Do You Speak in Your Members’ Voice?

AARP is one year into a new editorial project called The Girlfriend, speaking directly to a target demographic—women in their 40s and 50s. By developing content in a strong voice that resonates with the audience, AARP is hoping to build rapport with soon-to-be members.

Last week in this space, I dug into annual membership trends and shared some ideas on what to do if your membership is declining. One of the key lessons: Associations should begin to break apart their big tent and understand their various member segments.

When you know your smaller audiences, you can begin to talk to them in ways that feel more relatable. That’s particularly important for a massive organization like AARP. One part of its strategy to recruit and engage new members is a niche publication, The Girlfriend, which speaks to a specific audience of women just reaching the eligible age to join.

“It’s part of our priming-the-pump strategy,” says AARP Senior Vice President and Editorial Director Myrna Blyth. “We are reaching out to Generation X, who are now in their mid-40s to early 50s.”

The digital publication, which launched about a year ago as a free weekly newsletter, now has more than 170,000 subscribers. Articles focus on topics like family, friendship, lifestyle, money, and health.

The Girlfriend’s editorial strategy is to talk to subscribers like a close friend. That translates into catchy headlines like “40 Things Every Fearless Woman Should Know by 40,” hashtags like #toomuchwine (sparked by a conversation on sobriety), and a Facebook page filled with “mom jokes,” mainly viral memes and videos.

Of course, AARP has a lot of editorial, marketing, and communications staff to pull this off, including AARP Studios, a high-production video team. But even if your association is on a limited budget, Blyth says, you can still experiment with editorial narrative and voice to help you recruit and engage members or build on member loyalty in niche segments.

She offers three ways to get started:

Identify your audience and speak with a consistent voice. Blyth says The Girlfriend emerged as a viable concept because Gen X women didn’t have many places to turn for content specific to their needs. “This is a smaller demographic that people sort of forget about,” she says. AARP had a flagship publication geared mainly to baby boomers—AARP The Magazine—and it recognized the emergence of other digital verticals and newsletters, like Refinery29 and The Skimm, that speak to younger women.

The Girlfriend focuses narrowly on its specific audience. The writing is “honest, sincere, and impactful,” Blyth says, and the voice carries through consistently, “going into someone’s email, talking to them directly, sharing personal feelings, or providing immensely helpful information.”

Explore new ways to communicate. A great place to apply voice might be with a new product or service designed for the same audience segment. “We look at new digital products as a kind of laboratory for experimentation,” Blyth says.

Right now, The Girlfriend is expanding its digital presence through a streaming video series. Just last week, the site launched two episodes in the hopes of tapping into the more than 1.8 billion YouTube viewers who stream content each month. The show, called The Other F Word, is a produced short—episodes are six to eight minutes long—about four women who are all about to turn 50. “The idea that we’re streaming video now is very exciting,” Blyth says. “It’s very real. It’s very funny. And it’s very likable.”

Take time to listen. An authentic voice needs to engage in two-way conversation. With a community of about 400,000 readers, The Girlfriend is looking for new ways to listen to them, including by fielding survey research about Gen X women and their friendship habits. Blyth and her team are also exploring story formats that ask for reader input on topics like places to travel for girlfriend getaways.

“We try to take on conversations that women are already having,” she says. “In doing so, we are celebrating friendship. It starts by asking our audience, ‘What does friendship mean to you?’”

For other associations looking to tap into a voice that resonates with members, Blyth suggests starting with a listening session or focus groups to better understand them.

“Listen to your members. Understand their specific concerns and needs,” she says. “Then, you can establish a voice that understands them and sets a tone that is positive and celebratory of their work.”

A sample of AARP’s “The Girlfriend.”

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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