February 12, 2024 Content Chat Recap: Taking an Unconventional Approach to Content Marketing for Membership Associations

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is how to take an unconventional approach to content marketing for membership associations with guest Ben Rome.

“If you create something with passion, it’s going to show in that product. A lot of us keep our personal hobbies and interests and loves separated from work. But when you take something that you absolutely love and you infuse it with your work, you get better work, you get a better outcome.” — Ben Rome

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Ben Rome, American Bus Association director of communications, to discuss how membership associations can take a more creative approach to content marketing. 

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

Q1: Why is content marketing important for membership associations?

Membership associations often lag with trying new approaches. 

“I’ve worked with a lot of associations, not just in a full-time position but also as a client. To say the apocalypse happened, it would take 20 years for associations to recognize that trend because they’re still stuck a little bit.” — Ben Rome

Old ways of engaging association members are no longer as effective as they once were. 

“Content marketing is how associations communicate with members. It’s the primary driver, but how they do that can vary depending on the organization. But the old ways don’t work anymore [and] there are a lot of changes going on in the association space.” — Ben Rome

“Associations are competing with so many other things that are grabbing our attention. They’re not competing against just other associations, they’re competing for [members to give them their] attention versus streaming something versus going to an online training platform. [There are] 50 million places that [members] could be focusing their attention. So [membership associations] don’t have that built-in, captive audience that they were used to. They’re no longer the only source of information for their industry or for their profession.” — Erika Heald

Email, for example, is decreasing in value. And it is hard for marketers to accurately gauge their success with email KPIs like open rates. 

“The biggest vehicle was email, but that’s starting to wane. To look at open rates, it’s a lie, it’s a fallacy figure. Looking at click-through rates, [they are], comparatively, really low. And when you’re below the industry standard for that, like in forums or HubSpot, there’s something wrong there. It means that they’re just not interested; they’re seeing it in their preview pane, which counts as the open, and then they’re just moving on. And a lot of email platforms where you can set it to move to the next message, the prior message becomes read.” — Ben Rome

“Emails—we don’t know if people are actually reading or not. If it’s a preview pane open or, if they’re on a Mac client looking at email on their phone, then you’re not seeing them at all. And if you see them turn up in your web metrics, you see them as direct. Which, they’re not direct, but you can’t track them.” — Erika Heald

Q2: What content types are valuable for membership associations?

Membership association content teams need to deeply understand their audiences. It’s critical to know where members are interacting and how they typically share and consume information across the internet and in person. 

“You need to know your audience. You need to know where they’re coming to you from. You also need to know where they’re located. Where’s the community located? Look at your metrics and look to see where your people are at.” — Ben Rome

“And then you have to look out in the landscape and see what’s working with the industry. If your industry is in electronics, then maybe it’s electronic forums, maybe it’s magazine forums, there’s probably Bluesky or Twitter clusters around those conversations. Figure out where your audience is at.” — Ben Rome

Use metrics to help you double down on your primary drivers.

“They may be coming to your website to get that information. Your website may still carry dynamic content. So if your primary driver is website, you need to lean into that.” — Ben Rome

Directly ask your members about how they consume information and what they’re looking for from your association.  

“If you don’t know or can’t discern from the metrics: ask them. There’s no harm in that. Do a member survey. If you’re out in a trade space or event, ask them that simple question. When you have a chance to talk to members, say ‘How do you get your day-to-day information? What is it that you’re looking for in your education space? Are you looking for long-form education?’ Find what spaces work for them.” — Ben Rome

“Where are they talking about the latest topics and trends? Where are they talking about education? Where are they talking about the things your association has invested in?” — Ben Rome

Assess your member needs and have these conversations at least every two years. 

“You should have this conversation not just once, [but] every two years or so. We all know social media trends vary. You’ve got channels coming up and going away. It’s a constant cycle to find out where they’re at.” — Ben Rome

“I’m surprised how many organizations don’t regularly survey the membership to ask those questions. They’re still trying to get sponsorships, they’re still trying to sell ad space in their publications. And you really need to understand how your members want to get information and what kinds of formats they’re interested in. Otherwise, you might be creating content that worked really well with the group of your members that are becoming member emeritus because they’re retiring, and you’re completely neglecting your up-and-coming membership segments.” — Erika Heald

Access our free blog content audit template, social media channel audit template, and competitor content audit template on our website to help inform your content strategy.

Q3: How can membership association content teams source content ideas from their association members?

Listen to members online and in person. 

“If you’re seeing or inhabiting the spaces where your members are at, what are they talking about most? What topics are hot-button issues?” — Ben Rome

Conduct social listening to see which members are active online and who may be interested in becoming a thought leader in your space. You can partner with them to create content and develop their personal brand. 

“People [should] connect with, if not members, at least the board of directors or anybody in that space. Connect with them on social media. Find out who’s highly active. Do they post their own original content? Or do they just post insightful comments? Find out if they want to start talking about thought leadership in their space or if they do want to see themselves as an industry expert. They can be a contributor or advisor and become a focal point in that on LinkedIn. They may have really great ideas but they can’t transfer that to the paper or to the keyboard, which is where you can offer to assist them in that.” — Ben Rome

Tap into your board and volunteer base to identify potential thought leaders and the best topics to explore. 

“Your board or your volunteers are great resource pools. There’s a lot of them that really want to share that experience, they just don’t know how to do it or what’s the best avenue to do that in. That’s where you can provide that assistance.” — Ben Rome 

“A few years ago we were trying to get the board to participate more in thought leadership. And some of them just didn’t know how to post an article on LinkedIn, nevermind putting in appropriate hashtags and imaging. We as content and comms people know [how] to work the algorithm; you have to have an image, or video is better, make sure to use hashtags in the right spot. You can shepherd them through that process.” — Ben Rome

Offer to ghostwrite for members who have valuable opinions to share. 

“You can do some ghostwriting, too. If they don’t know how to put things together, that’s fine. Tell me what you want to say. And let’s work together and write something cohesive for you that they can just paste.” — Ben Rome

Ask thought-provoking questions in your association communities or in your publications, and invite members to contribute content. 

“If your association has a printed publication like a magazine, or if they have their own internal forum like a Discord server, you can talk to them about providing thought-provoking questions every week or contributed content.” — Ben Rome

“A lot of it comes down to making it clear to everybody that you are looking for submissions, you are interested in their ideas or for them to create content. A lot of people just think [they’re] not worthy. They think they’re just a regular person doing their job. [But] they do have that experience and insights from doing it. And they just need the encouragement.” — Erika Heald

When relevant, you can also help members place their content in industry publications. 

“If you’re in an industry that has a lot of trade publications, start looking for places [members] can submit to. Maybe there’s a trade pub that’s considered a well-known resource in your field. Look to see if there are opportunities to submit articles or a process to [submit ideas].” — Ben Rome

Q4: What metrics help inform content needs for membership associations?

KPIs will differ based on the channel(s) you prioritize and your goals.

“There are different KPIs for different channels that you want to look at, as well as your focus. What’s your end goal? Are you looking to drive content by X% by the end of the year and a certain timeframe? Is it a campaign that you’re trying to generate a live event and driving up leadership in that space?” — Ben Rome

“Find out what that channel provides to you in those analytics. What does analytics actually say?” — Ben Rome

Optimize content to reflect how your members will find it and use it. 

“PDFs [for example] are fraught with danger. Frequently, people weren’t even able to track where people were downloading the PDF. Or, worse yet, they had a PDF that was named ABC123 instead of being named something like ‘Risk Assessment PDF’, which is what people search for. You have to understand the psychology of how people are going to access the information.” — Erika Heald

Ben recommends marketing associations partner with analytics experts who can explain how their activities are mapping back to their goals.  

“I’m going to do a shameless plug for Erika: She is an analyst and she’s a great analytics person. So you can tell her ‘I want to use YouTube as a driving point. We’re doing three-minute videos, but we want to drive it toward a live event to drive increased registration. How do I read my analytics to see if I’m doing that?’ And she can step in and say this is what you want to look for.” — Ben Rome

“It’s always good to have a second or third eyeball looking at those things, anyway, to either confirm what you’re seeing, or they may be seeing things you’re completely oblivious to because we all get our blinders on. We’re going in and just looking at unique page count or session referrals, we’re not looking at bounce rates or 404 page pops that are happening. You need to have somebody who’s versed in analytics that can dig that out for you.” — Ben Rome

“It’s not just about knowing what KPIs and what analytic metrics to look at, it’s also making sure that you’re following through to make sure that you’re making the most out of those metrics, too. Your responsibility is to go to the board and say ‘This is the strategy that we need to be inhabiting, and this is how we get there.’ If you don’t have the right metrics to report that, what you could see as a bonafide success [could be] average to less than average. And you don’t want to be doing that.” — Ben Rome

Q5: Why is it important for content creators to bring personal areas of interest into their creative ideation and content creation?

At 22:23 in the recording, Ben discusses how he has blended his love of LEGO into his professional identity.

“In my previous position, 2020 was the launch of a rebrand. To celebrate this one, we were going to have an onsite event where people could contribute and build part of the new logo out of LEGO. They would contribute to building the new logo on the floor space of this giant logo that we built out of LEGO. Unfortunately, the live event didn’t happen, obviously. So what we did was we brought in our designer E.J. Bocan and he built the logo himself over three days. We live-streamed it for the virtual event. And in the end, we had a beautiful—it was probably eight foot by four foot—logo with the rebranded logo made solely out of LEGO. And it was put on display in the headquarters office. He also did smaller renditions of the previous logos through the years, so they had a timeline of the logos, and then the big one.” — Ben Rome

“Since the LEGO concept seemed to really take off, we put the build instructions for a small desk-sized version of the logo on the website with the parts count, and people actually downloaded those and built the logos at home with their kids. They put them on their desks and we started seeing them pop up on all of our Zoom calls, which is really cool.” — Ben Rome

“We took it a step further last year. We have eight different characters and we built habitat environments (a three-sided cube or a four-sided cube depending on the plans you use). We built environments and sold those kits at the conference last year for a modest donation to the foundation. We raised $7,000 in scholarship funds for the organization.” — Ben Rome

Blending your personal passions with work will greatly improve your output and workplace happiness. 

“If you write what you know, it turns out really well. If you design what you love, you’re going to enjoy it more and you’re going to put more stuff really into it. If you create something with passion, it’s going to show in that product.” — Ben Rome

“I think about a chef. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant with a chef who’s an award winner or someone who’s a celebrity chef, almost every time you talk to them or you read an interview about them, the common thing I hear is: ‘I just love to cook. I love to serve people.’ There’s always a personal story there. And because of that, because of their thankfulness or their generosity or their sense of compassion, they pour that into their food. And the food looks and tastes amazing because they’re putting everything they have into it, day after day.” — Ben Rome

“Why are you living your life as a personal and a work person? Why can’t you live your life blended? And when you live your life blended and you put that into your work, your work becomes so much better.” — Ben Rome

And your personal passions are what will separate your work from something AI could generate.

“Everyone’s so worried right now about AI and the impact of AI on creators. What’s so hilarious, of course, is that if you’re creating this authentic content that comes from this place of your whole self in all of the things that you love and are passionate about, you’re creating what the robots can’t. To paraphrase Ann Handley’s recent keynote title: Create what the robots can’t. They can’t create these things that incorporate all the stuff you love and the decades of experience you have in some of these hobbies or outside areas of interest.” — Erika Heald

“Some brands have really interesting voices. National Park Services, for example, some of those accounts are hysterical. And [it’s] because the voices behind them, they’re super passionate about ecology and the park that they’re working for or the animals that inhabit it. You see that in the content generation, and that’s just their voice. They’re not doing anything else, but they’re passionate about that. It’s the simple things that they’re taking from their outside life and blending that into what they’re doing with their work.” — Ben Rome

Q6: How can teams break the mold to come up with creative content ideas that draw from personal interests?

Find ways to bring your personal interests into your work. 

“Not everything in your life is going to translate into work. But the elements that are and the different things that you like—TV shows you enjoy, games that you play, even just nature walks—there’s something in your personal life that infuses what you do there that can be translated across the boundary into your workspace. And let’s be honest, work is more fun when you enjoy it.” — Ben Rome

Starting at 37:47 in the recording, Ben explains how his passion for video games helped him create the award-winning IH Heroes content series, which includes comic books, character cards, and a browser-based game. 

“My challenge was: Let’s create a comic story that encapsulates the day in the life of one of these different characters in the different side of the profession. I wrote up one comic, we illustrated, and 2,000 copies were printed. And 2,000 copies were gone within two months. We gave them for free to the membership, and they were outreach tools. They gave them to youth groups and kids groups, and they just went crazy with them. So we created two more [comics] after that, and then we created Spanish versions of those as well.” — Ben Rome

“I think the award count within a three-year span was 25 awards for this whole campaign. And the whole idea was to do a 15-year campaign to see where the needle was and where the needle ended. It was going really well. It was really strong. The increase of young professionals into the association jumped pretty high.” — Ben Rome

Think about your passions. Your connections. Your current role. How can you blend all of them together to create something unconventional? Bring your team together to explore the possibilities of combining your resources, interests, and connections. 

“It’s because I had connections in the comic industry. I have connections in the computer industry. These are all things I had done as a freelancer and things that I love. And the people whose work I love. And then we looked to see what we can do to collaborate. What can we do to make something different, because there’s always the possibility for something to stand out from the norm.” — Ben Rome

Q7: What pitfalls do membership association content marketing teams often face, and how can they avoid these?

Reinforcing an earlier point: You need to understand your audience to make calculated bets with your content strategy. 

“What it comes down to is you’ve got to know your audience. If you don’t know your audience, stuff you throw at the wall isn’t going to stick.” — Ben Rome

Video is important, however, you need to reflect the channel and your audience needs. 

“[When creating video] you have to be very careful that you’re doing it right by your audience. You can’t try to be all TikTok-y if it’s not a TikTok audience. There are people who are doing TikTok style stuff on YouTube, which is the only channel they have. But YouTube is a different thing. Not only is your audience on YouTube slightly different than TikTok, it’s not the same approach. So make sure you’re not embarrassing yourself by being the old man in the room trying to be a TikTok maven.” — Ben Rome

Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if they might fail.

“You’re not going to know until you try. And I think it’s important to not be afraid of trying, and being okay with the fact that it might fail. A lot of times when you try something completely new on a new channel or a really new approach, there’s a good opportunity for it not to work, and you have to be okay with that.” — Erika Heald

If something fails, assess what you learned and how you can improve next time. 

“When you have a fail point, don’t sit and mope about it. Pick apart what worked and what didn’t. What was received, and what wasn’t received? Work with the team to figure out what can be changed, if something can be changed. Or is it just an idea that needs to be scrapped altogether?” — Ben Rome

If your membership association is looking for hands-on content marketing and content strategy support, contact us here.

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