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3 Reasons Why Content Marketing Doesn’t Work for Associations

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Last Tuesday, Ray van Hilst and I presented at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference–it was fun (as far as public speaking gigs go) and great to see so many association friends. If you want to see our five quick tips for improving your website in five minutes, you’re in luck–here’s the link to our presentation.

I didn’t see Joe Pulizzi speak about content marketing, but Associations Now wrote about his presentation, and that he pointed out that associations are, for the most part, doing it wrong when it comes to content marketing. He said that according to a recent study by the Content Marketing Institute, only 26% of nonprofit organizations surveyed think they’re using content marketing effectively. I’m surprised it was that high, to be honest, as I don’t think that most nonprofits think of content as marketing, period, let alone consider themselves to be content marketers at all.

It may seem like an easy fix to someone who hasn’t worked in the association world–just create a mission statement for your content, create a content marketing strategy, then create an opt-in subscriber strategy. Done. Let me get right on that, said every association staffer ever. I mean, never, because this strategy would probably never work for actual associations.

Here are three reasons why content marketing in the for-profit world is different than content marketing in the association world, and why what works for them won’t work for most associations:

1. Silos.

In the for-profit world, content is marketing. In the association world, there’s marketing then there’s content–web content, publications–and the two are almost guaranteed to be totally separate. The marketing department works on marketing things–membership, conferences, products. The communications or publication departments work on writing and publishing the association’s magazine and/or journals and/or website, developing and writing the content that is one of the most tangible benefits of membership. Their audience is existing members. Marketing may sell ads that run in these publications or on the website, but that’s about as much crossover as there probably ever is between departments, and even those relationships aren’t that great. Marketing wants more–more space for ads, more opportunities to market–and pubs wants to write and produce quality content that is geared towards existing members and is not salesy. So telling associations to just set a content marketing strategy….in the world of silos that is the reality of most association’s inner workings and getting publications and marketing to work together towards one common goal is a lot easier said than done.

2. Technology.

Associations are a different business than for-profits, and a lot of things that for-profits have to work for, associations can take for granted. Like subscribers. For the most part, if you belong to an association, you’re opting in to receive content from them–publications, email newsletters, etc. That’s what members are paying for, after all. That’s where associations have the advantage over for-profits. Where they’re at a disadvantage is, for the most part, money and technology. In the for-profit world, there’s marketing automation technology and CRM….and the money to both purchase technology platforms/services and to either hire people who know how to use them or outsource that part. In the association world, marketing strategies that go much beyond communicating with current members, house ads in your own publications and then maybe posting that content to social media sites and exhibiting at your own conference are, at least in my experience, pretty rare. IT departments are comfortable with Microsoft and whatever AMS the association is using; implementing Salesforce or Hubspot is not something they’re known to take on very willingly, even if there is budget for it, which, for 99% of associations, there probably is not.

3. Staff skillsets.

In the for-profit world, marketing directors are, at least from my maybe overly-optimistic POV, expected to stay current in terms of skills. Marketing automation, SEO, content marketing, social media marketing….all these are areas they probably have at least a decent understanding of, as well as a staff who are proficient in each of these areas as well as what’s on the horizon in terms of marketing. Association marketing directors–and no disrespect intended, and I certainly don’t know everything, but in my 20 years working in the association world, I have seen a lot and know a few things–but, to generalize, they tend to be more traditional marketers who learned marketing a while ago, got into their current position five or 10 or 20 years ago and have pretty much been rinse-and-repeating the same email and print marketing strategies each year since. And to be fair, it’s hard to be a marketer in an association–a world where selling is verboten and you’re there for the lofty purpose of helping people and serving members. But for the most part, associations don’t have huge marketing budgets or staffs….or any marketing budgets or staffs, and the more senior marketing staffers tend to have traditional skillsets. And even those who want to push the envelope and do cool new stuff–like content marketing and/or social media marketing–well, suffice it to say, that’s why there are a lot of smart consultants who used to be associations staffers, and a lot of patient-and-trying-but-not-really-getting-anywhere association staffers. Writing for the web, cross-channel content promotion, building opt-in subscriber lists, tracking analytics….these are mostly not skillsets that the majority of association marketers possess.

So anyway….it’s easy for someone outside the association world to paint a rosy picture of how easy it is to implement a content marketing strategy inside an association; it’s another thing to actually understand that, while there’s certainly a place for content marketing in the association world, there are unique challenges to work around and simply plugging in for-profit advice most likely won’t work.

This post originally appeared on Mizz InformationYou can follow Maggie on Twitter @maggielmcg and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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