Content Strategy with Hilary Marsh
In episode 30 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Hilary Marsh discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Hillary. It's great to have you on Mission: Impact.
Hilary Marsh: Thank you. It's so good to be here.
Carol: So I love to start with just finding out what drew you to the work that you do. What motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Hilary: Well, that's a great question. The story of how I got into content strategy, I will leave for another time. But the thing that led me to work with associations on an ongoing basis is that I had worked for a very large association starting in 2005 and I learned. Really that associations are content machines that really the products, programs, services, everything they do manifests itself in the world as content. And so they're, if content is how they show their value and how they do their work, then the better they can do that. The more successful they will be at their goals of attracting and retaining. So that's I guess, my why?
Carol: So, as you mentioned, you focus on content strategy for associations. Can we, can we start with a definition? What exactly is content strategy?
Hilary: Okay. Gosh the first definition I learned back in the day, which was all the way back in 1999 was the content strategy is the who, what, when, where, why and how of publishing content online. So yeah, that's expanded a little bit to be the act of. Planning creating publishing, maintaining and governing content, and specifically for associations, that is content that comes from every department. And so that it wants to make sure that they're part of that, that it's content that's usable, meaning people can use it, that it's useful, meaning that it's relevant to them. And then it's effective, meaning that it's got a clear, explicit and measurable audience, right.
Carol: And how does this relate to content curation? Are they, is that, are they synonyms of each other?
Hilary: Sorta different? And so curation, is that the idea, the notion that well, there's sort of two aspects to it. The first is the content that an association's audiences are looking for. Might be created by the association, or it might be created by another organization. And regardless of who creates it, it's selecting and surfacing the right content. That's going to help the person reach their goal. So I wrote a white paper last year with Elizabeth Engel, which might be why you're asking about curation and certainly Came up then, and back in the day associations were gatekeepers for information. Well, now Google's a gatekeeper, but not right because Google will surface everything. There is. So no one has time to read everything there is, and everything in there isn't necessarily relevant to the person. But what an association can do is select or curious. The content that is relevant. Oh, the other side of that is that because associations do create so much content it's choosing the right things that the association itself creates. So it's not only external things that might be internally created by the association.
Carol: Not just a long list of things that could possibly be of interest, but also giving some context and connecting it to just, as you said before, making it useful and relevant there might be something from another industry, but then it's relevant and, and connecting it with, with a particular audience of that associates.
Hilary: Yeah. So the idea of curation comes from the world of museums. So a museum has a huge storehouse, typically in the back of 2000 artifacts from China. But if they're creating an exhibition about ancient Chinese art, they're not going to show you 2000 artifacts because that's overwhelming. They're going to pick the 10 or 20 or 50 that will best tell the story. And they're going to create labor. That explained why they chose these things, why these things are important, what you can learn from them. And so Elizabeth and I created a content curation maturity ladder. And the top of that maturity ladder is not only choosing the right things, but telling the person why this is relevant to them and how it's going to help them. And that's the unique piece that the association can, can offer really, but it requires skills. It requires people and time, all.
Carol: And I feel like over the course of probably your and my career, we've, we've seen that shift from what you mentioned before of the association as being the sole source of credible information for the field to be in one of mine. And the way that the internet has just opened everything up and enabled individuals, they might be volunteers with that association. They might be the recognized subject matter experts, but then they may have their own platform as well. And I remember. I haven't had conversations with a boss of mine, you know? And he was still in that mindset of, we are the credible source I'm like, but the internet happened. So you need to adjust
Hilary: Well, yeah, part of the things that I often do as part of an association’s content strategy project is to do a comparative audit. So let's look at that. nature and quality of the content that other associations might be creating that serve your audience or other publications or other for-profit audiences. And what I often find is that the association provides content that's better, could be better written and also unbiased. So a for-profit publication. In specific, it is going to have a bias. They're going to have sponsored content. They're going to have content from, from other industry sources who have a vested interest in putting out a specific point of view. And that might not be what the association's members do. Yeah. So the association has a huge opportunity anyway, but they need to do it, they need to create their content or make their content decisions based at least in part on what else their members are seeing and getting.
Carol: So it's almost a matter of Helping members see the distinction or the differential between all the different sources of information and the information and the content that the association has provided. Why would, why, why would you say the content strategy is particularly important to organizations?
Hilary: Well, I mean I don't tend to work with product organizations. I tend to work with content rich organizations. And so if, if all of an association's advocacy work it's courses, it's conferences, it's publications, any initial research, clinical practice guidelines, industry standards, all of that work that the association does is content. And so. Because associations are so busy and prolific, whether it's the staff creating the content, as you mentioned, or volunteers, because they've got so much of it, they tend to just share everything, but nobody can consume everything. And so and not only that and associations deepest subject matter experts don't necessarily have. Practice or training and how to translate or communicate their really good work to an audience who doesn't have the expertise that they have. And so I'm usually good content strategy requires a partnership between people with expertise in a subject matter and people with expertise in, in Producing and sharing, presenting, and sharing content with an audience. That is the work that the association needs to do. It's already, typically at least in the people I see really good on the smart side of creating good, valuable, deep material. But if they don't present it to the audience in a way that shows its relevance, that shows its benefit, people might pass it by where if they only knew how amazing it was, they would use it. They would see it, they would talk about it and they would really see that additional or the maximum value from their association.
Carol: And it's interesting what you were saying in terms of subject matter experts and them being able to, they have deep expertise and knowledge and want to share that. And yet depending on what audience they're, they're talking to, whether, someone. Newer to a field, a more of an emerging professional. I know I was working with subject matter experts and we were putting together workshops and training programs and whenever we were working on the beginner one it was. A struggle for the experts to really be able to hone in on what were those basic things that a beginner needed to know. And they were, and I kept coming back to, we got to do the 80% that happens in your cases. You're fascinated by the 20% or even the 5% of the really interesting, complicated exceptions. But what's the 80% of the cases that beginners are going to be dealing with? And the challenge is of course, from someone with expertise is that they've honestly literally forgotten or it's so embedded in all of those preliminary steps that. They don't even think to mention them. So yeah, it takes another person to help them translate. And, and again, depending on the audience, cause it could be that they're, their audiences of is a very experienced and seasoned group that already knows all this stuff. So going over the basics actually wouldn't be helpful. So you really tailor it
Hilary: So there's jargon involved and so jargon is fine when it's expert to act. Every field has jargon, certainly content strategy itself as a field has plenty of jargon. And, yet to do that translation of the jargon for the people who may not know it, because even someone who is experienced in a profession may be coming to a topic that is new to them. So that's a matter of structuring your content too, so that you're creating. It is sort of in layers so that the person who doesn't even know what they don't know or isn't sure whether this topic is actually what they're looking for can just skim the surface. And those who want to dive more deeper can, can do that. I want to come back to something that I glossed over briefly, which is this idea of success. And often associations think, especially subject matter experts. That success means I published it to a task force, a working group, a committee that thinks content success is that I got it out there. And so I try to help my clients shift the conversation to one of like four with the committee or task force or whoever is creating that content. What do you imagine the impact of this content is going to be, or who's the audience and what we're still do you want to happen and then craft the content explicitly with that result in mind and promote it and publish it with that result in mind because otherwise your content, your website is your file cabinet. Otherwise your website contains everything that you've ever published with. No. Way to make a decision about how long should this stay live or, or why should it come down or what should it be grouped with? So their success metrics, there's, taxonomy that needs to glue content together from different departments and the conversations also then have to provide that goal. From one piece of content to the next, because it is all connected, but the people who work tend to lose sight of that because they have the deep expertise and they have their marching orders and they go forward and create that and they forget to bring it back to that bigger content.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's a great question to ask, first who, who you're doing this for. Who's the audience? And then what, what action do you want them to take? What impact, what results do you want to have happen based on this work? Yeah, it's very easy to get into, we've been giving a charge committee and the last thing is publish. And so check we're done. So, yeah, I appreciate that. You mentioned a term, a taxonomy. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how that plays in?
Hilary: Sure. Taxonomy is a very daunting sounding term, but it's actually pretty clear and straightforward. It's basically tagging whether it's tagging content for an audience or tagging content by a topic because Computer systems are not smart. So a computer system can't know that a term that has a slightly different spelling or a slightly different variation is actually the same as another term or another audience grouping. That's sorta different. So you have to make one single list of all the terms for your topics, for your audience groupings, for your locations, anything else that, that somebody might need to group or sort that content by so that they can create they can create related links, they can filter, filter and sort on search all those other kinds of things that will connect the content. If you're interested in this, you might also like that. And so in the, yeah. Awesome.
Carol: So, what would you say gets in the way of an organization having an effective content strategy? Oh
Hilary: gosh. The first thing is that people don't know each other, they don't talk to each other and they don't they don't work in those bigger contexts. So they, they. think beyond the goal of getting something successfully published. They don't, they don't know their audience as well. So they think they know their audiences. And I think associations have a particular challenge in this term of audience because of the committee structure. So when you have a volunteer who has worked really hard, or a group of volunteers, really, who worked really hard to give back to the profession to serve on standing committees for years, often, many years, and work closely with the association staff to determine initiatives, programs, all of that. They forget what it's like to be a regular. What do they call them? Checkbook members who just join, pays peripheral attention to the association and then goes on with their lives. And those people are not your focus group. They're not your typical average member and they can't be your audience anymore. So how do we engage them? Rest of the staff, all the people who create content, the volunteers for that matter too, in remembering who it is we're creating content for. And what is their life like? What is the context that those people live in, that our content fits into where people think that the audience is just sitting around waiting for their content or for their program or for their. Offering and we see it in how it's manifested. Right. We see the email newsletters that say, guess what? We have a new video. Okay. That's nice. How is it going to help me? How's it going to help me make more money? How's it going to help me advance in my profession or do what it is that I need to do? Everyone is self centered and that's not a bad thing. It's just the reality that we work from our own lens and our own perspective.
Carol: Yeah. So even taking the step from here's our new video to just telling people what the topic of the video is, is a step forward, gives them gifts. It gives people a chance to say, am I interested in that or not?
Hilary: Well, and, and, sometimes people go a little far, the more marketing focused people in the world will have the 10 steps to make more money from this video approach. And I don't really recommend that, but, but why did you decide to create this video? Oh, we decided to create this video to retrace our steps. We decided to create this video because somebody has got something to say really? Why does, why would someone care about that thing to say, well, because what they're, what they've gone through, somebody else can learn from, oh, now tell me more, and getting to the root of why that content was created in the first place and that passion for whatever it is, not only the content, but the initiative that it's part of that, really is that passion.
Carol: And you mentioned in, in what you were talking about the sense of people working in isolation, or maybe they're on a small team, a committee, a task force, or a department within an organization, but not, not necessarily being aware of the wider context that all of this information is being offered to, that member that, that may or may not open that, that email newsletter.
Hilary: Right. So that's really sort of an old, older fashioned way of thinking, back before the internet existed, that was all that people could do. Every department, I used to draw the lanes with my hands and every department had its own sense of the audience and created and delivered content to that audience independently. Cause that's all we could really do. And maybe it came together in a print newsletter, but, but maybe it was, they were a collection of separate brochures or a collection of separate things. And when the internet came along, Those differences really became that much more apparent. And not only that with the ongoing digital world that we live in, people expect a seamless transition from your website to the phone, to an email, to video social media. They expect all of that to just mesh and, and in order to deliver that unified omni-channel experience. You have to be unified internally too. And not only that people have to have the skills to, to take their raw subject matter expert and take at least part of the translation to that user benefit forward. So they need time for that and skills. So it's not only that people aren't willing. To communicate, which is certainly part of organizational culture. It's that there, they don't have time and they're not rewarded or motivated for behaving in that way, because of that sort of older fashioned ways that many associations are even structured, they're structured by, by a content type in a way. And then they're budgeted by content type too. So a lot of it is about how people are.
Carol: So a website, a web team, a publishing team, a training team, a conference team. They're all working separately and yeah, I've definitely been in those conversations trying to cut across those, those departmental lines to come up with a comprehensive or a unified just starting with that word. Taxonomy. I, I worked in an organization where I. I don't know how long, maybe two years before with sporadic meetings to try to finally come to an agreement around how we were gonna, what the list of words were and the terms, and, and some have some commonality across how people were using it in, in all of those different varieties of service offerings or products. Products, programs, et cetera.
Hilary: And everyone is doing their best to do an amazing job. And they don't, it's just a new approach. And the organization has to be clear that we want this new approach for the benefit of them.
Carol: And, folks, folks often talk about tearing down silos, but the truth is you're always going to have some sub organization, some ways that you organize staff. If you're beyond five, 10 people And there are lots of different ways to do that. And it could be by, the old, old way would have been, the training department and the conference department and the publishing department and the advocacy department. But even if you were to say organize it by parts of your member audience, you still end up with divisions. And so you just still then have to create some. Cross cutting work groups that actually have the people see value in that can produce something that has some authority to, to, bring that comprehensive and unified thing together.
Hilary: So part of that's a question of tools. I mean, a shared content calendar goes a really long way. But it has to be required. So you have to make sure that people put in the shared calendar, whether it's a spreadsheet, a Google calendar, Trello, I mean, there's an infinite number of tools for that. But that people put their content in there and they then are, would have to look and see, oh, who else is publishing content on my same topic. So it could be a topical work. And so that if you're creating a course about a topic that you make sure to look in the magazine, to see what articles they've done on that topic, or look and see the advocacy on that topic, et cetera, et cetera, because why reinvent the wheel? So it's a matter of efficiency and also member benefit, for sure.
Carol: So what would you say helps an organization be successful in this area?
Hilary: Yeah. Can you ask, like, so content strategy is figuring it out, right? So you're figuring out who are top priority audiences. What do they want from us? What are we delivering? What's missing? And then how do we, how do we address that? It's figuring out the content life cycles or success metrics. It's putting the tools and communication and HR stuff in place so that people who will have these responsibilities that it's explicit. And it's not something that folks are supposed to do in their spare time, because we all know that no one has any spare time to do it in. And it's also that it becomes operational, that it becomes part of the way things work. In the association, the roles and responsibilities for content creation, planning creation, as I said, publishing promotion maintenance, an expiration that all of that is known and that everybody understands their part in that. And it becomes clear and part of how things work, you also need. So this is all called content governance and governance is such a tricky word and association because it has that whole other meaning, but in the bigger world, it's called content governance or digital governance and operations. So operations are, yeah, it actually happened. So not only writing down, like when I left. Content strategy back in the day, I thought you create a document and you're done and magically, it just happens. And the more I do the work, the more I realize that the document or the rules or guidelines and policies and all that are just the beginning of figuring out how to put them in place so that people know what they are. Understand that they have the trust in their colleagues. All of that is operations. So that's what's required to be successful. So I wrote that I did a study a couple of years ago for the ASAE foundation with Dina Lewis and Carrie Hayne about content strategy, adoption and maturity in associations. And we found associations of all sizes and natures, whether it's trade or professional. There's a lot of associations doing various amounts of content strategy work, and we grouped them into a maturity model. So when we learned that there are different levels of work going on, we looked to see whether the associations were doing more. Had things in common than those who were doing a medium amount or, or only a little. And, we did find that there are differences and it gets to culture. It gets closer. It gets to how operational your content is. And it gets to do the collaboration level, right? Because organizations who are at that more advanced level already know, oh, well, this is. All mine to do is figure out what I need to work. And I want to work with those people over there who have the companion expertise to mind. And that's what it's going to take for my program together. The impact and reach that it deserves.
Carol: Yeah. I think that shift that you talked about I thought was just writing down the plan and having the, the, the shared calendar, but really it's about shifting towards a more collaborative work culture which can, can be a big shift in house. How organizations work together. And so being able, and, and then exactly what you talked about that trust that needs to be built so that those staff division barriers will come down and people will share and coordinate and collaborate. It's really important. Well, I like to end each episode where I play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So, which piece are you when you play monopoly? This of course assumes that you play monopoly. Oh my
Hilary: gosh. I haven't played monopoly since I was a kid.
Carol: Well, which one do you remember what you used to pay? I,
Hilary: I'm sorry. I do not.
Carol: I think it's a, the top hat and the dog and the shoe. I think there's an old fashioned car. So, what would you choose today?
Hilary: Let's say, whew. All right, cute. They're cute. And they go, they go neatly from, from square to square.
Carol: So neatly from square to square. I wouldn't say that the monopoly, she was particularly cute, but so what's, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Hilary: Well, I was thrilled to also do a chapter also with Dina Lewis. Latest edition of professional practices and association management. And that makes me so happy to see you. The prospect of content strategy incorporated and adopted by even more associations. So I was really excited about that in terms of what's next. I'm working with an association now to try it. Really get to the bottom of these very thorny questions about things like what the audience needs is this content filling, which is a very difficult question for them. And a very difficult question for lots of associations. And I'm, I'm always excited to do that work with an association, help them know the answer to that. So that next time when they are creating more content, they already do it with that information in mind. Yeah.
Carol: All right.
Hilary: Well, thank you. And just thanks. No, just joined the summer and hook, getting back maybe to normal.
Carol: Maybe it will say time. We'll see. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on. Thanks a lot.
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I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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