Four Important Things We’ve Learned During Our First Year

Over the past year at, we've gained a pretty wide view of what it takes to create a forward-thinking online presence that speaks to the association world. With our first anniversary this week, I figured I'd share what we've learned so far.

So, good news for you guys: It’s our birthday, and there’s cake!

Bad news: It’s in digital form, in the photo above. And I recommend you don’t try to cut open your iPad to get a slice. (Sorry.)

A year ago this week, Associations Now dived into the online world with a snappy, responsive web offering full of news and ideas relevant to (and important for) the people who run associations and nonprofits. Much like the magazine that spawned us, and like ASAE as a whole, we’ve got a finger on the pulse of this space. Unlike the magazine, the flow of stories and tweets is constant. But it’s very much worth it.

So, if you’ll humor me for a second, I’d like to offer a quick look at some of the things we’ve learned.

Thinking of giving your content strategy a kick? Try following these tips.

1.) Become More Urgent

When I mentioned the idea for this piece to our editor-in-chief, Julie Shoop, she offered this great insight: “I think one of the things we’ve learned is the importance of a sense of urgency around content. In other words, why is this important to read or know today? Connecting issues that association execs care about with current events has been really effective for us.”

You have to pick up the pace. And if you succeed in creating a culture that allows turning on a dime, your audience will reward you.

I’m totally with her. This has been fun to watch in action. For us, it’s essential to monitor the pulse of the association world, jump on news that’s in tune with it, and share it with you—making its relevance clear along the way. Simply put, urgency makes our content better.

It’s really easy to get bogged down in your organization’s processes and to second-guess your next steps. But today, information flows faster than that. You have to pick up the pace. And if you succeed in creating a culture that allows turning on a dime, your audience will reward you.

2.) Constantly Evolve

What makes a headline great? How can we create stories that get people talking? And what time should we send that email, anyway? We ask ourselves these questions on a daily basis. And as we’ve answered them, we’ve adapted.

We’ve done our share of A/B testing to get beyond the gut feeling that something might work better. (Lessons learned so far: You guys like early emails, and a snappy subject line always wins out.) Likewise, we don’t shy away from content that draws discussion. Those comments keep us thinking and adjusting the next time around.

Our tools help us keep pace—for example, to boost my writing speed, I use Markdown (a lightweight, text-based editing language) almost exclusively, and at least one round of our copy-editing goes through Editorially, a web-based editing system that offers versioning and change-tracking tools in a lightweight package. It’s not Microsoft Word, but it’s great for the way we work.

When we took the show on the road to ASAE’s 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo in Atlanta, we got to try these tools and others in generating in-person, live coverage of the event. From filling up RebelMouse pages with social updates to getting feedback from you in social spaces and on the site, we’ve grown a lot in 365 days.

We’ve had our share of hiccups, too—including a fun moment during the last day of the conference where the WordPress site locked everyone out and we had to wait 20 minutes to get back online. (Right at deadline time, of course.) But we’ve learned from all of them. Adaptability makes you stronger.

3.) Punch Above Your Weight Class

We write about associations for an audience interested in association issues. But sometimes, these lessons and issues are important to audiences beyond our traditional one.

Example: Our most popular story in August was about efforts by a number of LGBT groups to educate journalists on how to handle convicted leaker Chelsea Manning’s decision to change her name. It offered translatable lessons for organizations at large but also important insight to the general public. We took a little from column A (an important current news story on an issue with wide public and media interest) and a little from column B (how associations were helping to address it), and the result was a piece that played to our specific audience as well as to the much broader one.

Our September results showed that there’s still room for the bread and butter, too: Last month’s most popular piece was a Joe Rominiecki blog post about tracking member metrics—always a critical topic for association executives.

The lesson here is clear: Associations should find ways to reach their members but not necessarily limit themselves to that audience. You do great things for your member community—but with so many communication platforms available, you can tell great stories to audiences you may have never been able to reach before. Take advantage of that.

4.) Keep Up With Your Audience


A few months ago, there was this great image floating around sites such as BuzzFeed and Reddit that starkly illustrates technology’s quick growth. In 1993, if you wanted to shoot video, take a photo, keep time, send an email, take notes, listen to a song, or make a phone call, you needed a vast array of devices (and a very large bag). Now you can do all of this with an iPhone.

It’s 2013, and the way people work is enormously different from the way they worked in 1993 or even 2003. Our members are adapting, and our content approaches must keep pace.

Our responsive site has been great for this, and we’ve seen a lot of other sites doing something similar. More and more associations are also using apps and digital magazine formats and really taking social media seriously.

So as we hop into our second year, our plan is to keep building. Not just as a magazine and its website, but as a platform for offering useful ideas and essential news to association and nonprofit professionals. Because, like our audience, we’re growing, too.

So here’s to a great first year. We hope you’re looking forward to year two as much as we are.

Oh, and sorry abut the cake.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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