Content in Practice: Hilary Marsh on content strategy for associations

These organizations have unique content challenges

  • By Blaine Kyllo
  • |
  • Apr 2 2019
  • |
  • Categories: Podcasts

On the Content in Practice podcast, Hilary Marsh (Twitter, LinkedIn) talks about the unique content context of associations and non-profits and the content challenges they face.

A transcript of this podcast is below. Music used in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.

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Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.

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Associations are everywhere. These are the organizations that represent members of a community whether they are individuals or part of a trade or industry association. They exist to provide a connection between birds of a feather and they are often created to promote the interests of members, to provide an opportunity for collegiality and learning, and even to ensure standards of practice are adhered to.

Managing content operations in associations is an interesting challenge simply because of how associations are structured. In an association with members, who is accountable for the content and the decisions about content?

Hilary Marsh (Twitter, LinkedIn) has been providing her content strategy expertise to associations and non-profits for years. From 2007 to 2001 she was the managing director of the website for the National Association of Realtors and since then has worked with clients including the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Association of Convenience Stores.

In the work she’s been doing, Hilary recognized that the standard definition of content strategy was missing something. On the phone from Chicago, she explained her rationale for adding a word after telling me her revised definition.


Hilary Marsh: “The planning and judgment for the creation, publication, dissemination and governance of useful, usable, effective content, across departments and functional areas.”

So that “effective” piece is the new word that I added, because I feel like something might be really great, it’s useful. It might be usable in terms of how we create it. And effective is adding the explicit audience and goal to be able to be measured.

Not only do we have to know that there’s an audience there, we have to set some goals for the content. And those goals have to be clear, and measurable, and business focused. So, the goals have to be about, not how many hits on the page, but why do we have this content? Which gets to the heart of why we have the program that the content is about. That information is there in our heads, why we have this program, but it’s not always explicitly clear to the audience.

So, it’s making all that implicit stuff clear and obvious, so they can get that “a-ha!” moment and they can get the lightbulb, and think, “Yes, this is the thing I have been missing. I didn’t even know it.”

Blaine Kyllo: That’s super critical. It’s almost, “Why didn’t we think to include that before?”

Hilary: When I added it, I was like, “Oh, of course.” It was just an oversight that it wasn’t there already.

Blaine: Well, it’s an iterative process.

Hilary: One of the other words that I tend to use to describe the nature of the content strategy work that I do is, “ecosystem”. There’s a way in which an organization is like a department store or like an ecosystem. There’s a reason that we don’t just offer one thing, whether it’s a corporation or any of that. And it’s certainly true in associations.

Why does the association have a certification program? A meeting? Government advocacy work? A magazine? Various discounts? Because since we already have that audience here, they need more than one thing and they’re already looking to us for that. Let’s expand our offering.

And those things are connected. Because collectively, they add up to a positive experience with the organization, continued payment of their membership dues to continue to be a member. And ideally more use of the things that the staff is fully engaged in creating. So, then it’s a win-win. The member gets more value, the organization keeps people and gets more people using the things that it offers.

So that ecosystem model, and helping people see that there’s a reason that we exist collectively and not just as individual companies or organizations is a good thing.


In the past year, Hilary has been working with Carrie Hane, and Dina Lewis on a research project studying content strategy adoption and maturity in associations. Sponsored by the ASAE Foundation, which is an association for associations, the final report will be coming out later in 2019.

One of the things they did was interview association CEOs to ask what content strategy success looks like from their perspective.


Hilary: One of them said that she knows that content strategy is successful when the organizations programs are more successful. I think that explanation and understanding did an amazing job at tying in the content about an organization’s offerings – products, services, programs, resources, tools, information, all of that – to the business outcomes that it’s about.

A lot of times, especially in associations, content is about our work. Not even about our work, it is our work. It represents our work. And that CEO who talked about she knew when content strategy was working when the organization’s work is more successful, I love that tie in.

Blaine: So, there was an understanding that content, the intent of that content, was to drive program adoption.

Hilary: Not only to drive it, because something that Kathy Wagner often says is that there’s core content and promotional content, and I think that she [the CEO] was talking about not just the promotional content but the core stuff. Which is the content of the program.

So not only, “How are we promoting this offering we have, but how are we talking about the offering once we get people to that content?” How do we get them to use that program. Again, it’s not promoting it, but it’s describing what it is. And having the language and the portrayal of that offering there to let people take advantage of it.

Blaine: Even the way we talk about programs and explain them to audiences, if you do that better, you’ll have better program participation.

Hilary: And the connection there is that the people who are working on the program remember that the program isn’t for them, even though they are so smart and have such deep expertise and they understand the context of the program. The audience doesn’t. They’re busy living their lives. And if they’re going to interrupt their lives and discover and be able to use something that may well make their lives better, then that thing has to do a good job of showing itself as why it’s better and why you should add this to your plate and take advantage of this thing, whatever it is.


This is critical, because associations depend on their content. Hilary says that associations are content machines because content is what they do.


Hilary: Whether it’s a discount on a car rental. What is that? It’s text on a page talking about it and a link to go sign up. But if it’s buried seven levels deep, if you’re writing about it in the code or jargon of whatever it is rather than in language that is clear to people, then you’re not really helping your program be as successful as it should be.

Which is why that “effective” piece is so important. “Effective” is asking the questions: who’s this for and what does success look like? So, if we spend 7 months producing the 64-page PDF and 12 people look at it, is that good? Who’s it for? Why are we doing it? Why are we investing our time and what is it we expect to happen as a result?


One of the big challenges in an association is managing the home page of its website. This is something Hilary has first-hand experience with.


Hilary: Because associations, the way they work, is that a department comprised of staff members develops a program at the request, and with the guidance, from a committee of member volunteers. I used to work for the National Association of Realtors. The member volunteers are real estate agents. They’re not professional lobbyists or advocacy people or meeting planners. They have an interest in one topic area or another and they are willing to volunteer their time, but their expertise is real estate sales. Or running a real estate business.

So, they guide the association on how the association can best represent their interests or offer things that would be of benefit to the agents who might work for them, or to them, or to the profession of real estate agents. So, the department of staff people who are charged with putting on that event, or doing that government advocacy work, or all the other things that the association might offer, producing that magazine. It’s hand-in-glove in partnership with this committee of member volunteers. Or multiple committees sometimes.

Because of that relationship, departments in an association tend to be looking outward at their own committee rather than horizontally across other departments. And it’s kind of hard to build those cross relationships when you’re so busy focused on your accountability to the committee. Because everybody is working independently, for good reason with the dynamics of the association, it’s really hard to pull people back, bring them together, determine what the organization’s priorities are, and how their work and their particular initiative fits into the organizations’ overall priority.

Everybody will say, “Mine is number one. Mine is the thing that members join for. Mine is the thing that’s going to keep the profession safe. Mine is the thing that’s amazing for whatever reason.”

The other story I want to share with you is one association that had gotten a new CEO – young, really dynamic guy, he’s well known in the profession for being an innovative thinker – and what he did was put that focus in place from the top. So, everybody knew, these are the organization’s priorities in order. So, the person in charge of the website wasn’t asking those questions for the first time of his peers, or people who ranked higher than him in the organization.

Everyone knew the answer to, “What goes on the homepage today?” Because there was a priority framework for that. That eliminated tonnes of internal conflict that arises when that kind of overall understanding isn’t there.

Blaine: Is that something you see frequently with associations? That there may not be business goals set at that high level?

Hilary: Unfortunately not. I will tell you at the association I worked for, their strategic goals were so broad, and they weren’t prioritized. So, it’s not that each individual program didn’t have its own goals. But when it came time to decide, “What’s the most important thing for us to highlight today?” That means that the answer can only be one thing. That means everything else is not the most important thing to highlight today and people didn’t really like that. Because their particular interest was in defending and highlighting their work. What they were working on. I respect that. I understand where they’re coming from, but everything can’t be number one.

Everything can’t be what we highlight on social media today, what we highlight in the newsletter, what we highlight on the home page. So that priority means looking across everything and, again, they’re not familiar with doing that and so it’s really hard.

Unless I can say, “Here’s my success from my work,” and especially if that’s what I’m rewarded for, then I don’t care about anybody else’s success. I only care about the success of my piece of it.

The other thing that we really found in our research, and it was so interesting to get some numbers behind what we three consultants have always known, is how closely content strategy success is tied to culture. We ended up with a maturity model, and in this maturity model, the most advanced content strategy practices in an association involved collaboration, support, all kinds of team set-ups and team planning and councils and joint efforts.

And that speaks as much to culture as it does to the content that comes out of any program. So, it’s culture in terms of planning content together. We’re deciding as a team which content we’re going to put on the home page today. Or how we describe our organization, whether that’s under the niche of your department’s stuff, or that one, or that one. It’s more of an “us” approach. That can’t really happen in a culture that’s competitive.

Blaine: That’s an interesting insight, this idea that content strategy is by its very nature, collaborative.

Hilary: Right, because it’s not the program’s content strategy, it’s the association’s content strategy.

And thats why understanding – these are the conversations I end up having a lot – understanding the context of the audience, the context of each program in the organization’s world and in the audience’s world is so critically important to understand. And by understand, I don’t mean “me”, I don’t mean the web director, I don’t mean each person, I mean collectively.

Blaine: It’s not dissimilar to trying to break down silos in any large organization.

Hilary: I’m working right now with a nursing association. And I’ve really been grappling with how to help them publish their content in a topic structure that makes sense. Part of it is that I’m not a medical surgical nurse. I don’t understand the nuances of the actual content as it relates to somebody’s work.

They had an amazing lightbulb this week. An amazing realization that part of the reason we’re having this challenge is because one source of content describes the topics “this way” and a different source describes them differently, and neither of those really are how a typical nurse would talk about or look for that information.

So, where I suspect they’re going to go, and I was so happy that they are the ones who told that to me after lots of probing questions, versus me telling it to them. Since they had the realization, that means that they can help adjust the content sources that people are using to educate themselves, to get certification, to ask questions in a community, so that it’s all common. And once it’s all common, then we can do a lot more with it in terms of connecting information, connecting topics, and helping people discover what they want regardless of what path they start in.

Blaine: One of the things that you said earlier was how people who work in associations often find themselves accountable to volunteer committees that provide the guidance when it comes to developing programs. Do you find that often in some associations the volunteers are also the ones expected to create the content?

Hilary: That varies. In the realtor association world that I lived in when I worked for the National Association of Realtors, they almost never do. Sometimes, but not very often. One of the first clients I had when I left the association world was called HIMSS, Healthcare Information and Management System Society. Health care IT. And in their instance, the members were, and the member task forces and workgroups, were creating plenty of the content. The American Bar Association members create a lot of the content. So, it varies. It really varies a lot from one to another.

Blaine: In those organizations where they do rely on volunteers, how difficult is it to get those volunteers to align to the standards that the association needs? I can imagine it’s difficult to say, “Hey, you’re giving us this for free, but you have to jump through all these hoops and follow all these standards.”

Hilary: Not only that. What about when it comes time to update it? So, in the nursing association I’m working with now, I’m really waiting, I don’t feel ready yet to produce firm governance guidelines, for exactly that reason.

Their nurses are producing a lot of the clinical content, which is great, and it’s good, smart stuff. But then they need to back to their day jobs and move on. Or create more content about new topics. So how do you keep content up-to-date or assign somebody else to go review it so that it stays current and somebody else using that information can know that they can rely on that. How do we do that? I think that it’s me asking the questions and them trying to figure out. I can’t tell them, “All your content has to be reviewed twice a year.”

So, if we can’t do that, then maybe the answer is produce less so that you can put that kind of stamp of approval, a “last reviewed” date on everything so that it is something that another member coming in to read can know they can rely on, because it’s current.

Blaine: You mentioned something in our earlier conversation about trying to keep committees out of the execution of things. Let them participate in “what” needs to happen but not “how”.

Hilary: That’s true of staff people as well. So, if this is a partnership. If all of this is, ultimately, a partnership between a member and a staff person, between a subject matter expert and a content expert, there are so many different kinds of partnerships that successful content strategy requires, then everybody has to understand their part of the partnership. And ultimately, once they really get that they can trust the other partner in the relationship to further their goals and their mission, they can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to doing what they’re innately good at.

Ultimately, a committee person who’s a real estate agent or a lawyer or a doctor or whatever profession they’re in, is volunteering to take their expertise and use that to contribute ideas or guidance to the association that represents thousands of other people like them in the same career, in the same profession.

But since they are not professional meeting planners, their job is guidance, not execution of the meeting. They should leave the hotel logistics to an expert in that, or the meeting date decisions to an expert in that. Or the particular speakers who are speaking on topics to people who live in that world.

Then if the dynamic of the staff-member connection is such that the staff needs to have the blessing of the committee, that’s different. But it’s ultimately not helpful for the committee person to get their hands too dirty in the execution, and by the same token there’s that same kind of relationship between subject matter experts and content experts.

So, if you’re an expert in some area within the association, that doesn’t mean you should decide what’s the headline. Because you’re not a content expert. And there needs to be trust that everybody’s goal is in getting the program known, understood, appreciated, and used. It’s everyone’s joint goal. So, again, not conflict, but cooperation and collaboration for the common end.