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March 31, 2014

Stop the (Email) Madness!

Recap—McKinley Advisors’ Breakfast Series: Stop the (Email) Madness!

This week, our Marketing Consultant, Sarah Renner-Pugh and I presented at our first quarter McKinley breakfast in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. We shared with attendees (who braved the late-March, DC snowfall) some key takeaways that we’ve observed through our work as Marketing Director for the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE). When our team first started working with IIE in late 2012, we discovered that IIE, like many associations, was overusing email in its efforts to communicate with members.

Email is often seen as the solution

Like many associations, IIE’s email strategy was one size fits all. With turnover in the marketing director position, staff did what they thought best—get the message out as cost-efficiently as possible. This meant that over time internal stakeholders came to rely on stand-alone emails to promote products and services, often to the largest list possible. Your conference registrations are low, so what is the solution? Send an email. And because you want to make sure everyone is aware of the conference, you opt to send to the largest list possible, lest you miss an opportunity to uncover a potential registrant. You have an upcoming training session and you need to sell more seats to cover costs. What do you do? Send an email. This tactic is more common than anyone would like to admit. We are all guilty of using email as a stop-gap measure at times.

Understand your metrics

But what happens when you take a closer look at your metrics? We sometimes convince ourselves that if we send the message to 10,000 people then we’ve reached 10,000 people. Rationally we know that isn’t true. But do you know the actual reach of your emails? In IIE’s case we took a look at four emails and of the 84,353 total messages sent to members and customer/prospects. More than 71,000 were not opened. The average open rate of the four emails was 15%, however more than 10% of opens came from repeat openers. Across all 84,353 emails sent in this sample, IIE only reached 6,956 unique recipients. Following is a chart depicting the number of emails unopened vs. opened. EmailChart Have you looked to see if different members are opening your emails or is it the same engaged members opening each time?

Trust is key to preserving the member relationship

When we looked at IIE’s email performance, we discovered that some emails performed above industry averages in terms of open and click rates, while many others faired far below. Opt-out rates were high and the high volume of emails led to concern that members were tuning IIE out, with potential risks to the IIE brand. Members had to sift through dozens of emails each month and hundreds over the year to determine the value of their membership. Our team felt it was important to rebuild trust with members by developing a strategy that honors the implicit contract that exists between an association and its members—members will receive relevant and important information. Is someone in your association responsible for monitoring all of your email activities to ensure member trust is maintained?

Informed decisions lead to positive outcomes

As thorough consultants, we believe that data allows our clients to make sound business decisions. To help inform the marketing strategy for IIE, our team conducted a needs assessment to better understand perceptions of IIE, member needs, and the programs and services that members value. Several survey respondents highlighted the volume of emails they received from IIE and the metrics reflected an overall “tuning out” of messages. Another challenge for IIE was that database and email platform limitations did not allow for segmented or customized communications. One of our key recommendations focused on rebuilding trust and creating a better experience for members through a streamlined set of content-driven newsletters. The newsletter topics were determined by interests expressed in the member survey. The goal of the newsletters, which are disseminated according to a regular schedule, was to increase overall relevance to the recipient, while decreasing the overall volume of communications. Our thought was that a new, more streamlined strategy, would not only improve the member and customer experience, but also internal efficiency would increase. (No longer would staff have to write, design and manage hundreds of emails per year.)

Planning for change

Change is never easy. Whether your association has 20 or 200 staff, it is critical to build consensus among internal stakeholders and communicate upcoming changes to members. Preparation for the newsletter launch took several months and included the following steps:

  • Planning meetings with staff to build consensus and discuss concerns
  • Operational changes outlined and implemented to allow for the collection of content and management of member preferences
  • Communication by engaging members in concept testing to inform layout and newsletter titles and a planned rollout to communicate the changes
  • Newsletter launch plan to also help recapture those who had previously opted out

Good news!

Within a six month timeframe, IIE open and click through rates improved significantly. Before the implementation of the newsletter strategy, the average open rate across all emails was 17%, and after six months, open rates rose to 24%, a 7% increase. Since implementing the strategy, the number of emails being distributed has decreased significantly. As part of the strategy, a customer newsletter was implemented to differentiate between member and customer communications and it is also performing well. The student newsletter, created to help students transition to professional members, has the best open rates at 31%. McKinley continues to monitor both the email results and other indicators, including retention rates and membership growth, conference and training registration rates and use of member benefits to assess the effects of the newsletter strategy on member satisfaction and perceived value. We’re interested in hearing your experiences with managing the ever-increasing flow of emails. Has your association implemented an effective strategy? What kind of results have you realized?


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