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If you're looking for a club marketing pioneer, look no further than Ruth Glaser, director of sales and marketing at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Ruth has generated more than 250 new members since implementing inbound marketing strategies in 2012. She's also used inbound to grow the club's catering and events business in that same timeframe.

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Crushing Club Marketing is a podcast for club marketers, general managers and other stakeholders who are looking for a better way to attract and convert new prospects and to engage existing members. And no one has made the transition from traditional marketing to digital marketing with as much success as our first guest, Ruth Glaser, from Hazeltine National Golf Club.

In this Episode:

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2:26 - Why Hazeltine Invested In Digital Marketing

ED: Thanks so much for being with us, Ruth. You've got a great story to tell. Hazeltine National Golf Club is really a transformation in the way you market and the way you sell, whether it's memberships or whether it's catering events and things like that. Take us back to 2012, 2010, before you actually made the switch into more digital marketing. Can you kind of set the table for us? What was the economy like, what was the club like? Just help us put this in context.

RUTH: Sure. Well, back in 2011, 2012, we were still, I would say, coming out of the economic downturn of 2008. So, there had, as you recall, I'm sure, at that time been a contraction in private club membership. The golf course industry was really inundated with a lot of different options, so we saw some consolidation going on.

And at that time, as people were just starting to feel more comfortable economically again, we were struggling to find new members. How do we reach new members? We were fortunate in that we had just opened our clubhouse, which they had built after the 2009 PGA championship. So, we had a brand new facility. It opened in the fall of 2010 and we were able to kind of capitalize on the interest around that. People were just curious. It's like going into the new house or the house that's for sale in the neighborhood. You want to see what's inside. So, we were able to do some direct mail pieces and do some open houses and that type of thing. But then, after that novelty has worn off, then how do you continue to generate interest in what it is that you offer? So, that's that's the challenge and that's kind of the landscape that we were in that 2012 timeframe.

ED: Looking back on that, there were a lot of clubs that were dropping their initiation fees. That or going really, really low just to try to get some cash flow, right? How did you avoid that temptation?

RUTH: I think that was a very realistic temptation. For a lot of clubs, it was the right thing to do for them. We're fortunate that we had the 2016 Ryder Cup on the horizon, and Hazeltine has a 50-year history of championship play. And it's a quality club.

And there was just a belief among the membership and the leadership within that membership that we weren't overvalued. So they were pretty good across the board, wanting to keep the integrity of the initiation fee. But at that time, what we did was adopt some different financing options so that you could lengthen the amount of time it took to pay that initiation fee. So, they got creative that way. But, I think we were well positioned to kind of withstand that pressure.

5:33 - Taking the Leap Into Inbound Marketing

ED: So going into that, and now you've got the backing of leadership and the membership, what were the marketing tactics that you were using at that time and what was working, what wasn't working for you?

RUTH: Well, we had done a lot of PR. Again, fortunately, we had the 2009 championship, we had the new clubhouse, we'd recently redone the golf course, as well. So, there were some newsworthy events to be sure. But when I came on board, I looked at our website was antiquated. It wasn't really telling a good story about who we were. So I knew right away that there was an opportunity online.

The other tactics that were employed when I got there were really, kind of, the traditional club marketing tactics. It was a membership brochure, and a flyer, and a tour, and direct mail. So, some really traditional methods and we were looking at, or I was looking at, ways to innovate and to really, kind of, harness some of that Internet marketplace that's out there. You and I shop there all the time, right? We know that people are finding their information online. So, wanted to start to move more in that direction.

ED: So, in looking back at that time, what strikes me as kind of interesting for you to take a leap and move more towards a digital approach in 2012 was that there were a lot of different tools and things that people were starting to use. So, there were blogs. Everything was emerging. Facebook, and how do we use that? I know, for us, it seemed like every agency out there wanted to say that they knew how to do everything. I mean, you still have that today. But, how did you know what the right path was? I mean it seems like it was a wild west. It's scary.

RUTH: It really was a wild west. It's funny to think about in 2018 because it wasn't that long ago. But Twitter and Facebook were just emerging as viable ways to market to a consumer, business to business, business to consumer. This was brand new territory and there weren't any experts on it.

ED: And yet, there are so many people who are like, "I'm the guru." Right? You see that all the time. Right? They're like, "I'm the social media guru." Right?

RUTH: Exactly. So, it's digging in and learning what you can, but then also, you had asked how did we know we were on the right path? And I don't think you know when you set out, right? You do your research and you make the plan and you execute the plan. But along the way you have to check in and see, am I getting the results that I want?

Is the amount of effort we're putting into this paying off? And what you think at the outset might not be what actually happens. That was certainly the case for us. I think an example of that would be our Twitter usage in the beginning. Again, it was just trying to figure out this brand new social media stream, and how do we connect with fans and prospects and members and that type of thing. We were trying a publishing schedule on Twitter and we were just finding, I remember, for probably the first year, that we were out there with a concerted marketing effort, just struggling with the content. Like, in Minnesota in March, what kind of golf comment do you have to make? You don't, your course is closed still. And the conclusion that we came to was well, maybe March isn't the time to be talking about a daily golf tweet about Hazeltine.

So, now we know, after years of doing this. It's like, hey, people are starting to think about getting back into the game. So here are some ways that you can do it. So, it's about getting back in shape or warming up or thinking about the season. It's that type of thing. But when we started, it was like we were forcing the schedule on ourselves that felt a little artificial. So, it was it was finding the right cadence and the right topics and the right things to talk about and that took some trial and error.

10:01 - Managing a Successful Blog

ED: So, the other thing that you've always been very good at is using your social media or your blog to communicate information that's valuable and useful for people rather than promotional. I mean, if you look at your blog, there isn't a lot of stuff on there that's about our special, or self-serving content, right?

RUTH: I have that conversation on a regular basis within my organization. So, there are people who want to do that and who want to promote the weekend special and that type of thing. And we have to look at this channel. Who is it that we're trying to reach, and why are they following us? Why are they listening to us? They're not coming here necessarily for dinner Saturday night. So, is there a better way to reach the people who would be right to get them excited about it?

ED: So, what do you tell people today, like when they come to you and they say, "Why don't we do a post about this when we talk about this?" What do you tell them?

RUTH: Well, I point them to maybe examples of other organizations that do that. And the tone that that sets for that organization and what we want our tone to be. Again, reminding people what it is that we're trying to do. And is there a different avenue to communicate that?

So, here's another example that we just started, our golf shop is open to the public, and we've got great merchandise in there — a lot of fun stuff — but we don't want, necessarily, that to be our Instagram, right? Is, "Here, get 20 percent off your shirt." That's just not on brand, it's not the right tone for us. So, we started an Instagram account just for our golf shop, and we're promoting that to our members so that they can follow that. They want to know when sales are, when new merchandise comes in. But, I think, helping my internal clients find the best way to accomplish what they're trying to accomplish, as well. That's the conversation that we have.

ED: Internal client. Is that your approach? I mean, is that your mindset as you go into your work, that you're trying to serve the different groups who are trying to get their message out?

RUTH: Exactly. I always think that way. So internal clients might be my colleagues, or it could be members who are trying to promote an event or a league. We have all kinds of different stakeholders and clients.

13:00 - Developing a Social Strategy

ED: So, let's talk about some of the other areas of how you've leveraged your digital efforts. Before I get there, though, how have you been able to get buy-in from people? I mean, you say that the golf shop has its own Instagram account. Who's overseeing that? Is that your responsibility, or how do you help coordinate all that?

RUTH: I do to a certain degree. I try to be an asset so people can use my knowledge and I can help them set up things. But honestly, with this new Instagram account for the golf shop, it's our new merchandise manager who happens to be a woman who's in her mid-20s, so she's pretty native to Instagram. It's a very comfortable social media platform for her. And she loves that, so she's running that. I shared with her what I do on a large scale in terms of my content calendar, which then prompted her to create her own. She looked up when she's getting different deliveries in and she went out three months and kind of plugged in some topics that she can put out on the Instagram account. She's really doing the lion's share of the work and I'm just lending an assist with what I know.

ED: So how much direction do you have to give her? I think that's one of the concerns, especially in clubs that I've talked to. Who's managing them and how much control do you have to have in those situations?

RUTH: Well I think in that case it's fairly autonomous because she's a professional who's really in-tune with what she's trying to accomplish. And I appreciate the fact that she thought to loop in the overall club marketing into what she's doing and making sure that's a good fit. What I still am challenged by and continue to try and do is involve other people in it.

15:59 - Marketing Weddings and Events

ED: Let's switch gears to the other parts of the business because that has changed so much. There's been a premium placed on events — weddings, catering events, and things like that. How's your approach to marketing those types of things changed through digital marketing?

RUTH: I think it's changed enormously through digital marketing. One of the great things about digital that I love is just the ability to not only repurpose content but to continue to promote it. So, you do something once, but you can use it multiple times in multiple ways.

And there's this idea that I'm not trying to shout out to people, "hey this is Hazeltine, this is what you can do here." I'm trying to get people to come to me, and I want to help them regardless of whether they choose to have their event at Hazeltine or not. So, for example, we have created through many, many years of experience, and many, many, many golf outings, a really great ebook about putting together a private golf tournament. This is a free piece of content that anybody can download. If somebody is searching for "how do I plan a private golf tournament," they'll find the ebook.

And you know what, Ed, for probably 90 percent of the people who find it, Hazeltine's not the right fit for them. They're not the right fit for Hazeltine, but that's OK. I gave them a great piece of material that they can use, and hopefully, they have a fantastic outing wherever they choose to have it. But then there are the 10 percent who are going to read that and who are going to say, "yeah, this is what I want to do. Hazeltine looks like a good fit." So, it's already kind of establishing that trust that we will help you make this excellent event and they're finding us that way. It's really an entirely different attitude in marketing. It's not about what I'm trying to sell you, it's what you're trying to accomplish and how I can help you accomplish that?

18:27 - Are You Adding Value for Visitors?

ED: Is there some sort of a leap of faith that you have to take to be able to market that way?

RUTH: Well, there is very much so, because you have to think about the value that you're really adding. It's not because you're offering the best price on a Saturday night ballroom rental, or it's not because you're the lowest cost offering out there. But really what do you bring to the table that's going to help. So if you say you want to help people, how are you going to do that? I think that is a definitely a leap of faith that you have to take. I have value to add to this process that's beyond just the four walls of the building or the food that I put on your plate.

ED: Right. And we know also that whether you're the right fit for that person who's looking for information or not, they may know someone who is the right fit, as well.

RUTH: Oh that's very true, yes.

20:04 - Quantifying Hazeltine's Success Story

ED: So without getting into specific numbers, can you give some level of context to show that what you've done has changed your business?

RUTH: Absolutely. And this can be attributed to a variety of things, but certainly, the inbound marketing is a large part of it. But since 2010, we've increased our membership base by 50 percent. We have increased our catering and events revenue by almost 50 percent. It's incredible the number of leads that we generate and then are able to convert into business.

ED: What has been the biggest change for you? Have you been able to just generate more awareness and therefore more opportunities, or are you getting better converting more of the people that are heading your website?

RUTH: Well, I think it's been largely due to the number of people we are able to attract. So part of our digital efforts have been SEO-related, which is a whole other podcast. So, we're creating that valuable content that we are talking about, but then also trying to figure out what is it that people are looking for even before they know they're ready to buy something. So, if they're just researching, how do we attract those people? And what are those search strings that they're going for? And then it's creating the content that really feeds that. So I would say that what has allowed us to grow so significantly is attracting more people.

We're fortunate in that we do have good brand awareness, but one of the things that we've been able to do is let people know that you can have an event there without being a member. So, even though people have a brand awareness of Hazeltine, they know what it is, they might not realize that, oh hey, that could be where we have our sports banquet. So it really is on the attracting side. I think that we've gained the most traction and now we're getting into, if you want to call it the second generation or the next level of implementing our inbound strategy and our online strategy, is how do we convert, and then how do we once we've converted the people who are attracted to us? And once we convert them into clients how do we bring them back? How do we nurture them and let them know about the next thing that they can do? So that's where we're at right now.

22:58 - Tips for Managing Leads

ED: So let's talk about what's next for you. It seems like the lead management process, in general for a lot of clubs, is really, really difficult. I mean, you'll have people that don't have a great management process. There are clubs that are using a CRM. What are you doing in that way? What's working for you and what's not?

RUTH: I can't imagine not having a CRM to manage the leads that come through. We have well over hundreds of just membership leads every year. So that's beyond the ability to manage in your inbox or your email folders, or even a spreadsheet. I need something that helps me to keep track of that. "Have I have followed up with this person? Have I sent them the information that they need? Should I ping them again and see if they're ready to talk a little bit more?" So the CRM piece has just been absolutely critical to our success, and it helps us to track all the conversations that we've had with them in the past. We make notes about family, what's going on. We can remember to ask about the vacation that they had coming up and just tips and tricks that really help you develop a relationship and get to know that person as they're in the process of evaluating your club, and then being able to follow up with them in an automated and kind of systematic way is so important.

ED: I think there are probably some people going, "We don't have the staff for that. I mean we can't support that." What's your staff look like and how do you divide the responsibilities?

RUTH: I almost think that's the argument to do it. Because if you don't have staff, then you need to be even more organized. We have a small staff. It's me and I have a catering sales manager who handles the vast majority of our banquet events, and then we have a membership manager who helps to onboard the new members. So we're a staff of three that's handling that many leads and if we didn't have that process in place to do it, we wouldn't be able to respond to that many people.

The other thing that happens is some of those folks are interested, and as important as it is to nurture people, it's also really important to qualify them right away, because you don't want to spend time on people who aren't viable candidates. And they don't want to spend time exploring something that's not within their realm, either. So qualifying people is just as important as following up and nurturing them.

ED: So the interesting thing about that is that if you don't have a lot of prospects, I mean if you don't have hundreds of contacts to be able to follow up with, you tend to cling to the few that you have even if they're not qualified. It's like I think of 10 names and I know I'm going to have to report this to someone so I'm going to keep calling or clinging to them. You're hanging on to them because you don't have anything else. Is there any truth to that?

RUTH: I think that's completely true. And that's again one of the great things about inbound is I can have kind of what you might call a parking lot. So somebody who definitely has interest, you haven't disqualified them, but you don't want to be constantly knocking on their door and calling them and bugging them. So that's where we do our nurturing campaigns, and it's really subtle, and it's not an overwhelming frequency. It might be an annual campaign that we do. And, again, it's about valuable content. It's not about Hazeltine. It's about, the Masters is coming up, here's who to look for. And here's who our pros pick for the Masters, or read this blog by our instructional coach and get ready for the season. It's that type of thing, so it keeps us top of mind and it keeps us there in front of that prospect.

It's not annoying, because it's something that they're searching for on Golf Digest anyhow. It's useful and it's interesting, and then maybe down the road, we have found that the timeline for closing some of these prospects into members can be years in some cases. So that's where you don't want to lose track of that person, but you don't want to annoy that person, and that's where the CRM and the inbound is just perfect.

28:05 - Advice for Getting Started

ED: One last question. I'm going to put you on the spot a little bit. So this has been an evolution of what six years?

RUTH: I know I can't believe it. Time flies.

ED: Yes it does. And you were fortunate enough and frankly visionary enough to get on the train early and start moving Hazeltine in that direction. What do you tell someone right now that hasn't started yet and they're sitting there going, "I just feel so behind," or "I don't know where to start." What do you do or what would you say?

RUTH: Well, first of all, I would share that I sometimes feel overwhelmed, too. And even though we've been at it for six years, I think about all the things I want to do and places I want us to go, and then I remember the next piece of advice. It's just one piece at a time.

There's the old saying about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. It's kind of hokey, but I think you just have to start. And then, when you look back over what you've done over the last year, you're like, "hey, we have accomplished some things."

So for somebody who's looking at a blank slate, they don't have anything, they have their leads in their inbox and in a spreadsheet and that's it. I would say to start with a CRM, which is customer relationship management, that's what CRM stands for. I know online there are some different ones that are available for free. So you can start small and I would just start to track those leads that are coming into you, the people who call you or the people who email you and put them in there so that you can start to manage and start to put a process around your sales process.

And then I think the next step is exploring how can you add value. Where do you add value in the process, and then that will drive what social media you want to pick. Don't try and do everything, pick one or two to start with. Or, if you want to blog, that's another avenue that you could go.

ED: And when you say add value, do you mean how are you going to add value to the person who's out there looking for that information?

RUTH: That's exactly what I mean. This is not about you promoting your business. It's about what is it that your prospective member or your prospective client is looking for, and how do you provide that to them?

So often as salespeople and marketing people, we think transactionally. "How am I going to get money? How do I make this sale?" But we have to take a step back from that and really look at what problem is my prospective member client trying to solve? How can I help them? What's some information that they would find valuable? That's really where I would start.

Oh, and just another piece advice, the other thing is you don't have to do it all. You have subject matter experts within your building. Reach out to your golf pro, or reach out to the people who are selling your merchandise. Talk to your catering manager or your chef and see what they can share. They would have a lot of content. I think that's what a lot of marketers can get overwhelmed with. "Oh gosh, How do I produce all this?" Well, you don't have to do it all.

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