What Is Performance Marketing, and How Can It Help Associations?

Your association’s usual strategies for reaching its audience might not work so well right now. Performance marketing can help you sharpen your aim.

By Melissa Bouma

Have you ever watched a huge televised event like the Super Bowl or the Oscars and wondered what it must be like to have a massive budget to devote to a single 30-second ad?

Once it airs, millions of dollars are gone in basically the blink of an eye, and although the reach and earned media are there, the return isn’t actually measurable.

Associations, by and large, don’t have that kind of budget to spend on a TV spot. But they do need a strong marketing strategy to drive new members to join and to attract attendees to hybrid events.

One way to attract the right audience without blowing your budget is through performance marketing, an approach that enables you to measure how your marketing is working (or how it is performing). Admittedly, performance marketing can be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with it, so let’s simplify it further: At its most basic level, it’s a piece of marketing content that can be measured, allowing you to accurately gauge its return on investment.

Performance marketing can take a lot of different forms. For example, you may create a blog post that is intentionally designed to work in a paid search context, hitting terms you know will do well with your audience. Or you might build a video campaign that targets specific audiences through paid social media. You might also target your audience through services such as Outbrain, Taboola, or StackAdapt; the options are plentiful.

The audience is narrow, and the content is highly targeted toward action. As a result, you’re paying a small amount to make a big impact, which you can quantify to decide whether to double down or pull back. Performance marketing is growing in value: In a comprehensive 2018 study of the sector, the Performance Marketing Association estimated the industry’s value at more than $6.2 billion, with more than 200,000 businesses and individuals taking part.

It has also gotten some high-profile attention. In 2020, the management consulting firm McKinsey wrote that performance marketing “will give marketers an edge when it comes to reaching their target groups efficiently.”

While this is an emerging category, it also isn’t on the bleeding edge—and that means there are established tactics that associations can try as they experiment with performance marketing.

The Benefits of Small Scale

The secret sauce of performance marketing is that because you’re only spending small amounts of money on paid advertising, it allows for a lot of testing and refinement.

That testing can cut across demographics and specific audiences so you can target your messaging as narrowly as needed. You can then experiment to see what works best and, over time, check your results to adjust your strategy if necessary.

If you want to target the C-suite or perhaps heads of HR, you can do so, and you can actually see if it’s ultimately driving leads to your association. If it’s not, you can stop.

The result is that you’re able to get really close to your audience and understand what your efforts and spend are netting you. Perhaps you started with 25 segments, but you cut it down after some initial testing to the most effective two or three segments. That means, rather than taking the old-school “spraying and praying” approach, your audience is tailored—and so is your messaging.

Performance marketing minimizes costs while maximizing results.

Why Associations Should Care

For associations, performance marketing may be a new way to think about solving the traditional problems of member marketing or promoting events. Nonetheless, performance marketing makes a lot of sense for associations, which can target new members or sell new services to current members in a lean, thoughtful way.

That said, a good partner will help your association spot the differences between good performance marketing and bad performance marketing. After all, you don’t want to waste time and money when the goal is saving time and money.

At this moment of tight budgets and a gradual transition back to in-person meetings, you need marketing that’s more down-funnel and that actually reaches your target audience with the message you need them to read—one that encourages them to take action.

You may not have a massive TV advertising budget at your disposal, but you might just get a more effective result.

Melissa Bouma, CEO of Manifest, has more than 15 years of experience building insight-driven branding and content strategy, with a client base representing large companies, major universities, and prominent associations.

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