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Vol. 39, No. 2

Indianapolis Bar Association uses new content engine to drive member engagement

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Since the full launch of a new “content engine” at the Indianapolis Bar Association in January 2014, 689 member-written articles have been produced, and 1,129 members have subscribed to receive them via email or RSS.

How did the bar achieve such impressive results—which caused an audible stir among attendees at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Indianapolis this fall? And why did it undertake such a huge project in the first place?

On hand to explain the process and the reasons behind IndyBar News were Mary Kay Price, the bar’s director of marketing and communications, and James Burnes of Vitamin J—B2B Digital Agency.

Starting from the member’s experience—but not necessarily from survey data

The Indy Bar realized it was not engaging its members as effectively as it could. It had a limited budget and limited staff with which to increase member engagement—and members themselves had limited time. The board was not tech savvy and, in fact, hated technology and didn’t want to talk about it.

But that was OK.

Burnes, who was brought in to provide a fresh perspective from outside, encouraged the newly formed Future Communication Task Force to first think not about technology but about the member experience. Why?

When the focus starts with what technology will be used to present and deliver the content, rather than what the content should be and how it should be gathered, “We’ve already restricted our capability to think better,” Burnes believes.

Also limiting, he added, are member surveys. In fact, he said, “Surveys are terrible.” The problem is that people don’t know how to ask the right questions, and often they’re designed simply to “validate that we’re as smart as we think we are.”

For example, he said, a survey asking members if they wish to receive information via email, Facebook, etc., might seem useful. But members will answer based on their previous experience and opinions—which might not accurately reflect how they’ll feel about the new product you’re developing. It’s better, he believes, to take member preferences into account but not be afraid to innovate and deliver members such a new experience that they can’t even imagine it yet.

Determining what was needed

In working with the Indy Bar to determine what was required of this new communications approach, Burnes identified the following must-haves:

  • immediacy, in that content would be updated frequently and swiftly;
  • ease of use, for both staff and members;
  • personalization, so members could specify what content they wanted;
  • interactivity, to increase engagement;
  • 24/7 accessibility; and
  • platform agnosticism, meaning it didn’t rely on a specific device (PC, Mac, tablet, etc.) in order to work properly.

Burnes and the bar also decided it was important to prioritize progress over the status quo, and to think less in terms of cost and more in terms of investment—that is, how the immediate cost would justify itself over the next several years. The problem with overemphasizing short-term cost, Burnes explained, is that if you don’t innovate now, you’ll be saddled with an old communications tool and will then have to catch up later.

From there, Burnes and the bar developed a “giant spreadsheet” of all the different types of communications that members could receive, from relatively low-cost but low-impact pieces of information to high-cost, high-impact pieces, including those with paid writers. Each was assessed according to how well it could attract, retain, or engage members. The purpose wasn’t to choose only a certain kind or level of communication, but to see where different types of pieces would fit into the overall plan.

The next piece to take shape was a “content mission,” which Burnes suggested that other bar associations develop for their communications, too: What is the purpose of your efforts to reach members?

One of the most important questions that emerged when determining what type of content to prioritize was “Will this article spark conversation?” Even somewhat challenging opinions were considered OK, as long as they were likely to provoke “fruitful discourse” rather than just argument.

As far as how the engine would work, Burnes said, it was important that every system involved would be able to pull from the bar’s database. Keeping it simple like this might save "millions" over the next 10 or 15 years, he said, because the bar won’t have to spend time adapting the content engine to different types of platforms.

There’s one major change coming soon, Burnes noted; the bar is now developing a new content management system and database. But the member content engine was built to be flexible, he said, and should easily make the transition.

Putting members in charge

One of the most important decisions that was made regarding the newly developing content engine, Burnes said, was that it would not use any “third-party feeds” such as articles from Lexis, West, and others. Rather, members themselves would provide original articles.

While this would create an incredible volume of member-written content, the bar’s communications would scale back in another way: A newsletter that had been six pages would go down to two pages that were of high quality.

Burnes seemed to indicate that printed bar magazines should become less of a priority—though perhaps not disappear outright—over the next few years. For one thing, he said, “The publication should be a perk—not the reason people are members.”

And to put it in terms that those watching publication budgets may understand, Burnes suggested that “The cost of print, at some point, will far exceed the value of the publication.” Think more in terms of what will be easy for the member to print on his or her end if that member still prefers paper, he advised.

The Indy Bar isn't looking to go paperless anytime soon; its magazine, for example, continues to be distributed by a local publisher that inserts it into its own publication. But, Price said, given the uncertain climate for print publishing in general, it made sense to develop other, more internal ways to deliver news and information.

One reason it was useful to bring in a consultant to help orchestrate such a radical change in approach, Price and Burnes said, is that Burnes was more free to reimagine everything—regardless of any “sacred cows.”

A carefully staged plan

The plan for the new content engine was approved in late 2011 and began in 2012, Price said; it was designed as stages that would take place over 36 months.

First, Burnes said, all sections were encouraged to develop an editorial calendar of “relevant, timely, useful” information. These would be updated weekly to capture the freshest content. Next, the bar hired someone to “own” editorial, so there would be one, easily identifiable point person. Next came developing the digital platform for the content engine, again, building from the bar’s existing database. The fourth phase addressed how members could personalize and customize their content.

Price’s job responsibilities changed—she shed programming duties to focus only on communications—because of this project and the dramatic increase that was called for in member-generated content. It was “a little bit intimidating,” she admitted, to think about all that content and who would write it.

How do you get members to write it?

Burnes emphasized that section members didn’t necessarily have to write all the content; they could also be in charge of finding others to do it if needed. Content creation and sourcing was made one of the five or six designated tasks for section leadership, he said. Daunting as it may be to rely so heavily on members to produce their own content, Burnes said this eliminates questions like, “Why don’t you guys ever cover our area of law?”

In truth, Price said, section leaders had long felt a bit idle. There are 24 sections and divisions within the bar, each with an executive committee. “Sections used to ask, ‘Other than CLE, what else can we be doing?’” Price recalled, adding that she “didn’t have a great answer.”

It can be tremendously flattering, Burnes noted, for lawyers to be told, “We’re going to give you a platform to be an expert.” And members are in much better position than staff, Price added, to figure out what content will be of interest to other members.

Price made an effort to get on the agendas for all the executive committees and to meet with section chairs. She brought a flow chart and a willingness to brainstorm content ideas with them. Once things began to take off, she was sure to praise the sections—and often the person who generated a particular idea, a detail that is tracked—and to highlight their successes.

But the work also became its own reward, she noted: “When the ideas come from the group, they have ownership of them.”

How it all works

Essentially, the content engine works along two different tracks: on the website and via email. The Indy Bar had been working with local company Salesforce Marketing Cloud (formerly known as ExactTarget) for delivery of its e-newsletter, Price said, but found the company had more capabilities than that and was able to work with the web developer to help create the new project.

On the website, each section and division page now has its own prominently displayed news area with content specific to that group, mostly written and posted by members, though staff can still perform both of those functions as needed. Members can also subscribe via email or RSS, for free, to whatever content they want, regardless of what section it falls under.

To “give a little taste for nonmembers” and perhaps encourage them to join, Price said, the most recent article in each news area is open to the public until it’s replaced with a newer one and then locked down.

Not only did the bar’s E-Bulletin become shorter, she added, but it also became less frequent. It had come out weekly, but now it’s every other week with an event announcement sent during the off weeks.

It’s also much more customized, Price said. Whereas all members used to get the exact same version, now one-quarter to one-half of its content is pulled in from the content engine, based on a member’s preferences.

As for the impressive initial results, Burnes said, “Ownership and leadership drove that. It didn’t just happen. And it’s only going to get bigger.”