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Strategy Before Content - 10/25/2011 -

Associations can’t just keep spewing forth content. Without a content strategy, impact is lost and the tie between association and member are weakened.

By Newton Holt

"Content is king.” How many of us in association publishing and communications are tired of hearing that phrase? Tired of its triteness though we may be, like most clichés, it proves to be true.

However, at the recent Association & Media Publishing Roundtable Round-up held on October 13, John O’Brien of EEI Communications turned the cliché on its head: "If content is king, then strategy is god,” he proclaimed.

O’Brien, EEI’s vice president, publishing and staffing services, facilitated the roundtable titled "Effective Content Delivery” and stressed the importance of an organization to have a singular, effective strategy for how content is produced and delivered to members and readers.

When he asked how many of the attendees’ organizations had such a strategy, though, not a single hand went up. What follows are some tips for developing a content strategy and for delivering your content in the most effective way for maximum member value and impact.

· First, have a strategy. As O’Brien pointed out, you can have the best content in the world, but without a clear, concise strategy for how content is developed, who develops it, and how it is disseminated, your efforts are likely to be weak. What’s to blame for a lack of a central communication strategy for most organizations? Silos—departments within an organization doing their own thing and producing and disseminating their own content, with little or no collaboration with other departments. Some call this "decentralized” marketing or decentralized communications. I call it a recipe for ineffective communications and a muddled brand.

· Focus on what you do well. Trying to be all things to all people results in "something for everybody but nothing impactful for anyone,” says O’Brien. Yes, as an association communicator, you serve multiple audiences with multiple needs and wants, but trying to reach them all, especially in your magazine’s feature well, is a scattershot approach. Instead—and this applies to magazines especially—try to serve those multiple constituencies through the use of departments, reserving the feature well (or in the case of Web communications, your main homepage stories) for the content that resonates with everyone, regardless of their specific interest area in your association.

· Don’t just report the news. Your members can get news about their industry anywhere. What they need is analysis. Instead of reporting the news, report what the news means, asserts National Apartment Association’s Paul Bergeron, one of the roundtable attendees.

· Abandon the "inside baseball” mindset. Don’t waste your content on reporting on the goings-on of your association because most members couldn’t care less. Too many association publications take an "inside baseball” approach, using their communication vehicles to report on the minutiae of the association itself. Your magazine needs to be the voice of the industry, not the association. Your members joined because they want to advance their knowledge of the industry, mission, or cause you serve. They could care less about such nonsense as photos of your executive director shoulder-to-shoulder with some congressperson or other luminary. For those who do want to know what’s going on in the association, reserve a department or newsletter for such content—but still try to keep it relevant to a broad audience.

· Ask, ask, ask. You should take every opportunity to ask your members what they think about your magazine or other communication vehicles, O’Brien advises. But asking the right questions is key. "Asking members if they like what they read is entirely unreliable if you don’t give them something to compare it to,” he said. Don’t just say, "What do you like (or hate) about our magazine?” Ask how it compares to its competitors, commercial and association.

· Form an editorial advisory board. Editorial advisory boards can help you shape effective content. Ideally, they should be composed of your most critical members, who will tell you without hesitation what they think is wrong or right about your efforts. Have a member who is constantly critical about your magazine and is always submitting negative letters to the editor? He or she may just be a curmudgeon, but it is equally likely that the member has a vested interest in the quality of your publication and would be honored to sit on your editorial advisory board. Your most valuable information can indeed come from your detractors, not your admirers and avid fans. Says O’Brien about editorial advisory boards: "Keep them on tap, but never let them be on top.” That is, they are a resource not a final authority. The challenging but rewarding task of forging great content rests on your shoulders, and by applying the preceding tips to your efforts, you may just find that load a little lighter.

Newton Holt is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for volunteering to cover this round table discussion for our members who were unable to attend. 


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