By Carrie Hane, Dina Lewis, and Hilary Marsh
In 2017 and 2018, we conducted a major study of content strategy adoption and maturity in associations. Associations are a perfect place to study content strategy, because they are in the content business, providing value to members through content, such as educational programs, member resources, advocacy efforts, publications, and conferences.
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Foundation (the research arm of ASAE) commissioned this study to answer a question: how are associations managing the challenges and changes in how they create, facilitate, curate, and disseminate knowledge and learning through content?
Part of the challenge is that the term “content strategy” itself can mean different things to different people. 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.
While much focus on content strategy has been on websites or digital ecosystems, content is substantive information produced and delivered using any medium. In associations, almost every department produces content to help members advance their knowledge, grow in their careers, or support their industry or profession.
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 get infused throughout the entire organization. Incorporating content strategy into standard operating procedures is critical to an association’s success.
When an organization has a holistic content strategy:
- Each piece of content produced has an explicit, measurable goal tied to a specific outcome of the program that the content is about and a clearly articulated audience.
- Content is created in a way—terminology, readability level, format, length, timing, etc.—that resonates with the audience.
- The people with expertise in creating, publishing, and promoting content work in partnership with subject-matter experts managing the organization’s programs to ensure that the content about and from those programs achieves its goals.
- The organization evaluates content to determine whether the content meets its goals, and that information drives decisions about what to do more of, less of, or differently.
- Subject-matter experts work in partnership with each other to determine when to collaborate, when to cross-link, and when to reuse content that another department has created.
Getting to a place where all these conditions can happen requires a collaborative rather than a competitive or conflicting culture. It requires trust and shared responsibilities among program-focused departments and between subject matter experts and content experts. And it requires that content-related responsibilities become part of the job descriptions of each person who plays any part in the organization’s content.
The study gathered data through a comprehensive literature review, national online surveys, and in-depth interviews. All told, we reviewed 68 articles, reports, and presentations about content strategy and associations created between 2010 and 2017; more than 600 people took the surveys; and we interviewed more than 30 association staff members and content strategists.
Content Strategy Tactics
In order to quantify adoption and maturity, we broke content strategy down into a number of tactics:
- Content analytics: Tools for measuring content usage.
- Content audit: An inventory and analysis of the content an organization produces.
- Content governance: A set of policies for creating, publishing, and managing content.
- Content job descriptions: Ensuring that if a staff member’s job responsibilities include creating or managing content, their job description includes those responsibilities.
- Content models/structured content: Breaking content into individual elements and publishing it in a structured fashion, enabling content to be reused across any interface, print or digital.
- Content planning calendar: A central calendar where all content creators record their content plans.
- Content strategy statement: An organization-wide mission statement for content.
- Customer journey maps: Customer journey maps outlining the audience’s journey from awareness through loyalty and engagement.
- Digital content training: Ongoing training for all of the organization’s content authors about digital content best practices and how to write digital content.
- Editorial style guide: A document outlining the organization’s editorial style.
- Personas: Representations of top-priority audiences that describe the audience’s goals, needs, and context for content.
- Search engine optimization: Strategies and tactics to ensure that the organization’s content is found on search engines.
- Stakeholder interviews: Regular interviews with staff and/or volunteers to define and update the organization’s business and content needs, objectives, and challenges.
- Taxonomy/metadata/controlled vocabulary: A list of terms that enable the organization to categorize content in a common way.
- Usability testing: Quantitative and qualitative methods of measuring content usability and satisfaction.
These tactics served as a baseline for evaluating how associations adopt content strategy. Through the survey responses and interviews, we assembled clear pictures of organizations’ content strategy journeys and the factors influencing what they do and how far they can go.
Content strategy is a set of practices rather than a single action or document. This research identified a three-level spectrum of maturity (see Table 1):
- Beginning: Organizations that have recognized the need to approach content more strategically and are using 1 to 6 tactics in their content strategy practice.
- Intermediate: Organizations that have shifted from planning to implementation and are using 7 to 13 tactics.
- Advanced: Organizations that are focused on the environment, collaboration, and continually iterating, and are using 14 or more tactics.
Most organizations practicing content strategy are at the intermediate level. According to our initial survey, 35 percent of associations are at the beginning level, 55 percent are at intermediate, and 10 percent are at the advanced level.
You can assess your organization’s content strategy maturity using this downloadable Microsoft Excel assessment tool: https://bit.ly/cs-assessment-tool-2018.
Plotting your content strategy maturity based on the number of tactics your organization uses (with greater weight on three tactics: analytics, governance, and content planning calendar) will help you understand where you stand now and where you might go next. While the steps are similar, each organization travels its own path toward greater maturity.
Table 1. Association Content Strategy Maturity Model (© The ASAE Foundation)
Culture (How an association’s people interact to get content strategy work done)
Operating Mode (How content work gets spread throughout the organization)
|One person or department||Multiple departments—creating alignment||Organization-wide—making dynamic connections|
Analyze (use) metrics
Focus (How strategic the association’s content strategy work is)
At this level of content strategy maturity, the content strategy champion—an individual or team—is trying new ways of doing their work, but largely under the radar. They can do what they want, as long as they meet goals established by the budget or strategic plan and don’t shake things up too much. The champion is often in charge of the website, social media, marketing, or communications. Producing or managing content is part of their job, which means they have latitude to do it in a way that they think fits the organization.
Champions usually start by creating alignment and consistency through a content planning calendar (66 percent), content audit (56 percent), controlled vocabulary (40 percent), customer journey map (33 percent), or content governance (25 percent). As they gain confidence and build success, they find allies in other departments who want to get the same results. The spark ignites and spreads. Sometimes champions do a pilot effort and then get official responsibility for creating a content strategy practice within the organization.
Two common catalysts for content strategy are (1) a new top executive whose strategic vision includes a content strategy and (2) deciding to redesign the main website. Because an association’s website is the face of the organization, Web content changes affect how content is created in every medium and channel.
Content strategy champions in associations beginning the journey are plotting a course, matching content priorities with business priorities and clearly defining what content strategy means for them. As they start to gather successes, champions educate others about what they did and how it benefited members, staff, or the organization as a whole. Communication—up, down, and sideways—is essential to gaining traction and buy-in.
To be able to measure progress, organizations set specific, reasonable goals and start collecting analytics. Optimization starts with having baselines for where the association is, how much time it takes people to create content, and how content is used.
The focus is on tactics, although tactics are the ways in which the plan is enabled, not the strategy itself. The key to gaining traction and moving to the next level of maturity is shifting the association’s mindset. The staff is going from constantly churning out siloed content that competes for members’ attention against other siloed content to deliberately producing content that is of value to members. As the collective mindset shifts to a more strategic approach, and as more people buy into having a content strategy practice, the organization uses more tactics and starts to change.
If you are at a beginning level, a possible starting point is reporting on website traffic data, including the top pages viewed, every month.
As content strategy gains momentum, an association adopts more tactics. People begin to see good things happen and are eager for more. At this stage of content strategy maturity, associations start to become more transparent and cooperative. People and departments work together to plan and develop content. They may create cross-departmental working groups to gain more traction for a strategic approach.
The primary challenge at this stage is organizational culture. Not everyone in the organization is ready to do things differently. The support—or lack of it—that the champions and their teams get determines whether the association can continue to mature. And while buy-in exists at the top, the champion has to remind people regularly of the strategy and why they are doing it. To continue to mature, executives must hold people accountable for the results the content achieves and empower the champion to shepherd the strategy through education and enforcement.
The top tactics used by organizations at this level are a content planning calendar (90 percent), regular content audits (81 percent), a controlled vocabulary (79 percent), personas (73 percent), and having content strategy in people’s job descriptions (65 percent).
Intermediate-level organizations may hire a content strategist or director. The organization starts to use the analytical data they’ve been collecting to make better decisions about content. They evaluate new ideas against the strategy. This is evidenced by the large proportion of intermediate-level organizations that have content governance policies for creating, planning, and managing content.
Cross-functional teams plan content, review data, and share best practices and successes. Knowing what is getting traction, what people are using for keyword searches, and where Web traffic is coming from helps improve content’s effectiveness.
This can mean some resistance from parts of the organization. Many organizations are used to trusting each department head’s instinct about what members want, and they base their team’s content creation on those instincts rather than on data. When the data comes in and shows that some types of content are not resonating for as many people as instinct indicated, the producers of those content types get protective for fear of losing budget or staff resources.
In membership organizations, it can be tricky to say that one member segment or type is more important than another. But part of having a content strategy is conducting the research to inform staff about who the audience really is, not who the staff want it to be.
To advance to the next level:
- Add more sophisticated tactics, and combine their use into effective strategies.
- Experiment and revisit approaches that don’t work.
- Maintain the conscious decision to engage in an association-wide approach to meeting member needs.
The content strategy at an advanced association is integrated, outcome-based, data-driven, collaborative, transparent, and mission-oriented. Associations at this level are collaborative. People work together with shared goals, no longer operating in hierarchical organizational silos.
At these organizations, the content strategy champions feel a sense of accomplishment and have the confidence to keep going. They track what works, repeat successes, and start anew when things fail. The organization’s mindset has shifted.
Content strategy underpins every department’s work. The vision is defined, and the staff implements it together. Because content strategy connects with the association’s mission, it is more sustainable. Those who create content have goals beyond merely getting the content out there. They can plan and create content more purposefully, because they understand what draws attendees to the conferences, what members in special interest groups are trying to achieve, and what segments of members are actually interested in. Content governance standards have been adopted by 97 percent of advanced organizations.
Because the association organizes around topic areas rather than departments, content creation and management are more efficient and effective. The senior leadership team champions content strategy. CEOs of advanced organizations measure content strategy success by looking at whether their programs succeed, not website page views or Twitter likes.
Some common measurements of content strategy include:
- Higher use of specific association offerings (participation in programs, use of resources, knowledge about key industry issues, etc.)
- Association growth as measured by increased membership acquisition and retention
- More positive feedback in member surveys
- Higher attendance at meetings, courses, or webinars
- Higher participation in legislative calls for action
- More active involvement by members who value the association and its community
The content operation is organization-wide. Coordinating content with business processes can still be a challenge, but the organization is driving toward dynamic connection among staff centered on the members and an understanding of the industry’s issues.
Content strategy tactics have become repeatable processes. With people largely aligned, the organization can coordinate more types of content, including webinars, journals, magazine articles, and conference sessions. Since iteration is accepted, it becomes easier to add new things and people without breaking anything or starting over.
The association takes its analytics to a new level, mapping data to key performance indicators (KPIs) or objectives and key results (OKRs). Decentralized content decisions are possible, because everyone knows and understands the strategy. The content strategy champion’s education efforts have paid off. More people—staff and members—add knowledge and ideas to the content conversation.
At the advanced level, the organization is a supportive environment that encourages learning and transparency, which benefits the staff, the association, and members alike.
Your Content Strategy Journey
Even if you don’t work at an association, these lessons are likely to apply to your organization. You can strive to make content strategy part of the way your organization works, bring together people from disparate parts of the organization to collaborate, identify goals and success metrics for content, and share best practices. Sometimes it’s best to start creating content more strategically alone or with like-minded colleagues, and then get buy-in from management for a new approach.
Assess where you stand and go from there!
CARRIE HANE (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and principal strategist of Tanzen, which provides content strategy consulting and training to help organizations organize content to be more effective and engaging. For nearly 20 years, she’s alternated between in-house Web content lead and consulting, putting together cross-functional teams and creating processes that stick while untangling information to make it usable and ready for the next frontier. Her most recent in-house stint was as Web Director at the American Society of Civil Engineers from 2013 to 2015. She is the co-author of Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow (New Riders, 2018).
DINA LEWIS (email@example.com) is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) who helps associations and nonprofits create websites with a user-first approach and improve their digital communications. Since 2006, Dina’s firm, Distilled Logic, has provided content strategy, information architecture, and usability research services to dozens of association and nonprofit clients. She worked with the Center for Association Leadership on the 2004 Industry Benchmark Study on Members Only Web Efforts. Dina is also active with the User Experience Professionals Association and the Information Architecture Institute.
HILARY MARSH (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President and Chief Strategist of Content Company, a content and digital strategy consultancy. She helps associations, nonprofit organizations, and corporations get better results from their content by improving their practices for content creation, governance, management, measurement, and promotions. Marsh served as a Managing Director for the National Association of Realtors from 2005 to 2011, overseeing the association’s website and social media. A content strategy professor, mentor, and community leader since 1999, Marsh is a frequent speaker at national and international association, content strategy, and digital industry conferences.