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Content marketing in a United Way

For most people, The United Way is best known for its NFL affiliation. But rubbing elbows with football superstars is only a means to drive publicity. The nonprofit’s actual mission is, in the broadest sense, to advance the common good. More specifically, this entails creating programs and distributing information specifically around education, income, and health. “Those three things are the building blocks of a good life,” says Brian Cox, the organization’s director of Web experience.

Though the United Way is a global network—its central organization is the United Way Worldwide—it supports 1,800 local United Ways in 45 countries, 1,200 of which are in the United States.

Though the worldwide organization provides guidance and support, each local United Way is essentially autonomous, with its own website and social media accounts. “One thing to understand about Untied Way is we’re not structured with regional chapters,” Cox says. “local United Ways are locally incorporated and locally governed nonprofits, though there are standards that they meet.”

As with most socially-conscious nonprofits, local United Ways have limited resources for developing digital content—something that is largely ancillary to their core function. “Local United Ways are skilled at making a difference in their communities,” Cox says. “Bragging about it doesn’t come first nature.”

Such was the issue: The United Way needed content to serve its constituency, as well as to recruit volunteers and create advocacy. However, it didn’t have the resources to produce new content consistently.

Consequently, the United Way Worldwide signed on with Skyword, whose CEO interview Direct Marketing News posted yesterday. Skyword provides both the content-scoring platform and the writing staff to generate educational and marketing content for the nonprofit. It’s still early days for the United Way Worldwide and Skyword, so metrics aren’t yet available.

Nonetheless, Cox described his organization’s goals of building a global brand presence and helping its local chapters forge better relationships with supporters via superior content.

DMN: What were your specific issues around the United Way’s content strategy prior to signing onto Skyword?

Cox: Our content strategy before was far more reactive. We put out content through simple tools, like a calendar, and tried to wrangle content from local United Ways. We [would learn] things after the fact that really would have connected with people. The content we were producing ourselves was uninspired. Content produced by people who are experts in these areas and who have lived what they’re writing about, who have a firsthand experience with the topic, can write in a more authentic tone than internal staff writers.

What qualifications does Skyword’s writing staff have? Have they worked with the United Way before?

The writers are people who aren’t all folks who’ve been involved with the United Way, but we have been offering opportunities to those who have. During the learning phase of our contract, [Skyword’s] staff went to great lengths to understand our brand, the nuanced differences between United Way and other organizations, to understand the nature of different local markets. And they’ve taken in an understanding of our message platform and what we’re trying to communicate and what we’re trying to build relationships around. [Skyword] took the keywords we’re creating content around and recruited the first round of 15 writers.

Do you work closely with the writers?

[The United Way] trained the writers on our brand and the voice of our brand. The Skyword team has since managed that process. They produced the first set of feed content and we’ve gone article by article reviewing. I have very little feedback because so much is right-on.

What goal do you have with the content?

We have always wanted to formalize a way to capture and collect stories from our advocates. People who have had these real life experiences. One example: United Ways across the countries are recruiting mentors and teachers to help [reduce] the school drop-out rate. As part of that, there are all these people having amazing on-the-ground experiences where they’re not just helping change lives, but also changing themselves. We want writers who can [express] that and also help mechanize and collect the incredible experiences and initiatives.

How will that help your local organizations?

We’ll use a significant portion of the content for local United Ways. We’re created an information library so local United Ways can use it. What we’re looking to do is not only collect content for our use, but also to expand the capacities of local United Ways.

How will you know if your new content marketing strategy is successful?

Our measure of success will be increased search engine traffic. Hopefully people will be staying on-site longer, and decrease our bounce rate. Our approach to online engagement is multipronged, with a number of different solutions that are designed to interact with people at different phases and in different ways. Our online engagement strategy is to provide an online experience that acquires new supporters, to activate those we already have, and to retain them long-term.

Can you elaborate on the “different solutions” you mentioned?

We try to create a topical experience on the Web. If you‘re interested in education, we’ll let you know not only of the good work we’re doing in education, we’ll also position content in that space. If you come to our website and you’re interested in financial stability, we want to provide content that may actually help families become more financially stable or to guide somebody when it comes to financial planning. It’s all in the interests of supporting the work that the United Way is doing on the ground, which ranges from free tax prep to recruiting volunteer teachers and mentors, to working with partners, to building playgrounds so kids can stay healthy and combat obesity.  We want to engage throughout the year in ways that are meaningful.

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