Case Study

Urban Land Institute: Marketing Automation Development

Automation for a Varied Memberbase


The Urban Land Institute (ULI) is the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world. Its North American membership base consists of nearly 40,000 experts, including developers, attorneys, architects, planners and investors.

In order to recruit new members and improve retention among current members, ULI sought to strengthen its use of automation to deliver targeted communications that increase engagement with the organization. ParsonsTKO partnered with ULI to develop a new data-driven automation strategy, leveraging data to construct multiple automated campaigns to standardize approaches for new member acquisition, current member retention, and new member onboarding. PTKO implemented technology and reporting solutions to realize this strategy. In addition, it built the capacity of ULI staff members to set goals, and to create future campaigns that effectively segment the membership and optimize messaging. Through this engagement, ULI increased its member retention rate by five percentage points, and initiated the most successful content-based recruitment campaign to date, enrolling nearly 900 new members with almost $300k in membership dues.


The Challenge

Like many non-profit membership associations, ULI wanted to expand its membership base, and was eager to bring new and relevant voices into its community. The organization had experienced recent successes in this regard: it excelled at recruiting lapsed members to rejoin the network, and its campaigns persuaded many non-members with a previous interaction with ULI to join as well. However, ULI needed support with two critical constituencies. First, engagement and retention of current members had not met expectations; recent data showed that a notable proportion of new members dropped out within two years of starting their membership. Second, the organization had struggled to generate and acquire new leads from organizations not already in its sights – i.e. from those not yet aware of ULI, or with only weak ties to the network.

ULI identified its marketing automation program as an important lever to drive improvements in member retention and new lead generation and acquisition. While its existing approach to automated communications had numerous strengths, a number of challenges were also apparent:

Strategic Challenges

  • Need to refine and and reinforce its member value proposition. ULI understood it needed to pivot to member-centric storytelling that reinforced its status as a mission-driven organization, with greater personalization in its messaging.
  • Constrained resources. To the extent possible, ULI sought to avoid major new outlays by making the best use of its current program, human resources, and budget.
  • Need for a lead gen strategy and playbook. Cold leads would require a separate strategy from their current efforts that targeted non-members already engaged with the organization.

Technical Challenges

  • Issues with data quality, functionality, and system integration. ULI’s marketing platform experienced data discrepancies and did not fully leverage advanced automation, tracking, and reporting capabilities..
  • Limited data integrations. While it generated lots of data, the combined CRM and EMS platform  did not connect the dots to use that data for powerful automations.
  • Relevant content but no data structure. The ULI platform lacked a global data taxonomy and content management, which made it difficult to create a sophisticated experience based on customer interactions.


Our Approach

ParsonsTKO began with careful analysis of past campaign performance, stakeholder interviews on key aspects of ULI membership benefits, and technological possibilities with ULI’s current systems, including Real Magnet and netFORUM. Based on this work, ULI and PTKO roadmapped the following areas of focus to move ULI closer to their objective of increased engagement and retention.

Improve Member Retention and Convert Leads from Multiple Sources

Campaigns were evaluated based on number of new members, but conversion rate analysis had not been used to determine the most compelling conversion messaging by audience segment.  

Expose High-Value Member Benefits

There was limited engagement with many benefits that long-time members considered ULI’s ‘best kept secrets.’  Increasing awareness of the value of membership was critical for increased retention.

Improve Capacity for In-depth Analysis

ULI relied on built-in reporting from their Email Management System (Real Magnet), which offered limited insight into comprehensive campaign performance and data from other sources.

Minimize New Content Creation

With a small but dedicated team and many projects to navigate, ULI needed to focus on repurposing existing content to deliver on-time and under-budget.

Screenshot of ULI's membership page

The Solution

Working with ULI staff to augment current methods of content production and review, we helped construct multiple automations to standardize approaches for new member acquisition, current member retention, and new member onboarding.


Enriching Members, Empowering Staff

Evaluate Top Performing Acquisition Offers

Digging into content performance from previous campaigns, we discovered that the best converting offer was an interest-specific report.  We helped ULI staff create a campaign to introduce and promote this publication to all potential members.

Foundational Reporting Upgrades

While engagement and conversion metrics increased, promoting greater retention, ULI also learned how to improve process, clarify tracking, and create baselines for future campaign performance comparisons.

Capacity Building

PTKO worked closely with the client’s team to understand how subscribers could be added into Real Magnet automations, and what kind of data would be pushed back into the CRM for increased personalization in future campaigns.

Staff Training

ULI had been using Real Magnet’s templatized automations.  PTKO explored RM’s ability to create custom automation flows, built and tested those, and instructed staff on continued implementation using these capabilities.

The Results

Thanks to extensive research, setup, and training around existing systems, ULI staff are now poised to build a robust series of automation campaigns, taking advantage of the infrastructure created during this engagement. Campaign targeting and audience segmentation data captured by our foundational campaign work will enable optimized messaging and greater lead conversion.  ULI now sees a higher level of interest/engagement with 54% open rates and 8% click through rates on their emails. Most importantly, ULI’s Membership and Marketing team is now familiarized with the process of turning existing content into an automated drip campaign for constituent nurturing, which will minimize the need for additional staffing.


Reliable, Sustainable Improvements

Member Renewal

By changing the timing and content of emails, we were able to push renewal events earlier in the process – this meant more renewals at 60 days before membership expiration. This shift ensures more consistent financial projections and decreased cost in lapsed membership outreach. Overall, the member retention rate increased by five percentage points (from 67% to 72%).

New Member Acquisition

ULI maintained multiple lists of potential member leads, some of whom received regular monthly asks to join with undifferentiated bonus offers.  We worked with ULI staff to create a unifying campaign introducing leads to the Emerging Trends report – a yearly ULI offering that generates extensive press and is one of their flagship products – through teaser content emails. This campaign saw a 55% increase in new members compared to the same period in the prior year – in 6 weeks, ULI recruited almost 900 new members with nearly $300K in profit – their highest-performing content-based recruitment strategy to date.

Wayfinder Onboarding

PTKO implemented a welcome campaign to introduce new members to key ULI members-only offers and resources as well as facilitate the completion of professional profiles for the member directory.  Engagement numbers rose across multiple vectors – including such areas as ‘events attended’ and ‘online member portal usage’. Additionally, link tagging enables ULI to capture content preferences and discover which offers resonate most with new members.

2nd Year Renewal

To continue developing the personalization infrastructure begun with the Wayfinder onboarding campaign, we helped ULI begin automated segmentation of members into one of 3 primary interest categories.  The aim here is to increase engagement and improve retention at a crucial time for likely member drop-off.