Why I Got Bourbon at Association Laboratory’s Content Summit

I knew we’d properly curated our Association Laboratory Content Strategy Summit audience when one of the first attendees to arrive walks up to me, says “Hi, thanks for the invitation.”, and proceeds to hand me a small bottle of Makers Mark bourbon (potential sponsor?).

On October 23, Association Laboratory produced the Association Content Strategy Summit. We had a great group of association CEOs and senior executives. Here’s a quick wrap up of some of the key lessons.

Associations Do Not Control Content Production, Vetting or Distribution

The financial and communication barriers to content creation and distribution are effectively nonexistent. The result? A glut of content.

Association Laboratory produced the Association Content Strategy Summit because data from our global environmental scan of the association business environment, Looking Forward (access HERE), clearly shows association leaders are struggling with content strategy. Consider the percentage of association leaders somewhat or very concerned about the following issues.

  • 80% – Producing relevant content
  • 75% – Meeting members’ expectations of content quality
  • 79% – Content digitization, organization and management
  • 81% – Customizing information for different delivery channels

Association Content Strategy Must Deal with Competitors

Associations are producing content in a highly competitive environment.

The following graph shows the content competitors on the minds of association leaders. 


A wide variety of organizations are producing content, much of it very good. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

The fact that so many association leaders were attending a content strategy event produced by a for-profit organization (Association Laboratory) was evidence of this fact.




Know Your Audience and What’s Relevant to Them (not you)

The bourbon was just the first example of this lesson. The content (bourbon) was personally relevant to me. It met my needs because of the medicinal properties necessary for my role as Master of Ceremonies through the day. It was delivered in a convenient, accessible package.

Identifying and understanding your audience was a critical theme. It was constantly repeated by every speaker throughout the day. From in-depth research to the communication of audience segments via personas or other techniques, understanding the audience was critical to success.

Quick tip. One way to know your audience is through a Voice of the Member Program. Check out how we do it HERE.

The Best Way to Identify What’s Relevant to Your Audience is to Listen

Mark Dorsey, CEO of the Construction Specifications Institute made the case that associations need to shift from a publishing model to a “listening” model. Only by developing systems to hear what members are talking about and why can you develop relevant, responsive content.

He reminded us that “Hearing is passive, listening is active and requires skill.”.

Mark also introduced the concept of an adaptive listening strategy. Your members talk, you listen, you adjust content. Members react to content, they talk, you listen, adjust content. Repeat.

Sidebar: Mark also demonstrated the key point “know your audience”, the night before, Mark introduced me to a wonderful little whiskey, Whistlepig, The Boss Hog IV (another sponsor?). Friends don’t let friends drink terrible booze. Thanks Mark.

Susan Partain, Senior Editor at the American Public Power Association (APPA) highlighted the theory of listening with a great case study on how her association used a social media listening strategy to improve the relevance of their content.

Historically, the APPA had a self-focused, platform-centric and, “wonky” approach that limited access, lacked metrics and didn’t deal with competition.

The team at APPA implemented an aggressive listing campaign via social media and member communities.

The result?

  • More accessible content
  • Increased member engagement
  • Greater visibility for the association
  • Increased staff engagement in and ownership of content
  • Increased advertising revenue

Well done Susan. Also a shout out to Meena Dyak at APPA who, while not presenting, participated in the original program development. Thanks Meena.

Chris Durso, Associate Vice President of Content for MCI USA provided insight into another, perhaps forgotten method for producing relevant content, the face to face event.

His client, the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) wanted to better serve corporate members — meaning institutions such as hotel companies and supplier partners as well as universities.

HSMAI created a new Organizational Membership category — including a foundational benefit called Curate, an Executive Insights Forum where high-level conversations among attendees offer insights that guide content production.

The live events produced relevant content for future discussions as well as an intimate event designed to create engagement with key member representatives.

His lessons from the strategy?

  • Less is more — Curate events need more breathing room, white space, and opportunities for serendipity.
  • Live is sacred — Curate needs to better take advantage of having gotten so many high-level professionals to commit to a day out of the office.

Great presentation, thanks Chris.

Assess Your Content Culture and the Association’s Content Strategy Maturity

Hilary Marsh, President and Chief Strategist, Content Company did a great job talking about the necessity of a content culture. A good content culture allows everyone in your association to work together more effectively. She also had great insights into assessing your content strategy maturity and provide attendees with a quick assessment tool. Every attendee left with a worksheet they could take home to assess their model and sample agreements to use when formalizing content strategy.

Hilary Marsh Lays Down the Insight

Two great quotes from Hilary stood out.

“Content is the way our work is manifested in the world.”

Good content strategy means “the right content, to the right person at the right time for the right action”.



She also outlined some key principles to guide content strategy.

  • The organization creates content that audiences want
  • The organization creates content that helps it meet its goals
  • Content has success metrics and is measured against those metrics
  • Content that is no longer relevant is no longer available
  • Content is promoted, surfaced, and cross-linked based on its topic, not its source
  • Content is created in the organization’s voice
  • The organization manages content platforms, tools, and channels in a way that ensures their effectiveness

There was, of course, much more, but it’s a blog not a book. Thanks Hilary and well done.

Create a Compelling Narrative Around Your Content

Jill Andreu, a well-known subject matter expert in content strategy, flew in all the way from Florida, to remind us of a critical point.

If your content is boring, nobody will read it.

Jill highlighted her point by telling a great story about her husband, a sports writer, who can spin a tale of intrigue and drama around any local sports event. She had a couple of key questions to help participants.

  • How do we inspect our content? (evaluate for relevance)
  • How do we create time to make every piece great? (allocate resources)
  • How do we hold our authors more accountable without making waves? (quality control)
  • Do we coach internally to make all association communications better? (quality control)
  • How do we package content for different channels? (distribution)

Perhaps most importantly, Jill was our only speaker with an official southern accent (Thanks West Virginia childhood). Made her whole presentation sound cooler.

Great job, Jill and thanks for the insights.

No Money No Content

Content is not produced for free. Without a means of valuing your content and figuring out how to financially support your content strategy, you’ll find out very quickly why associations are called not-for-profits.

Carrie Hartin, President, Sales Solutions & Services MCI | USA outlined a process through which you establish the value of your content as an asset. With this knowledge, you can determine pricing, sponsor value, ROI and a whole host of other key data points.

Critical to valuation is identifying data points for assessing value, including new entrances (to your content site), conversions and comparable data within your industry.

She described a 5-step process.

  1. Audit – document all your content assets. What do you have?
  2. Data Analysis – analyze engagement, data use, etc. for each piece of content. What do people do?
  3. Benchmark – test content engagement frequently. Are people accessing something more/less often?
  4. Go to Market – roll out your content, adjust based on feedback, repeat. What is the market’s response to your strategy?
  5. Refine – listen to the response and modify your strategy. How do you adjust to the reality of the market?

Carrie left us with some final thoughts.

  • Digital content is an asset: long shelf life; perfect for re-purposing; designed for measurable engagement
  • Test, measure, adjust mindset to every content project
  • Lead generation + targeted audience profile = $
  • Competitive market changes are rapid – bring a warrior mindset to knowing your competition

To end the monetization discussion, I talked through a quick content monetization case study using our own Looking Forward association environmental scan. Between the report, webinars, speeches, etc. – even I was surprised at the many ways to make content pay. Yeah Association Laboratory.

The Future of Content Strategy

To end the day, we did a quick panel on the future of content strategy.

First, everyone recognized that we live in a 24/7 digital world. Second, that content shock (overwhelming amount of content) is a problem.

In addition, four association trends were recognized.

  • Engagement Strategy not Membership Strategy – associations will talk with audiences far beyond just their membership.
  • Annualized Engagement – associations will work to connect the dots of content, programs and services so that the whole of engagement is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • Shift from B2B to B2C Communication Philosophy – many associations, via social media, will shift to communication philosophies more characteristic of consumer marketing. The message and content will follow the person.
  • User Generated Activity – more associations will put in place strategies allowing members and other stakeholders to generate content; using the association as a platform.

The final future note was, of course, AI. With so many people to talk to, on a 24/7 basis and with so much content to discuss, technological help will be critical.

Distillers Welcome to Sponsor (please sponsor us)

At the end of the day, everyone had a great time, learned a lot and talked a lot.

Content Summit Reception


Thanks to all the speakers who contributed their time. Thanks to the attendees who placed their trust in Association Laboratory to produce a great program. Thanks to MCI | USA for sponsoring the event; what a great company and a great partner.

BTW – If you are a distiller looking to sponsor association education, please call or email me immediately. Trust me when I say association executives will be happy to reward your support.


We’ve started planning the 2nd Annual Association Membership and Engagement Summit. Currently anticipate a late February and early March date for the two events. Look for details later this fall.

Thanks all, go enjoy a drink and I hope you enjoyed my thoughts from, my seat at the bar.