How does a club with more than 130-years of history transform its member communication and drive engagement? With tremendous vision, team buy-in, and persistent commitment to execution and member benefit. That’s what Jackie Singleton and the team at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, learned when shifting their member communications.
Jackie is the communications and technology director at The Country Club and is living proof that even the most traditional clubs can and should innovate. Her team has learned how to share the stories that matter most to their members and have turned around member engagement in just one year. In this episode, we talk to Jackie about what prompted the change, how The Country Club made it possible, and what they’ve done to get staff buy-in.
In this episode:
- What's So Special About The Country Club? (1:15)
- Vast Membership Needs (3:12)
- Changing Communications at The Country Club (5:55)
- Customizing the Messaging (8:33)
- Making the Change (13:46)
- Uncovering the Stories at the Club (16:03)
- The Challenge of Creating Interesting Content (19:37)
- Digital Natives? (22:40)
- Secrets to Managing Change (26:07)
- Seeing the Results (28:22)
- What Can Smaller Clubs Do? (31:30)
- 3 Tips for Getting Started (36:41)
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1:15 - What's So Special About The Country Club?
JACKIE: We are situated in New England, and most New England clubs are seasonal clubs, and we happen to be one of the few year-round clubs. We have approximately 11 or 12 activities that the members can take part in year-round. Our dining is open year-round, and we do not have food and beverage minimums, which is another unusual aspect of our club. We have approximately 1,300 members and about 350 staff in season.
ED: Hearing about 11 or 12 activities for members, that's a big undertaking from a communications perspective, isn't it?
JACKIE: It is. We are not your typical golf-tennis-swimming country club. We also have things like curling and skeet shooting, and a very active bridge program that is year-round.
ED: When you say very active, what does that mean? Like multiple bridge matches going on at a time?
JACKIE: Oh, you would be surprised. Our Bridge Ladies, as we lovingly refer to them, participate in bridge from September until about June. They have about seven events on the calendar each week, and also reserve private space when they do not have a scheduled activity, so they can have other bridge lessons. They end up with about 300 or so events on the bridge calendar for the year, and they have about 200 or so players who are actively involved.
ED: God bless 'em. What a group of people, you know, the relationships that are built through that.
JACKIE: And what I find amazing about them is that they love their website and make online reservations to play and for their bridge lessons. They're great.
3:12 - Vast Membership Needs
ED: Good for them! Aside from the passion of the bridge players, how would you describe your members? What is the makeup? Help me better understand, because it'll be good context as we get into your communications and how things have shifted.
JACKIE: We have about 1,300 members. Out of those, there are about 850 active members. The rest maybe non-resident, etc. And our average age is about 63 years old right now. A lot of them have grown up at the club, so they are sons and daughters of people who've held memberships here for a long time.
ED: Given the nature of your club, and the history there, and the fact that so many of your members have grown up at the club, how has the club historically handled change when new things are introduced or a change in operations, how flexible have they been?
JACKIE: That's a really interesting question. I've been at the club for about 20 years. In the first 10 years, I didn't feel like there was a lot of change. But in the last 10 years, I would say there's been a great deal of change. And even if you think about, from the outside world perspective, how much has changed in communications, it's obviously needed to change with the club, as well. I would say that our club, in particular, is not cutting edge. We don't choose to live on the edge. We live a little bit behind the curve. But we have adopted a more current communication philosophy than what we were at about 10 years ago.
ED: It's not like it's unique that you might be a step behind. I think that's out of respect for your membership. And, if I'm not mistaken, your approach in your membership is pretty typical. Wouldn't you say?
JACKIE: I would definitely say that. I would also say that, and this isn't meant to offend anybody in the club software space, but club software, in general, tends to be a step or two behind where the world is. Only because the demographic for their market is smaller. So, we don't have as much access to the current-day standards when it comes to CRMs, etc. So, we're operating a little bit behind the times in that sense, too, which therefore changes how you can communicate with your membership.
5:55 - Changing Communications at The Country Club
ED: That's one of the reasons we have this podcast, is to try to talk about some of those things that are maybe a little bit more current. But you guys have been so progressive, in many ways, you've done some things that are fairly innovative, that I would venture to guess a lot of clubs across the country have not done. You had a very significant shift in your internal communications a couple of years ago, and you spoke about it at CMAA 2018 in San Francisco. Can you tell us about the internal communications? What was happening? How did you operate? What was sort of standard procedure for how you communicated with your staff and to the members in newsletters?
JACKIE: Prior to that shift, we were pretty standard in our communications. If you looked at our communications in the year 2000, or even in 1990, we were still communicating the same way in 2014 or 2015. And that was hardcopy bulletins that would go out to the membership. Then around 2002 or 2005, we introduced a weekly e-mail to the membership, and we had continued that weekly e-mail. It was creatively called "The e-Bulletin," and that went out once a week to the membership, and we had 11 or 12 activities that were vying for space in that e-mail.
It was all just pretty mundane. It was the same information, year over year, when there was so much more we could be telling the membership about what was going on at their club. It was, quite frankly, a little boring. Some clubs have these beautiful newsletters that they put together in hard copy, monthly or bi-monthly. At that point, we were into a quarterly bulletin, so we only issued it four times a year. It's 12 pages, five and a half by eight and a half, and it's all just text. We're still issuing that today, but we do not rely heavily on that communication anymore. We've had members opt out of receiving it. It's really for the people who still like to receive it, that they may get that in the mail, but instead, we've transferred over to some more customized e-mails based on what the members are looking for.
8:33 - Customizing the Messaging
ED: So, let's talk about that. The customized e-mail sounds intriguing. Do you look at that, think my gosh, we haven't changed how we've operated in so long? What prompts you to do that? And then, at what point does it become this well-known issue for the club?
JACKIE: We have a Board of Governors of 12 individuals that represent the different activities that we were just speaking about, and they were looking for more information. Everybody on the board is looking for the best interest of the entire club, but also has their own information to get out to the members, and were feeling like they didn't have a tool to do that. So, after we had the 2013 U.S. Amateur, where we were communicating more frequently with the members but the members weren't complaining that we were more frequently communicating, we realized that there is an appetite for more information from the club, and not just specific to that event, but to other things happening at the club. And it wasn't something where they were going to start complaining to say we are getting too much information from the club, please don't send us this stuff, you're spamming us all the time. Because in reality, the world that we lived in back in 2013, 2014, and still today, is that people get a lot of e-mail. They know how to tune out what they don't want and what they want to read, and they know how to sift through that. So, if we put our members in control of what they are receiving — if somebody is into dining and golf, but not into tennis, and they can select accordingly — they are getting the information that they want to receive, which then changes your read rates and gives you more exposure to the programs.
ED: So people were getting inundated with e-mails, but how did you realize that this wasn't effective? Was there a red flag at some point? Did someone say something, or were the open rates just bad, or what was the indicator for you?
JACKIE: We were using that weekly tool of an e-mail which was packed with everything going on at the club, and the read rates at the time for the club industry were quote-unquote good. They were about 38 percent, 40 percent weekly, of people opening them. Now, when you factor in 1,300 members, if a member and a spouse are receiving the email and then you've got about 40 percent of them opening it, it doesn't sound terrible. Especially, if you then step back and say we have 850 members who are actually active members who are in the area and going to participate or eligible to participate in some of these events. Forty percent starts to sound okay.
But for the broader membership, we were having more of the complaints from, not the membership as a whole, but the leadership. We're a committee-driven club, and the Board of Governors, that's where we were hearing the complaints. There are about 230 members that serve on committees, and consistently at committee meetings, we were hearing "we don't have a way to get our stuff out to the membership," because they weren't looking at it like the e-Bulletin was serving that purpose. They needed another way, in addition to that, to get the word out to the members about whatever they may be trying to communicate and whatever program they had.
There is also a stigma that whoever's name is at the top of the e-mail is whose information is being read first. And for us, because we have so many activities, we would rotate them in a clockwise fashion so that each week somebody new got to be at the top of the e-mail. And if you have 11 activities, and you're only up there at the top once every 11 weeks, you can imagine that's not a great frequency.
We were at a conference in 2016, and we worked with our website company, and I actually had them put our e-mail up on a screen in front of a roomful of people and basically tear it apart, and explained why it wasn't a good tool for what we were trying to get across. Our general manager happened to be in the audience, and I knew that it was going to take place and he did not. But in the end, he was thankful for the whole exercise, and several weeks after that we had a new refreshed communications plan. We were going to move forward with sending that weekly e-mail, but in a new format. In addition to that, we were going to allow our members to start opting into what their preferences were. So, if they had an interest in tennis and an interest in curling and maybe in bridge, they could select boxes on the website which were part of their profile and then start receiving e-mails related to those activities.
13:46 - Making the Change
ED: When you talk about changing the format, what does that mean? What was wrong with it and how did you make it better?
JACKIE: Our club colors are green and yellow, which is important because that e-mail that used to go out was this tan-beige color. It was not pleasing to the eye. You need to incorporate the club colors, but it needed to be a little bit more lively than it was. It got a look and feel makeover, which was great, so now it looks more exciting to read. And the content really shifted at that point in time. Instead of continuing to just say Easter brunch is coming, and we're going to do maple syrup tapping, and we're going to have this promotion in the dining room, and what is happening over at golf, and just sort of information, we started more talking about the stories that were happening around those events. It was really more interesting for the members to read, at that point. So, instead of just advertising a maple syrup brunch, which doesn't sound all that interesting unless you really like maple syrup, we started focusing on stories. The brunch was something that we had done at the club for years, but the interesting part of that was that our chefs had worked with our grounds superintendent to identify maple trees on campus and was tapping those maple trees and producing the syrup in-house for the entire year, instead of outsourcing maple syrup. Then, at the bunch, they were able to taste different types and grades of that maple syrup, as well as learn a little bit about the process. That was really what we wanted to start telling people about, not just come to the maple syrup brunch because we have really great maple syrup in the dining room.
16:03 - Uncovering the Stories at the Club
ED: It's an interesting take on that. What's the secret to uncovering those kinds of stories? I think you and I both know that they exist in all clubs, but sometimes it's just knowing where to find them, or how to find them. What did you do as a team?
JACKIE: I think what really changed was trying to figure out how internally we were going to communicate so that I knew what the ground superintendent was up to. In reality, let's face it, everybody can spend all day at their desks up to their eyeballs in e-mail and work and forget to get out of that mode. And if you're not having conversations with the rest of your team, you're never going to know what those stories are and you're going to be missing them.
We all have to make a little bit of time for that. I realize time is a precious thing, but I have found in trying to get out of my office and connect more with some of the other departments on campus, that's how to find those stories. We have about 30 department heads, and trying to get all those people at one meeting on any sort of frequency would be near impossible. For us, it works better to break them up into some smaller groups, so we have a team meeting once a month for culinary and club events, so anything dining- and club events-related, which is the largest team meeting that I have for marketing. We have several people represented from the kitchen, as well as our events department, and our a la carte and beverage departments, as well as our director of operations, and then the communications team at them.
We talk about what's happening for the upcoming month. Sometimes it's generating new ideas. More likely, it's talking about the stories that are impacting what our current calendar already looks like, so that we can send out an e-mail at the end of the month that's talking about the upcoming month and what the chef has to tell everybody from dining and club events. And for dining and club events, we send an e-mail out to about 850 people. So you have a big audience there, and the read rate for them is about 68 percent. Our members want to hear from our chef what's happening on the menus. I could say in a weekly e-mail that we have new menus in the dining room, but if the chef starts talking about the homemade juices that they just put on our breakfast menu, and why they're so great, and what the ingredients are, and then you see a video of him maybe making some of those juices and talking about them, the members are just much more in-tune to what's going on. And as you hear the chatter in the dining room and the fitness center and where some of our operations team are talking to members, and even the members amongst themselves, they're talking about those videos that are coming out of these communications more so than Easter brunch is coming up because everybody knows when Easter is.
19:37 - The Challenge of Creating Interesting Content
ED: One of my favorite lines is that people say they're not interested when you're not interesting, and it sounds like you guys have done a really good job of creating interesting content for your newsletters and all of your internal communications.
JACKIE: We're working on it. Now we're in year two of it. We've gotten better at finding some content. We've gotten better at learning to use a simple iPad and iMovie and some editing tools to make those videos and put them on our website. And, just like every other club, we have a lot of repeat events. So, now we're going into year three, and finding the challenge to be, how do we find the new angle on it? We've shown videos of our chef tapping those maple trees, and we've shown the video footage of making the maple syrup, and some of the other pieces of that. Now it's going to be a challenge finding a new angle when that event rolls around next March.
ED: Storytelling, in general, has become — I guess it's more than a buzzword, but it's just this idea that a lot of organizations both in the club world as well as outside of it have been trying to really tap into. It's tough because it can be kind of this like ethereal type thing. Credit to you guys that you're working on it, and it takes some time, and frankly there's a lot of people that have to get used to that and understand a different way of communicating events and things that are happening at the club, right?
JACKIE: And then you have the turnover in and amongst the team, as well. With 30 department heads, at some point, somebody's going to move on, and we've got to have new people, which actually does make for some interesting new content, which is helpful. But it's also educating the new team as to how we operate with our stories and getting buy-in from them, as well, because everybody comes with their own perspective on how things are going to work. What works for this club may not work for the next club, but in doing some of our smaller meetings, so far the team of the three of us is really breaking down the department so that each department feels like they have a go-to member from our team of three. And then getting our team out of the office and working with those individuals has really been the most beneficial. It also helps that the two that worked with me are recently out of college, so it's a good learning opportunity for them, as well, to get out and talk to some of these department heads who are more established in their careers.
22:40 - Digital Natives?
ED: That's something I want to ask you about. Younger people, more digitally native, maybe a little bit more accustomed to the idea of communicating in a different way, how has that worked out for you?
JACKIE: It's been very interesting. I have a male and a female. Both graduated in marketing back in May. They are almost one year out of school and one had a minor in IT. Both of them, with their marketing degrees, did not know too much about storytelling, about any kind of software to do the marketing, and were not trained in the Apple suite of products as well as Adobe. They were not trained in any of it. So, full disclosure, we're very green. So, with that said, we did a lot of training when they were hired. But it was just so funny, for two recent college grads, who should be very technically sound, one of them discovered in the last year about making movies with their iPhone. It's funny to me, because of what they can actually produce with just a little bit of training. They've been awesome, and it's very refreshing. It's been refreshing for me, it's refreshing for the other staff, and I think it's a good mix of people.
That's one of the things that I love about clubs is that you do have the different generations and they all have something to teach each other. So even if the two who work with me go out, and they're talking to our general manager or director of racquet sports or director of grounds, all different age brackets, but they have learned from each other. Whether it's Matt and Rachel, who work with me, teaching them about the iPad and what it can do and how we're going to make this video look awesome. Or if it's one of the others imparting the knowledge of a particular area of the club, I think working together, not on e-mail and behind a screen, has been super helpful.
ED: One of the lessons there is just because they are maybe younger doesn't mean that they are really digitally savvy, right?
JACKIE: They will tell you that the training they received was probably too much when they first started. But one of them did tell me he learned more in the first three weeks of work than his whole college career, which I'm not sure his mom would appreciate. There's a lot of great free training out there, too, like the Apple Store. I mean we have iPads, we have a joint venture program, and we headed over to the Apple store to learn how to use iMovie.
ED: That's great advice because I know, at least from my end, I'm asked a lot of questions about video and shooting with your phone and things like that, and that's a great resource. It's helpful for people to know that it's out there.
JACKIE: I mean, we paid for some training in other areas that was expensive, so as far as the Apple Store and the Genius Bar goes, I highly recommend it.
26:07 - Secrets to Managing Change
ED: The other aspect of this whole thing, for The Country Club, that I was interested in exploring and having you share a little bit more about is the change management. You've got a big team of people that you're introducing some new communication ideas to, that you are asking to maybe even help to uncover stories within their departments. How do you go about doing that in a way that you can get people on board? I mean, you know some people are going to be slower to adapt to that and adopt those changes, but what was your approach at your club and what do you think was most effective?
JACKIE: For us, I would say it definitely came from the top down. Our general manager has been here for over 30 years, so you can imagine he's seen a lot of changes, and he has to be very flexible. He bought-in right away for kind of changing our approach to marketing and communications. It probably helps that he sits in the majority of committee meetings, and if they're all having the same feedback that we need to be doing more, then it's probably easier for him to then jump on board. But for him to sit at a team meeting with department heads and admin staff and say this is important and we're going to make time for this and we're all going to learn it together, I think that's true leadership. I mean, it's not him just pointing the finger saying now so-and-so is going to take care of this. We're going to do it together, we're all going to learn to do it together, and we're going to make mistakes along the way, but that's okay, that's how we learn. So, for David to sit there and start the meeting off like that when we had our kickoff meeting of how we were going to change things, I think was extremely beneficial. And then from there working with each department, you do learn everybody's strengths and weaknesses and how we can support them.
ED: That's David Chag, your general manager.
JACKIE: Yes. David Chag is our general manager and he has been here just over 30 years, I believe. Just a little bit of time, and just a few changes in there.
28:22 - Seeing the Results
ED: That's innovative thinking. Someone who has been at a club for roughly 30 years at the time you started, to make these decisions. Someone who said, you know what, we do have to make a shift. And let's face it, there are probably a lot of general managers out there that get to that point in their career and they go, "why am I going to upset the apple cart now?" Great, great credit to him.
JACKIE: Very great credit to him. I mean, he started the communications department 11 years ago, I think. And at that time, that position did not exist in clubs. I mean, it was basically, what do we call it? We know we're going to have them do X, Y, and Z, but we're not sure how to create the job description out of that. The position was originally started as a one year position and it was solely to revise the website, which at the time was being maintained once a month, which just sounds crazy today. You're going to put something on a website and leave it there for a month and then update it again. But that was what the position was.
And then, after a year, it was, we need we need to keep this position. We have more projects to do, we have more marketing that could be done. Marketing was not the word that was used 10 years ago, because even today it's a little taboo to use. But the position has just kind of stuck around, and it's grown, because it was a one-person department and then in 2011 we added a second person, part-time, and then just last year we went to two-and-a-half full-time people in the office.
ED: And you guys are keeping busy.
JACKIE: What I like to say about our department is that we do run in the background. What I tell our new department heads is that we're here to make you look good. We're here to make you and your programs look good, so whatever we can do to support that is what we're here to do. I don't want the director of racket sports or the director of grounds feeling like they have to sit at a computer and make some deadline. Instead, I'd rather have a conversation with them about whatever it is they've got going on, and then we'll take it and we'll spin it and write it.
31:30 - What Can Smaller Clubs Do?
ED: You're in an exceptional situation with as many activities and as many people who are overseeing a lot of different areas of the club. How does what you have done and what you've experienced and learned apply to a club that maybe doesn't have quite as much going on? [00:32:08][17.9]
JACKIE: I think that even if you were a golf club, and only had one thing going on, there are still stories to tell about what's happening on that golf course. If you don't have the infrastructure of three people because you don't have 12 activities, dial that back and if you have two or three activities and you've got one person, or if you've got six activities and you've got one person, you're still able to tell the stories. You just have to shift what your priorities are as far as the job goes. And if the priority for communications is to make members understand what their club has to offer, those members are then going to turn around and talk about their club, and want to be at their club, and they're going to sell your memberships for you, if you're in a position where you need to sell memberships. They're going to want to attend the events, which is going to boost your return on investment. But anything that you want those members to do, the way they are learning about them is truly the communications that you're offering. So if you're not communicating well, how are they going to know what their club is doing?
ED: When people feel more connected to their club, when they really understand what makes their club unique and special, and some of it's connecting to the brand, but it's that idea of when I know what's going on because I know some of the stories and I know the people that really make us unique, I'm way more inclined to talk about that to other people. I'm way more inclined to be more enthusiastic if someone asks me about being a member of a club because we have some people that are doing great things. I was talking to a communications director at another club the other day, in New England, and she was explaining to me how they just did a story in their bulletin about a young man who learned how to be a springboard diver at their club, and he just won the state championship in Massachusetts. What a great story that is to be able to share with your members because some people may not realize that the state champion is a member of their club.
JACKIE: I just feel like the more the members are personally invested in what they've made a financial investment in, the more likely they are to enjoy what they are doing. Not every story has to be something that you're selling, just like that diver you were talking about. You're not now selling the club and "you could be the next state diver." You're just letting them know who the other members are at the club, and what's going on, and connecting them to the world outside of their club. It just adds value for them.
One of my favorite pieces was at Christmas time. We had our director of events — and she came up with this on her own, it wasn't something the communications office generated — she decided that she was going to show members how we do our Christmas tree napkin folds. And she was going to do that video so that if members were having Christmas at home and wanted to do something cool with their napkins, that they could fold them into a Christmas tree. It was a 20- or 30-second video. And at Christmas time, we had one of our members who took a picture of his table at Christmas and send it to the general manager saying thank you so much, this is awesome, and that he had made his Christmas tree napkins for dinner and that they thought it was great that they had a piece of the club at their house at dinnertime.
ED: Really cool. You and I are going to have to have a separate conversation, maybe for another podcast, on how you've incorporated video, and how you've gotten that kind of use and engagement and interaction with your team because that is really cool.
JACKIE: It is so easy to do. It really doesn't have to be this mountain of work, which is the best part about it.
36:41 - 3 Tips for Getting Started
ED: Lastly, what advice would you give to a club that is listening or maybe even someone who saw you at CMAA this year and is really inspired, but just doesn't know how to get started. What would you say to them?
JACKIE: It's funny because after our CMAA conference I've been contacted, probably about three dozen times or so, and everybody's sort of looking for the same information. They're looking for, "how do I put together a style guide?," which I know we didn't really talk about too much today. But "where can I put together a list of some of the quote-unquote unwritten rules of our club and how we want people to communicate, and how do I go about doing that?" So, a style guide is one, a quarterly marketing plan is number two, and that's really a simple Excel sheet. It's nothing fancy, it's not some other piece of software you have to go buy. You can do it, as long as you have Excel or some other method, you're good to go there. And they're looking for sort of how to start those stories. And I really go back to that first meeting, and getting our general manager there and saying we're all going to be a part of this as a team. And I think taking the team approach versus operating in silos because they're all responsible for their area. But there are times when we all need to come together and realize we're all going in the same direction and communications are definitely one of those times.
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