When Knowing Your Audience is Better Than Knowing Best Practices

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This is a podcast episode titled, When Knowing Your Audience is Better Than Knowing Best Practices. The summary for this episode is: <p>Have you heard that short subject lines are better? How about that you should only send marketing emails during weekdays? These may be "best practices," but until you've tested them to see if they work for your members and your audience, you don't know if they're best practices for&nbsp;<em>your&nbsp;</em>association.&nbsp;Today's discussion is with Andrea Huggins, Senior Marketing Manager at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. She and Alex highlight the importance of understanding your members and being ready to pivot strategies according to member behavior and data to drive member engagement. Listen now!</p><p><br></p>
Andrea's Big Data Cleanup Project
02:28 MIN
"Fail faster" - Learning from your mistakes
02:19 MIN
Having the ability to connect with other people
00:45 MIN
Using data analysis to learn more about what members what and need
01:25 MIN
Aligning team members when running experiments on member behavior
02:15 MIN
Andrea's favorite engagement tactic
00:39 MIN

Alex Mastrianni: Welcome to The Member Engagement Show with Higher Logic, the podcast for association professionals looking to boost retention, gain new members, and deepen member involvement. Throughout

Heather McNair: Throughout our show, we'll bring on some experts, talk shop about engagement, and you'll walk away with strategies proven to transform your organization. I'm Heather McNair.

Alex Mastrianni: I'm Alex Mastrianni, and we're happy you're here. Welcome back to another episode of The Member Engagement Show. I'm really excited today to introduce one of our awesome customers to all of you. And one thing that we're going to talk about today is the importance of really understanding your members and how, when you understand them, it can sort of change your strategy in a way that might seem counterintuitive to some of those best practices that we hear about all the time, or thinking that you might have an idea about how your audience will interpret or react to one thing, but then maybe shifting gears when you know it's the right thing for your audience or the thing that will make the most sense to drive member engagement. So I want to introduce you all to Andrea Huggins. She is senior marketing manager at AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It's a mouthful of an organization name, but Andrea, welcome to the show.

Andrea Huggins: Thank you so much for having me. I'm super excited to be here.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah, I'm really excited about this conversation because one thing that we talked about when we first met was all of the experiments you've tried and all of the tests you've run and how you've really taken a good look at the data to see what's working best for communicating with your members. And I was so impressed by how you and your association have adopted these findings into some of your processes and plans and strategies, and really just continue to drive home the importance of knowing your audience, trying new things, and adjusting accordingly. So there's a couple things I want to talk about as we go through our conversation today, but before we dive into all of this good stuff, can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself? What's your role at AASHE and some of your big responsibilities?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. As AASHE's senior marketing manager, we have a small but mighty staff of around 15 full- time employees and four interns. We have two marketing interns and myself, and then a director that wears many hats. Marketing is one of them. So we have a really small staff that focuses on the marketing efforts for the entire organization. I manage many of the efforts, so I work across teams in order to put together timelines and strategies for different marketing campaigns we have throughout the year. It encompasses a lot of website work, a lot of email work, social media, some advertising, a little bit of everything, which is great because then I learn a little bit of everything.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah, it's good. You get to be a jack of all trades in some aspects, right?

Andrea Huggins: Yes. Yes.

Alex Mastrianni: Cool. So to set a little bit of context for our listeners, can you walk us through some of the big tech tools that you use on a daily basis for member marketing and communications?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah, so of course we have our association management system, the AMS, but then a number one tool that I use every single day is INFORMS, our email marketing platform. And we also have the online community through Higher Logic. So those are two huge tools that we use for membership marketing, and both of those are integrated to our AMS to help make our systems communicate mostly flawlessly.

Alex Mastrianni: Mostly, yes, but such a time- saver too, because-

Andrea Huggins: Oh my gosh.

Alex Mastrianni: ...I remember the days of uploading and downloading lists and being like, is this even accurate? By the time I upload this, something has changed.

Andrea Huggins: Yes. Yes. And then you get someone who wants to unsubscribe and you're like, okay, did I hit every single box on every platform?

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. Yes, for sure. One of the big projects that comes along with all of these systems is owning the data, managing the data. One thing you told me about was a big data cleanup project that you did, which I thought was a great idea and something that is sort of essential to just do on an ongoing basis, but you tackled it from the beginning. Can you walk us through what you did and why you did it?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. So I've been at AASHE for seven and a half years now, and when I first started, we had a lot of different systems, and none of them were integrated with one another, which was exactly as you described. I was downloading lists from system A and B and C and merging them and trying to dedupe and hope that I didn't accidentally include someone that didn't want to receive an email from us.

Alex Mastrianni: Exactly.

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. So we decided to take a step back as an organization and really reevaluate our needs and the needs of our community, the higher education sustainability community. So through doing that, we realized a high priority needed to be integration to save time, exactly as you mentioned earlier. With the slim staff, we have any time- savers are hugely helpful.

Alex Mastrianni: Yes. Welcome with open arms.

Andrea Huggins: So we determined that we needed a new AMS for our system, and in launching the new AMS, we decided that we didn't want to work with so many different vendors and platforms. So we met with Higher Logic, and everything that Higher Logic was offering really was going to meet our needs, and it integrated with our AMS, which was really appealing for us considering the process we were undergoing. So we took, downloaded information from every single platform we were using, put it all into our AMS, and then launched Higher Logic shortly thereafter so we could really start managing any preferences all in one place. And speaking of preferences, we launched a new subscription list options for our community during that time-

Alex Mastrianni: Cool.

Andrea Huggins: ...so they could actually go in and check box which lists they wanted, which lists they didn't want to receive information. We were really particular about what buckets of information we had-

Alex Mastrianni: Nice.

Andrea Huggins: ...so someone could really opt in and select the emails that matter the most to them.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. Sometimes that feels like such an overwhelming project, but it really can provide so much clarity in the end for you and your members really setting expectations about the types of things you're sending, the frequency that you're sending it, and getting on the same page as everybody.

Andrea Huggins: Yes, absolutely. And it leads to a happier membership, too, when you give them the control and the power so they can get exactly the communications they want. Because when you're in your inbox, your time's valuable. And as an organization, we really wanted to respect everyone's time.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. And usually it has a better or a larger impact on your engagement metrics, right? If you're sending far too many emails that are not applicable or relevant whatsoever to the member, it's far easier for them to ignore the things that they probably would want to see otherwise. That leads me to another question around the changes with what Apple is doing with open rates. Do you have any ideas for how you are adjusting your reporting or looking at your Apple engagement metrics for the changes that have just happened?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. It's been an exciting conversation, because of course these changes happened at the peak of our busy season, which included our conference in mid- October. Apple's changes launched, I believe, mid- September.

Alex Mastrianni: Yep.

Andrea Huggins: So that made things a little bit exciting for us. But unfortunately with Apple, we've had to devalue the open rate because Apple is masking all their opens as actually opening. So the open rate has become less valuable to us, but more importantly was the prep work we did ahead of this change. We were able to go through our data in INFORMS and determine who hadn't opened an email from us in the first... We looked at the first six months of 2021. We were able to put them in a group. And with the conference that was gearing up, we didn't want to reach out to that group right then, but we have plans to reach out to that group and try to win them back. And rather than focus on a marketing automation campaign that would say," Did they open it? Okay, they opened it. Did they click yes or no," or whatever the case may be, we're were thinking through really smart subject lines and how we want people to advance through the campaign other than open rates, which is something that we had focused on in prior marketing automation campaigns. So Apple's made life pretty exciting, but the life of a marketer's always exciting.

Alex Mastrianni: I know. Always keeping you on your toes for sure. But that's a great idea, suppressing those folks in the interim and then creating a special re- engagement or win- back campaign to see what will trigger their re- interest.

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. Fingers crossed they'll all come back too.

Alex Mastrianni: Yes. Another thing that we talked about is community advertising, which I thought was a pretty interesting learning that you found that I thought you might want to share with our listeners of The Member Engagement Show, because we get that question a lot about, how can you integrate maybe some of your larger organization sponsorship or partnership goals with some of the existing technology that you have, community especially being one of them? So can you talk a little bit about how you ran some experiments within your community in regards to advertising and how you learned from that, and maybe how you changed your approach?

Andrea Huggins: I would love to. At AASHE, we have an internal saying of," Fail faster."

Alex Mastrianni: Oh.

Andrea Huggins: So we're open as an organization to making mistakes, but we need to learn from them quickly and keep it moving. This was a good example of failing fast in terms of, we launched our online community, which is open to members only, AASHE members only. And so we wanted to play some advertisements as a new revenue opportunity for the organization. And when we tested it out, you have some options. You can put them just in email, just within the online community if you log in from the browser, or you can place it in both. So we were like," Oh yeah, place it in both. Of course. We're just going to have this ad everywhere." And we heard back pretty quickly from our community that they were really overwhelmed by the ads being all over the place in their email-

Alex Mastrianni: It's too much.

Andrea Huggins: ...too much in the browser. It was everywhere. So we took a step back and sort of re- evaluated. We still found the use of advertisements in the online community really valuable, but we needed to rethink where they were placed. So we decided to test out placing them only in the emails, only in the daily digest specifically, and seeing how our community responded to that. And we had a wonderful response. If people didn't want to see an ad, they had a place they could go and still interact with others. If someone wanted to be in their email and shoot off a quick message, the ad was still available to them there. And that ad opportunity has actually ended up being one that garners just about the highest clicks every single month. Our most recent advertiser that ran saw more than 800 clicks in a single month on their ad.

Alex Mastrianni: Wow.

Andrea Huggins: So it's been really positive in that regard, and it was good to get the feedback from our community, make a change, but it ends up being a win- win because it's helpful to us as an organization of having this ad opportunity. It helps any person or entity that wants to advertise with us, and our community is happy because they know where to go if they're seeking this information, and they know where to go if they just want to log in and only communicate with other members.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah, that's a win- win win, win for you, win for the sponsor, and win for your member, because it's like you found the perfect balance of displaying that type of thing to crosstalk.

Andrea Huggins: Yes, Michael Scott would be proud.

Alex Mastrianni: I love it. You also said that your online community in itself was a bit of an experiment, because a free competitor in the space has popped up. I'm not exactly sure about the timing of that, but you've heard from your members that they wanted and needed networking opportunities, and that was sort of your competitive edge that you had there.

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. So we put out a survey every single year trying to garner how our members are feeling and what sort of improvements we can make to benefit them, and we always get back more networking opportunities, more connection is needed. So we decided to explore the opportunity of this online community, but the biggest threat to the online community was a free listserv that is still active today and quite popular.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh wow. That's a word you don't hear that much anymore.

Andrea Huggins: I know, right? A listserv.

Alex Mastrianni: Listserv, yeah.

Andrea Huggins: But it did present some challenges because the listserv was free. It was open to everyone, where we were making the online community only open to members. Well, in a sense, you had to pay to get entry because you had to pay for membership in order to get access to this community. Knowing all these things, we heard from our members how desperately they needed more networking and connection, and we decided let's just jump in and try it. Fail faster. If it doesn't work, we'll keep it moving. So we launched this online community, and when the next member survey came out, it was listed as one of the most popular member benefits-

Alex Mastrianni: That's great.

Andrea Huggins: ...that we offer now. And it continues to rank every year. We ask the same question about what benefits are most helpful, and the member community consistently ranks as a top member benefit, which has been really encouraging and reinforces us wanting to use it in new ways, including for our online conference that we had the other week, where we had specific communities built for campuses that were engaging with us so they could have in- depth conversations about the conference in this new centralized location.

Alex Mastrianni: I love that. So what do you think it is about your community that's so different from this listserv that members seem to appreciate so much?

Andrea Huggins: That's a great question. I think a lot of it is the ability to know that you're connecting with other people in the higher education sustainability field. They're committed members, they're like- minded, and they have similar challenges as other peer institutions are dealing with, so they're able to really come together in one space, come together in one space that's virtual, and really exchange, ask questions, share resources with one another, without reinventing that wheel in a simple to consume format. It's difficult just to live in your email all day long. This sort of gives them the opportunity to go somewhere, and if they want to still be in their email, they have that as an option too.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah, that's a really good point. I love it. So you mentioned the survey. We've talked a little bit about some of these experiments. What else can you tell me about how you've used reports or data analysis or any other tools in your toolbox to learn more about what your members really want and need?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. Well, opening the show, you mentioned best practices, right?

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Andrea Huggins: And when I was starting out in the marketing world, I was taught as an intern," If you want to send an email, you send it between 11:00 and 3:00. And if you want to send out a tweet, it's 11: 00, 3:00, or 8: 00 PM Eastern." And I'm like," Okay." So these all were ingrained in my brain. Coming to AASHE is a very different experience. You're told to have short and snappy subject lines, but the data reporting told me that our community was more likely to open the emails with the longer subject lines. So I'm like, okay, let me throw out my short, snappy writing skills and really, really get to writing over here. We also learned different days of the week. INFORMS has this wonderful reporting where it can tell you," Here's the day where you're going to get the most clicks. Here's the day where you're going to get the most opens." So we thought through the types of emails we were sending. If we were sending, let's say, a registration email for our conference, we were told," Tuesdays are the days that you're going to get the most clicks." So I'm like, well, I want people to click, so I need to target this email on Tuesday, versus a newsletter, we just wanted to disseminate some information. We want open rates for that, so we're going to move our newsletters to go out on Wednesdays. So we made little adjustments that way, and we look at the data constantly, because people change. Pandemics happen.

Alex Mastrianni: I know. I feel like some of this stuff, too, can cycle not just on your membership as a whole, but the time of the year, if there's a certain-

Andrea Huggins: Absolutely.

Alex Mastrianni: And I'm not even meaning seasons, but also just within different industries, there's different things happening. There tend to be a lot of meetings in the spring and fall. If you're in the education space, I'm sure getting back to school and wrapping up the end of the year are busier times for your members. So it's all relative really, depending on who your members are. And I am sort of giggling to myself, and you mentioned that INFORMS report about the best day to send. I remember the first time I saw that report, I was like, this is the coolest report. I have been a marketer for 10 years now, 10 plus years, and like you, you're always like," Okay, we have to start with the best practices," because they're best practices for a reason. They work for a lot of people. They're a great way to start. It's great guidance. But what I love about those reports is it's so specific to you and your members on how people are actually engaging with the stuff that you're sending.

Andrea Huggins: Yes, absolutely. I agree with you. And you mentioned lulls during the year, and as a higher education community, we know the summer, maybe we don't launch anything pretty big, because a lot of our people are at home or they're just not as active on email. So it does help to take the data, but also weigh it in on how your community is reacting throughout the year and where their pain points may be.

Alex Mastrianni: For sure. Whether it's a community program or an educational thing or just any kind of member communications, I feel like you have to take into... When you're talking about you think about your member, it's not just the content that you're putting out there, but it's the format, it's the channel. It's all of these things that will really, when you consider all of those things, where you will have the biggest impact with whatever it is you're trying to do.

Andrea Huggins: Absolutely.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. All right. So one thing that we've had customers run into or I've heard folks talk about before is that they want to test. They want to run experiments like this. They want to try sending something on a different day of the week or at different times, or change up the strategy completely. What has the reception been like internally for you when you've wanted to really get to the root of how your members behave with different types of communications? Has that been accepted within your team and your organization? Did you have to get any buy- in for running tests?

Andrea Huggins: It's certainly accepted now. It wasn't necessarily always the case. People will be like," But it's always how we've done this." It's like," Yes, but that doesn't mean that it needs to continue being the way we do something." The way that I got buy- in from my organization was listening to podcasts like this and hearing how other people experimented and the success that they saw, and then just slowly trying to make small suggestions that a team could feel comfortable buying into, like," Hey, you like the short subject line. I'm getting data that says longer subject lines are what people are opening. Let me just A/ B split test. Let me just try both, and let's see which one really responds." And most of the time someone's like," Well, I still get my subject line out there," and if they're confident enough, there's no qualms because they think their subject line will win. And then if it does, great. You've learned. If it doesn't, and you can go back to them and be like," Hey, this is what the data showed us. Can we test it again?" We did this actually in our organization. I was curious if weekend emails would have a good open rate. And there was a lot of resistance to sending an email on a Saturday or a Sunday, but thankfully I'm like," Well, let's just try this small one. It's going to a small, targeted group. Let's just try it out, and if it's a fail, I'll resend the email on Monday. It will go out on Monday. Don't worry." I sent it out, and it did not get the open rates and everything that I had hoped for, so I resent the email on a Monday. I tested a few other small group emails on weekends, and it didn't turn out to be fruitful for us, so we don't send emails out on the weekends, and it's not a conversation I open up anymore, but I did give it a test of a good five emails across different time periods for a few months just to see what's going to happen. And that optimize resend, or enable resend button was a helpful option in convincing my team, like," Hey, we're going to try this, but don't worry. If it doesn't work, they'll still get the email during the work week."

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. I like that example a lot because it's sort of like a," Hey, this is permission to run my test or to go against best practice, maybe, or to just try something different, but there's a backup plan just in case it doesn't go exactly how we wanted it to go."

Andrea Huggins: Yep. You've got it. You hit the nail on the head.

Alex Mastrianni: Have you had any reactions from coworkers when you've positioned going against best practice?

Andrea Huggins: Most of the time, you get that smile on the face that's like," Okay, if you're really going to go for it." But it's the aftermath that I really enjoy. We moved one of our most popular newsletters from a Tuesday to a Wednesday because of what the data was showing us about open rates, and in the beginning it was," Oh, this is a really established newsletter. I don't know if it's a good move, but okay, we'll try it." And I'm like," We can move it back. It's okay." And now it's," Oh my gosh. I have an extra business day to get this done. We're having a higher open rate here, more clicks. This is amazing." And I'm like," See? It's okay." We fail faster, and in that case we didn't fail.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah, no. I feel like I heard... There's some phrase out there, and I'm probably going to get it wrong, but it's something like," Failure isn't about failing, but it's about feedback." And I feel like it's the same thing with testing. It doesn't mean that you've succeeded or you've failed, it's just feedback. It's just a learning that you can apply to whatever you do next.

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. It's all data.

Alex Mastrianni: Yep. So cool. I love all of the experiments, and I love how you look at the data. That, for so many people, can become an afterthought, when you are just... Especially on a small team when you've got a million things to do and you're running from one project to the next, taking the time to look at the data really can make a difference.

Andrea Huggins: Yeah. Data's everything. And I love it because if someone asks me a question and I give them a response, I can back it up. I've got the data. It's not just my personal opinion on something. I'm like," We should move a newsletter to this day."" Why?"" Well, here's all the proof as to why." And they're like,"Okay. Well, let's do it then."

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. No, that's great. So of course this is The Member Engagement Show, and we ask all of our guests this question I'm going to ask you. What is your favorite member engagement tactic?

Andrea Huggins: It's a great question. Probably the tactic that I like the most is just being consistent. I think our members, any member... I know me as a member of some organizations, I appreciate consistency. I like to know. If you're sending me a newsletter, if it's weekly, I like to know which day it's coming out so I can be there to read it rather than sporadically sometimes Monday, sometimes Thursday. Who knows when? So consistency is a huge tactic, and we focus on that. We send a weekly newsletter ourselves and a monthly one, and second Tuesday of that month, it's got to get out the door. So consistency would definitely be my answer for that.

Alex Mastrianni: I love that. And it can apply to so many things too, especially data- related. You don't want to make one observation from a one- time thing and say," Oh, this must be the thing." And it could be an outlier. You need to be consistent-

Andrea Huggins: Absolutely.

Alex Mastrianni: ...with some of your strategies before you can make a solid decision based off of it.

Andrea Huggins: Yes.

Alex Mastrianni: Cool. Well, thank you so much, Andrea. This has been such a fun conversation. For our listeners who might have questions or want to connect with you, where can they find you?

Andrea Huggins: Yeah, you can look for me on Twitter. I'm @AMSHuggins. Or you can find me on LinkedIn, Andrea Huggins. I'd love to connect.

Alex Mastrianni: Awesome. Thanks so much, Andrea, for joining us, and we will see you all again on another episode of The Member Engagement Show.

Andrea Huggins: Thank you.


Have you heard that short subject lines are better? How about that you should only send marketing emails during weekdays? These may be "best practices," but until you've tested them to see if they work for your members and your audience, you don't know if they're best practices for your association. Today's discussion is with Andrea Huggins, Senior Marketing Manager at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. She and Alex highlight the importance of understanding your members and being ready to pivot strategies according to member behavior and data to drive member engagement. Listen now!

Today's Host

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Alex Mastrianni

|Sr. Manager of Product Marketing at Higher Logic
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Heather McNair

|Community Industry Expert

Today's Guests

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Andrea Huggins

|Senior Marketing Manager , AASHE