Our featured professional this month is Katie Butler, vice president of communications for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA). IIABA is a national alliance of more than a quarter million business owners and their employees who offer all types of insurance and financial services products. Katie has served IIABA since 2003 and has helmed the communications department since communications since 2004. Before diving into the insurance world, Katie worked at APICS and the Society of American Florists.
Katie manages a team of six across three functional areas: editorial/content strategy, public relations and marketing. In addition, Katie oversees external partnerships for publication production and advertising sales.
She talked with Association Adviser about IIABA’s desire to produce a robust slate of member communications without bombarding their insurance agent members, balancing professionally produced communications that take time with quick, crowdsourced videos, and how emphasizing the collective credibility of members will be key to the future relevance of professional associations.
Association Adviser: What did your path to VP of Communications for IIABA look like? How did you come to work for an association?
Katie Butler: I joined IIABA in 2003 as editor-in-chief of Independent Agent (IA) Magazine, the flagship publication of IIABA. Over the years I had opportunity to be promoted to Vice President of Communications. Now I oversee the association’s publications, marketing and public relations. I found it incredibly helpful to have a writing and journalism skill set regardless of what role I was overseeing in the communications department. . Whether you are writing, doing a podcast or video, knowing how to write and think critically about the topic at hand translates into meaningful communications. That skill set is what I look for in members of our team.
AA: How do you set marketing and communications goals?
KB: Goal setting is a collaborative process. We look at the metrics of what’s been successful in the past. We examine social analytics, readership studies, and any other metrics that are available by platform. Every program within IIABA has goals, and we want our goals to support those of other departments so that ultimately, our entire team is working toward delivering on the business objectives of the association.
AA: How often does your team set goals, or re-examine goals in place?
KB: We set goals annually, but examine them quarterly. Anything more frequent is cumbersome. In my opinion, it takes at least three months to execute a on goal.
AA: What are some differences between marketing and communication functions when you first started with IIABA, and now?
KB: The primary changes have evolved based on shift we’ve seen in communication platforms and the popularity of social media. Social wasn’t in existence when I started! Beyond that, how we evaluate the best mix of information people receive from IIABA has changed. Print is definitely still a part of our communications portfolio but what we use it for now versus 15 years ago is different.. Print has a bigger impact now because people receive less printed material. We also use it more judiciously so that it maintains its power.
In addition, we’ve seen and been a part of an explosion of video, thanks to the accessibility of video-making equipment drastically improving. We used video in our communications minimally when I started – mainly at events. Now, it’s such an integral part of our member communications.
AA: Which changes have had the biggest impact on members?
KB: We’ve learned that video doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be as simple as an iPhone video. Those quick takes are just as popular as a professionally produced clip that costs more! Our members simply enjoy seeing the faces of other members in our videos. They don’t mind the blur between their professional and personal lives in social media. . They create and share their own videos about association experiences they have with us. We often feature members in our official videos – thanking sponsors, giving testimonials about association events, or just for fun – and in terms of views, those are our most successful clips.
They just see video as another way to make a connection, which is ultimately what associations do best.
AA: How does IIABA support its individual members and state associations through communications?
KB: First and foremost, we help educate members about trends within the insurance industry as well as things happening on Capitol Hill. Insurance is a highly regulated industry, so there is a lot our members must comply with. Helping them understand new or complex regulations is an important role our communications play.
Second, our communications create connections between members. The profiles in our magazine, member news in our newsletters and social channels – these things resonate most with IIABA members. The association still has a role to play with helping like-minded people meet up. The association brings credibility to those conversations especially in an age when people might question the value of information found on social media or elsewhere online. When members read something from us, they know it’s credible. So our communications primarily educate, and foster connections too.
AA: Has IIABA had to reassure members that they can trust you?
KB: No, not really, but we have had to use our credibility as a marketing tool. We’ve seen the rise of insurance-oriented online discussion groups and consultants trying to build a personal following online, and they have forced us to market the fact that we’re already trusted. We’ve had to reiterate that our association is not just a curator of information but that we help members cut through the clutter and prioritize the information they consume.
AA: As communication becomes more social, and sites such as Facebook, Yelp, and even YouTube becomes online gathering spots for people to discuss individuals, brands, and companies, what role do you think associations should have in participating and shaping those conversations?
KB: Insurance is a product that people are forced to buy and don’t really want to use! So it’s a difficult sale to get warm and fuzzy about for most people. Our association’s role beyond member communications is storytelling for consumers about the value insurance plays in putting people’s lives back together. Thankfully there are some compelling visuals that can go along with that. Our role is to get that message to consumers as well as the value independent insurance agents bring to that process. We tell the insurance industry story and elevate that conversation in a way that no individual members could do on their own.
AA: IIABA is active on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube, in addition to publishing a website, quarterly and weekly newsletters, and a magazine. What does the team that manages this look like? How do you ensure all bases are covered, and covered well?
KB: We have a team of six people evenly divided among our team’s tasks. Two work on content, two work on marketing and two work in the public relations space. However, those job descriptions are in flux more now than they’ve ever been.
We used to emphasize getting our message into other trade publications, in [Capitol] Hill media and in some consumer media. But with changes in the media landscape and a quickening of the pace of information consumption in the last five years, we can’t rely on external outlets to carry our message as much as we once could. We used to pitch insurance-related pieces to TV, like social host liability or Christmas tree safety. We’d get coverage because TV stations had the reporters to work on submissions. Now those types of reporters are practically non-existent. Now, you must present the story ready to go.
So we look internally instead. That has shifted the responsibilities and job descriptions within our department. Media pitching, for example, is less important now. It’s more important to get someone who can produce video. We’re constantly re-evaluating and determining the correct mix of skills and roles we need. We factor in our industry and members, and which communications are appropriate for serving them. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin and set yourself up for failure. We constantly evaluate where we should be with our communications.
AA: What kind of feedback do you get from members about your publications? What do members indicate they enjoy, or get the most usefulness from, the most?
KB: We try to seek feedback out because it will help us improve. We do a readership study every year that yields qualitative and quantitative feedback. Social [media] has created a whole new way for us to get feedback and that has been the most rewarding part of creating content that resonates. We love seeing positive comments and people sharing our content. So it’s important to seek out ways to get feedback so you know how your communications are consumed and perceived.
For example, we did a story about Gen Xers moving into leadership roles. We posted on Facebook asking for Gen Xers to interview for the story, and it has been our most successful post to date. Everyone raised their hand online with this post to share their experience about trying to move into leadership roles within the industry with Baby Boomers putting off retirement, concerns that their generation has been skipped over in favor of talking about Millennials and now Generation Z, etc. The amount of comments validated our work on the story while allowing us to have one-on-one conversations with members who wanted their voice heard!
I value that social feedback a lot. It’s instant gratification, and it’s a good complement to our tried and true readership studies and event surveys.
AA: What are some communications initiatives you would like to launch in the coming year?
KB: One initiative is a podcast series. We’re seeing more and more interest in this type of channel, especially from our agents who are under 40 or have been in the industry less than 5 years. Right now we’re trying to figure out what our editorial plan will be. We anticipate launching it in the next few months.
We also plant to produce more video, although we’re trying to figure out how to be more strategic with video at the same time. We currently produce about five videos each month. Some are well-produced pieces covering legislative topics while others are short, iPhone-recorded videos of young agents thanking sponsors. Certainly every association program thinks they are doing something important, but not all of it translates well into video. We’ve been guilty in the past of not saying “no” enough to ideas that don’t translate well to this medium. Now we’ve pivoting to say, “This tool can be prolific and can be everywhere, but we need to make sure it’s in the right places.” We’ve just upgraded our equipment and we’re excited to become capable of creating higher quality videos in-house and farming out fewer projects.
AA: How much of your communications do you produce internally vs. externally?
KB: Over the years we’ve experimented a lot with this balance. There are advantages and disadvantages to having internal capability and using external sources. It’s great to have the internal capability to control and produce your communications but staff turnover can hamper that ability. When you outsource, there is more staff stability, but you also don’t have the benefit of your vendor being engrossed in the nuances of your membership as much as a full-time employee is. We focus on our core competencies and use external resource to complement those. We want to continue to invest in our ability to produce great content and right now we feel it’s best done internally. We outsource the production and advertising sales of print and digital platforms, but our full-time staff keeps editorial control of all publications. That balance that works for us.
AA: What keeps you up at night?
KB: Making sure that we don’t bombard our members, but still give them the information they want and need. We need to do a better job of using the data we have to deliver a more personalized association experience. Members aren’t satisfied with a one-size fits all experience in anything. They expect us to personalize the resource we provide based on their role, their position, their tenure, their specialization, and any additional segmentation factors.
It’s not ok for Associations to just assume members are going to be members because they always have been. There are lots of connection and information options out there. While associations still have a leg up on the credibility side and the ability to connect members, we should be using technology and data to do that better than anyone else. We must fit in with the digital and mobile norms members are used to in their personal and professional interactions. I want IIABA to blend in seamlessly to a members’ life. I think we can always do a better job at this, and I think associations need to do a continually better job to stay relevant.