Make the Most of Your Content

By: Janet Bandows Koster

One small-staff association shares how it got to know its members closely in order to tailor its communication to their needs.

The past year has brought a lot of changes for us at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). We launched a new website, rebranded our marketing and communication materials, brought our membership department in house, and started prep work for our next three-year strategic plan. While it was hard work, doing all of this allowed us to focus on what's important to and for our members: communication.

With the explosion of social media, small-staff organizations like ours have been led on a guilt trip by marketing gurus who claim you have to be in all these places and you had to be there yesterday. But without staff resources and adequate planning, it's like throwing spitballs at a wall and just hoping that one of two of these sites would stick with members.

Small-Staff Stats

Name: Association for Women in Science
Location: Washington, DC
Staff size: 4
Members: 5,000 individual members, plus corporate and institutional members
Budget: $500,000

So we went back to basics.  We first went to our members to find how they were using social media and where they were getting information so we could allocate resources based on the best return on investment. Formal, and especially informal, surveying of our members (through personal emails soliciting their input) revealed a lot of information.

When it came to our website, we found that our members were not spending time on the homepage. Instead, they were visiting the events section to see what was going on in their local areas. When we asked our members about Facebook, we saw a low percentage using that tool. This was no surprise to us, given that our members are women Ph.D. scientists in the early stages of their careers, ranging in age from 30 to 39. They spend 80 hours a week in a lab, so they don't have a lot of time to spend on Facebook. Our solution: We changed the focus of our Facebook page. We didn't put serious information there. Rather, we made it more fun in hopes of bringing more traffic to the site.

We didn't stop at asking our members about social-networking sites. We had to look at all of our communication vehicles. Washington Wire, our bimonthly news digest, is our most successful. Member volunteers find articles from other news outlets that cover topics like career, motherhood, gender equality, and science. They then write abstracts for each article, which are put in body of the email. The click-through rate, 40 percent, speaks to its success.

Without staff resources and adequate planning, it's like throwing spitballs at a wall and just hoping that one or two of these sites would stick with members.

But this piece of information did something else: It made us look at our content strategy and become clever about reconstituting existing content. Our member polling revealed that 90 percent of members don't use LinkedIn for networking; instead, they use it to access information relating to their professional careers. So, we take relevant articles from our news digest and place them on our LinkedIn site.  We feed this already vetted material to our volunteers to post and send on to other "influencers" to help promote our association and to supplement our limited staff resources. Once you have a volunteer and communication structure in place, staff has time to wrestle those other monsters out there that may come up (i.e., dealing with someone criticizing your association on one of these tools).

As with everything, our system is not perfect, but I've learned three lessons when it comes to communicating with our members through social and electronic media. First, make sure you know where your members are and why you need to be there. Second, keep content relevant and realize that it takes time to engage members. And finally, allocate your resources based on where your members are to get more bang for your buck.  If you do, you will likely find success in delivering the content your members want and need.

Janet Bandows Koster is executive director of the Association for Women in Science in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Janet Bandows Koster