State of Association – Digital Marketing

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Amid the continued shifts across the country in education, professional member associations continue to support educators, administrators, and non-instructional staff with the resources they need to succeed in their positions. Over time, the role of associations has evolved and with that, the demand of their marketing departments has expanded.

The marketing function exists in many associations under a stigma. Most know that marketing is important, but the value of what it does isn’t accurately measured, so the function is viewed as an expense. The result of this perception is that marketing must justify its existence, and frequently finds itself scrapping for the minimal funding to do its work. This is particularly relevant to education associations, as the average association is often understaffed and therefore the marketing team works in “response” mode, not having the luxury of time to develop a strategic plan and execute it.

We know that marketing is measurable. By tailoring the marketing team’s focus to just a few areas, like strategy and planning, purposeful recruitment, and membership communications, results can occur and the return on marketing investment is quickly measurable. The saying goes, “you can’t be everything to everybody.” By narrowing the focus of education association marketing departments, leveraging their strengths, and identifying the gaps, a measurable impact is not only possible, but probable.

Strategy and Planning

“A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” —Lee Bolman

The most effective marketing functions are those that prioritize strategy and planning. If your team feels like it is too busy to take time out to plan and develop marketing strategy, then you’re opting for lower marketing effectiveness. A yearlong marketing plan, aligned to association business goals, is essential to manage the budget, prioritize strategies and tactics, and determine how results are measured.

Purposeful Recruitment

“Strategy without process is little more than a wish list.” —Robert Filek

The research shows that membership engagement, membership growth, and membership retention rank in the top five challenges faced by association leadership and marketers today. By initiating purposeful recruitment efforts, associations can meet these challenges head-on, in a five-step, cyclical process.

  1. Learn: This first step includes auditing past successes and challenges in recruiting, identifying overall objectives to membership, determining target audiences, writing key messages, and developing a timeline for a clear course of action to achieve objectives.
  2. Brand: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will! Or even more worrisome, no one will. By developing a brand for your association, you’re helping existing and prospective members know who you are and what makes you unique.
  3. Develop: Moving from planning to action is often where marketing teams struggle. Either leadership creates a barrier, or they are missing the tactical push to print, post, and develop the materials and attend the events necessary to actively recruit and share the brand.
  4. Distribute: We must meet audiences where they are! This is a key pairing with target audience identification and messaging. We must determine who they are and what we are telling them, but we must also know how and where we can reach them.
  5. Evaluate: Again with the measurement! Data matters. Decision-making in marketing efforts must be based on facts and not hunches or feelings.

Membership Communications

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

—Stephen R. Covey

Email, event and content marketing are the top ranked tactics in terms of effectiveness for association member communications. Almost 90% of associations include an email newsletter in their digital marketing portfolio, but only 41% are using an email preference center.

In the execution of marketing and marketing communications initiatives, such as email newsletters, the consistency of messaging and branding is very important to maintain, and more difficult when multiple departments are producing those communications. When communications activities span multiple departments, coordination of those communications is naturally more difficult. It’s even more difficult when organizational “silos” exist.

How can we improve these efforts? Consider your audience. Would it be effective to send all member groups the same exact email? Probably not. Knowing your audience is key. But, it’s also helpful to consider when and where your audience is reading emails. How many of you read your emails on your phone? How many of you are out of the office, traveling to meetings? Considering these details before composing and sending emails can help ensure that your emails are both well received, and effective.

How do we know? Start by asking. Member surveys, often conducted annually, can include a short series of communication preference questions.

What Gets Measured Gets Improved

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

—Sir Winston Churchill

Only 13% of associations report not using any marketing metrics. For the 87% that are, most are using volume or activity metrics, such as click-thru rates, that don’t provide true indicators of marketing’s contribution.

Success measures aligned to strategic efforts are essential so you can continue to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Any use of marketing metrics and an analytics process is good, but even better is when that process uses metrics that do more than just report on activity levels. Association marketers need to identify metrics that truly indicate the value they create and then hold themselves accountable to them.

Here are a few potential success measures to consider as you prioritize your efforts:

  • Increase in visits and time on the web pages per Google Analytics
  • Increase in click-through rates for newsletters, eblasts, and social media posts (organic and promoted)
  • Increase in social media followership, likes, readership, and sharing
  • Survey results and engagement
  • Event attendance
  • Publication and e-newsletter subscriptions
  • Testimonials and anecdotal feedback
  • Positive media mentions
  • Analytics from e-mail pushes, including number of reads/opens, click-throughs, and shares
  • Analytics from videos and podcasts, including likes and views
  • Anecdotal member input on satisfaction with these strategies/tactics
  • “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” —Helmut Schmidt

About Janice Zielinski

Janice is an Account Manager with Approach Marketing, a virtual agency headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, but with consultants across the country. While they work across many industries, they have both depth and breadth of experience in working within education. The handful of consultants specializing in education have worked in more than 20 states with schools, districts, state departments of education, foundations, and associations.

Janice has provided counsel and implementation support to school systems in California, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, and continues to do so in her role at Approach Marketing.

From local school districts to state departments of education and state and national associations, Janice is focused on helping school leaders build awareness and cultivate commitment among internal and external stakeholders.

Her work, spanning 16+ years, has been recognized with the Central Ohio Public Relations Society of America PRism Award, the American Marketing Association Achievement in Marketing Award, and the Ohio School Public Relations Association Mark of Distinction.

Janice began her PR career at Cardinal Health, a Fortune 50 Company, providing marketing support to hospital customers and the senior sales leaders that interacted with them. After nearly a decade of deep work in healthcare she was prepared to embrace the next challenge, shifting her focus to education marketing where she served K-12 and higher education organizations across the country for a leading non-profit, Battelle for Kids.

Janice is a graduate of the College of Business at Ohio University with her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing. Janice also recently pursued and became a Professional Certified Marketer through the American Marketing Association. 

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State of Association - Digital Marketing. (2022, Sep 02). Retrieved March 5, 2024 , from

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