Excerpt from Association Content Strategies for a Changing World (forthcoming)

By Carrie Hane, Dina Lewis, CAE, and Hilary Marsh

Effective delivery of content is critical to association success. In The Decision to Join: How Individuals Determine Value and Why They Choose to Belong (ASAE, 2007), association members ranked dissemination of knowledge or content among four of the top five most important association functions—a preference underscored when the study was conducted again in 2011. Marketing General’s annual Membership Marketing Benchmark Report consistently finds that the top challenge to membership growth for associations is “difficulty in communicating value or benefit.”

Through a literature review, two surveys, and a series of interviews, this project sought to identify and understand how association professionals approach content strategy—and which tactics have been most valuable and effective for their work.

Defining Content Strategy

Part of the challenge for associations is that the term “content strategy” often means different things to different people, even to people within the same organization. For this study, content strategy is defined as the planning and judgment for the creation, publication, dissemination, and governance of useful, usable, effective content across departments and functional areas.

Content strategy helps an organization prioritize and plan what types of content to produce and how to deliver them for the best value. Content strategy is not just a document to have; it is a set of practices and principles that are infused throughout the entire organization. Incorporating content strategy into standard operating procedures is critical to an association’s success.

Highlights of Findings

Content strategy scales. Associations of all sizes and types are practicing content strategy. Neither staff size nor budget limits an organization’s ability to develop and implement a content strategy. The research identified very small associations that are effectively meeting members’ needs with content as well as associations with hundreds of people on staff that struggle to execute a member-focused content strategy. What matters more than size or budget is that an organization recognizes the need to have a plan for the creation, publication, dissemination, and governance of useful, usable, effective content.

Most organizations do a lot, but they don’t all do the same things. While certain tactics—including planning calendars, content audits, and taxonomies—were most widely practiced, associations generally incorporate tactics according to their objectives or pain points, or according to which team is driving the content strategy effort. These elements shape how content strategy develops in each organization.

Through the surveys and subsequent interviews, three levels of content strategy were identified. These levels correlate to how content strategy is incorporated into content organization, data collection, and decision making across an association. At each level—beginning, intermediate, and advanced—staff have distinct challenges and opportunities.

Most respondents indicated that their associations are practicing content strategy at an intermediate level. Organizations at this level use seven to 13 of the content strategy tactics explored in this study, and they are beginning to identify and reap the benefits of a holistic content strategy while still navigating the challenges of enforcing cross-departmental alignment.

There are different approaches but common challenges. Creating, planning, and managing content in a strategic way is not easy. All associations, regardless of their size, scope, budget, or maturity level, share some common challenges.

  • Territoriality. A strategic content approach requires an organization to establish and articulate its priorities, which means that every program cannot be the organization’s top priority. It can be difficult for program managers to hear that the initiative they are working on is a lower priority. They resist the strategy’s implementation, even though they agree in theory to the prioritization of audiences and content.
  • Lack of alignment. Associations create volumes of content through a variety of teams and functional areas to support different member services and benefits. This work often is created in silos and then disseminated to siloed audience segments.
  • Data challenges. Numbers can paint a picture of the current situation and allow an organization to set benchmarks and goals. But data needs to be collected and used. Too often, associations collect data but do not use it to drive decision making.

Carrie Hane is founder of Tanzen, a content strategy consulting firm. Dina Lewis, CAE, is president of the content strategy consulting firm Distilled Logic. Hilary Marsh is president and chief strategist of Content Company, Inc., in Chicago. The full report will be published by the ASAE Foundation in summer 2019. Contact Jenny Nelson (jnelson@asaecenter.org) or sign up to receive updates.