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Associations: Is "Professionalism" Killing Your Content?

Associations: Is "Professionalism" Killing Your Content?

How Content Reshapes "Professionalism" in Pursuit of Engagement

Professionalism is frequently defined as a threshold of conduct that absolutely cannot be crossed if respect for -- and the dignity of -- the organization are to be maintained. It constitutes a web of rules in our workplace we begin to instinctively accept and operate around. Whether your workplace is a for-profit or not-for-profit, you undoubtedly have an idea in your mind what professionalism in the workplace means. It can also be assumed that you realize that what constitutes professionalism at work is not the same for everyone.

With this in mind, content marketing requires output that best serves the desired message while remaining "professional." But consider how varied the definition becomes when one targets content at a wider audience that extends beyond individual workplaces -- an entire market sector your association's agenda speaks to, for example. In such a context, content creators are faced with several questions:


  • Which exact definition of "professionalism" must content marketing strategies be guided by when addressing such a broad audience?
  • How do content marketing efforts function without risk of drawing negative feedback for being "unprofessional"?
  • How does content stand out from the crowd while still adhering to the expectation of professionalism that helps define that crowd?


When it comes to content, focusing on serving professionalism rather than one's content objectives can be a debilitating obstacle. Keeping professionalism as the priority over the messaging can force content creators to shoot for the most restrictive definition so as to only risk upsetting the least amount of people possible. As a result, the content's ability to engage (and thus inform) will likely suffer for it.


How the Idea of Professionalism Stifles Engagement

As much as we like to think that the floating concept of "professionalism" should set a standard for all things related to our workplace, content marketing simply does not function that way. Not if it wants a good chance of engaging its audience, anyway. The most successful content often goes beyond the boundaries of commonly defined professionalism. It is more than just passing along information and a message. It also entertains and keeps one's attention, even if it outwardly seems silly and ridiculous. Let's look at an example.

If you are from the Greater Toronto Area, you are familiar with Russell Oliver and his decades-long TV campaign. In his commercials, he does everything from cover himself in gold paint to running around in spandex as "Cashman," always uttering his "oooh, yeeeeaaah" catchphrase. (And I'm sure if you are not from the GTA you know of a local business with similar commercials.) The commercials are annoying, cheaply made, and I doubt you'd find anyone who would claim they suffer from an abundance of professionalism. But do you know what else his commercials are?


People remember his commercials because Russell Oliver understands something fundamental about his marketing content: his commercials are about getting his audience to look in his direction and come through his door. His commercials do not necessarily reflect how he expects his employees to behave in the workplace, how he interacts with his customers, or anything else about how "professionally" he runs his business.

When you are creating content, your priority is to engage the audience -- to get them looking at it. If you cannot do that, everything else about your content is irrelevant. Yes, successful content marketing absolutely must also inform or have some manner of messaging or call to action, but what does that matter if your audience is not paying attention to your content to begin with?

If your association creates content to the standards of professionalism outlined in its employee or code of conduct, it is confining its potential to a box that does not likely reflect the interests of its audience. Instead, accept that a different definition and standard of professionalism applies to your content within the context that it represents your message and brand to your audience.


Professionalism as a Skill Set and Process

When it comes to content marketing, "professionalism" means using available skill sets to get the job done in the best possible way while remaining true to the brand. Much of this process includes experimenting and trying new things. If you stick to what everyone else is doing and expects, your content will not stand out and get noticed. Sometimes this means coming into conflict with what people traditionally consider to be "professionalism."

Professionalism in the workplace is about relationships with peers and coworkers, as governed by a code of conduct. With content, professionalism its about the relationships between the brand and the audience, as governed by the objectives sought in relation to both. These latter relationships are very different from the former, so do not hold them to the same definition and standard as staff or volunteer policies. An association creating engaging content while retaining its professionalism thus needs to redefine a new standard for this particular context. Let's use the CSAE as an example.

The Canadian Society of Association Executives is the association for other associations in Canada. Our reason for existence is to help and educate other associations regardless of what the latter's agenda may be. CSAE staff follow a code of conduct that covers the usual: how we interact with our peers and volunteers, workplace dress code, discrimination, process for complaints, and so on. Nothing that would surprise anyone in the sector.

When it comes to content, be it a video, imagery, or written copy, we frequently do things that would not otherwise be acceptable around the office. For example, I created a video for our Associations 2025 wherein I dressed like Doc Brown from the film, "Back to the Future." I've also created another video shot in my home wherein my dog is on my lap, licking my face as I speak. Clearly, coming to work in a wig and imitating a movie character would not be considered professional, nor would bringing my dog to the CSAE office for the day. So then, why are they appropriate for content meant to represent this same organization?

It is my role as CSAE's Manager, Content to not only inform our audience of the events, education, and products our organization offers, but to do so in a way that stands out from all the other videos, blogs, and images our audience can choose to subscribe to or that crosses through their various social media feeds. I was dressed as Doc Brown to inform our audience about an event discussing the future of associations, and my dog was in a video about including something unexpected or that otherwise stands out to grab attention. They were both silly, but also strategic choices designed to make a point. And guess what?

Both worked.

Both videos had exceptional responses on social media. The Doc Brown video also resulted in a spike of traffic to the registration page for our "Associations 2025" event. The videos stood out and were responded to by the audience.

But not everyone liked these videos.


Dealing with Negative Feedback

A common concern among content creators is how to avoid complaints to begin with, and how to deal with them should they happen.

From the start, just accept that once your content's definition of "professionalism" slides away from that of a workplace to that of a content creator, there are going to be some consequences. Not everyone will agree with the choices you make or how you represent your brand. You have raised the previously mentioned minimum threshold of risk that your content will upset someone, so you will likely have to deal with complaints. The larger your audience, the more likely this is. So long as you are going to experiment with new ways to elevate your content marketing engagement, negative feedback is inevitable. But accepting this doesn't mean you have to fear getting complaints.

Don't dismiss complaints out of hand when you get them. You are, after all, stepping outside the usual perceptions of your audience's norms, so it is possible you took too big a step. Listen to what the individual complaints have to say and weigh them together to see if there is a pattern. Some complaints may be fairly extreme, going so far as to demanding public apologies, retractions, or even firing the content creator. Listening to complaints does not mean you have to comply with any or all demands, however.

No matter what, creating engaging content means being honest enough with yourself to evaluate the standards of professionalism you are working within.


  • Have you moved too far too fast beyond what your audience expects?
  • Is your content too outrageous or sideways to be understood?
  • Has it gone beyond engaging and become offensive or confusing?


Remember, a content creator's version of "professionalism" relies upon them getting the job done. If no one is getting your jokes, you are not meeting your objectives. You are failing to maintain the standards of professionalism demanded by your organization's goals and brand. Measuring this failure objectively can be difficult without (negative or positive) audience feedback, however. You need to look into your analytics.

Even if your content is getting a lot of attention, you need to also look at how well this traffic is converting to your goals. A lot of website traffic but low conversion likely means your content has missed the mark for one reason or another. People are watching, but they are not responding as intended. This, coupled with complaints, makes it likely your content failed to resonate, and thus likely lacked professionalism (or was just dull or not understood.)


Negative Feedback as a Positive

Many content creators do not know how to react well to negative feedback, especially claims against their sense of professionalism. Whether a complaint makes a good point or is someone being overly sensitive, seeking attention, or trying to hammer you with their subjective tastes, negative feedback is an opportunity to improve.

A legitimate, honest complaint should be seen as a chance to learn how to do better. It provides a closer look at how your audience defines professionalism with regards to both your association's brand and the content representing it. It also gives you an idea of how far outside of the box your audience may be willing to go or that you need to slow things down with your engagement experiments.

Even when negative feedback is clearly off target (e.g., someone who likes to pick fights online, someone your organization frequently gets complaints from in other regards, etc.), you should still examine their complaint. If possible, figure out how to cut off such complaints before they can happen next time. Most complaints can still teach something even if the complaint itself is unfounded or even ridiculous.

But never become afraid of negative feedback, and don't confuse a complaint with failure until your numbers say the same thing.


Pushing the Boundaries of Content Professionalism without Breaking Them

Every association's content marketing efforts are going to be different, just as their audiences differ. Because of this, I can't tell you exactly what you need to do to increase your content's engagement while maintaining a position of professionalism. I can, however, offer  some suggestions and guideposts that I use to govern my own work. Use or discard them as you feel appropriate:


  • Don't be afraid to be a bit silly and use humour. If you have a good joke that fits your content's message, don't be afraid to run with it.
  • Shape your humour to fit your content's message, don't shape your message to fit the joke.
  • Don't be silly for the sake of being silly; if you're being silly simply to get attention, you risk attention being diverted from your message.
  • Humour is okay, but stay away from off-colour humour with large, broad audiences.
  • Be certain your audience will get the joke. If you unintentionally make an "inside" joke, you waste your audience's time and risk confusing them. Also, no one likes feeling like a joke was made but they don't understand it.
  • Be respectful of your message and your audience. Using either as the target of any humour must be done carefully so that the joke is laughing with them and not at them.
  • With successful content comes trust. Regardless of what your content's message is, it should always also seek to earn the audience's respect and build your brand's dignity.
  • Engagement doesn't always require Big and Bold techniques. Sometimes the subtle, understated approach is best.
  • Nothing has to be perfect, and don't be afraid of making mistakes. Your audience is more forgiving than you know so long as you keep them engaged and informed.


When it comes to content marketing, "professionalism" is what you make of it -- so long as your audience ends up agreeing with you.



Have you been tuning in to Steven's "Conquering Content" Facebook Live sessions on the CSAE Facebook page every week? If not, mark it on your calendar and show up at the announced times with some content-related questions. Steven will also have a lot to say about creative content marketing at the CSAE National Conference 2017 in St. John's, so show up there with your questions, as well.



Looking at the CSAE BoardREADY Card Deck for a bit of guidance, we can see how content creators have to understand the audience's professional standards, but also how they came to be. This information can help better define where creative flexibility can be found without disrespecting the audience or their organization's brand. When you find something is impeding your content's ability to engage the audience and that obstacle exists for no greater reason than tradition or no previous need to change, consider whether your content can be the catalyst to begin that change for the better.

No matter which walls you want your content to begin tearing down to increase engagement, never lose sight of the fact that everything you release has to retain the audience's faith in both you and your brand. No matter how you frame your message, the audience has to trust that message remains honest and on-point. A big part of this is having a firm grasp on your organization's values and agenda. Knowing what they are doing and why they are doing it can help shape valuable, engaging content that maintains professionalism in the context of successful content marketing.

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