Alex Beall is a freelance writer based in California.
Associations create a lot of content, but it can’t serve its purpose if it’s not distributed effectively. A new study from the ASAE Foundation looks at the importance of a content strategy in delivering value to members and serving an organization’s mission and goals.
Whether it’s conferences, certification programs, magazines, or advocacy reports, associations are in the business of content creation.
Most associations have the creation part down pat—at least where quantity is concerned. Where the challenge lies is in making smart decisions about what content is produced and disseminating it in a way that allows members to easily navigate and access it. That’s where content strategy comes in.
“At the end of day, it’s about member value,” says Hilary Marsh, president and chief strategist of The Content Company and one of the researchers behind the ASAE Foundation’s new study, Association Content Strategies for a Changing World. “You have the work that you do and the programs that you have because they would be valuable to members. But if you’re not putting them out there in a way that’s organized, orchestrated, and connected, … what you’re potentially doing is not helping members see the value that you’re providing for them.”
The study—which defined content strategy as “planning and judgment for the creation, publication, dissemination, and governance of useful, usable, effective content across departments and functional areas”—suggests that a tactical approach can help content professionals create an environment where content strategy succeeds.
Project researchers explored how associations applied 17 content strategy tactics. (See “Successful Content Tactics” at right.) While they didn’t find patterns around which tactics organizations used, they noted that organizations that used more tactics were more likely to have a holistic content strategy.
This evolving behavior became the basis for a three-level content maturity model. Each level correlates with the number of tactics incorporated across an association, as well as with the culture and operations surrounding content in organizations at that level:
To provide the most value to their members, associations must move up this maturity model by developing or improving their content strategy. Doing so will serve not only a department’s content goals but also the organization’s mission and strategic objectives.
Regardless of the impetus for developing a content strategy, every organization must start at square one.
To begin, staff needs buy-in from leadership—whether it’s to implement an organization-wide strategy or to pilot a plan in one department or on one project. After getting leadership onboard, Dina Lewis, CAE, president of Distilled Logic, LLC, and another study researcher, recommends assembling a cross-departmental working group to create the strategy and help foster a culture that would support its adoption.
From there, staff can determine how to carry it out. Lewis suggests beginning with tactics that are relatively easy to implement, like creating a content-planning calendar or editorial style guides. Depending on how the organization has approached this first phase of strategy development, the effective tactics can then be rolled out to the whole organization, or more tactics can be adopted.
In addition, Marsh advises embedding the strategy and related tactics into staff workflow and organizational processes. The idea is “to operationalize this content strategy work and build it into people’s job descriptions,” she says. This ensures that content creation is aligned with the larger content strategy and that the strategy is carried out in an organized, systematic way.
According to the study, most organizations already function at the intermediate level. Moving to this level—or from the intermediate to the advanced level—requires continual improvement and maintenance of the content strategy.
This requires cultivating a culture that supports an ongoing plan. Culture “affects what people do, how they do it, what stumbling blocks they’re likely to encounter, and what needs to be put in place for them to come out the other end with a successful way of doing that work,” Marsh says.
As a part of this process, leaders need to shift from just giving their buy-in to holding staff accountable for adhering to the strategy.
“[T]hat has to come from the top, because not everyone moves at the same pace in the organization, and they don’t all have the same mindset,” says Carrie Hane, founder and principal strategist of Tanzen and the study’s third researcher. “So, if you don’t have that accountability from the very top, you will never get to the advanced level, because people will not necessarily be working in the same way toward the same goals.”
The staff also needs to see the importance of maintaining the content strategy. Lewis recommends creating a cross-departmental “team of champions” whose mission is to advocate for the strategy and break down silos that can become roadblocks to full implementation.
“One of the swing points for successful organizations is this idea of a cross-functional team,” she says. “If that’s established relatively early on, then there are still people carrying the flag of content strategy in the organization.”
To know what worked, we have to identify clear goals and measurable success metrics for the content we’re creating and the programs that the content is about.
—Hilary Marsh, The Content Company
Another step in progressing through the maturity model is adopting new, more effective tactics. While any of the 17 tactics can be helpful in this progression, the research found that it is imperative to both gather and apply data—from web analytics to post-event surveys. In fact, Lewis says, an organization cannot make the jump to the intermediate level without applying the data it’s collecting.
However, applying what’s learned from the data is impossible without established metrics. Knowing the baselines allows staff to analyze whether content is valuable or successful, make data-driven decisions about what new content to create or how to improve existing content, and set goals for beating current baselines and providing even greater value to members.
“To know what worked, we have to identify clear goals and measurable success metrics for the content we’re creating and the programs that the content is about,” Marsh says. “You can’t answer the question without the numbers and without the goals to begin with.”
The good news for associations is that content strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all. Organizations can use a different number and combination of tactics depending on their budget, staff count, and membership. And these factors don’t affect the efficacy of a content strategy, so associations of all sizes can implement equally effective strategies with the right planning.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a small organization with three staff and have a really small budget or if you’re a huge organization with all the tentacles, departments, legacy, and information that entails,” Lewis says.
However, both will face their own sets of advantages and challenges in this process. It is a matter of using tactics and developing a strategy that play on those advantages.
For small-staff associations, “use your nimbleness and your size to your advantage,” Hane says. These organizations may not have the funding to hire new staff or incorporate new technology, but because they have fewer staff, it is easier to get buy-in from people at all levels. These associations can also make organization-wide changes more quickly, and staff will tend to be more comfortable with being multidisciplinary and working across department lines.
On the other hand, while medium- and large-staff associations may have greater access to new technology and budget resources, they face the challenge of more deeply entrenched silos that often hinder a cross-departmental and holistic approach to content strategy. To overcome this barrier, Lewis suggests piloting a content strategy with one project. If it works, staff can use the success metrics to get buy-in from leadership and other departments.
Ultimately, the goal is to develop a content strategy that ensures the association is producing helpful, useful content that provides members with the value the organization promises—regardless of the path it takes to get there.
“If you don’t have a plan, you don’t know how to know if you’re succeeding,” Hane says. The content strategy “is a roadmap, and it has to be flexible because everything changes.”