Creating Engaging Email Campaigns for Your Association

Creating Engaging Email Campaigns for Your Association

Email marketing isn’t a new concept, but it can be a tremendous asset to associations. It can boost member engagement, attract and retain donors, and educate stakeholders — in other words, it improves your bottom line, expands the reach of your mission and advocacy, and deepens your relationship with the communities you serve.

Email marketing is a powerful tool, but only when used correctly. 

Learn more about how you can harness email marketing for your association.

The Problem — And The Solution

In a nutshell, the secret of crafting effective nonprofit marketing emails is sending the right content to the right people at the right time. Easier said than done — make that much easier — and it’s not something you can do on the fly. 

Here’s a roadmap:

Content — Tell a Great Story

People are hard-wired to love good stories, which makes storytelling critical to fundraising and member engagement. Donors and members want to hear stories about the people and causes that they’re helping — stories that resonate with them. 

They also want stories about your organization: Who are you? What is your story, your connection with them? When done right, storytelling can significantly increase engagement.

Email marketing brings its own specific challenges and opportunities for storytellers, and some best practices have emerged. They include:

  • Emotional engagement: Don’t just stick to the facts — make your story moving.
  • Knowing your audience: What moves them? What do they care about? What do they already know, and what do you need to educate them about?
  • Knowing your goal. What do you want the audience to do after they hear your story? Make a donation? Volunteer? Write a letter or sign a petition to help your lobbying and advocacy? Or do you just want them to better understand the value of their membership? Different goals point to different types of stories you should tell.

Hundreds of books have been written on the art of storytelling. It’s a vast subject and not one that a short post can do justice. That said, for the basics of nonprofit storytelling, this roadmap is a good place to start. 

Use the Right Tools

Written words are essential. Depending on your resources, you may be able to hire a professional writer or you may need to look for those skills among board members or volunteers. 

But words aren’t the only way to convey a message — video is growing exponentially as an online marketing tool. This is good news for your campaigns, because some information has dramatically more impact when accompanied by visuals. A few examples:

  • Statistics: Animated graphs, relevant footage, and engaging narration can bring even the driest information to life.
  • Concepts with lots of moving parts: If you want to explain a complex process that is crucial to your association’s mission, an “explainer video” can make it clear quickly.
  • Spotlights on association members: Do you want to show your appreciation for a member? A quick video praising their work will set a clear example for other members to follow while showing the featured member that you appreciate their contribution.

Video marketing is growing as fast as technology allows because videos are engaging and effective. Similarly, well-designed charts and graphs can make information pop, so readers see what you’re saying instantly instead of having to read through it. Part of the marketing professional skill set is knowing what tools are right for what job.

Avoid the Spam Filter

What’s on the other end of every email you send? A spam filter. You can’t even get to your recipient unless you get through that. 

And these days, they’re sophisticated. It’s not just about your current email; it’s about how your past emails have performed. Key metrics that spam filters use include whether the recipient opened past emails from you and whether they marked them as spam. To succeed on those metrics, follow these two essential rules: 

  • Only email people who have given you permission
  • Be personal and consistent: make sure the “from” line is a name they’ll recognize, and use memorable branding (same logo, colors etc. that you use on your website).

The list of best practices for avoiding the filter isn’t short, but it’s important to master. 

People — Match Content to People

Surveys consistently find that irrelevant or uninteresting content is one of the top reasons people unsubscribe from email lists. While you can’t please everyone, you can please more people by targeting and personalizing your emails. Market segmentation is a complex and critically important subject for nonprofit marketing professionals to master. 

How you should segment your list depends on your mission, your resources (particularly what software you have access to), and the information you collect from members and others on your list (such as event attendees or workshop participants). But doing the best you can with what you have is critical for getting a return on your investment in email marketing, and for maintaining visibility and trust with your stakeholders. 

At a minimum, you want to distinguish between types of stakeholders (volunteers, event attendees, and members) — simply because these different groups of people want different information from you. Experts also recommend using behavior segments: people who opened your last 5 emails should get different emails than new subscribers. Letting people tell you what they’re most interested in (such as volunteering, continuing education, or events) is also a great way to ensure you’re sending people emails that they want to receive.

Timing — Let People Choose

To avoid unsubscribes, make sure people can choose how often they get emails from you. The #1 reason people unsubscribe from marketing email lists is that they receive too many emails. But how many is too many? It depends on who you ask; there is no one-size-fits-all. 

So give your subscribers options. How often do they want emails: weekly or monthly? And what do they want to hear about? Special events, new offerings, educational opportunities, or something else? Make it easy for them to tell you their email preferences.

Mark Your Calendar

A coordinated strategy starts with the big picture: the year ahead. Plan your email campaigns around your key dates and funding needs so that your emails support — and are supported by — your overall strategy. An email marketing calendar for associations is a critical tool.

Start by optimizing your calendar. Go through and mark off the following:

1. Important Dates in Your Field

In addition to any conferences that your members may want to hear about, the mission of your organization may suggest some other dates that you could organize email funding drives or awareness campaigns around.

For instance, an environmental mission might make Earth Day a logical time to reach out via email, while Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day are key for veterans’ organizations. An organization centered on primary education might want to run a campaign that coincides with the August “back to school” period, and faith-based organizations typically want to mark their faith’s most important holidays. 

If your focus area is related to any of the many commemorative dates on the calendar — such as National Teachers’ Month, National Paralegal Day, or National Nurses’ Week — consider a month-long email campaign as part of the other ways that your organization is marking the occasion. These may include classes and workshops, fundraising galas, member appreciation get-togethers, and public events.

To help you plan, here’s a list of commemorative months and national days

2. Important Dates for Your Organization

In addition to dates and times of year that are important to everyone in your field, your particular organization probably has other key dates. The dates to mark down on your calendar include both opportunities and constraints. For instance:

  • Opportunities: Your industry annual meeting; the launch of your series of educational workshops for members; the day your association’s grant or promotion recipients are announced.
  • Constraints: Some times of year are so busy with grant-related activities and upkeep that you need to plan around them. 

For the opportunity dates, consider an email or series of emails about the event or theme. For the constraint dates, it may make sense to either block them off as times not to run an email campaign, or to plan on creating that month’s emails earlier than usual so you don’t have to work on them during the crunch period.

3. Other Holidays & Newsletters

If you finish your calendar and find that you have some months that are much slower than average in terms of email volume, consider filling those gaps with newsletters or campaigns inspired by the theme of that month’s holidays. 

With holidays, creative thinking can suggest a novel way of making that holiday relevant to your organization. Some nonprofits “send love” to members and donors in February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. A nonprofit that focuses on immigrants’ rights could send a Saint Patrick’s Day email to celebrate the history of Irish immigration to America and invite members to “pay forward” the opportunities their ancestors had by donating to help today’s immigrants. 

4. Thank-You’s

Last, but definitely not least: Once you’ve scheduled your funding campaigns and membership drives for the year, don’t forget to thank your members after each one. You could send thanks only to those who contributed or volunteered, or you can include the thank-you in a “reporting back” email that tells everyone — not just those who participated — the results of your latest campaign. Either way, mark these dates in your calendar too — giving thanks is critical to donor retention.

In addition to campaign-specific thanks, certain holidays suggest natural times to express gratitude. You can send love on Valentine’s Day, and Thanksgiving is an ideal time to thank your members. Instead of using these holidays as an opportunity to request something, consider the big picture: member retention is crucial to the success of your organization, and meaningful expressions of gratitude are crucial for member retention. 

So just say thanks — perhaps with a video recap of the great things that member donations enabled you to do over the past year.

A Final Word

Simply put, you can do it. Follow this roadmap to tailor your email marketing calendar for associations so it fits your mission and goals — your members and your bottom line will thank you.


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