Digital Marketing for Associations: The Ultimate Guide

We’ve put together this digital marketing guide for associations to share time-tested, proven strategies for online success. This guide will help digital marketing professionals get the results they want with the resources they have.

Introduction

It’s vitally important that your website not just have great design, but that you know your goals and are able to track and measure them effectively. Digital marketing tactics like search engine optimization, landing pages, content strategy, and social media marketing are all vital pieces to your efforts.

Challenges with your association today

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Nobody logs in to our website
  • We’ve struggled with SEO in the past
  • We want to attract younger members
  • Our website is extremely slow
  • Our site isn’t optimized for mobile
  • People in our industry can’t find us on Google.

If any of these apply to your website efforts, you’re not alone. Many associations have faced one or more of these challenges at some point.

But great news – it’s all very fixable!

The first step is to think beyond your website and realize that digital marketing for associations includes your entire web experience.

Check out what we mean…

digital strategy fundamentals
Chapter 01

Digital Strategy Fundamentals

Digital marketing for associations is the cornerstone for tangible website results.

In this chapter, we will cover 7 specific fundamentals that are crucial to your digital marketing strategy and why they are especially important in 2020 and beyond.

1. Discovery and Review

The first step is to have an orientation meeting with your team and do a full review of your existing digital marketing efforts. Conduct a web traffic audit, SEO audit, website audit, social media marketing audit, and an email marketing audit. You’ll need a solid foundation of quantitative data and anecdotal information on which to build your plan.

2. Define

In the define phase of your digital marketing strategy, you’ll want to define and document your mission statement, objectives, KPIs, and audience. Writing out your mission statement has shown to not only increase awareness at your organization but also provide a North Star for future edits and updates to your site. Defining the personas and scenarios of those coming to your site is also essential.

3. Strategize

This is where the real thought-work begins. Take what you’ve learned so far in the process and start determining how to reach your audience through your given channels in a creative, strategic way. You’ll define the campaigns you’ll be using along with the timing of each. An example campaign could be awareness of a new program using social media and video. Or a conversation optimization campaign using data and page flow revisions. These are just a few of many options.

4. Create

In this step, you will determine all the content required to make an impact with your digital marketing strategy. You will examine existing content and decide how much is still relevant and then also highlight initiatives that will require newly created content. Content marketing could be anything from a landing page to an image to a video and more. You’ll also define areas of specific engagement (like a survey on the website) and propose the tools and/or applications needed to execute on them.

Listen to One Association’s Digital Marketing Success Story

5. Implement

After all necessary content pieces are completed, it’s time to implement. Upload your videos, write and send your tweets, and publish your blog posts. In short, make it all happen. This is the execution phase of the plan.

With this 7-step process for successful online marketing, some of the work and implementation can be rolling and overlap over time. This makes sense since some content may be easier to create and implement than other content.

6. Promote

Once all content, tools, and applications are implemented, it’s time to begin promotion. Most promotional plans will include some variation of cross-promotion. In other words, a blog post could be promoted through link-building, over LinkedIn and Twitter,  or even on Facebook Ads. Maybe a tweet could reference a video on YouTube while directing the YouTube video links to a related event. The execution of promotion can and should be a collaboration with your digital agency who can also consult and assist in the preparation of the promotion/content calendar. 

7. Optimize

A key to improving how you reach members is leveraging search marketing. Gaining traffic and visibility from search engines requires fine-tuning and tweaking over time, leveraging data and findings during the course of your campaigns. The other elements of optimization include copywriting, improving the quality of imagery, enhancing the user experience on the website, modifying a Twitter bio and more.

Digital marketing for associations graphic of 7 steps

graphs and SEO data illustration.
Chapter 02

Why Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Let’s take a deeper look at one key aspect of your digital strategy: search engine optimization. Here are 8 reasons why your association should seriously consider investing in SEO.

1. Other associations are investing in SEO

If you’re aware of any online competitors, then you absolutely should be using SEO. You can gain insights about your competitors using free tools like UberSuggest, and Google Autocomplete Suggestions. These applications can help you understand where your competitors are ranking for specific keywords and phrases. It’s then your job to start researching and strategizing on keywords that make sense for the topics you’d also like to rank for.

2. SEO is low cost

SEO is not pay-per-click (PPC). PPC campaigns are the ads you see at the top of Google’s results pages. Businesses pay big bucks for top placement.

The power of search engine optimization is that you don’t have to pay Google for ad space to be well-ranked. SEO is something your team can implement or you can engage an agency to help with.

With a good, well-focused strategy and good content, you can start a small SEO campaign for your association in no time. 

3. It leads to better content

Following the best practices of SEO can lead to better layout, format and readability for your webpages in general. Whether it’s your home page, a blog post or a landing page, getting your title tag, headers, image alt tags (and more) correctly optimized for Google means you’ve likely just created a great page for your site visitors. Google wants you to create pages for humans – not their algorithm – so if you get that right, you’re going to rank much better.

4. You’ll get more page views

An optimized website earns more traffic. Organic search is most often the primary source of an association’s website traffic. Optimizing for specific, relevant keyphrases will lead to more site traffic. And more importantly, people find you instead of you trying to find them. Imagine visitors clicking on pages they intended to land on – lowering your bounce rate and improving your rankings.

5. Your quality of site visitors increases

Directly related to #4 above. It’s more likely people will be arriving at your site and be happy with what they’ve found when they find your pages through organic SEO. This will lead them to stay on your site longer and click around to view other quality content

Keep in mind that there are actually two distinct ways people access your site: 1) on their laptop 2) on their mobile device. To get quality – meaning qualified – visitors to your site is great, but does your site present well to them? Google is moving to a mobile-first approach for all things search, so if you’re not familiar with AMP, you should be. 

Another major consideration when it comes to SEO – and digital marketing for associations in general – is page speed. How fast any particular page – especially on mobile – loads is a major signal to Google for how high they should rank your page. 

Test your site speed with Google Lighthouse

6. You’ll establish authority

There are really two types of authority at play when it comes to search engine optimization for your nonprofit. First is the authority you’ll receive in your industry for being the organization whose web pages keep ranking high for important industry terms. When people see your site pages continually popping up in their Google searches, they will know you are the real deal. A real-world example is HubSpot. If you search for almost any marketing term, you’ll see one of their optimized pages ranking highly. Try searching “content strategy” or “SEO strategy” on Google and see if they don’t show up between a #1 and #3 on the search results page. 

The other authority you’ll create over time is “domain authority” as named by MOZ. Other search engine tools call it something similar, but in a nutshell, it is a rating between 1 and 100 that indicates how powerful your website is in the world of SEO. A high domain authority (DA) means your site pages are more likely to rank higher than a site with a lesser DA that is trying to optimize for the same keywords.

All in all, authority on the web is a good thing. And is really in and of itself more than worth an investment in SEO for your association.

7. You can measure SEO

With the right partner and some education, you can quantify your SEO efforts. There are a few staple SEO tools and resources to grow your search traffic like MOZ, aHrefs, and SEMRush, these can provide all the data you need. Leverage these tools for keyword difficulty, keyword volume and ultimately your keyword ranking. They can also show what keywords your competitors rank for and what pages rank best. It can be extremely valuable to measure this against each of your desired keywords.

8. Position Zero – Featured Snippets

As we mentioned earlier, to conquer your competition, you should make SEO a core pillar of your digital marketing strategy.

For instance, if you compete for registrants to your event, readers for your trade publication or even buyers for your T-shirts, it makes sense to prioritize SEO in your digital strategy.

For example, every year in March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sponsors “National Nutrition Month”. This is an event the organization created – and therefore dominates the search landscape for keywords associated with the event. This year, however, a competing organization – a Gulo client – put on a parallel campaign to talk about “National Nutrition Month”. By the end of the month of March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics no longer owned the high Google rankings for the event and instead the competing nutrition organization controlled four of the highest volume search terms for event-related keywords – and they were all “Position 0” or “Featured Snippets”.

digital marketing graph of SEO rankings for ASN

Getting the attention of readers, registrants, attendees or members is extremely difficult these days. One thing you can be sure of, though, if you rank in position zero (the featured snippet) on Google, they will find you.

Technical SEO
Chapter 03

Technical SEO

These are all the things your association should be doing technically on your website to optimize for better placement of Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) on Google and other search engines like Bing.

Why should we care about technical SEO?

Do you want all the research, information and accomplishments of your organization to sit in the proverbial dark collecting dust? Or would you prefer people from all over the world to be able to find the great work of the hardworking staff at your association? 

There likely are not too many people that want their hard work putting on a conference, compiling innovative research, writing long-form editorial content, or developing new policies for their trade association to languish in obscurity. So…

Why should we focus on SEO?

SEO buy-in provides your association with the opportunity to get more traffic, which can result in:

  • More members. 
  • More sales.
  • More registrations.
  • More engagement. 

There aren’t too many board members or executive directors who are going to say, “No thanks, we don’t need any of that”.

What is Technical SEO

If your association’s website technical SEO isn’t up to the right standards (and frankly, most aren’t), then you’re not going to rank well on Google. It’s just that simple.

Free Technical SEO Audit

There are many factors that go into technical optimization. Search engines need to be able to find, crawl, render and index the pages on your website easily. Improving the technical aspects of your website helps them do that.

Technical Audit

You’ll want to conduct a technical audit of your existing site to ensure that the elements listed below are correctly implemented. If your entire ecosystem meets or exceeds Google’s requirements it will ensure your pages have the best chance for ranking.

Here are some technical SEO considerations: 

  • Pages with low text-to-HTML ratio
  • Canonicalized content
  • Duplicate content
  • Structured data or Schema.org
  • Poor semantic HTML markup (missing H1s, nested tags)
  • Optimized site structure
  • Page speed & site performance
  • Custom 404 pages
  • 301 redirects – a way to correct broken links
  • Sitemaps – ensure your XML sitemap is submitted to Google
Content Marketing
Chapter 04

Content Marketing Basics

Another tried and true element of a good digital strategy is content marketing. Here are some key tips to create a winning content marketing strategy, mostly by leveraging your blog.

Simply stated, your organization should have a blog, if you don’t have one already. This might seem like an argument straight out of 2004, but you’d be surprised how many associations have given up on a blog or never even tried. The breakdown was likely because they weren’t clear on a plan or what they were trying to achieve. Or maybe they just never had the benefits of blogging presented to them. 

Why should you do Blog?

Your blog is the place your association’s website builds additional SEO authority and can quickly answer your members’ questions among many other things.

“Don’t focus on having a great blog. Focus on producing a blog that’s great for your readers.”

Brian Clark, Copyblogger

Tip #1: Blogging should create engagement

We know that a well-written blog post can lead to excellent engagement for your site visitors. But is that a given? Driving people to a blog post that ranks high on Google for an industry keyword is fantastic, but what are you asking the user to do after that? Most blogs present excellent relevant content, but then never ask the user to take action. In other words, many blogs are created to display expertise around a topic – and that’s great – but why not add a call-to-action (CTA) to the body area of your blog post to get the user to act after reading. 

See a screenshot below of a blog post from our client, American Society for Nutrition. See how they’ve dropped a CTA toward the end of the post? This allows users to finish up reading and then, upon finding value in the content, join the organization. 

example of a call-to-action for association blog

Tip #2: Blogging can lead to improved SEO and traffic

You can read more on the value of SEO, but suffice it to say that blogs are your gateway to great Google rankings. 

But how do you get beyond the idea that your blog is a place for hot topics and expert advice and instead leverage it as a tool to generate additional traffic and (shout out to #1 above) create meaningful engagement with your visitors? The answer is making search engine optimization (as described above) a high (if not the highest) priority for your blog.  

Having said that, you also want to ensure that you’re not over-optimizing your blog post – for the sake of SEO – to a point where you have an article that is confusing and/or not meaningful. Take a look at this recent post from the American Diabetes Association and see if you think it has prioritized packing keywords onto a page (which Google frowns on, by the way) over providing quality content.

Digital marketing for associations image for a bad blog example

We’ve highlighted some areas to take a look at more closely. Check out the whole post and be the judge on whether the ADA is providing relevant, quality, Google-friendly content. And, if not, what would you do differently? 

The primary takeaway here is, SEO and blogging go hand-in-hand. If you’re writing high-quality content, but more in a journalistic fashion without really considering what Google might try to optimize the article for, you’re missing a huge opportunity. A good rule of thumb for your organization should simply be, “If you publish online, then optimize.”

Tip #3: Blogging is best with a purpose

Outside of knowing what you want to write about and that you need to optimize your blog content, there needs to be a consistent thread of purpose to your posts. In fact, going so far as to write a purpose statement for your blog could help a great deal. 

Each page should be constructed to solve a problem or answer a question. Search engines eat this type of content up. A common formula is:

Our organization is where…[audience] gets [content] to help them achieve [goal]”

Before you dismiss the idea of writing down your purpose statement, keep in mind that according to a B2B Content Marketing Report, most marketers who do write it down consider themselves more successful. Yet only about 28% of marketing teams actually do it. When would now be a good time to write your blog purpose statement? 

Tip #4: Blog with Structure & Purpose

One effective way to set up an SEO campaign is to have it consist of four pages: one primary page that serves as the centerpiece of the given topic and three satellite pages that are complementary to the primary page with links into it.

SEO configuration of pages image

Each satellite page contains content that is topically-related to the primary page. Make all content original and be sure not to duplicate content in any way. The supporting satellite pages link into the primary, or pillar page creating a network of authority around your preferred topic.

Tip #5: Do Your Keyword Research

There are a lot of special tools like SEMrush, Moz, ahrefs, Ubersuggest and even a little Googling using Google Suggest can be used to help research your preferred topics to help determine what the best keywords to optimize for will be and how best to incorporate them into pages.

While the initial research requires getting under the hood a bit, we’ve found it’s not all an exact science. A few indicators we tend to lean on heavily include: 

  • Keyword volume
  • Keyword difficulty (this a SEMrush data point)
  • Keyword trend
  • CPC (Cost Per Click)

For each piece of content, we suggest creating an initial pool of 3-5 keyword phrases. The number of keywords per any given optimized page can vary based on many factors and will be determined during the course of your work. These phrases always relate directly to the keyword of your campaign or your pillar content.

Our Free Google Sheet Keyword Research Template

Tip #6: Optimize your Content

Once your satellite content is proofed and ready to be published, you’ll want to optimize the page. Once again, use software to aid your efforts. There’s a host of “On-Page SEO Checkers” on the web. If you tell the checker the pages and keywords you want to optimize for, the software will then suggest very specific elements to optimize for. 

The on-page elements to optimize for include:

  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Meta titles
  • Headlines
  • Header tags
  • Image optimization
  • Internal links
  • Page load time
  • Page name

The off-page elements to optimize for include:

  • Backlinks
  • Social media marketing
  • Guest blogging
  • Linked and unlinked mentions
  • Influencer marketing

Tip #7: Have fun!

Enjoy what you’re doing and what you’re writing. It makes it a lot easier! And once you get the content live, you’ll most certainly want to track your progress with your SEO software or Google Analytics. See how you can take your site from no visibility to high visibility for your target keyword phrases.

digital marketing for associations graph of rising SEO rankings

Each month you’ll want to monitor and adjust so you can continue to improve rankings.

Voice Search
Chapter 05

Voice Search SEO

“Voice” in marketing circles today has become an umbrella term labeling any number of things related to voice-triggered technology. You may have heard phrases being thrown around like voice search, voice marketing, skills, assistants…and more. Let’s explore how SEO plays a role in all of it.

What is Voice Search SEO?

“Voice” in marketing circles today has become an umbrella term labeling any number of things related to voice-triggered technology. You may have heard phrases being thrown around like voice search, voice marketing, skills, assistants…and more. Let’s explore how SEO plays a role in all of it.

The elements that help your web pages rank for web SEO include thoughtful keyphrases, good use of imagery, context, intent, and length of the page itself (to name just a few). The question then becomes: are these same elements enough to get you to rank well within the voice search ecosystem? In other words, when someone asks Siri a question on their iPhone or queries a Google Home device, will your content make the cut for what those algorithms choose as the best result?

Why Voice Search SEO Matters

The main reason voice SEO matters is the rate of adoption. This isn’t something that will “be huge one of these days,” it’s here now and growing fast.

According to voicebot.ai, 58.6% of online adults in the United States have used voice search. That adds up to around 148 million adults in this country that have voice search experience.

In short, the goal of voice search SEO is to optimize your web content in a way that is not only friendly to Google.com, but also stands out in a unique way so that the voice assistants that power smart devices present your content as the chosen, singular result for a particular voice query. It’s something all marketers should be considering today.

graphic representing different social media components
Chapter 06

Social Media Marketing

Social media strategy is part of a sound digital marketing strategy. Here are 3 winning tips:

1. Connection over content

Don’t worry as much about what content you’re pushing out over social media or even how often – especially if it’s promotional – instead focus on making an emotional connection with your followers. Endear them to your brand. Send out a warm-hearted post related to a news event or set up a calendar of regular inspirational quotes related to your industry. Find a way to create a diverse feed of organizational-related content, topical mentions, shares, images and more – but focus most on being relatable and making a connection.

2. Be helpful

Give people a reason to follow your account. Sure, you can broadcast the date of your next event over Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all at the same time, but make sure to sprinkle in some helpful tips or insights for your followers. If your social accounts look spammy or focused on promotional posts only, people will tend to invest their attention elsewhere. Re-posting helpful ideas from industry influencers is an easy way to check this box. 

3. Be relevant

Make sure you aren’t just sending exact duplicate posts across each of your social channels. While this ensures a consistent message reaches all of your social media followers, it is also not taking advantage of the uniqueness of each channel. The tone of your post, the graphics you use and the length of your post can – and should – vary by channel. LinkedIn can be longer posts, while Twitter is obviously restricted by character count. Facebook is ubiquitous and you can be more casual there most times. If you want to gain followers, stop worrying about losing them and deliver relevant content that is channel-specific. 

illustration representing some web design components
Chapter 07

Design Terminology

While designing content for optimal digital marketing is important, you should also be familiar with the visual design lexicon. Here are definitions of some common design terms.

Visual weight

Visual weight is the principle that all elements on a page carry weight and the element with the most weight draws the user’s eye first. An element’s weight can be affected by the following things: size, contrast, density, color, and negative space. For example, larger objects attract the eye more than smaller objects, and bolder, brighter colors carry more visual weight than softer and lighter colors. Keep in mind that visual weight can be somewhat subjective and can vary case-by-case.

Density

Density is the amount of information and visual elements in a given area, page or design.

High-density pages are sometimes visually described as “busy” or “crowded.” Think: the front page of a newspaper or news website.

Low-density pages are considered light with lots of whitespace. 

See the examples below showing the difference between these two web design terms.

Remember, the more elements you have within a design, the more attention you are demanding from a user. Balance is the key.

high density vs low density example image

Template

A template is a predesigned and typically unique layout of a page on a website. It is applied to the content of a page for design purposes. For example, a homepage and a contact page have different content, UI elements, and functionality. They require different layouts, and therefore, different page templates.

“Above the fold”

This refers to the content the user first sees on the page without having to scroll. It’s a bit tricky to pull off in modern web design because people access websites from different kinds of devices with varying screen sizes.

web design above the fold example

Responsive web design

Responsive web design enables your website to automatically adapt to any screen size (desktop, tablet, and mobile), providing a seamless user experience.

Unsure if your site is mobile-friendly, check your site with Google’s Mobile Search tool

White space (or negative space)

This is the empty space between and around UI elements, columns, margins, images, and text. Keep in mind that white space does not have to be white, it can be any color. White space is often used to improve text readability, create balance, and as a separator between unrelated elements in a design. 

Minimalism

Minimalism is a style in which a design is stripped of all unnecessary elements, flourishes, color and content that does not support users’ tasks. When done right, a minimalist design is clean, crisp, and functional.

Balance

Balance is the visual weight of all the elements in a composition. We use balance to create structure and create consistency. 

Composition

This refers to the arrangement of design elements on a page. A successful composition should captivate and guide the user through the content.

Scale

Scale is the size of an element in relation to another element. Scale can be used to create interest and grab a user’s attention. 

What else can you do? 

Some optional but important exercises your organization can perform as part of your digital strategy include:

  • SWOT analysis
  • Competitive analysis
  • Positioning statement
  • Audience personas and scenarios

Final Thoughts on Digital Marketing

At Gulo we work with many associations providing a wide range of digital marketing services. You may need some or all of the services discussed here or may need this much and more. Every organization is unique and your digital marketing should be as well.

If you’d like to join the other 4,000+ associations that get valuable insights from us each month, sign up for our monthly Digital Marketing Insights newsletter. It includes fresh tips and ideas for all things web. 

Chapters

Chapters