Making Email Marketing Work for Your Event

Making Email Marketing Work for Your Event

In the winter of 1971, a guy by the name of Ray Tomlinson did something really ordinary that would, in time, revolutionize the way we communicate: he sent the very first email message. Ray was a computer engineer at a contractor for the U.S. Defense Department. One of those brainy guys working on some of the very early Internet stuff, he did some fancy playing around with the existing technology, and figured out a way to send messages between two machines. In various interviews, Ray talks about how his first messages were just nonsense strings of letters, totally forgettable. He was only testing the technology, he says; he didn’t know he should have had a Neil Armstrong “one small step” comment at the ready.

It’s been 42 years since that first message, and email has changed our lives. But what hasn’t changed is the forgettable factor: emails are all too often forgettable, opened and discarded (or unopened and discarded) in a matter of seconds. Most of us get an average of 100 emails a day: that adds up to more than 36,000 emails a year. In all of this noise and traffic, what is going to make someone stop, read, and—most importantly—ACT?

Inevitably, stories about email have a section where they bemoan the pace of modern life. That’s a total waste of time, so we’re not doing it. Because our culture isn’t the problem. Your forgettable emails are the problem. And the truth is that in today’s world, the disease of forgettability will cost your association more money than all of your other woes combined.

Making Email Marketing Work for Your Event

The really great news is that email is actually a terrific way for associations to market events. Unlike spam or unsolicited emails, you are abiding by the first rule of email marketing: get permission first. You have the permission of your members to communicate with them.

Permission is a powerful thing to have on your side. But it’s not enough. You also have to do it right—because email marketing only works when you do it right. We make it work for our clients by following the Think-Say-Show process: strategy that starts by answering why this whole thing matters, archetype-based messaging that talks to members about the things they care about, and inspiring graphics that paint a picture they have to be part of.

But that’s the view from above. We’re going to walk you through some specifics: things you need to start doing TODAY to see better results from your email marketing for your conference. First, we’ll talk about what has to be true ALL of the time. Then, we’ll offer six ideas around how to create email content that inspires members to ACT. And finally, we’ll address what six things you need to do to get members to OPEN your emails.

First, let’s talk about what has to be true all of the time.

Email Marketing for Events Golden Rule:
Every single email message you send out to promote your conference must have a consistent, branded look. Every. Single. One.

There are three reasons for this:
  1. Consistency builds trust and credibility: your members will take seriously what you say if they keep seeing it presented in the same way.
  2. Of those thousands of emails we get every year, we are much more likely to open and engage with the ones we recognize.
  3. The third reason is really the key: A branded look is what allows you to build the story of your event, week by week. Your email campaign needs a graphic and verbal life of its own—separate from the other regular communication that you send out to members (like monthly updates).

We’ll talk more specifics about how to brand your emails in the next two sections.


1. Use a customized, well-designed email template that incorporates your brandmark.

Text-based emails inform: they do not inspire.

Your email template is your chance to paint a captivating visual of what the event is about. It MUST incorporate the brandmark and theme (that’s part of that stand-alone branded look we outlined in The Golden Rule). You also need a smartly-designed sidebar, with calls-to-action designed as graphic icons. Choosing (and then customizing) the right template is perhaps the single-most important design decision your association will make regarding the conference email marketing.

2. Segment your storytelling.

The same stories don’t appeal to everyone, because not everyone cares about the same thing.

For example, in a campaign we built for The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), we realized that the headmasters of boarding schools came to the event for different reasons than the faculty and staff—so, we created a segmented email campaign. We also segmented based on members who had never attended and members who had attended. This allowed us to help TABS tweak the messages in very specific ways.

3. Speak in a voice that will make members listen.

One of the things we specialize in is helping associations hone in on the voice they need to use to inspire their members to register. As we said in last month’s article, discerning your archetype is a key stepping stone in your marketing plan—and it’s what you’ll use to create the branded voice. For example, we determined The American Specialty Toy Retailer’s Association (ASTRA) member archetype is that of a caregiver. Their members believe that nurturing a child’s love of play can change kids’ lives. It’s what drives them at their core. So, we created a voice that is nurturing, caring, cheerful, optimistic, and playful. We used the conference theme, “From Ordinary to Extraordinary” to develop the stories. And we worked with ASTRA to keep the voice consistent across all event email communication. When you talk to your members in a voice designed specifically for them, it forges an emotional connection.

4. Build unique offers into the campaign.

Offers include things like Early Bird specials, webinars, hotel discounts, giveaways (from iPads to free hotel stays), ebooks, and other special promotional things.

And definitely use videos to entice people to click on your offers. Videos should be short (one or two minutes, tops). You can take two approaches: motion-graphic based videos (highly graphic and fun), or testimonial videos (where members or speakers talk about the benefits of the event). Videos not only break up text-heavy emails, people also love to watch and share them. As for how to present your offers: craft at least one specific email for each offer, and then keep them in front of your members for the duration of the offer using graphic icons in the sidebar.

5. Always remember to answer: “What’s in it for me?”

The most successful email campaigns are the ones that consistently make emotional connections with members.

For example, it’s not just about telling your members about who the keynote speaker is: it’s about showing them why they should care, and telling them the story of how it might change their life. A great strategy is to build your campaign around member testimonials. For example, for The American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) email campaign, we interviewed three senior staffers of a long-time member organization, and told their stories of why the conference mattered to them through a series of three emails. We’ve said it many times before: your event is about people. So, channel people. Not facts.

6. Include calls to action

In each email you send, you want to have a specific call to action.

Tell members exactly what you want them to do: “Register by April 15th to claim the special rate!”; “Don’t miss the chance to win a free iPad: Register in the next two days!”; “Claim your spot in this valuable webinar and register today!” Make sure to include a call-to-action in the body of your email, and in your sidebar.


1. Get the frequency right.

You can structure your email marketing campaign one of two ways. Either start marketing via email six months out, and send emails three times a month. Or, start the emails three months out and send them twice a week. Pick your strategy, and stay with it—throughout the entire campaign.

2. Don’t be afraid to send more emails (if they are good emails).

Associations are sometimes leery of sending too many emails, feeling like they are “bothering” members. We have two challenges to this notion. First, the data doesn’t support it. It shows that the rate of unsubscriptions is the same whether or not you only send one monthly email or two to three emails a week. That’s why we recommend two branded event emails a week. And then, bundle all of your other association updates into one weekly digest.

The second reason we challenge this idea of “bothering” is that you are in the business of changing lives (as we talked about in last month’s article). You can’t change people’s lives if you don’t communicate with them. But you also won’t change their lives with bad emails. Send smart, well-designed, inspiring emails about your event on a regular basis, and lives will be changed.

3. Craft better subject lines.

We often suggest doing A/B testing (send out one subject line to one group and a different to another group—all things being equal—and then see which one gets a better response). But before you go to the trouble, try simply writing better subject lines. Preferably ones with a “what’s in it for me?” statement. Ones that inspire, intrigue, and tell stories—versus simply informing. The exception: the “registration is now open” email: this email usually gets the highest click-through rate and drives the most registrations. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel on this one.

4. Be deliberate in your timing.

People read more emails in the morning than the afternoon, and the earlier, the better. The best open rate is actually between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Monday and Friday are terrible days to send emails (Monday is the highest “unsubscribe” day). Tuesday is slightly better; Wednesday and Thursday have shown to be best. Do you have to be a slave to what the stats say? Of course not—especially if you know your members very well. But it’s definitely good to understand the trends.

5. Keep emails mobile friendly.

People tend to read about half of their emails. And of the ones they do read, about 88 percent of them are read on mobile device (smart phone or tablet). Your email template MUST be mobile-friendly.

6. Inspire confidence in your members that they can anticipate something better than the ordinary.

People will open your emails if they know they are good. No matter what the data says about which day of the week or what time to send, if you craft really, really great emails, people will open them. If they know they can expect exciting offers and creative storytelling, they will open them.

Email marketing is one of your best tools for telling the story of your event.

But you have to use it the right way. Otherwise, it will get eaten alive by the forgettability bug. But don’t panic yet—the antidote is readily available: Send better emails. Starting now.

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