Inbound Marketing’s Potential for Membership

As marketing technology advances and member habits evolve, the power of inbound marketing continues to grow. Is your association ready to make the leap?

Even if you’ve never seen Field of Dreams, you know the line. “If you build it, he will come.”

More than a quarter-century later, that phrase is a business cliché. Though, often, it’s inverted to say you can’t just build something and expect people to flock to it. But let’s say you could—then what?

There’s just so much potential for associations, because we’re so good at creating relevant content and have been for years and years.

Field of Dreams doesn’t directly answer that question, ending right as those people come and leaving the rest to our imagination. For associations, though, a growing practice for attracting members—inbound marketing—is built on the idea that you can indeed build something attractive enough that prospects will come to you in droves. But that’s only where the work begins.

“There’s just so much potential for associations, because at associations we’re so good at creating relevant content and have been for years and years. To be able to take that content and then share it in a more scientific way so you can build your revenue and sales, there’s just so much there, I get excited about it,” says Dave Martin, chief marketing officer at Aptify, acting CEO of Monomyth Collaborative, and author of the Inbound MarTech blog.

Martin began writing about inbound marketing, content marketing, and marketing automation during his time as vice president of marketing and content at the Electronic Retailing Association. There, he was able to build a steady stream of leads for ERA by growing the content and readership of ERA’s blog.

And a recent case study on the American Association of Sleep Technologists from inbound platform HubSpot shows how a content marketing approach can lead to membership growth, to the tune of a 12 percent increase in one year.

Content marketing—a way of showing prospects your value rather than telling them, or marketing “with a magnet, rather than a megaphone,” Martin says—isn’t brand new, of course (Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute, keynoted ASAE’s Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference in 2014), but associations have seemingly not fully embraced it en masse. If they’re so good at content, though, why not?

Martin says typical association content—magazines, newsletters, whitepapers, research reports, and however those are sliced and diced for social media—only gets people to the top of the marketing funnel. Or, to revisit our baseball-movie parable, it gets people to come, but it doesn’t “go the distance.”

What’s missing is specifically framing content to solve problems, optimizing it for search engines, getting readers’ contact info in exchange for content, tracking them as leads over time, and moving them along the recruitment funnel with additional, more targeted content and resources.

That’s inbound marketing in a nutshell, but clearly it doesn’t do justice to the work it takes to make it successful. Martin says inbound marketing is a long-term effort that pays off over time, and he suggests two key steps for associations to adopt inbound practices:

Structure staff around the marketing funnel. Martin recommends a centralized marketing department for an association staff, as opposed to individual departments (membership, events, education, advocacy, etc.) executing their own marketing. At Aptify, he has staff dedicated to the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel—or attract, convert, and close.

“We have people working at the top of the funnel on the attract side, creating content, doing social media, doing SEO, keyword research, all that,” he says. “We have people in the middle of the funnel doing conversion—the techier, more analytical types … looking at our conversion rates. And then the bottom of the funnel is like product marketing in a sense and sales-enablement, working with the sales team to equip them to be able to close on a sale. And there’s no reason why any organization’s marketing team can’t be structured around that funnel.”

Use an inbound marketing platform. Martin has used HubSpot at ERA and Aptify (as did AAST in the aforementioned case study), but the market for inbound marketing or customer relationship management (CRM) solutions is deep and growing.

A good CRM solution offers a combination of content marketing, search-engine optimization, email automation, customer tracking, lead scoring, and other services beyond the scope of typical association management systems. Martin says he sees providers in the AMS market continuing to offer integrations with leading CRM platforms, but it’s unlikely that the two segments will merge. The CRM capabilities are worth the extra investment, though, Martin says, especially for making the membership recruitment pitch.

“Instead of just sitting there, going through the Rolodex, and making cold calls to people, many times they were warm calls,” he says. “They knew the activity a prospect had taken, and it changed the dialogue completely in how the sales person was talking to the individual. You knew that they were subscribed to the blog, they’d downloaded this ebook, they liked some stuff of ours on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. They were much more informed, and so the discussion was different.”

In the long run, Martin says inbound marketing can reduce an association’s reliance on what he calls traditional, outbound, “yell and sell” marketing methods and can even offer more reliable indicators of membership performance.

“If we know we have X number of visitors at the top of our funnel, to our website, we know that over X period of time we’re going to generate Y revenue. Associations need to think that way,” Martin says. “You can even start to predict future revenue based on current traffic to your website, which gets really exciting.”

Exciting indeed. Has your association adopted inbound marketing practices for membership? What challenges have you experienced or would you foresee if you tried? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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