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Communications, Marketing, Useful Tidbits

Marketing Department Structures

Association marketing departments are set up in different ways. Some handle all creative in-house, some use an outside design firm or freelancer, while others have adopted a combination approach. Are you making the most out of your resources? How are others sifting through and organizing the vast amounts of work flowing into the marketing departments as of late?

I interviewed 9 people who run association marketing departments ranging in size from 1 to 11 employees. Those interviews raised some common themes regarding pros and cons.



  • There is no time spent getting up to speed with the organization—the internal team promotes the organization’s goals everyday.
  • The marketing team is aware of all projects going on in the organization, therefore they can see the big picture and cross-promote.
  • Internal teams can often accommodate quick turnarounds.
  • Teams can work on a variety of different things.


  • Often times there is no time tracking, therefore no way to develop a cost/benefit analysis. This can also allow for too much time to be spent on a project that doesn’t offer as much of a bang for the buck.
  • Many internal departments are seen by their clients as more of production houses because they are more service-oriented, while external firms are seen by clients more as experts.
  • Many times work is centralized but planning is not; this can lead to difficulty with project overlap due to projects coming in from all areas of the organization without regard for the big picture.

Outside Design Firm/Freelancer


  • An outside perspective is often healthy for a marketing campaign.
  • External firms often have more resources and more designers.
  • Those who work on retainer with an outside firm find that they can focus on the organization’s goals and big picture, and the firm can focus on staying on the right track, brand and communication-wise.
  • A good firm can help you to create smaller things internally by creating templates and graphic identity guidelines.


  • Timing may not be as quick so you must be a great planner. One person mentioned they meet with their freelancer once at the beginning of each year to review the marketing plan for the year and schedule out the projects.
  • When working with a freelancer, you may have to adjust timelines and expectations because many times they have a full-time job as well.
  • Cost of an outside firm may be at the top end of your budget.

Combination Approach

There were a few organizations that use a combination approach. For example:

  • A small association with one person in the marketing department to create all materials, but uses an outside firm for web and tech work.
  • A larger organization who has an in-house team for smaller and fast turnaround projects, and has an agency on retainer for larger campaigns and more sophisticated projects.
  • An organization that has a couple of employees for info graphics and formatting reports, but uses marketing automation to communicate with its prospects and members.

As you can see, there is no one size fits all solution on how best to staff your marketing department. The cost of salaries, benefits, hardware and software must be considered for employees and compared against the cost of an outside firm or freelancer. The amount and type of work can help to dictate which direction you should go.


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