Future-Proof Your Marketing Team

With all of the seismic shifts in technology, tools, and even customers, the marketing function within associations looks very different today than it did a decade ago. That means the skills required to do the job are in constant flux.

Cold, outdated, gross. That’s the reputation surrounding anatomy that the American Association of Anatomists’ Board of Directors wanted to modify.

So when Shawn Boynes, CAE, became AAA’s executive director in 2013, the board and staff decided that changing the perception of anatomy around the globe would be one of the association’s strategic priorities. Shifting the discourse and adjusting public opinion was no small venture for the newly minted exec.

Boynes remembers asking himself, “OK, how am I going to really get at this thing?”

You need someone who can take data and determine what they know about people, the situation, your association, your opportunities, your objectives—and be able to take the data from all of that and marry that with that creative spark.

Early on in his musings, Boynes realized that there were certain skills and talents missing from AAA’s repertoire. What he needed was someone who could “bring to life” and “realize the vision” that was identified in the strategic plan.

His solution: Hire an enterprising marketing and communications manager to help take the lead on addressing AAA’s perception problem.

Soon after, the association got to work, rolling out a monthly e-newsletter, a new website, a new association management system, and an online member community. AAA also began to focus more on its journals and published papers, highlighting fascinating features and exciting developments in the field. Positive results, such as increased social media interaction and coverage in major media outlets, show that AAA is succeeding in turning the tide on public opinion.

“We’ve noticed an uptick in our visibility to the public and broader scientific community because we’ve been more intentionally proactive with our [marketing] strategy,” Boynes says.

Examples like this illustrate the significance of marketing efforts these days. After all, association marketing teams are no longer tasked with just promotion or creative. Instead, they’re called to actualize mission and strategy, gather and make sense of data, build relationships with key customers, and leverage the most effective tools—all with the ultimate goal of boosting an association’s revenue.

As David Evener, marketing director at the National Groundwater Association, puts it: “It’s not just putting a brochure together anymore.”

Because of this new reality, forward-thinking associations are retooling everything from the structure of their marketing departments to the skills marketers must bring to the job. Here are some traits that make for successful marketing teams.

Structure and Function

Marketers help further an association’s mission and strategy, and organizations are realizing that even the way they structure their marketing teams is an opportunity to advance their priorities and goals.

“Fundamentally, if there’s one golden rule around structure, it’s that structure should be a function of your strategy,” says Russ Klein, CEO of the American Marketing Association.

At AMA, association leadership identified five customer bases, which encompass its business strategy, and staffed and developed skills around those segments. In this way, marketing at AMA is focused on listening to its customers and giving them an almost-individualized experience in order to meet the organization’s strategic goals.

Traditionally, Klein says, marketing staff tended to work in silos, with someone responsible for promotions, someone else responsible for advertising, someone else responsible for consumer insights, and so on. This structure often led to breakdowns in communication and the disintegration of the team mentality. Along the way, customers fell through the cracks and strategic priorities got lost.

According to Klein, a flatter, integrated team in step with its customer base helps eliminate the disconnect among marketing staff that leads them to stray from strategic goals. “Structuring around strategy is the most important action the marketing team can take, and it’s the most important action that an organization can take,” he says.

With thorough knowledge of both the association’s strategic goals and its key stakeholders, marketers can have a deep impact on its success and revenue generation. “I think organizations are coming to terms with the idea that in order for a customer-centric approach to be successful, marketing needs a very strong voice at the table in terms of the experience that their customer receives,” Klein says.

He adds that there’s evidence that chief marketing officers are getting broader responsibilities. Many are helping to steer association strategy as opposed to just building brands or upping the effectiveness of advertising.

CMOs or marketing managers “are critical to all the different functions of an organization, from membership to communications to public affairs and advocacy,” AAA’s Boynes says. “They should be at the table when all of those conversations are happening.”

Fully Integrated

Not only are successful marketing teams integrated among themselves to ensure that messages and strategic goals are unified, but they’re also integrated with the rest of the association.

When Catherine Ort-Mabry was hired in 2005 to head up marketing at the American College of Cardiology (ACC), one of her main objectives was to develop partnerships between marketing and the other departments. “We became their business partner,” says Ort-Mabry, who is now the director of marketing and communications for the American Society for Microbiology. “And we became as invested in their success as they were in ours.”

The marketing department looked at all the products and services ACC was putting out into the marketplace, as well as the people the organization wanted to reach and ACC’s business goals. But to reach those goals using smart marketing tactics, the team needed a deep understanding of the organization’s other departments, which they procured through relationships with staff.

“By having us all integrated together, we shared ideas, we shared best practices, we shared what worked and what didn’t work,” Ort-Mabry says. “And we all had an investment in lifting the whole association—not just one part of our center.”

Another way to foster this association-wide integration is to form cross-functional teams. A natural place to start is to build a team composed of marketing and IT staff.

Rebecca Achurch, CAE, CEO of Achurch Consulting, says that since the recession, she’s seen a sharp uptick in the requirement to show ROI at the outset of any marketing campaign.

“If you’re really looking to show ROI, to spend your dollars wisely, then that partner in success is more than likely going to be IT,” Achurch says. “To really understand what’s going on with inbound marketing, social media, and using the analytics to be more data-focused to show that ROI, you can see how [IT and marketing] naturally begin to meld together.”

Gwen Fortune-Blakely, director of enterprise-wide marketing at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, sees cross-functional teams as crucial to the success of some of ASHA’s recent projects. One such effort, a propensity model to predict customer behaviors, involved a team that included project management, information systems, marketing, customer service, and business staff—and even a statistician.

Business and Data Savvy

Marketers have always needed creativity and imagination to succeed at their jobs. But today they also need keen business acumen and a facility with big data. “We’re not mad men anymore, we’re math men—and women,” says Robb Lee, chief marketing and communications officer at ASAE, repeating a now-familiar phrase in the marcomm world. “There are increasing needs for specialization.”

“You need someone who can take data and determine what you know about people, the situation, your association, your opportunities, your objectives—and be able to take the data from all of that and marry that with that creative spark,” Ort-Mabry says.

Since marketers have more information about their customers than ever before and can track everything from clicks to impressions to click-through, marketers need to know how to leverage all of that information effectively. They need not only to understand which data to collect and how to gather it, but also how to analyze it and then target messaging based on it. Marketing messages are now highly contextualized and highly personalized, Lee says.

“Instead of sending everything out—using the spray-and-pray approach—you use a targeted approach,” Ort-Mabry says. “You’re looking at the data, identifying which parts of the association would be interested in this particular offering, and then crafting the message to make the connection.”

At the Entomological Society of America, for example, staff has made a concerted effort to use data as a way of setting goals and implementing strategy. “It’s really easy to churn, churn, churn,” says Katherine Matthews, ESA’s database director. “But we’re moving away from gut instinct to data-driven decision making.”

Analytics have also allowed ESA’s marketing team to be more targeted and effective in its work. Recently, the organization segmented its members into defined groups—student, early career, highly involved, and more—and then delivered relevant emails and messages to them. “We consistently see that even our moderately personalized messages have about an 8 to 10 percent higher open rate than our widest-net messages,” Matthews says.

Forward Thinking

Keeping up with the constantly changing marketing landscape requires effort. New tools are springing up all the time, and marketing departments have to keep up with the changes or they’ll get left behind.

“We spend the highest percentage of our budget on research and development,” says Tom McClintock, COO at NSI Partners, which provides marketing technology services. “We feel like we have to do that to stay ahead of the curve.”

To help with this, ASHA has hired additional staff to share the workload and free up some time to allow the team to look to the horizon. “What that’s enabled us to do, with a new focus on increasing nondues revenue, is to go from focusing on the day-to-day—what’s right in front of us, putting out fires—to having a team who can plan, work with all of our business partners to develop product strategy and business strategy, and look out a little bit farther,” says Director of Brand Marketing Leslie Katz.

While marketing teams have to be forward-thinking, they “also have to filter out noise,” McClintock says. At his company, staff is constantly discussing whether the latest marketing innovation is a passing whim or a future fixture.

“There’s a hundred different vehicles you can be using,” Evener says. “You can’t do everything. You have to focus.”

But if you’re creating “flatter organizations that are built around customer segments with integrated teams of people that bring cross-functional perspectives to a customer-centric kind of structure,” AMA’s Klein says, then you’re going a long way toward future-proofing your marketing team.

(iMrSquid/Getty Images)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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