it easier than ever for everyone to get involved. What’s more, data analytics can offer real behavioral insight and reveal some profound truths about your membership. 

- -

What is Association Email Marketing?

People often think of marketing as just another word for advertising. 

Even in the for-profit sector, this isn’t the case. Commercial marketers will tell you that marketing is simply communication with intent. Sometimes that intent is to make a sale. But often it’s about building loyalty, creating engagement, or strengthening brand awareness.

In the world of associations, email marketing is definitely not about advertising. Your members have already paid their membership dues, so often there’s not even anything to sell them.

Why, then, do associations need email marketing? If marketing is communication with intent, what is the intent?

Email marketing to association members is driven by three things:

Providing value

Many of an association’s emails are, in themselves, items of value. 

Newsletters, for example, are filled with valuable industry news and insight that can’t be obtained anywhere else. Communications such as these are an essential part of your value proposition. In fact, some members may retain their membership simply because the newsletter is so indispensable. 

Most associations have now abandoned print newsletters. Instead, they issue regular bulletins by email, which means that they need to start applying the logic of email marketing. Email best practices help to ensure that each newsletter lands in the member’s inbox, and the member looks forward to reading it.

Retention and renewals

One email that every member gets like clockwork is the renewal reminder – the email that tells members that they need to pay their annual dues 

Renewal reminders are marketing emails. Why? Because you’re sending a communication to a member and hoping that they will take action as a result. Or, if membership auto-renews, you’re hoping that they sit tight and do nothing.

However, many associations fail to see these emails as a valuable marketing opportunity. Instead of just sending someone a bill, you can start a conversation about the value of membership, or how they’ve leveraged their membership in the past year. This helps to build engagement and encourages people to stick around for another year.

Publicizing programming

Events, training, research, webinars: programming is the main part of your value proposition. The best way to attract new members and retain existing ones is to offer a variety of programming that meets their needs.

Of course, they need to know that this programming exists in the first place. Email marketing is one of the best ways to do this. You can create eye-catching messages that give a clear explanation of what programming is available and why it’s of use to each member. 

What’s more, you can use email automation tools to send individualized messages. Each member can receive a notification when something relevant to them is made available. 

Few of these emails involve selling or advertising in the traditional sense. You’re not asking members to reach into their wallet and buy something from you. 

Instead, you’re communicating the value of what they've already bought – their membership. This kind of marketing helps to build engagement with the association, creating a life-long bond between you and the member.

- -

Email Trends for Association Marketing

As technology develops, so too does the world of email marketing. Here are a few ways in which email marketing is evolving. 

The 11-second rule

In the past, associations haven’t had to worry about attention all that much. Members were interested in what you had to say, which meant that you could take your time to say it. 

Those days are over. Technology has created a world where everyone is surrounded by distractions. Securing someone’s attention is harder than ever. 

Your association’s emails will land in the recipients inbox alongside hundreds of other emails received that day. Even if the recipient does choose to open your mail, guess how long they’ll spend reading it, on average?

Eleven seconds. 

This is the 11-second rule, and it’s becoming a fundamental part of how associations think about email marketing. When sending an email, you have to create something that can be understood at a glance. 

Mobile-first design

Many associations have moved their newsletters to a digital format but have kept a print design mentality. Heavy text, double columns – all things that don’t work well on mobile devices. 

More than half of business emails are read on mobile devices, and your design needs to reflect that. First of all, this means using responsive formatting so that the email looks great regardless of whether it's opened on a tiny smartphone or a huge desktop PC.

The move to mobile also means moving to a new design paradigm. Short paragraphs, lots of white space, full-width layouts, and nice graphics are all essential for creating emails that instantly engage. 

Personalization and Individualization

Truly great marketing is all about offering each person a tailored experience. The challenge is delivering that experience at scale. 

If you’ve only got a handful of members, you can sit down and compose a unique email to each one. Once your association grows, you’ll have to rely on technology to do this for you. There are two ways of doing this.

Personalization involves creating a template and then plugging values into that template to generate the email. 

The old-fashioned version of this was known as mail merge. For example, you create an email template that begins with “Dear {First_name} {Last_Name}” and then you pull those values from a database. 

Email personalization is now a lot more dynamic than before, but it still works on the same basic principle of inserting values from the database into the text of the email. 


  • Individualization

Individualization is when the email template itself is altered according to the user’s preferences. 

You can see this in promotional emails from companies such as Amazon. They may send you an email with a list of 100 products, all of which are related to things you have viewed on the site. Nobody else will receive the same email – your communication is unique. 

Associations can do something similar with email automation tools. For example, you can use analytics to determine the specific interests of each individual member. You could then use email automation to send each person an email with links to the 10 most interesting pieces of content on your site, based on their individual interests.

Automated A/B testing

A/B testing is a fundamental email marketing tactic. You create two emails with slight differences, such as a different subject line. You then send the emails to two discrete groups and compare the results. Whichever one gets the most opens and click-throughs is the winner, and the winning format is what you use for all future communications. 

Email automation takes a lot of the work out of A/B testing. Because email automation platforms track messages from end to end, you can easily pull up a performance report for each campaign and view a side-by-side comparison of performance results.

Some platforms will even do the final step for you – they’ll monitor the outcome of the A/B test and then send the “winner” email to the rest of your distribution list. 

Quality not quantity

People get a lot of emails these days. If you’re receiving lots of emails from one particular sender, it can get really annoying, especially if those emails aren’t relevant to you.

That’s why the current best practice is to lower the volume of email sent, and focus on high-quality or value-added content driven emails. One great email per week will build engagement. Five mediocre emails per day will have the opposite effect.

Although the benefits of a quality-not-quantity approach should be apparent, some associations are struggling to implement it. Often, the problem is technology. Some groups don’t have email automation tools that allow them to segment their audience and send targeted messages, which means that people get emails that have nothing to do with them, like notifications about events in other local chapters. 

As associations adopt better technology, however, we’re seeing an end to the firehose approach. The general trend is towards sending a small number of communications, each with high value to the recipient. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI, while still in its infancy, is becoming a more common element of the association tech stack. Rather than a standalone application, we’re seeing AI functionality appear within tools such as marketing automation and email automation. 

Machine Learning (ML)is the most common form of AI used by associations today. Machine Learning is really just a form of analytics – the ML system looks at all of the available data and tries to identify patterns that can predict future member behavior. 

ML systems then make decisions based on this data analysis. For example, if machine learning reveals that email open rates are higher just before lunchtime, the system will then adjust itself to send important emails at that time. 

As technology improves, AI systems will make more decisions about marketing workflows, reducing the number of manual touches required. In a few years, we may even see no-touch marketing systems that manage whole campaigns by themselves.

- -

Deliverability and Delivery: What they are and why they matter

Every email goes on a long journey from the moment you hit send, right up to the moment that the member opens it. 

Your email could get lost, be rejected, be identified as spam, or fail to hit the recipient’s inbox for some other reason. There are many reasons why this could happen, but they fall into two categories; delivery issues and deliverability issues.

What is delivery?

Delivery is mostly about ensuring that you have the right email address in the first place. 

There are two distinct parts to an email: the username and the domain. Both of these have to be correct. 

For example, imagine you’re emailing a.member@somecompany.com. After you hit send, your email server tries to make contact with somecompany.com. If it can’t contact that domain, the email will bounce back. 

If the domain is correct, the next step is to ask the somecompany.com mail server to pass your email onto a.member. The recipient’s email server will check its records and try to locate the person you’re looking for. If a.member doesn’t exist, the server will send you back an error message. 

There are other reasons that delivery can fail. It’s possible that your email address is blacklisted, for example. If that’s the case, every email from you will be automatically blocked. You’ll need to contact the administrator of the recipient’s mail server to get yourself taken off the blacklist. 

What is deliverability?

If delivery is like getting to the lobby of the building, deliverability is like getting past security and into someone’s office. 

Most email servers have sophisticated techniques for weeding out spam and malicious emails. On a basic level, this involves looking for the kind of techniques commonly used by spammers – you can avoid this issue by sending high-quality emails. 

Email servers can also check your reputation as a sender. If your email server doesn’t follow best practices, you’ll start to get a reputation as a low-quality sender. That will increase the odds of your messages being blocked.

The individual user might have their own spam filter set up that routes your email away from their inbox. Again, there are techniques to ensure you don’t fall foul of this issue, which we’ll discuss in the next section

- -

How to Improve Association Email Delivery and Deliverability

You don’t need a lot of technical wizardry to improve your inbox placement. A little organization and some good manners will help you get your email to its destination. 

Here are 13 tips to help you reach your recipients.

1. Avoid spam traps

A spam trap is an email address that only exists to catch spam. The owner of the email server will spread this email address around in the less reputable parts of the internet, where it gets collected by spammers and scammers. Anyone who sends an email to this address is therefore a spammer and will be blacklisted.

You can avoid this by only sending to verified email addresses. Don’t use distribution lists that you’ve obtained from a third party – these often contain spam traps. 

2. Perform email authentication

You can do some basic manual checks on your distribution lists. Take a look for obviously invalid email addresses, such as those containing illegal characters or with an incomplete domain. Prune these addresses before your next big mail-out.

You can also use commercial email verification tools to find issues in your distribution list. ZeroBounce, ReturnPath or BriteVerify can help you improve delivery rates.

3. Respond to bounce notifications

If an email server can’t deliver a message, it will send you a bounce notification. This is a brief email that tells you what the problem is, such as an incorrect address or a full mailbox. 

If you don’t have an email automation platform, you’ll need to monitor these notifications manually. Respond as soon as possible and remove the bad email addresses from your distribution list. Don’t continue to email invalid addresses, as this could get you blacklisted. 

4. Follow identification protocols

Work with your IT team to ensure that you have correctly set up Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM). 

These are key protocols that establish you as a reputable sender. It’s a job that requires technical knowledge, so if you don’t have IT support available within your team, speak to a consultant. 

5. Be consistent in the Sender name

Send all emails from a single email address, such as info@yourassociation.com. This kind of consistency will help increase your reputation as a sender. 

Also, make sure that the sender name clearly states the name of your association, rather than the name of a person in the email marketing team. Doing so will allow the recipient to see who the email is from at a glance. 

6. Be honest in your subject lines

Getting the subject line right is essential for getting people to open the email, and opening the mail massively improves your reputation as a sender. Don’t be boring but avoid subject lines that read like spam or clickbait. 

Your subject line should give a glimpse of what’s contained in the email. And the email should deliver on the promise of the subject line, making the recipient glad that they took the time to open it. 

7. Use double opt-in

You’ve almost certainly seen the double opt-in system in action. This is when you sign up for a mailing list and receive an email asking you to confirm. You’re not officially subscribed until you click the link in the email. 

Double opt-ins are a great way to stop inaccurate email addresses from getting onto your distribution list, which could impact your sender score. It also ensures that all sign-up requests are legitimate. 

8. Segment your distribution list

The “quality-not-quantity” strategy can have a big impact on your reputation as a sender. If you send emails only to relevant sub-groups of your membership, you’ll see a much higher open rate. This improves your score and builds engagement with your messaging. 

Many email automation tools will help you with automatic segmentation. If you have an email preference center, you can allow users to set their own preferences so that they only get emails they want. 

9. Don’t add emails from contests or giveaways

If someone gave you their email address while entering a competition, they probably only want emails related to the competition. You could send them marketing emails related to other topics, but you’ll be starting from a position of low engagement, which means that they are unlikely to read them. 

A better way to obtain email addresses is through gated content. This is when you allow someone to access a resource, such as a white paper or webinar, in exchange for their contact details. You then have a degree of engagement with that person, plus you know some of the topics that interest them. 

10. Make it easy to unsubscribe

There’s one really easy way to unsubscribe from any list: hit the Spam button. And that’s exactly what will happen if you make it difficult to unsubscribe from your emails. 

Place a visible Unsubscribe button or link in each email and remove people from all distribution lists without delay. 

11. Perform regular clean-ups

Use all of the tools available to ensure that your distribution lists are up to date. Remember that you can cross-reference with data stored in other systems. 

For example, check your AMS data to find members who have left the association. Double check to ensure that these members are no longer receiving emails.

12. Monitor your metrics

You should have a dashboard that gives you key performance indicators related to your email campaigns: delivery rate, open rate, and click-throughs. If you use email automation, your dashboard will have accurate data.

If you notice a dip in these metrics, take immediate action. Something is going wrong, and these problems can spread quickly. Find out whether your emails are failing for a technical reason or because the content isn’t performing. 

13. Send good emails

It sounds obvious, but this golden rule of email marketing is the one that’s most often forgotten. 

If your email quality is poor, your emails will go unopened or be marked as spam. If your emails are well-formatted, interesting, informative, and relevant to the recipient, people will choose to open them. 

This, more than any technical issue, is what affects your sender score and deliverability. Send emails that people enjoy receiving, and your campaign metrics will all look great.

- -

Email Automation vs. Marketing Automation

Most marketing tech stacks will have an email automation platform and a marketing automation platform. These tools don’t overlap a lot, which raises a question: which one do you use for email marketing?

The answer is that it depends on what type of marketing you’re doing. 

When to use marketing automation tools

Marketing automation platforms are ideal for one-to-one communications. 

Imagine someone makes contact with your association. For example, they visit a lead magnet site and agree to give you their email address in exchange for a free download. 

Now, you want to guide this person down a particular sales funnel. You do this by sending them sequenced emails over a period of time. For instance, a few days after their download, you may email them with information that’s related to that download. 

If they click through that email, you might send them further information on the topic. Once you’ve built that relationship, you can then start sending them messages about the benefits of becoming a member. 

Each of these messages is a one-to-one communication – you, talking directly to the prospect. The lead is the only person who receives each email, and each email is tailor-made for them. 

The marketing automation sends these emails, but it’s also doing a lot of other things in the background. It’s checking to see if the email is being received and opened. It’s tracking the progress of the lead through the sales funnel and gathering further information where possible. It’s following a precise schedule for sending messages to maximize the chances of conversion. 

Crucially, the marketing automation platform is also multichannel, so it’s interacting with prospects in other ways, including social media. 

This is a great platform for finding non-members, funneling them through a sales process, and hopefully converting them into members. However, it’s a very inefficient system for mass communication. 

When to use an email automation platform

Email automation tools are perfect for one-to-many communications. 

In the backend of most email automation tools, you’ll find a fully-fledged content management system. This system introduces a full publishing workflow, so people can write email content and submit it to the administrators. 

Admins can then put each email through an editorial process and make decisions about when and where to send it. Emails can be sent to the entire membership list, or to smaller audience segments. 

With some email automation tools, members can reference their email preference center page and update their email preferences. This means that they only receive content that’s immediately relevant to them. Other platforms use analytics and AI to identify the best audience for each email. 

Email is ideal for sending valuable communications such as newsletters. It can also be used for administrative purposes, such as renewal notices, and for notifying members of new programming. 

Email automation doesn’t normally allow you to set event triggers, however. This means that you can’t link it to a sales funnel in the same way that you can with marketing automation. 

The vast majority of an association’s outbound emails will be handled by the email automation platform. Almost everything directed at existing members goes through this channel. Marketing automation is generally used for the sole purpose of recruiting new members – a task at which it is ruthlessly effective. 

- -

What Technology Do I Need?

To build an effective email marketing strategy, you’ll need a solid foundation and some great automation tools.

Foundational software

Association Management Software (AMS) is one of the most important elements of your marketing technology stack. This is where all member data is stored, including the most recent contact information and email preferences. 

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems do something similar with details for non-customers. This is the system that tracks leads and monitors their progress through a pre-defined sales funnel. 

Automation Tools

Adestra – Adestra is the email automation platform that we recommend for associations. It’s perfectly suited for organizations of all sizes with a great editor and intuitive workflows. Adestra can also do campaign automation, and it includes email verification tools to help your sender score and avoid blacklisting. 

SharpSpring – SharpSpring is a comprehensive marketing automation platform that can connect to your CRM and send targeted email sequences to prospects. It’s also multi-channel so you can manage communications on social media and collect information gathered on landing pages. 

SharpSpring is also a lot more affordable than some of the other marketing automation solutions out there. Cost is especially important if you’re using both marketing automation and email automation, as you’ll want to keep the combined cost of these tools as low as possible. 

- -

Moving forward with email marketing

Every time you send an email to a member, one of two things is going to happen. 

One is that you make a good impression. If you do this, you’ll build engagement, encourage loyalty, and drive engagement. Members will make sure to open each message you send them because they know it will be worthwhile. 

The alternative outcome is that members will start sending you to their spam folder. If this happens, then you run the risk of losing that member in the long term. 

Take an honest look at where you are right now. Study your key metrics and see if you’re where you want to be. Don’t panic if you’re not where you need to be. With careful planning and the right tools, you can build up an email marketing strategy that works.