Managing the Message
Association media groups are incorporating marketing communications with traditional content delivery strategies for a much more powerful voice of advocacy.
Whether by realizing cost efficiencies or by having a better understanding of the power of a media group’s ability to market an association’s mission to its membership, or both, nonprofits have been merging the various communications efforts with their media teams to create a more powerful advocacy platform. Some of this reorganization was a byproduct of the recession. Other organizations are quickly realizing that a coordinated effort between a media group’s traditional role as an information provider and that of a press relations and marketing group can have a much greater impact in the market, membership growth and advertising revenue.
MORE CONTENT, MORE IMPACT
“The primarily the goal of the media properties is to provide information that’s impactful for our members,” says Shelagh Daly Miller, vice president and group publisher at AARP Media. “We’re one of the primary sources of information for the members. We’re keeping the lines of communication open.”
Impact is the key word there. For AARP, the media group has been building a robust, multiplatform media operation in an effort to surround its members with content, no matter what their consumption habits are. This has also increased the variety of advertising opportunities for marketing partners. “Our job is also to drive revenue,” adds Daly Miller. ”There’s no secret about that. It offsets the cost of AARP being able to provide members with these media channels.”
But the revenue is not just a cost-offset, she notes. “The more revenue we can drive, the more robust the content can be.”
In PIB numbers—which don’t factor in the often steep discounting publishers allow off rate card ad pricing— Daly Miller says revenues between January and June 2015 were around $76 million. She also says that AARP does not discount as heavily as other publishers, so that figure is close to actual.
The revenue creates a virtuous circle that gradually builds and expands AARP’s advocacy message. “By securing ad pages we’re able to create larger publications that have more pages of content,” she says.
And the ability to create more content feeds into the organization’s ability to grow its influence. “The publications and the website tie into the goals of the organization,” she says. “And that’s mainly growing impact and relevance. So it’s important that we’re relevant and our media properties can create some impact.”
MERGING MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS
This concept was driven home at the American Legion as well, where prior to the recession the media group was
home to about four distinct media properties: a magazine, a newspaper, a convention guide and a standalone annual print supplement.
In only the past eight years, that has grown into more than 50 media products and channels, says Jeff Stoffer, director, American Legion marketing, media & communications division.
“A recent phenomenon, particularly in my job,” he says, “is that as we have made this shift from print to digital. We’ve had some success and learning, but the success we’ve had is driving the understanding that we need to marry up the different aspects of our business. From direct mail to corporate relationships and strategic alliances. The era of an advertiser buying an ad in the magazine is still there, but they’re not looking to put an ad in your media property as much as they are trying to build a relationship with your audience. So it begs the question: What is the marketing mix we produce?”
That dynamic puts the entire organization’s mission—and its ability to promote its core message to the members and beyond—on the table. “With advertising you could pretty much write a boilerplate ad contract agreement, but when you’re working in relationships, you have to tailor so much of your organization’s identity to match up with what the other party’s interests are with your identity,” says Stoffer.
But the rubber hit the road when the American Legion, which counts 2.2 million members and a 3.2 million overall readership, integrated its communications and PR teams with the media division.
“We were basically in the business of doing media outreach along with traditional PR functions and there was no sensible reason to have those divisions siloed up,” says Stoffer. “In order to get the economy out of it, you had to combine resources. So we brought those into the magazine group to have consistency of brand delivery, messaging and operating procedures. So we became marketing, media and communications and that’s when our division started getting the strategic alliances and corporate relationships.”
That trifecta excelled during the veterans health administration scandal in 2014 when it was revealed that vets had been dying while waiting for care at a VA facility. The story broke on CNN, but Stoffer says the American Legion, which is a prominent voice for veterans, immediately took to social media to promote the message that the veterans health system was broken and called for the resignation of the secretary of Veterans Affairs. From there, the media and communications teams coordinated press conferences and kept members up-to-date with newsletters and the website. By the time the magazine was printed, Stoffer was able to follow all that up with in-depth analysis of all the fallout.
“We used all of our instruments of media in a very coordinated way to deal with that prominent issue and continued it over the year to come,” he says.
Stoffer’s main takeaway from that period was the multiplatform approach and the importance each platform contributed to the overall success.
“Everyone was looking at the rise of digital media as an opportunity for not having to pay for paper and printing,
but they all have their uses and have to be deployed in the correct measures to make the association’s message resonate with A) members, B) those eligible for membership, and C) the general public, which improves our perception.
“We were into the hundreds of millions of eyeballs on our brands. That goes a long way to shifting the perception of the American Legion as a place where someone got married or whatever. The interest in our brands has grown substantially and this has all come out of integrating our messaging with our content delivery teams.”
SMALL STEPS, BIG IMPACT
This same conclusion is also unfolding at the American Association of University Women. The organization represents about 100,000 members and supporters, says Elizabeth Bolton, associate director of art, editorial and media, and the media team has been exploring ways to more closely integrate with marketing and communications.
“We’re on both sides of the coin, the strategic communication side and the reactive communication side. We’ve come a long way in the last few years,” she says.
A variety of factors contributed to the gradual merging of media and communications, but a website redesign and a new leadership team were catalysts. Throughout, however, was a need to develop a new strategy to grow the association’s younger membership segment. “We have an aging member base,” says Bolton. “A big question mark was about who we were supposed to cultivate. Career women are busy, baby boomers are ready to come back, but what about all the young folks? How do we get them excited?”
A website redesign in 2013 sparked greater cooperation between the media and marketing teams, says Bolton.
“The web team took it as a chance to very smartly ask what the point of the website was. Why were we doing that if we were not going to put it into the media strategy?”
But even before those considerations were being made, a new leadership team that took over in 2008 put a premium on communications and outreach. “Rather than being an ad hoc communications division, reacting to program needs, they wanted to professionalize it by making the branding tighter and that allowed us to step up.”
That led to distinct social media, website and marketing roles, which, at the onset were kept separate from the media group. Gradual lobbying led to more cooperation and tighter integration between the groups and their messaging. “One of the big battles we had to fight was convincing our research team that we had to be more deliberate about putting the research on the website and giving it away,” says Bolton. “They were into one-pagers and PDFs and we wanted to put the findings right on the page. Suddenly, we had 600 percent growth in traffic.”
That research led to pickups by Vox Media and Huffington Post, bringing even more exposure to the association.
It’s a small example, but it became central to the group’s approach to market going forward. “Everything we do now, and we’re an organization that does a lot, is trying to figure out how to make this appeal more broadly.”
Bolton is exploring more media partnerships, and while ad revenue is not a factor for the AAUW, the broader exposure the content is driving is helping to boost membership.