How a Content Strategy Will Help your Association Thrive

4th March 2020

In the second article in our content strategy series (you can catch up the first one here, Hilary Marsh explains what a content strategy entails, and how it will help your organization be more performant.

Content is the way our work is manifested in the world. It’s the way our programs, products, services, information, resources, and tools – not only how we communicate about them, but it’s the work itself. Many associations think of content as just the communications and marketing about our offerings, but if we truly understand that our work is content, then we can thoroughly treat all the content from all of our work like the valuable assets they are.


  • For a conference, content is the communications about the conference, sure, but it’s also the content from the sessions themselves, whether you capture that as slides, text summary/abstract, or audio or video recordings.
  • For a member discount program, the content is all the information about the company offering the discount.
  • For an education program, the content is the course modules, as well as the description of the course, instructor, continuing education credits, costs, etc.

All of your content – aka, all of your work – constitutes your primary value to your members.

Therefore, if you create, manage, and share it in a strategic way, members will better be able to find it, understand it, and use it. And the more they use your offerings, the more highly they will value their membership, and your association.

What the content strategy building blocks entail

As we said in the first article, there are six building blocks of content strategy.

1. Know the organization

In order to be effective, content must be tied to the organization’s strategic goals, as well as the goals for the department or group that creates the content.

In our consultancy, we usually start projects by interviewing the groups that create the content to learn about their goals and challenges. Sometimes I uncover barriers – time, skills, or empowerment, for example – that prevent the group from doing their work effectively and efficiently. We identify challenges between various groups – for example, that they are working in isolation or creating work that is redundant.

We also spend time diving into existing documents – member needs assessments, conference exit surveys, membership studies, surveys, etc. – to identify needs and opportunities that content can help address.

It’s important to look at the organization’s content in context of other organizations – both other associations as well as publications and for-profit institutions – that the members use. Our content competitive analysis looks at factors including credibility, findability, and currentness.

Finally, we facilitate the organization in creating a content strategy statement – a mission statement for their content. Created by a cross-departmental team of senior executives, this statement can serve as a guidestar for strategic content.

2. Know the audience

In order to help the organization succeed, content must meet the needs of the organization’s key audiences. Because associations’ offerings are produced by people with deep expertise, we often forget to consider that our members already have busy lives and much competing for their attention. In order to help them see how much our offerings will help them succeed, we need to develop a deeper understanding and a sense of connection with them.

(Our member volunteers serve that function to some degree, but we need to remember that the volunteers are not the same as the rest of the membership precisely because they come to understand how the organization works.)

To get to know the audiences better and be able to create content that resonates with them so they will use our offerings more, the best approach I’ve found is to create empathy-based personas and customer journeys. This a transformative way for organizations to shift their perspective on their relationship with their top-priority audiences. Created by staff and validated through member focus groups, this approach leads to a new way of looking at our work itself.

Member surveys are a great way to broaden the understanding of what audiences know about what we offer and what they are most interested in. We usually find that what our members say they want most from us is work that we do already but that they’re not aware of – hence, we have our work cut out for us!

Finally, a practice we institute is to test new content and new offerings with members, to ensure that they work for them – and if they do, our associations will reach our goals.

3. Ensure content effectiveness

The next building block is to make sure that every piece of content we publish has a clear audience and explicit, measurable goals. The goals need to be tied closely to the business goals for the offerings that the content is about. For example, the goals for conference content are not only about how many people visit the pages, but about how many people register for the conference.

One way to set better goals is to take a comprehensive look, or audit, of the content that exists already. While the organization may look at metrics at a high level, the people who create content often don’t know how much their content has been used. Data from previous efforts is key to setting clear goals for future content on that topic, from that program, or for that audience.

Another key factor is to make sure that all of the organization’s content sounds like it’s from the organization. Creating a holistic voice and tone – also known as a message architecture – requires a cross-departmental team of senior staff. That voice and tone become a key component of the organization’s content style guide, and everyone who creates content needs to be trained in that style.

4. Plan and promote content

What content do we have? Who is creating it? What else do we have on that topic, for that event, for that audience, or in that format? These are questions we need to know the answer for, in order to identify opportunities for cross-referencing and collaboration, and to prevent redundancies or contradiction.

This requires a central content calendar, as well as accompanying internal communications. All content creators should populate the calendar with the content they are planning and then come together to discuss it.

The content calendar will also enable marketers to decide what to promote and through which channels.

The other important element in this building block is to ensure that the organization’s content uses members’ terminology and the terms the audience is looking for on search engines.

This piece was provided by Hilary Marsh, president and chief strategist of Content Company, a content and digital strategy consultancy that helps organizations get better results by improving their content practices. Content Company’s clients include the American Bar Association, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Endocrine Society, National Association of Convenience Stores, Institute of Food Technologists, and Florida Realtors.  You can find Marsh on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Slideshare.

5. Support content with structure

In addition to a content calendar, the other “glue” for content is a central taxonomy/controlled vocabulary. Many associations have multiple taxonomies –for the conference, the magazine, educational courses, etc. Therefore, they can’t use technology to cross-link content on the same topic, because that topic may have different names in each taxonomy. What a missed opportunity!

Audiences can find and use content more easily if it has a common structure – if it follows the same patterns as other content of the same type. A single set of structured content types, too, can enable the organization to automatically promote content on landing pages, in e-newsletters, etc.

6. Sustain with content governance/operations

As you may have gleaned, all of these building blocks require us to think about content differently – and, to some degree, to work differently. New rules, new processes, and new roles require content governance. 

Content work needs to be part of people’s job descriptions, and part of what they are measured on in performance evaluations. And they need to be trained in these new skills, with regular reinforcement and refreshers.

But I can assure you that the efforts are worth it: As I wrote earlier, your content is how you show your primary value to your members. Therefore, the value of the content is in how well it manifests the work. And the more effectively your content works, the more successful your association will be.

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