It seems pretty clear at this point that most brands have embraced content marketing. According to the most recent State of Inbound Marketing report, 84 percent of small businesses are “predominantly using inbound marketing,” and 75 percent of marketers “prioritize an inbound approach to marketing.”

But having worked in the association space for over two decades, I’ve noticed that associations tend to lag behind in their use of the latest marketing tools and techniques due to the simple fact that most are non-profits and lack the resources of commercial organizations. Because of this, adoption rates for content marketing have been much lower. This can be largely attributed to organizations not really understanding what it is. “There’s a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about what it can and should do and how to use it,”  Beth Bush, chief membership officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), told Associations Now when asked about content marketing.

But the benefits of content marketing — increased brand recognition, better member recruitment, improved member retention — are significant, and as we head into 2016, it would be wise for every association marketing director to consider whether a content strategy is worth implementing.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing fits under the larger umbrella of inbound marketing, and to understand it you must first consider how marketing has been traditionally carried out over the last 100 years. For the most part, marketers have reached consumers by trying to interrupt their attention with advertising. Whether it’s a billboard on the side of the road or a commercial break during your favorite television show, this form of outbound marketing involves forcing you to view content you wouldn’t otherwise seek out on your own.

Inbound marketing, on the other hand, involves creating content that people not only want to consume, but that they’ll actively seek out and share. Leveraging its industry expertise, a brand can attract customers by fulfilling their informational needs, and in the process gain their brand trust and eventual purchases. For instance, American Express, in its quest to improve its brand loyalty with small business owners, launched Open Forum, a publication that focuses solely on how to improve your business. AARP, an association that aims to improve the lives of Americans over the age of 50, produces mountains of content on topics ranging from early health signs of Alzheimer’s to state-sponsored retirement plans.  

Creating a perception of value

Ask any association staff member what their goals are and all of them will boil down to one central challenge: How do we provide enough value so that we can convince an industry professional to not only pay for a membership, but to then keep renewing it every year? Even if you’re an extremely successful association that counts a high percentage of your industry’s practitioners as members, there’s always room for increased market penetration. Content marketing provides you with a vehicle for reaching these less engaged industry professionals by addressing the points of friction in their careers. As you try to develop your content niche, think to yourself: “What information would I be searching for if I worked in this industry?” Whether it’s business advice, information on government regulations, or entrepreneurial inspiration, your goal should be to make the work lives of your target readership just a little bit easier by providing them with actionable insights.


Communicating value to already-existing members

Signing someone up for your association is only half the battle. All associations have to deal with the issue of attrition and it’s been well documented that acquiring a new customer or member is significantly more expensive than retaining an existing customer/member. This is often made more difficult when you’re growing an increasingly diverse membership. To better add and communicate value, many associations have leveraged their blogs, social media accounts, and newsletters to ensure that they reach members where they prefer to engage. 

Promoting your educational and training services

Many professional associations offer regular training sessions, either in person or via live webinar. These sessions, because they cost sometimes hundreds of dollars to participate in, can be major revenue generators for the organization, and I’ve increasingly witnessed association staff promoting them by teasing out related content in the form of articles and blog posts. The most obvious response to this is, “But if I give away the information for free, why would people sign up for the session?” To which I point out that if all your teachings could be easily conveyed in a few blog posts, then your session probably wasn’t worth paying for to begin with.

Elevating the voices of your members

The most effective association marketing involves not only attracting and retaining members, but also converting them into advocates. You’d be surprised to learn how eager your members are to display their own thought leadership and how willing they’d be to sit down for interviews or even craft articles for your organization’s blog. Tapping into this expertise will not only get them more engaged, but it’ll provide free content that’ll aid in attracting ever more members. Once you’ve engaged these members, you’ll know that you’ve gone beyond mere marketing and are providing real value, both to your industry and the economy at large.

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