Sitecore Product Marketing Director Jill Grozalsky Roberson talked with U.S. Masters Swimming Chief Marketing Officer Kyle Deery about the Olympics campaign that’s kick-starting the nonprofit’s recovery after COVID-19 shutdowns reduced membership.

Q: Great to talk with you, Kyle. To start, would you tell us about U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) and the impact of the pandemic?

A: Our mission is to promote health, wellness, fitness, and competition for adults through swimming. It started back in 1970 with a U.S. Navy doctor and a few dozen swimmers. Fifty-one years and 13 Olympics later, USMS has 50,000 members and 1,200 clubs across the country, and offers a wealth of services, coaching, education, and events.

The pandemic had a huge impact on USMS participation as pools around the country were forced to close, and membership dropped more than 20% from our pre-pandemic 65,000 in 2018. Even as pools start to re-open, capacity guidelines and lingering health concerns continue to restrict participation. 

Q: The Summer Olympics must have brought a welcome opportunity to engage with people re-emerging from Covid lockdowns. How did you focus efforts to re-engage your audience after about a year away from pools and events? 

A: USMS members include many Olympians and about 30% of our members participate in competitive events. But our membership spans a wide range of people, including those learning to swim, fitness swimmers, open water swimmers, and triathletes. Team USA, the Olympics and Paralympics, and the Olympic and Paralympic Trials never fail to inspire people to get into the pool. 

We had a unique opportunity to invest in renewing awareness and increasing membership across the country, which is why we decided to dive head-first into a strategic awareness and experiential marketing campaign. Especially this year, when so many were stir-crazy after lockdowns, it was a golden opportunity. We invested heavily in taking advantage of the attention around this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Q: I understand this was the largest campaign USMS has ever run, and your first comprehensive use of Email Experience Manager (EXM). What did it involve?

A: The key challenge was to get more members – 70% of our revenue comes from membership. Reconnecting with lapsed members and winning new ones is critical to supporting our clubs and the organization. It was essential to find an effective way to kick-start membership regrowth by capitalizing on the Olympics and encouraging people to get swimming again. 

Sitecore is a powerful tool for helping us understand target audiences and connect with them effectively. We just launched EXM as part of our marketing automation and outreach efforts and used it along with Sitecore Experience Platform (XP) for our Olympics-themed Try Masters Swimming campaign. The campaign ran for eight weeks from mid-June to mid-August, coinciding with the U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials through Olympic pool swimming medal ceremonies. Our objective was to get new swimmers to sign up for a trial membership, which would take place at a local club, highlight USMS benefits, and steer them to full membership. 

Using data stored in Sitecore Experience Database (xDB) and other sources such as Facebook, we ran a series of geo-targeted advertisements and emails with links to a landing page offering at least one free swim workout at a USMS club within a 15-mile radius. When swimmers decided to take the offer, they filled in their details on the landing page, which automatically triggered an email thanking them and explaining next steps. 

At the same time, another email went to the club manager with details on the individual, so the club manager knew more about the swimmer before they talked. The manager contacted prospective members, invited them to the club where they got to swim and experience the benefits of USMS membership, and ultimately convert to a full member.

Q: What types of results did you see throughout the campaign?

A: Despite COVID-19’s impact, which has kept some of our clubs shut down or only open to a limited capacity, and unexpectedly high advertising costs, which reduced our reach by around 50%, we are way over our membership expectations for the year. Our conversion rate was nearly 15%. Several clubs reported they have never seen so much activity, and 5% had to stop their participation in the campaign because they were inundated with requests. 

Overall, the campaign generated the biggest influx of new members we’ve ever seen during the summer months and was 12% higher than 2019. We got 35,000 visitors to the campaign landing page, and 10% of those completed the trial form. The automated email click rates were nearly 50% higher than our typical marketing email click-through rate, at 4%. And we were able to increase our average unique open rate from 29% to 39%.

We also saw record engagement with the educational and informational content on our site, with over 2 million pageviews during the six-week campaign. (This was 35% higher than 2019.)  And time-on-page was 32% higher than usual, at over one minute per page.

Q: I understand you also had some unexpected benefits.

A: With Covid lockdowns, the number of participating clubs was 57% lower than we anticipated. In California, for instance – which is our largest market – most of our clubs were closed to start the campaign. However, an unexpected consequence of this was the increased focus on other areas of the country that traditionally haven’t been so active. 

Here we saw some of the best results in terms of numbers signing up. Arkansas and Ohio, for instance, experienced record participation and growth. Ohio Splash in Columbus is a great example. They got over 20 trial members, which led to a 39% increase in full members. The clubs in these areas offer year-round outdoor and indoor swimming, and combined with USMS support, these new members can stay active and engaged through the winter months ahead.

Q: Now that you’ve seen the success of EXM and XP together, what’s next?

A: We send out up to 40 emails a month and have almost completed the migration of all email activity to EXM. Email content includes announcements about upcoming events, member profiles (like featuring our members over 100 years old), technique videos, weight training articles, and more. 

In addition, our membership year starts this month, and we will use EXM to send out a series of emails based on a member’s status. Those are driven by Sitecore personalization, so we can send new members one set of emails, while renewing members get a different set. We are also personalizing within emails. For example, if a new member donates to our foundation, there’s a thank you in the email, while those who didn’t donate receive an invite to do so. 

Personalization is so much faster with Sitecore and more robust than our previous service. I love that we can market to specific segments and provide such personalized messages to them so easily. We’re about to start detailed personalization at scale.


Q: How would you sum up your experience with EXM and XP together and your push to get people swimming again?

A: It’s been transformative. Despite the vicissitudes of COVID-19, we’ve seen a significant uplift in interest. And we’re excited about continuing to use Sitecore to attract new members and retain current members, and provide each of them with clubs, events, swimming advice, workout ideas, and inspirational stories about their peers. That can only help to enhance their swimming experience, which is at the heart of what we aim to achieve.

It’s also rewarding to see more and more people getting back in the pool again. Even our team from Bonfire, the Sitecore MVP partner who helped us migrate to Sitecore and deploy XP and EXM, has been inspired to get swimming again.

See also Sitecore/U.S. Masters Swimming case study.

Kyle Deery joined USMS in 2009 and is involved with a variety of marketing, IT, and communication programs and services. Find Kyle on USMS, and LinkedIn.