Map Out Your Content Strategy

By: Lauren Kelley

Does your association produce content like magazines, blogs, tweets, white papers, websites, and books with a clear direction and audience in mind? If not, content strategy can lead you down the path of greater efficiency and improved member engagement.

Associations have diverse characteristics when it comes to staff size, member count, geographic focus, and industry. But if there's one thing all associations have in common, it is that they produce content. Even some of the smallest associations have an impressive output of e-newsletters, blog posts, and direct-mail pieces, and larger associations often have magazines, white papers, and other publications to manage as well. Whatever your association's size, you need a strategy for all that content.

Daunted? Don't be. Content strategy need not be scary, difficult, or time consuming. In fact, many content-strategy experts say having a basic content strategy in place will actually save your association time while helping your group achieve its goals, whether those are increased revenue, a boost in membership numbers, or greater engagement with the public through social media.

What Is Content Strategy?

Joanna Pineda, founder and CEO of the interactive agency Matrix Group, defines content strategy as "a plan that covers content, tone, topics, and frequency across all communications channels, whether it's your website, print newsletter, online journal, social media, emails, Facebook, or YouTube." A good content strategy answers the questions, "What content are you going to post, how often are you going to post it, what are you going to post about?"

Kristina Halvorson, CEO of content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic, says content strategy encompasses information gathering, marketing, and communications strategies that inform content; technologies that house content; and strategic leadership through implementation. But there's no need to be overwhelmed. "The nice thing is that not everybody needs all that stuff," she says. "Content strategy is almost like an amazing toolbox. It lets you take care of your content like a business asset."

Sara Zailskas, content strategist for, the website of the National Association of Realtors, notes that there's a significant overlap between content strategy and user experience, a concept many web teams already consider. "The design should be logical for whatever you're putting out," she says. Also consider "the organization, where people find information, the language we use—it all has to make sense for people who are outside of our organization."

Why Should You Care?

Your association undoubtedly has a lot to think about already, so why should it add content strategy to the mix?

"The single biggest benefit to having a content strategy is that you'll have consistency," Pineda says. A close second is that it will save your association time. "You won't have to fritter away time figuring out what to post each week," she says, because that will already be planned out. Having a content strategy in place can even make you more relaxed about your job. "If your content strategy says that you'll respond to someone who mentions you on Twitter within 24 hours, you won't feel like you have to be online 24/7 to try to respond. You won't be frantic about it," she says.

Halvorson says that with a content strategy, "all of your content efforts are coordinated, which means you can ensure consistency in your message, which means it will be stronger." Without a strategy, associations can get stuck in a content hamster wheel: They're perpetually scrambling for content at the last minute, and it can end up being substandard. Likewise, associations run the risk that their website will become a dumping ground for content, or they may launch a new feature only to have it sit there, static, for months.

Kristin Johnson, senior manager of online editorial and engagement for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), puts the benefit of a content strategy plainly. "Content without strategy is just content," she says. "We try to answer questions like, What does the content do? Where does it go? Why are people going to come to it? What are they going to do after they see it?"

Without pondering these questions, your association "can create text and photos and video until you're blue in the face, eating up organizational resources, but not get anything out of it," she says. On the other hand, an association with a content strategy can start thinking about how to improve its bottom line by connecting with people who believe in its mission and want to help.

How Can You Get Started?

If you're ready to take the plunge into content strategy, here are a few suggestions as to where to start.

"Step one is figuring out what you have—taking a close look at what your content assets are," says Halvorson. That means auditing your website, cleaning out closets of legacy print materials, identifying what content is evergreen or useful for the future, getting rid of everything that's ROT (redundant, outdated, or trivial), and organizing whatever is left. Don't get bogged down with trying to make decisions about your content at this point, Halvorson says; initially, you just want to survey it.

When you're ready to start making content strategy decisions, Pineda recommends getting started by setting up a simple calendar. "Inventory all the different communications channels you have, including offline, online, and social media," and use your calendar to map out the topics you plan to cover and the frequency with which you'll disseminate the content.

Once you've gotten the content strategy ball rolling, your association will want to slowly layer in additional communications channels, says Pineda. However, she warns that associations, especially small ones, should keep a close eye on both the out-of-pocket and staff costs of starting a new content project. "In many cases, staff costs dwarf out-of-pocket costs," she says. "For instance, the cost of sending a newsletter is minimal, but you need the staff time to make sure it's done right."

Another part of your content strategy may be to form a team with representatives from different departments within your organization. Effective teams can take many forms, and in many cases there's no need for an association to hire a full-time content strategist. Johnson says NWF doesn't have a formal content strategy team; instead, once a month representatives from each of NWF's outbound channels, including media and member outreach and email marketing, meet to discuss how content can be cross-posted, integrated, and otherwise used most efficiently.

Whatever your association's staff size, Pineda recommends divvying up content responsibilities across the organization. An executive director may be responsible for contributing to an association's blog twice per quarter, for instance, while a membership staffer may update it once a week.

"You're spreading out the responsibility, but you also have the added benefit of different perspectives," she says. Pineda also advises associations to make one person in the organization responsible for keeping on top of the content schedule and metrics.

Finally, a word of warning from Zailskas: "Don't do things just because they're pretty," she says. For instance, your association shouldn't feel like it needs to build an iPhone app just because iPhone apps are popular right now. Instead, she says, "identify your audience's needs, and figure out how you can fill that void."

Where Does Social Media Fit?

You can't talk content strategy without mentioning social media. While these platforms have become popular over the past several years, some associations are still intimidated by how to use them effectively. The important thing is to integrate social media into your broader strategy, says Halvorson.

She recommends that before associations dive head first into social media, they assess which platforms will be the best match for their resource level: "Think of it as, 'We have this much time, these kinds of skills, and this much money. Where will we be able to make social media work best for our organization?' You only have so much to work with, so where can you work with it the best?"

When Pineda's association clients ask if they need a separate social media department, she tells many of them no. An organization's social media team should be composed of the same people who are communicating with members, the public, and the media, as well as subject-matter experts, she says.

Pineda agrees with Halvorson that associations shouldn't think of social media as separate from content strategy but rather as "just another tool to communicate, market, engage, have a conversation, get feedback, listen to what people care about, hear what's concerning your members, and of course, broadcast your message as well." (See sidebar below for tips on integrating social media into your content strategy.)

How Do You Define Success?

Even when you have a content calendar developed and a cross-functional content team assembled, nailing down metrics for success in content strategy can be tricky, particularly online, says NWF's Johnson.

"Some of our older content streams, like print marketing and magazines, know to the penny what doing one thing or another will do, but we're still figuring that out on the web a bit," she says. For now, Johnson and her colleagues focus on building strong relationships with NWF's audience and fostering positive engagement (sharing a video, for instance, as opposed to leaving an unproductive Facebook comment).

For a content strategy to be a success, Halvorson says, you need to "define what your key performance indicators are within your organization. What is it that you are trying to do as an organization? How is your content going to support those goals?" Once you answer those questions, "then you'll know whether you're a success. It might be tied to how much you've cut back on costs, how much your revenue's increased—those are the kinds of questions to ask."

Pineda agrees. How you define success should involve "a combination of things, but ultimately it needs to be the actions that contribute directly to your mission. If 'success' is more people joining, renewing, buying things, or registering for meetings, then all of your communications channels need to lead to those things," she says.

"Putting together a content strategy is going to ensure that you have the right resources … and you'll be clear that the content [you] are creating is going to be useful and usable and productive for your organization, you'll know where it lives, and you'll know what its purpose is," says Halvorson.

Lauren Kelley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: 4 Tips for Social Media Integration

Joanna Pineda, founder and CEO of Matrix Group, has a few tips for associations interested in integrating social media into their content strategy:

1. Start small. Don't feel like you have to be on all the social media platforms. Pick the one that's best for you. Pineda often recommends Facebook to start, because it can be less "chatty" and demanding than a platform like Twitter.

2. Do not post the same content to all your social media channels. If your content is the same everywhere, your audience won't follow you on multiple platforms, and you'll also miss out on utilizing the unique capabilities of each platform.

3. Your association's voice should be a bit different on each platform. Pineda offers this example: "Say you've got an issue on Capitol Hill, and you post a position statement on your website. Then you might do a video interview with a member about why this legislation is important, and you might have an action-oriented message on Facebook, and you might have a blog post from the CEO about why the organization is taking that position. Using different voices, you're giving a deep experience about the issue. For someone following you across all your platforms, they're getting multiple perspectives."

4. Always make sure you have a tool for tracking. "Google Analytics is your friend," Pineda says. Also look into tools that let you post to multiple platforms, like TweetDeck, and tools that provide a way to listen to what people are saying about your association on the web, like Google Alerts and Social Mention.

Lauren Kelley