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Marketing via e-mail: complete your marketing plans with an effective e-mail component.

WHILE RECENT DECADES HAVE BROUGHT an overwhelming amount of technological and delivery breakthroughs to marketing--from Zip disks to blast faxes to FedEx-no other marketing medium in recent memory has caused such a stir in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors as e-mail. With e-mail marketing, we have embraced a conceivably cheaper, quicker, and simpler conduit for communication and promotion. Despite some skepticism about e-mail's role in marketing--and concern about overwhelming members with messages--most associations, to various degrees, are using e-mail marketing today. As associations incorporate e-mail into the marketing process, a number of questions need to be answered: How do you promote without overwhelming your members with too many e-mail messages? What's the best balance between e-mail and direct mail? How much should you invest in software upgrades or vendor services? Numerous associations are testing e-mail methods and drawing their own conclusions.

E-mail's omnipresence

E-mail marketing seems here to stay. According to a study of 2,447 Internet users by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (released December 8, 2002,, 62 percent of U.S. workers have Internet access and 98 percent of those use email on the job. In a survey of 862 trade and individual associations, 23 percent of them used e-mail most often to communicate to members. This percentage was second only to use of e-mail to deliver newsletters, which came to 28 percent of respondents. Direct mail, used by 18 percent of those surveyed, was third (ASAF Association Policies and Procedures in Association Management, 2001).

Sheeraz Haji, president of Get-Active, Berkeley, California, sees an increase in e-mail marketing among his clients. Haji, who works with the company's 150 nonprofit clients to provide electronic communication, observes, "The momentum is clearly building. Associations are using e-mail to promote advocacy and fundraising initiatives, major conferences, seminars and meetings, as well as news about programs and services that benefit their members."

Promotion through newsletters

One form of e-mail marketing comes via newsletters. Elliott Finkelstein, editorial board director at National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C., uses weekly, biweekly, monthly, and quarterly e-newsletters to communicate to NAHB's 205,000 members. NAHB uses its newsletters to promote the organization's programs, events, and services. The frequency of these newsletters depends on the member's area of interest. The initiative kicked off in July 2002 for the e-newsletters, which totaled a dozen. "In today's day and age, if you've got 200,000 members that you need to reach, printing and mailing can start to get expensive," says Finkelstein. In addition, the organization was looking to increase both efficiency and timeliness compared to direct mail. And, Finkelstein adds, it was equally important that the organization's marketing be user-friendly, malleable, and presented in a manner acceptable to members. The e-newsletter approach satisfied all of these requirements.

"Through our e-newsletters, members can access information using four levels of interest: scan just the headlines, read the at-a-glance subjects, survey the body text, or link to our Web site for the in-depth information," Finkelstein says.

On October 16, 2001, ASAE launched the ASAE Weekly Bulletin, a weekly marketing tool that aims at collapsing frequent e-mail marketing messages into one vehicle for the member to access. Initially, the bulletin promoted upcoming educational sessions, new products, and other benefits. Since then, the bulletin has been updated to include ASAE Information and CEO Central's research question of the week, a weekly theme or professional interest area focus, more graphics, enhanced tracking capabilities to measure the volume of click-throughs (clicks on hyperlinks to Web site locations), and easier navigation. Indeed, the bulletin has been successful if measured only by the immediate and substantial increase in online activity with the hyperlinks featured in each edition. For example, 58 out of 76 registrations for a recent ASAE Knowledge Network ("Disaster Planning," February 28, 2003) came directly from a hyperlink in the bulletin.

How much is too much?

At the earliest stages of e-mail marketing's popularity, skeptics worried about members who did not use or like email. And, too, the general assumption is that members worry about juggling important messages with unsolicited promotions (or spam) and messages with imbedded computer viruses that are easily channeled through e-mail in boxes. But these challenges are being overcome with the number of e-mail nonusers steadily dwindling and the Pew project reporting 71 percent of people who use e-mail at work receiving little or no spam.

Nevertheless, as the popularity of email marketing increases, so too does the frequency of the messages that members receive--not just from their own member associations, but also solicitations from other professional societies, promotions from corporate partners, and cold calls from for-profit companies. With the fear that members may simply tune out, associations have been forced to develop a marketing balance that informs and promotes, but does not overload.

Larry Gulko, vice president and chief marketing officer at Members-First, Wayland, Massachusetts, confirms that balance is key. "On average, associations and nonprofit organizations are sending marketing e-mails two to three times a week," says Gulko, whose nonprofit clients comprise 75 percent of his total client base. "This way, members do not have to wait for e-newsletters to access information and news. You will begin to train them to visit your Web site more often."

Naturally, fundraising-related messages need to be approached the most sensitively. Adam Kaplan, director of Web marketing at the 300,000-member Environmental Defense, New York City, distributes fundraising e-mails quarterly. (These also give public policy updates, providing some substance.)

On the issue of optimum e-mail message frequency, Gulko advises, "I would recommend only one e-mail blast to cold prospects. You never want to compromise the brand equity of your organization. But for those individuals who initiate contact with you, I recommend placing them in a did-not-join database and communicating with them periodically. Hopefully, [across] time, you will see the conversion [from prospect to member] as these individuals begin to value your association and its services.

The frequency of ASAE marketing e-mails to its members fits into the average of three times per week, including the ASAE Weekly Bulletin each Tuesday, with alternating programs and services (publications, events, member benefit programs, and so forth) traditionally promoted electronically on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with few exceptions.

Is the market ready for HTML?

The most visible enhancement to marketing e-mail has been the use of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). With this feature, marketers can replace limited textonly marketing messages with full-color, eye-catching promotions. Although many users initially had problems opening HTML, a vast majority of e-mail software can now read HTML. But it's still common practice to allow all association members to access a text-only version of all HTML messages sent. "Most associations are using HTML, but some are still using text-only messages," says Haji. "This depends on the patterns of each association's membership."

Gulko confirms that these days you're generally safe using HTML. "All of our clients are using HTML email messages," he says.

ASAE began sending its HTML Weekly Bulletin in October 2001. ASAE newsletters are sent out in both HTML and text-only format so that recipients automatically receive the optimum format for them. "The beauty of sending newsletters in two formats is that just about everybody gets a usable newsletter," says Doug Vaira, manager, online newsletters at ASAE.

Apparently, HTML has been effective for the Weekly Bulletin: More than 93 percent of unsolicited feedback about that publication pertains to members requesting information on how to develop and distribute HTML communication of their own.

Part of a greater marketing whole

It is important to note that e-mail is only a component of an overall marketing campaign. E-mail should complement other functions such as telemarketing, blast faxes, magazine and newsletter advertising, and so forth. Here, the important thing to remember is that message, tone, and graphics all need to be consistent among the different media. Just as marketers should be careful not to saturate members with too many e-mail messages, they should coordinate initiatives seamlessly so as not to bombard members with material on the same topic delivered through different media. To that end, each communication with members should be of value and include something new.

Most associations have quickly learned that e-mail marketing is not a replacement for direct mail marketing. Rather, a comprehensive marketing campaign should take advantage of at least the two functions and incorporate them into a strategy that supports the benefits of both.

At ASAE, the marketing department refers to the other ASAE departments with which it works as clients. The marketing team consults with these clients to develop the appropriate marketing mix while coordinating the campaign with other marketing initiatives so as not to overload the calendar--and the member--with marketing materials. The marketing team starts with a six-month calendar, and then adjustments and additions are made on schedules of three months, two months, and, finally, one month. As all initiatives go through the marketing department, it serves as the gatekeepers of all outgoing marketing material, allowing it to manage the mix and sum total of material members receive.

E-mail-exclusive campaigns (those with no other marketing support) at ASAE are generally limited to the marketing of offerings that are mostly or solely Web-based, such as virtual seminars and the School of Association Management Online series. When promoting major conferences and symposia as well as publications, e-mail becomes the strategic part of an overall plan. Typically, it bookends direct mail campaigns. For example, an announcement e-mail may be sent to remind members to plan for an upcoming event, followed by a brochure mailing, and ending with another e-mail reminder, indicating registration and housing deadlines.

Additionally, while many associations have replaced the traditional printed newsletter with an electronic version, most marketers are now supporting e-mail marketing with direct mail collateral and vice versa.

Although e-mail alerts are the primary effort of Environmental Defense, Kaplan notes, "We're not replacing direct mail with e-mail. One reinforces the other. For Environmental Defense, e-mail is an integral component of our overall direct marketing strategy."

Measuring success

Almost universally, one of the valued benefits to marketers is the ability to measure e-mail marketing's success. Technology now enables the sender to determine if the e-mail was received, opened, deleted, or forwarded. When hyperlinks are included in messages, marketers can also monitor whether these links -- and any others -- were used.

Kaplan says that Environmental Defense first tests its strategy on a subset of the larger group that will eventually receive the marketing material. Working with its e-mail marketing provider, the organization evaluates detailed marketing reports that indicate the number of successfully sent e-mails, click- throughs, and how many members have actually made online donations. "We'll then fine tune the message before sending to a larger audience," he says.

Jill Bent, executive director of the Texas Association of Responsible Nonsubscribers (TXANS), Austin, sees results more in terms of cost savings and ease of use for the member than in boosting conference numbers or selling more products. "The primary benefit of e-mail for us is that it's decreased the dollars spent on printing," she says. "We're saving in excess of 30-35 percent of our printing budget. The only complication for us has been unintended consequences, such as server problems that have occurred on an RSVP deadline day."

Bent says that it was early in 2002 that TXANS, which has a staff of fewer than five full-time equivalents, started using e-mail on a test basis. "We began using an electronic version of our newsletter," says Bent. "Shortly after, we started to market our March annual meeting using e-mail, but supported these efforts with a direct mail follow up. The reception from our members was very positive. Prior to the annual meeting promotion, our members were accustomed to calling the office for questions." But now, says Bent, her members can easily gain access to the TXANS Web site and hyperlink to vital conference information, including registration deadlines and hotel phone numbers.

"Our members have an easier time gaining access to the features of our meeting," says Bent. "We've focused on cost savings of printing and distribution as well as increasing our ability to reach cold contacts via the Internet, but we anticipate we will also be able to attribute some of the success associated with maintaining participation at our conference to e-mail distribution."

NAHB's Finkelstein reports that 50-60 percent of recipients are clicking through, which means that a significant portion of the messages are reaching the target audience. Gulko confirms such positive results, saying that MembersFirst is seeing 50-75 percent response rates to surveys it generates after events -- a striking increase from the 1-2 percent response rates reported when using direct mail. "I challenge anyone to tell me they can measure how successful their print newsletter is, but with email, you have the click-through data," he says. "There's no argument."

At ASAE, the implementation of email marketing strategies has resulted in some positive results, as measured by increases in the sales activity of certain programs, services, and events as well as positive member feedback. For example, blast fax promotions for Knowledge Network programs have been replaced by e-mail marketing promotions, resulting in an overall 12 percent increase in attendance.

Lessons learned

E-mail marketing has gradually been embraced by the association industry, and members can no longer deny its prominence as a marketing and communication tool. But there are certain precautions that if taken before launching e-mail marketing plans, will better allow for success. This includes maintaining the ever-changing e-mail addresses of members. In a survey of 955 association executives, the average association had an active e-mail address for 56 percent of its membership (ASAE Association Policies and Procedures in Association Management, 2001). That percentage has clearly grown during the time since the report's publication, and so has the job of maintaining address currency.

Finkelstein says, "We've learned that for a large organization, it is critical to have a plan to capture e-mail addresses and mailbox updates as you get them. Because of the acceptance of our publications, and the ability to forward and share these e-newsletters with colleagues, we expect to continue to grow our e-mail database."

Gulko agrees, suggesting that associations implementing first-time e-mail marketing efforts first collect member e-mail addresses by sending a message to the entire membership announcing the new initiative. If an individual already has an e-mail address of some kind, an e-mail message can be sent; otherwise, letter or fax can be used. "You want to make sure they receive the message as an FYI and that you will not barrage them with electronic communications, but prepare them for what is to come," says Gulko.

As the technology continues to improve (video streaming and higher-definition imaging are on the horizon), e-mail marketing continues to gain momentum both as a key way in which associations promote member benefits and a method and preferred method of many members for interaction with their associations. Several companies that provide e-mail marketing services for nonprofit organizations are charging affordable monthly fees, offering unlimited distribution deals, and charging what amounts to pennies for each e-mail message that is delivered or opened. Bent says that her organization has invested 5 percent of its marketing budget into e-mail marketing. "The ROI is well worth this," she says.

Pricing can be based on the size of the audience with which the association is communicating (obviously email marketing solutions are cheaper for a smaller association than a larger one) and the level of service which, in addition to e-mail marketing, could include such other features as dues collection. Monthly fees for GetActive offerings start at around $1,000 per month with no limit on messages.

E-mail marketing platforms apparently can be affordable for large and small associations alike. GetActive's list of clients range from organizations with annual operating budgets in the $2 million range to the large chambers of commerce with massive e-mail lists. Clients range from the American Institute of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter, to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

E-mail serves as a strategic segment of an overall, smart marketing strategy, and most importantly, when it works best, it closely connects the member with the association.

Tom Quash is director of marketing and communications at ASAE. E-mail:
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Author:Quash, Tom
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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