Listen to the full interview

When you think of fresh, agile content marketing, AARP might not be the first brand that springs to mind. But, like the audience it serves, this organization’s editorial team brings the wisdom of experience to its content processes while it speaks authentically about the modern realities of life after age 50.

Deputy Editor, AARP Publications
Neil Wertheimer, Deputy Editor, AARP Publications

In a Content Marketing World interview with AARP Publications’ deputy editor, Neil Wertheimer, the 2019 B2C Content Marketer of the Year winner shared insights on how his team manages to cover emerging trends and timely issues from a mature-centric point of view and what it takes to lead these critical conversations when your target audience – and its needs – are always evolving.

You’ll find some (edited) highlights of the conversation below. To hear the entire interview, click on the audio player at the top of the article.

Let your audience set your strategic agenda

At a time when profitable print publications are few and far between, AARP’s editorial flagships continue to perform: Its signature monthly lifestyle publication AARP The Magazine tops the list of America’s most-read magazines with a circulation of 37.5 million readers, followed closely by its news and policy-focused brief, AARP Bulletin, with 30.3 million readers.

These publications were built to serve the informational needs of the 73 million-member strong baby boomer demographic. But now that Generation X has reached the age of 50 (the threshold for membership eligibility), AARP’s content team has been challenged to add different sets of age-related issues, personal interests, and consumer behaviors to its content conversations – without losing any of its editorial relevance for existing members.

Yet, as Neil sees it, it’s not the generational shift that drives AARP’s current editorial agenda, but rather the fact that aging itself is changing.

“We let the agenda of, ‘What do we need to change and what do we need to fix in America?’ help drive what we talk about and how we talk about it,” says Neil. “Our communication strategy is broadening as more Gen Xers come into our age set, and we are also trying to be more dynamic in our choices of media to leverage. [But] at the end of the day, we have to be relevant and interesting about the issues of aging. And when we do that well, it doesn’t matter what age group you are – you come to us for definitive content.”

Think horizontally to appeal to different segments equally

To speak authentically to multiple audience targets – whether they differ in life stage, locality, personal beliefs, or other situational circumstances – Neil says his team focuses on the underlying issues and problems they collectively experience and need to overcome.

To speak authentically to multiple audience targets, focus your content on the underlying issues and problems they collectively experience, says AARP’s @Neilwert via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“We work all the time to find what the real issue is, take all the partisanship out of it, and focus on how it can be solved. That’s how we wrestle every day with being of broad interest and being able to appeal equally to people in Oklahoma and Idaho at the same time that we do for those in L.A. and Boston,” he says.

You can see evidence of this balanced approach throughout AARP’s content. For example, among its online content offerings under the heading of government and elections, you’ll notice an emphasis on stories like this one, which outlines the critical issues of relevance to women voters over age 50 rather than outlining the views of one political party vs. another.

Leverage research to stay on top of emerging trends

Good research is one of the keys to AARP’s ability to determine which issues are most likely to engage those distinct audience segments.

“I don’t think there’s any consumer-facing organization that does as much research as AARP does. [We are] large and established enough that there’s an expectation that we are the top experts on the issues of aging and the mindsets of people over 50. So, we are constantly probing into a real diversity of approaches [by asking], ‘What are the issues? What are the fears? What are the pleasures? What are the goals of aging?’ We use all of this to help us choose,” says Neil.

Yet, when it comes to gaining the deeper topical understanding required to strike the right balance between specific relevance and broad appeal, Neil acknowledges that research is only a 60% solution: “It can point you in the right direction and help you filter out bad ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s that other 40% – which of course is creativity, and instincts, and wisdom accrued over long careers – that really makes a difference.”

Striking the right content balance between specific relevance and broad appeal is 60% research and 40% creativity, instincts, and acquired wisdom, says AARP’s @Neilwert via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Recruit for creativity and curiosity

Having a diverse, skilled, and insightful team of staffers and freelancers has been crucial to the AARP team’s success in this respect. “We are all insatiable readers. Every day at AARP, the emails are flying: ‘Did you read this? Did you see that?’ We’re all just kind of feeding this atmosphere of creative thinking about aging.”

He also uses intellectual curiosity as a barometer when looking for new editors who might be a good fit for his team and the kinds of stories they aim to produce: “I’m known for asking unusual questions just to see how engaged and curious job candidates are. If I give them a probe, and they can’t come back with their eyes open about how they might explore a new idea, then they’re not going to be right for AARP,” says Neil.

Plan your channels at the beginning of your process

While Neil’s team is primarily focused on print editorial, he says they strategize for multimedia use from day one of their content creation process.

This is also very much a collaborative effort. For example, he points out that AARP has a dynamic daily content creation mechanism for its website and AARP Now app. “That sits adjacent to us and we communicate nonstop,” he says.

They also work closely with AARP Studios (a full-service video and audio operation) and the social media team at the front end of their process to determine what the most appropriate content formats and distribution channels might be for each story idea. “I lead a meeting every other week where I talk through all the other content we’re creating. ‘Here are the stories that I think might make for a good social piece; here’s what I think could make for good video …’ We have good, robust conversations at the micro level of the smaller stuff too, to make sure that everything we’re doing is discussed and considered for all channels.”

A legacy brand with the power to last

Though Neil recognizes that many of their readers initially subscribed to AARP for access to the significant membership discounts the organization offers, according to their audience research, those discounts aren’t among the top reasons they renew. “They renew their AARP membership because they liked these publications,” he says. All the extra care his team takes in planning, coordinating, and cross-pollinating its content might just be what will keep tipping the scales of audience interest in AARP’s favor for years to come.

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