How To Create Relevant Email Marketing Strategies For Your Association

David James Group VP of client services Drew Navolio sat down with Cristen Brutzkus, an email marketing manager from the American Medical Association, to discuss the importance of using email marketing and best practices for your association.
Posted: 4 years ago

Technology has become invaluable to how businesses market to current and new customers. And perhaps no other tactic has pushed business growth more than email marketing. Cristen Brutzkus of the American Medical Association and Drew Navolio discuss key tips such as how to ensure your email marketing is relevant to your recipients and why setting goals for your efforts is important to creating successful campaigns. Give the podcast a listen or read the transcript below for some great advice that you can apply to your organization.


Drew Navolio: Hello, and welcome to Stir and Tell, the official podcast of the David James Group. I am your host, Drew Navolio. This week we are excited to have our guest, Kristin Brodskis, Email Marketing Manager from the American Medical Association. Welcome, Kristin.

Cristen Brutzkus: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.

Drew Navolio: We are thrilled to be talking about email marketing this week. We’ve been on a run of podcasts and content about various things but one, I guess tactic, marketing strategy that all of our clients, and frankly a lot of companies in general use, is obviously email marketing. You have been with the AMA for how long?

Cristen Brutzkus: 13 years total, 12 of those years doing email.

How To Create Relevant Email Marketing Strategies For Your Association | email marketing

Drew Navolio: So when we use the word guru, which gets tossed around, it’s pretty accurate for you, in your instance.

Cristen Brutzkus: I guess I’ll accept that, yeah.

Drew Navolio: Sure. So what fascinates me about the AMA is not only its size. David James Group works with varying size organizations, but so how many members, again? What’s the current count, do you know? Where does it stand as far as total membership?

Cristen Brutzkus: Total membership? That’s a good question. I don’t know off the top of my head. I know we’re in a couple of hundred thousand.

Drew Navolio: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How big of an organization in general, like staff?

Cristen Brutzkus: We have three locations. We’re headquartered in Chicago, which is the bulk of our employees. There is about 1,100 of us there. And then we have two satellite offices in DC and Jersey.

Drew Navolio: Okay. so communicating to a huge member base, large organization.

Cristen Brutzkus: A lot of goals.

Drew Navolio: A lot of goals. A lot of that resides on your email strategy, I’m sure. At least in terms of achieving some of those goals, email plays a big role.

Kristin Brodski: For sure.

Cristen Brutzkus: So what I’d like to kind of drill down to is, certainly your size, what have you seen as a scalable best practice? So you’ve been doing email marketing, as you said, for 12 years. When you started, is there anything, say 12 years ago, that you still see now that any organization regardless of size, you would either recommend they deploy or continue doing or focus on, that would help them in terms of kind of the basic one-on-ones, like open rates and click-throughs?

Cristen Brutzkus: Sure. So my standard go-to for that is always relevance. You’re always going to see more engagement, higher open rates, higher click through rates, all of the standard metrics that you’re looking at when you’re relevant with your content and the content is also relevant to the audience. So the two biggest things are targeting, and then once you know who you’re talking to, you got to know what you’re going to say and make sure that it matters to those people.

Cristen Brutzkus: And that’s hugely key for association marketing, especially because you’re limited to who you’re talking to. You’ve already subset up the population. When you’re doing retail, you have everybody to talk to. When you’re an association, especially a membership association, you have your specific member population.

Drew Navolio: Right. Yours is basically the medical community.

Cristen Brutzkus: Doctors, from premed. Just recently we started speaking to premed students, residents, and then physicians, and you can break them down any which way in between those.

Drew Navolio: Is it the same goals? When you do a campaign specifically and say you’re targeting, like you just said, med students versus practicing MDs, is it the basic, like, “We want to good open rate. We want a good click-through rate. We want to see how much is being consumed on mobile versus desktop.” Are your KPIs, if you will, pretty much the same now as they were 12 years ago?

Cristen Brutzkus: Yeah, I would say that they’re the same but we look at them differently, and we assign them different levels of importance depending on the campaign and what we want people to do with it. So I think that’s another thing that we’ve certainly gotten better at, but I think every company can always improve on is, before launching the campaign, identifying the goals of that campaign. What do you want to happen? What do you want the reader to do? Are you trying to get them to click through to go to the next page, to join a funnel for conversion or to read articles that are highly relevant? Are you just trying to get the information across in that email? So what you want to see is high open rates and low on subs. So it depends on what the goal of the email is and where we rate the level of the information, the metrics we’re tracking. But yeah it’s still all the same metrics.

Drew Navolio: Sure. So when you say relevance to copy, like the email copy, now in your role in that size, do you write or do just people send you the copy?

Cristen Brutzkus: No. So we are, I guess, either lucky or unlucky. I don’t know. Based on the size that we are, we have rules for everything. I know there’s a lot of companies where the manager of email marketing does a little bit of everything. They wear multiple hats. In my case, the hat that I wear the most is managing production, managing the deployment, managing a lot of top-level reporting. And we take on managing, sort of the organizational governance and technology, is what we’re managing.

Kristin Brodski: When it comes to strategy, which we do sit in on often, it lies within each group. So I told you we’ve got about 1,100 people. Breaks into roughly maybe high level, 10 departments, all of them with their own goals, all of them with their own communication strategies, all of them with their own marketers. And we are sort of the only people seeing everything come through.

Cristen Brutzkus: So we try to keep an eye on everything to make sure, “Hey, what you’re saying over here isn’t going against what we’re saying over here.” But mostly we’re trying to manage to the amount of goals that are coming through our area without stepping on too many toes and letting everybody reach what they’re trying to do.

Drew Navolio: Right. I imagine you have, too, a lot of mouths to feed in terms of, on that scale, which I would imagine, and we hear, is that’s email in general.

Cristen Brutzkus: Yeah. And, what’s one of the things we’re trying to constantly refine, right? So we have a good working model. We exist not sort of on a hub team, but we exist in our physician engagement team, which is specifically membership. But my function is organization-wide. So on the membership team, we have writers and designers. We have a production team because we do everything. We do direct mail, email, tele-campaigns, fax.

Drew Navolio: Really?

Cristen Brutzkus: Yup. Fax is definitely still big in the healthcare world, and it’s actually a successful channel for us. So we have a lot going on there, and so we try to use that model as we’re looking at and trying to help the other business areas refine how they’re doing it.

Cristen Brutzkus: They don’t all have writers. They have somebody who’s been dubbed and can write our copy, so it doesn’t all come through sounding the same. And so one of the things we’re trying to do is put together some really high level best practices about the consistency of our voice and the similarity of our voices, to make sure that anytime an email is coming out, it sounds like the AMA. And it doesn’t sound like maybe we’re being spoofed, or we don’t all know what we’re talking about.

Cristen Brutzkus: So it’s something where my team is currently working on is putting together a deck that we can sort of share with the rest of the organization that says, “Hey, we’re coming to the end of the year. As you start prepping for your marketing campaigns for 2020, here are some things to remember about how to best utilize this channel.”

Drew Navolio: So it’s like the best practices, but it’s sort of like in a certain time period, focusing on when you know you’re going to get a big push.

Cristen Brutzkus: Yeah.

Drew Navolio: It seems like that would be a good recommendation for any marketing manager or organization. But I know, as we’ve mentioned, things for some organizations are a constraint, but it’s a good best practice.

Cristen Brutzkus: Yeah, it’s good to make sure that each aspect of the campaign is getting its due focus so that it’s all working for you.

Drew Navolio: Sure, So what about, let’s jump quickly to technology.

Cristen Brutzkus: Sure.

Drew Navolio: So there’s the software that you actually use to communicate, to handle the communication. Some track the analytics and report out or whatnot. What capabilities, maybe jumping back to best practices that were around 10 years ago that are still around today, what do you need? When does AMA look at when you’re like, “Okay, we’re either using a tool or changing tools.” What capabilities does it must have?

Cristen Brutzkus: So I think that again goes back to what you’re ready to do and what the goals of your campaigns are. There’s a lot of technology out there. There are huge players, your Oracles and Salesforce. And then there are new players that are coming in, like Iterable, that offer a lot of the same technology but in different ways. Some are more scalable for large enterprise communications and programs, which is where the AMA is going to lie. We have a lot going on. We have a lot of data.

Drew Navolio: I imagine there’s quite a bit.

Cristen Brutzkus: Yeah. So we have to take a look at a lot of different aspects. And a lot of that is, how can the technology being offered adjust what we need it to? How can it be set up to make sure it’s doing what we know we need to do? We have a whole data science department that is doing the larger analytics, looking at breaking our audiences into further groups and identifying different cohorts, so that we can continue to refine our marketing strategies and targeting and all of those tactics being used. So, I mean we’re lucky in that regard that we have a whole department to do that, but it does then come down to a lot of it.

Cristen Brutzkus: And then for the smaller companies, for sure, paying lots of money for a tool you may not use 50% of. So figure out what it is you can do. What are you ready to do? AI is the buzzword right now. Everybody wants that as part of a platform. And what I would say is, “Are you ready to even use that? Do you have your data set up to even get the best possible use out of that functionality?” If it’s a no, then it’s not a requirement right now. If you’re literally just doing newsletters, you don’t need a $300,000 piece of technology that offers a ton of bells and whistles just because you might use one of them in the future.

Cristen Brutzkus: So we have expanded our campaigns a great deal in the tactics wanting to be used, and we’ve increased our numbers as far as employees and the talent that we’ve brought in. And so now we’re at a point where lead gen is becoming a much bigger push and focus and lead nurturing. And automating has become our personal buzzword because we have a lot of old processes and legacy processes that were very manual and-

Drew Navolio: Sounds like a lot of associations.

Cristen Brutzkus: It seems to be. Yes. I mean, all the conferences I’ve ever been to, anyone that I talk to who also works in Association has the same problems, the same hills to get over. And it’s changed management. It’s not going to change quickly. You got to pick the stuff that matters most and that is going to show the most improvement quickly and start a sort of focus there first. So we are diving into things one at a time, to see where can we automate this communication or automate this report out?

Cristen Brutzkus: You still need the human touch. You still need people to read it and look at it and quality check everything before you hit launch. But any technology that can help the people do less of the mundane busy work and more thinking and creating and improving, the better.

Drew Navolio: Right. But you pay for that.

Cristen Brutzkus: You do. You pay for that. But there’s a lot of really good stuff out there that is scalable to smaller organizations. I would say there’s a, I think it’s Gartner, that has a quadrant out there that they do every year, that sort of places all of the email technology out there and lets you know what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, what they might be better for.

Drew Navolio: Size, like groups like that.

Cristen Brutzkus: like newsletters, you’re looking for an ESP, right? That’s the email service provider. That’s what they’re scalable to do.

Cristen Brutzkus: Marketing automation, that’s a totally different path. What you’re seeing now is a lot of the bigger companies are offering marketing automation as their top, and they are starting to acquire those ESPs. So that is something that they then have, which is a robust email platform. But some of the smaller companies that are just marketing automation, they either don’t have email at all or it’s an add-on. And so you have to then also purchase or sign a contract with an ESP to get the full breadth of what you need.

Drew Navolio: Right, all the product offerings.

Cristen Brutzkus: So there’s a lot of piecing together, and some companies can have the ability and the budget to piece several different pieces of software together and work with several different companies to get what they need. Some do not. We definitely don’t want to do that. We want to find the one that works the best for us, so that we can sort of have a one-stop-shop. But that could be an entire podcast in and of itself, the technology.

Drew Navolio: So to kind of wrap up, where would you, if you could, if you could play it out, email’s been around a long time, continues to be sort of a cornerstone of a lot of organizations, communication strategy. Where do you, and it’s kind of broad, but where do you see it going? What changes do you see?

Drew Navolio: I feel like an AMA is going to see some of these things before some smaller organizations are because a lot of people want to work with you. If you’re a provider, you’re dealing with large numbers. Your data sets are bigger and more can be gleaned. But what, aside from processes and technologies, where are you seeing email going for associations?

Cristen Brutzkus: I would say, I’m going to go all the way back to the beginning of what we talked about and say relevance in your content and to who you’re talking to. Because one of the things that I like to try to gently remind all of our marketers is, in the email inbox, our competition is not other healthcare organizations. It’s everybody who sends an email. And that’s the same for everybody. So the quality of your email, how it speaks to your consumer has to be on-point, because whoever’s doing it the best, whether that’s a retailer or a membership organization, the consumer is going to compare you to that. They want the best experience.

Cristen Brutzkus: And so you have to make sure you’re going to the conferences. Yeah, sometimes the retail best practices don’t always apply to associations. It’s the hardest part about going to conferences is, it doesn’t always come back one-to-one. You have to take some of those and say, “Okay, how do we apply that in an association environment?” But the bottom line is, if they’re doing a really good job and they’re getting really great numbers, consumer population is now expecting that from everybody who’s sending emails.

Cristen Brutzkus: So everybody’s got an inbox. You see how much noise comes through. You see how much you ignore. As the marketer, you got to cut through that. So relevance and really knowing your audience, so that you can speak to them when they need to be spoken to and get them the email to take the action when they’re ready to take it.

Drew Navolio: Great. Well, thank you for coming on to the pod today.

Cristen Brutzkus Absolutely, thanks for having me.

Drew Navolio: And this will be up on the David James Group website, and hope to talk to you soon. Thanks, Cristen.

Cristen Brutzkus: Great. Thanks, Drew.

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