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Vol. 43, No. 2

Don’t spam your members: Communicators share tips on email marketing

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Email marketing is full of paradoxes. Everyone complains about receiving too many emails—but those messages often get results. And among bar association staff or volunteers, everyone wants to decrease the number of emails sent—except the ones about programs that are their responsibility.

Helping communicators at the 2018 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop think more strategically about their email use were: Alysha Adamo, communications manager, Connecticut Bar Association; Kerstin Fermin, director of communications and public relations, Bar Association of San Francisco; Carol Manning, communications director, Oklahoma Bar Association; and Jenny Taylor, senior manager of managed services, Higher Logic. Brian Knavish, director of marketing and media relations at the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, moderated the panel in Omaha this past October.

Below are some of the best tips the panelists shared to help tame the outgoing email beast—and put it to work.

Balancing control and collaboration

“Cohesiveness in messaging is a challenge,” Taylor said, and that’s where an association-wide master calendar can be helpful, to help prevent a barrage of emails from different bar entities on one day. Fermin agreed and stressed that there should be one person in charge of tracking details such as what’s going out when, and whether it was actually sent.

But it’s important that this master calendar and the email marketing procedures in general work for everyone, rather than being the sole domain of the person maintaining the calendar, Fermin added. “It’s a living process,” she said. “Keep working on it.”

Also, rather than necessarily having the communications department create each email message, Fermin advised developing “easy, flexible templates” that maintain important unity in style while also giving the various departments some autonomy in crafting the look and feel of their messages.

Offer training for new staff who will be creating messages, she suggested, or consider taking a step further and developing one message for them, so they can then create future messages by editing that first one, and “learn by doing.” Ultimately, Fermin said, this extra work on the front end saves communication staff time overall.

Should there be consistency as far as what appears in the “from” line? Manning said she likes this approach and that almost every email from her bar gives the Oklahoma Bar Association as the sender, rather than an individual entity or person. However, one attendee noted that his bar sees a much greater open rate for emails that come from important individuals, such as a retired judge. Taylor, too, noted that a name in the “from” line often means that someone sees the message as a “personal ask” rather than just another association email.

Data collection is everyone’s job

The panelists noted that people are less likely to complain about the number of emails they get if they believe those emails are relevant specifically to them—and that takes work.

“Your targeting is only as good as the data you have,” Taylor noted, adding that several different kinds of data can be helpful. There’s the basic membership data, such as demographics, area of practice, etc. At the same time that you ask for that information, she suggested, also ask members to self-select some other areas of interest. There’s also behavioral data, such as open and click rates, and whether someone completed the action you hoped they would (e.g., making a purchase or registering for an event).

If your bar has online communities or social media accounts, Taylor advised, take a good look at the analytics from those to see if there are insights that could help refine your email approach.

Be prepared to “invest people power” into gathering and maintaining data, Fermin said; at her bar, a staff person devoted a couple of weeks to reaching out to members to ask them questions and make sure their information was current. Data gathering can also be a more everyday occurrence, she added: Have staff prepare a small number of questions to ask members when they call. Also important, she noted, is for the staff to have the database open during the call, so they can immediately enter the resulting data.

Even the lawyer referral service can be a data goldmine, Adamo said, and all participants should be encouraged to make sure all the fields in their profile are completed.

Another idea, Taylor said, is to add a simple question at the end of each email message: “Is this content relevant to you?” (yes/no). Those who answer “no,” she added, should then see a message that suggests helping increase relevance of future messages by filling in a profile. Members are often more receptive to being asked for feedback, she explained, than they are to a separate email that asks for data in a more obvious way.

Use subject lines and preheaders wisely

Email platforms vary in terms of how many characters can appear in a subject line, but Fermin said 50 is a safe number. Put the most interesting word within the first three words, she advised, and think in terms of action words, such as “Watch now” (for messages that include video) or “Renew now.”

Manning said she’s found success with “scary words” such as “scam” or “virus,” and that specific words are more effective than general terms: for example, “spyware,” not “tech tip.” To make room for those potent words, Manning recently quit putting the date in the subject line.

Preheader text—the first few lines of an email, which often show up as a preview before someone opens the email—presents another great opportunity, Taylor said. Adamo added that “alarmist” words can work here, too, such as “You’ve lost access to Casemaker” for a member who has not yet renewed.

Don’t forget the most important part

While it can be gratifying and productive to improve open and click rates by using various tips, the panelists said it’s important not to lose sight of what’s most crucial about your message.

“It’s really important to invest time in the content,” Fermin said. “Often, that’s an afterthought.”

And if the content really doesn’t have much value? It might be best not to send that message. “If everything’s important,” Taylor said, “nothing’s important.”