Kristin Clarke, CAE
Kristin Clarke, CAE, is a contributor and books editor for Associations Now.
Organizations have plenty of content to share, but knowing its purpose, place, and intended audience can help shape a strategic content marketing plan that helps you deliver on member needs and build deeper relationships.
The marketing team at BuildOn knew they had a compelling story to tell. A nonprofit that empowers at-risk U.S. youth to volunteer both in their local communities and abroad, BuildOn saw that conversations between donors and villagers benefiting from the teenagers' newly built schools in developing nations were deeply moving and intimate. Only a video series would do as the story medium.
Supporters loved them.
"Connecting at that personal level is powerful," says BuildOn Chief Marketing Officer Carrie Pena. "But if you're trying to build a movement to get many more people involved in an idea … there has to be enough content to spread. With content marketing, it must be very intentional. Make sure every [staffer] understands content is a priority, but most important are its authenticity and that you understand yourself and your audience."
That requires a deep understanding of the organization's story and what makes it unique. It also means that association communicators need to get comfortable with the idea of shutting off the content fire hose. While associations are rolling around in content, seemingly ideally positioned to leverage it, many organizations have yet to strategically integrate content marketing into their traditional renew-now-register-today barrage of messages to members.
BuildOn has seen the shift in strategy pay off: The $18 million nonprofit credits much of its 20 percent annual growth to its strategic content placement on a blog, in videos, and on social media. It also uses an extensive, segmented email marketing strategy and a full-time storyteller to capture and engagingly communicate stories of members, donors, and partners working together for the mission.
In addition, the entire 150-member staff has been trained by podcasting superstar Kevin Allison on how to identify and share content compellingly—a competency evaluated in annual reviews. Critical to that process is BuildOn's use of a social-media monitoring and aggregating app that allows staff to collect field interviews and content, upload them for approvals and editing, and then post them for relevant communities.
BuildOn's approach perfectly illustrates strategic, high-return content marketing—knowing its purpose, place, process, and potential. It's a power player if handled right, but it takes skill and commitment to do it well.
According to the Content Marketing Association's "2015 Content Marketing and Data Intelligence Report," the industry is worth more than $4 billion, claiming nearly one of every four marketing dollars and growing 25 percent annually. Facebook alone—prime real estate for content marketers—shares 30 billion pieces of content each month, reports Kiss Metrics.
The Content Marketing Institute says, "Content marketing's purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior." Recent CMI research reveals more than half of content marketing consumers believe it improves purchase decisions, and 61 percent say it generates positive attitudes toward brands.
Still, in associations, "a lot of people don't know what content marketing is about," says Beth Bush, chief membership officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "There's a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about what it can and should do and how to use it. In our case, we have solid examples and success numbers that show uplifts because of our content marketing approach."
However, success isn't assured for all content marketing campaigns. Bush's previous association found the strategy wasn't useful for acquisition but did strengthen retention, engagement, and relationships. She is now focused on improving retention rates and is pleased with feedback on AAAS webinars and a career-transition publication developed with content marketing goals.
"Part of where I think [misconceptions arise] is that people assume that if we tell members we have content, that's content marketing," Bush says. "We need to give them content as evidence. The other issue is, once you get people to engage with the content, how do you do the next step? We often let it drop. We hold a webinar. Lots of people come—great! And that's it."
Another misconception BuildOn once had was to assume its content marketing strategy needed big-budget professional videography. "It was stilted, scripted, and made with a production company in LA," says Pena. "We quickly moved away from that to personal storytelling and day-in-the-life content about what's going on in our villages and schools, and it's now mostly produced in-house."
Despite research showing the advantages of content marketing, the time and financial investment required to do it well can seem overwhelming for many associations. Marketing consultant Scott Oser suggests starting small by conducting a pilot with a single meeting or product.
"Develop a strategy, processes, and procedures that you can grow and enhance later," he says. "Most associations don't typically do a lot of consistent, regular collaboration like what you're going to need for content marketing."
That's the approach of the American Nurses Association. In May 2014, ANA developed a pilot content marketing strategy to boost its appeal to young nursing professionals and bridge the gap between college graduation and full licensing and registration.
According to Brezita Warrick, manager of membership marketing, its first tool was a virtual "Welcome to the Profession" kit, which includes articles, videos, podcasts, and other ANA resources. ANA markets it heavily to student groups, 50 components, and the National Association of Student Nurses.
Access requires individual registration, and the most critical data captured by the simple form are the registrant's graduation month and year. The association can then segment and schedule membership pitches properly, since professional members cannot be students.
"It's a feeder into our new- graduate recruitment campaigns," Warrick says. As of September 2015, 17,000 people had registered, and early member conversion rates were encouraging.
ANA also developed an image-heavy social media strategy to support the kit, using quotes, statistics, infographics, and a registration "ask." Posts often went viral, leading to "huge registration bumps," Warrick says. "We're sitting on this nice database of generation leads, but we have to keep these individuals engaged, because not all are eligible for membership yet. We send periodic emails as part of a 'nurturing series' to detail how they can still connect and benefit from us. While this all started as a pilot, it's now rolled out as a regular marketing tactic to this particular audience."
ANA has the right idea. "The approach of content marketing is always attached to a business objective—driving more sales, saving costs, creating more loyal customers, et cetera, so first, we have to know the why," says Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute. "There are many ways to measure this, but perhaps the best is to understand the behavioral differences between subscribers to your content and nonsubscribers. Do they buy more? Close faster? Stay longer as customers? The building of a loyal audience that knows, likes, and trusts us generally leads to positive business outcomes."
But Pulizzi adds that it takes patience. "If you have short-term goals when it comes to content marketing, you should probably do something else," he says. "It takes time to build content as an asset that can drive the organization."
AAAS's Bush admits it's "a gradual build. That's why I'm positioning this as measured through retention, not acquisition. Most people want immediate returns and gratification. … But it's trusting that this is going to work."
Another problem is that associations have content "hidden behind gates and forms, so it's hard to generate new audiences when they can't access [it]," Pulizzi says. Experts agree that a good audit of what content an organization has available and is willing to give away or repurpose is essential, as is a reality check of potential internal barriers.
Bush, for instance, worries about silos: "Our programming, publishing, and membership … are not well-tied, so that affects how well we can execute a content marketing strategy."
And then there's cost, which is all over the place. According to industry watchers, investment in content marketing technology platforms grew 125 percent between 2013 and 2014, but only a small percentage of those platforms can track an individual's evolution from curious observer to customer to full-on brand ambassador. The cost of "feeding the beast" also varies.
In his new book, Content Inc., Pulizzi notes that most startups and entrepreneurs spend little cash but lots of time and energy on content marketing. Others, such as Red Bull, are famous for lavish investments in content creation and distribution, generating large, measured payoffs.
For associations, though, "content marketing is not necessarily expensive," says consultant Monica Bussolati. In her experience, while good technology takes money, associations often can eliminate other overlapping or dated in-house technologies in ways that save money and allow better execution of content marketing.
"What's expensive is not having a plan," she says. "It becomes very affordable when you're able to be process-based, invest where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck, and measure that it's working. When it is, it's paying for itself."
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Content That Clicks."]