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Why content marketing DOES work for associations

Apparently, content marketing doesn't work for associations. We're here to tell you otherwise.

A recent blog post by a Washington-based digital strategist Maggie McGary (on her blog Mizz Information) has caused a bit of a stir in the association publishing industry, and may just highlight how well Australian associations are doing things in comparison to their US counterparts.

The post in question was entitled 3 reasons why content marketing doesn’t work for associations, and was in response to a presentation on what associations are doing wrong in content marketing, by CMI’s Joe Pulizzi at the ASAE’s Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference (a presentation that, by the blogger’s own admission, she didn’t attend).

Of course, the content marketing that associations implement may well be much more developed in Australia than it is in the US, and Maggie may well be on the money when it comes to content marketing not working for associations in the States.

But, the reasons she gave for content marketing not working in associations are not reflective of the Australian market. Here’s why.


McGary says associations usually have silos for marketing and communications, and the two ‘are almost guaranteed to be totally separate’, making it impossible to implement content marketing across the two. In our experience, this is not the case. Fifteen or 20 years ago, maybe.

Marketing and communications now commonly fall under the remit of the same person (in many cases someone who’s come from a big corporate – in our clientele we’re working with people who’ve worked in very senior positions in Westpac, Telstra and Nokia, to name but a few).

It’s argued that, in the author’s experience, these silos make it difficult to implement a single content marketing strategy.

This just isn’t an issue for the clients we work with. Their communications are part of their marketing, and the two work well together – much more so than some corporates we’ve worked with. By having visibility across – and access to – the teams organising conferences, membership and events, for example, we can create content that drives people to engage with each segment of the association.

Even for some associations that do have legacy structures that separate marketing and communications, the opportunity is to help educate them to move towards a restructure. In reality, this is a lot more achievable for an association that would typically employ around 20 to 50 people in a head office than for a much larger corporate.


McGary writes: ‘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.’

A lack of money to spend on good CRMs and marketing automation software, and of the relevant skills to implement this technology is bemoaned.

Firstly, a successful, sophisticated marketing strategy doesn’t happen because of technology. Technology can help it along, of course, but the original, clever and innovative thinking has to be there in the first place – and this comes down to both the quality of the internal staff and the teams they work with externally.

As discussed before, the silos of marketing over there and comms over here that (according to McGary) typify US associations aren’t as common in Australia, and this helps greatly when devising the marketing strategy.

When it comes to money, a lack of cash to ‘spend’ on technology isn’t a scenario confined to associations. Being able to build a business case to show the investment, rather than the spend, is key here. The same principles apply whether you’re dealing with a big corporate or a small association – show the ROI. If it’s not going to have a pay-off – be that increase revenue or cost savings – then it’s not going to pass muster.

An investment in software – be that marketing automation or anything else – may seem big on the surface, but how many conference registrations do we have to sell for it to become effective? How many new members do you need to attract? Is that realistic? If so, it is genuinely an investment, not a cost. And, crucially, you can prove it.

There is a hunger, a desire among associations in Australia to test, experiment and try out new things. A few associations that we work with are having tremendous success with LinkedIn as a platform on which to build a long-term relationship with prospects, before feeding them into their membership system. Content discovery platforms are also being talked about for associations who want to increase their reach, especially when raising their consumer-facing profile and, coming back to marketing automation software, we are currently using Hubspot for one of our clients.

The most important thing when looking to introduce any technology is this: you need to know what the problem you want to solve is before you implement the technology. The client who we’re using Hubspot with knows the three things it needs to achieve – and Hubspot can help us with this. This is an investment, not a cost, because if the program is successful the additional income will far exceed Hubspot spend.

Staff skillsets

‘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,’ writes McGary.

Again, we may have differences between the US and Australia here, because in Oz, this is patently untrue and actually rather condescending. As I mentioned earlier, the calibre of marketers heading up the marketing and comms in associations is generally top notch. There’s no one we work with in a marketing role who’s been there for 10 years, never mind 20, and the majority have been recruited from corporate land.

McGary’s accusation that the majority of associations are implementing a ‘rinse and repeat’ email and print strategy is mind boggling; if it’s true in the US it’s certainly not true here.

‘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,’ says McGary.

Associations that we work with are some of the most adventurous and open to take a risk; in a lot of instances it’s a lot easier to get a project approved by an association’s board that the layers of bureaucracy that riddle corporates.

Of course, no company – and association or corporate, a for profit or not for profit – has all of the in-house skills you need to do everything. That’s why they rely on suppliers – such as content marketing agencies – to do some of those things for them. There’s no shame in that, and it actually provides some fantastic opportunities.

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