Why Your Association Needs Content Strategy

17th January 2020

Words Hilary Marsh

Your association exists to provide value to members, and likely to improve the profession or niche in which your members operate. If your association is like most, that value comes from the products, programs, services, information, resources, and tools you create. These valuable offerings are produced by your staff or member work groups, task forces, or committees.

This is the first in a three-part series of articles. Look for the second article in February 2020 and the third in March.

What is content?

Content is how our work is manifested in the world. Your products, programs, services, information, resources, and tools are your organization’s content. Here are some examples of content associations create: advocacy issue updates, books, conference proceedings, clinical practice guidelines, courses, legislative talking points, magazine articles, membership details, newsletters, podcasts, press releases, webinars… the list is not exhaustive.

Associations may decide to create these in various formats: text (articles, blog posts, or web pages), infographics, videos, designed documents (PDFs), graphics, etc. But regardless of the format, it’s all content.

Who creates associations’ content?

The people who create this content are subject-matter experts (SMEs) – conference planners, government relations folks, course developers, researchers. That is what you’ve hired them to do, and they usually do their jobs very well. But not all of them have experience communicating their expertise to audiences who need the information but don’t have the deep expertise that the SMEs do.

As a result, members don’t always know about all the good work your association creates for them – and they may question the benefits they are getting by being a member of your organization.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you treat your content strategically, members are more likely to:

  • Use the programs you create for them
  • Support your efforts to shape industry-positive legislation
  • Register for courses
  • Download research
  • Attend conferences

And members who take part in what you offer will have more favorable opinions of your organization, and are more likely to renew their membership and recommend your association to industry colleagues.

What is content strategy?

Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, publication, delivery, and governance of useful, usable, effective content. Useful means the content is presented so its relevance comes through loud and clear. Usable means the content is easy to find and act on. Effective means that the content has a clearly articulated audience and explicit measurable goals, that you do the measurement to determine whether the content met its goals, and that you make decisions about how to publish similar content based on those results

The objective of content strategy is to get the right content to the right person at the right time for the right action. This takes a partnership between SMEs and people with expertise in content creation, publication, and promotion.

Why content strategy?

Smart organizations align their content with their strategic goals. This means several things, as listed in Association Content Strategies for a Changing World, a report published by the ASAE Foundation in 2019:

  • Each piece of content it produces has an explicit, measurable goal tied to a specific outcome of the program that the content is about and a clearly articulated audience.
  • Content is created in a way—terminology, readability level, format, length, timing, etc.—that resonates with the audience.
  • The people with expertise in creating, publishing, and promoting content work in partnership with subject-matter experts managing the organization’s offerings to ensure that the content about and from those programs achieves its goals.
  • The organization evaluates content to determine whether the content meets its goals, and that information drives decisions about what to do more of, do less of, or do differently.
  • Subject-matter experts work in partnership with each other to determine when to collaborate, when to cross-link, and when to reuse content that another department has created.

(I was a co-author of this report, along with Carrie Hane and Dina Lewis, CAE.)

Content strategy is a key way associations can make sure that the content about their work is published in a way that resonates with the audience and, therefore, has the greatest chance to succeed.

What does it take to have content strategy?

Content strategy consists of six building blocks, each with several tactics: 1) Know the organization; 2) Know the audience, 3) Ensure content effectiveness; 4) Plan and promote content; 5) Support content with structure; and 6) Sustain with content governance/operations

We will dive in to the blocks and tactics in more detail in the next article, but for now it’s enough to say that not every organization needs to use all of the tactics to achieve content success.

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.

Starting your content strategy journey

Every organization’s journey to content strategy is different, because associations have such a diverse set of sizes, focus areas, staff composition, challenges, and industry dynamics.

But to get started, I suggest that you take stock of where you are now and start planning content better:

  1. Learn what content you have now with a content audit. You’ll likely uncover content you didn’t know you had, content that is outdated, or old versions of current information.
  2. See how your content is doing. Start by collecting analytics data for each piece of content. You may be surprised at the low usage of much of your content. (When you create similar content next time, you’ll be identifying the audience and setting measurable goals.)
  3. Gather everyone who creates content and start conversations about the content they have now and what they plan to create. You’ll all likely identify opportunities to collaborate and cross-link content that is relevant to the same member segment or used for a common purpose.

There are probably people in your association who already realize the need for a more strategic approach to content. They may be in your communications group, education, marketing, IT, or a program area. If you can find them, the journey will be easier.

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