For nine months during 2017, I provided communications support to English volleyball's national governing body, Volleyball England (VE). Looking back , it’s interesting to reflect on the unique challenges of working with an NGB, especially with regard to one of my hobbyhorse topics; commercial content.
VE is dependent on public funding for over half of its revenue. It acts like a not-for-profit organisation most of the time, although it actually isn’t. Regardless, this was the closest I’d ever come to working in a public sector environment.
So, the question I asked myself was how – if at all – did my approach to content and comms change in line with my new-found working circumstances?
(Full transparency time; since finishing my contract with VE, I have since become their PR and Communications Board Director.)
The simple answer is that, to some extent, I found myself switching from poacher to gamekeeper. For most my working life, I’ve urged companies to be more editorially engaging and less commercially explicit in their content outputs, for fear of causing their audiences to switch off. Somewhere like VE, where commerciality wasn’t necessarily the prime consideration in its day-to-day operations, this wasn’t a problem.
However, the longer I was in post, something changed within me. I found myself wanting VE to better articulate the commercial value of all the products, services and events within its portfolio.
Making a complete U-turn, I found myself actively pursuing more commercial content. It’s a drive I hope to continue from my position on the Board.
The content generator's dream
From the outset though, this was a content generator’s dream. It was a job ideally suited to my editorial ideology of thinking like a publisher and engaging an audience through compelling content which was not commercially explicit.
For a start, there was the subject matter. Sport has a way of stirring the emotions in a way that few other topics can. This means that I knew my content should be able to elicit a response. Then there was the self-interest. I’ve been a volleyball addict for over 20 years so this was like being a kid in a sweet shop. Plus, there was the fact that VE already had a magazine publishing heritage. In fact, it had continued delivering a printed membership magazine up until just a few years ago.
Setting VE on a course to produce more consumable content, effectively using the website as a digital magazine, met with little resistance. Populating an editorial wish-list was relatively straightforward as was churning out regular content outputs.
The more successful the approach became, the only real problem – at least initially - was maintaining a fully-stocked editorial calendar. That's a challenge which confronts content generators the world over, on a daily basis though. No surprise there then.
However, the longer I was in post, the more I thought about VE's engagement with its core market of active volleyballers. It wasn’t great – and we all knew that. They were consuming our content and beginning to engage a bit more than previously. Sadly though, there still wasn’t much sympathy or empathy between them and us. This was the legacy of several years when a disconnect had opened up and steadily grown.
He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy
I began thinking of it in terms of the Monty Python question – i.e. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” from The Life of Brian. VE had never really thought to articulate the value of everything it did for its membership (and there was plenty). With its value proposition unclear, no wonder audience sympathy was low.
I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t tried to combat this sooner. My only defence was that I had spent so long previously in a corporate environment where you couldn’t go five minutes without bumping into a USP, competitive differentiator or ‘revolutionary’ new service. In my new environment, I hadn’t even thought to consider how well (or not) the basic offer had been articulated. I was so used to taking it for granted.
It was a humbling lesson; a sizable oversight on my part. But now we’re setting it straight. I want the benefits of VE’s core services to be fully articulated through the medium of engaging commercial content. I want the attractiveness of the organisation’s events and competitions to be made crystal clear to an audience of potential partners and sponsors. And I want the VE staff to see this articulation as part of their day job, not something to throw across to the comms guy.
Part of the problem here probably lay with how VE (and its fellow NGBs, most likely) had previously acted like a not-for-profit organisation. It was heavily reliant on public funding, never turned a huge profit and would plough any money it did make back into the game anyway. But that doesn’t mean it can’t adopt a more commercially savvy mindset in everything it does. Producing more obviously commercial content might just prove to be the catalyst for changing that mindset.
Check me out; the promoter of commercially explicit products and services. I thought the day would never come. It just goes to show you’re never too old to change your ways.