Chicago Council on Global Affairs: An inside look at a successful event-driven content strategy

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is well aware that a new age has dawned. Hosting hundreds of events a year is the first step;‎ to cultivate and lead useful and influential dialogue on important issues, you need to produce your own content that reaches audiences far and wide.‎

Under the leadership of Ambassador and President Ivo Daalder, the Council has dramatically ramped up its content offerings over the past several years, integrating traditional think-tank research reports with live event streaming, targeted newsletters, digital interactives, videos, and more.

We spoke with Juliana Kerr, the Council’s director of global cities and immigration, and Samantha Skinner, the Council’s director of content strategy, about how the Council wields content strategically to lead a more robust conversation around global affairs.

Leff: The Council has always been an event-driven organization. In the digital age, how does the organization use content to support these events?

Juliana Kerr: We aim to demonstrate leadership not just in convening power but also in intellectual contributions. So we often release our major studies and reports in conjunction with an event.

Before the event, we invite speakers, partner institutions, and Council fellows to pen blog posts (maybe 700–900 words) and shorter reports (a few thousand words) on the same topic, all with the goal of supporting the primary report and filling in more details of the conversation.

During the event, we are fully digital. When Ivo joined, he expanded our communications department, and we are now immersed in full-time social media, live streaming, and so forth. This has been a great aid to our audiences, many of whom are busy professionals who can’t make it to every event. They can multitask while they watch the live stream, which helps them be more engaged with the organization.

After the event—whether it be a conference, a study trip, and so forth—we sometimes publish a wrap-up report that summarizes the discussion, the findings, the key policy recommendations. This type of report ensures the event itself has a longer shelf life and doesn’t disappear from the community’s collective memory. Each piece of content becomes a part of the knowledge base.

As an example, each year the Council publishes a major study on global food and agriculture. The report is an anchor of our annual Global Agriculture Symposium, a day-long event in Washington, DC, that draws hundreds of participants from around the world. We publish content before, during, and after the event—and the report itself is a driving element of the discussion. So we not only host an event to bring together like-minded individuals in the field, we also ensure that our research is at the center of the conversation.

Leff: Who’s the audience for this content?

Juliana Kerr: Today it’s everyone. It started with the Chicago public, then the Midwest, then the nation. Now it’s truly the world. Digital technology has allowed us to build our audience; all that’s required is an interest in global affairs, regardless of whether they can attend the event itself.

Samantha Skinner: We develop specific outreach lists based on the subject matter. For each area of study (immigration, agriculture, and so forth), we’ve developed focused email newsletters, and they each have their own recipient list. Anyone can go on the Council’s website and subscribe to their different areas of interest.

So our email outreach has actually expanded by getting more specific. Our distribution list used to be almost all Chicago-based, but now it’s about 50-50: half in the city and half outside of it.

Leff: How do you decide what’s relevant?

Samantha Skinner: The experts on our studies and program teams drive our areas of focus. So for example, each year the food and agriculture team decides the direction of the research, the sub-topics to highlight, and so forth for our annual report on the topic. This year’s report was on transforming the global food system to feed growing cities, which appeals to a broad business audience and ties in with our global cities research.

Leff: Many of your events feature partners and sponsoring organizations. How do you get them involved in event-driven content?

Juliana Kerr: We try to make it a win-win for everyone involved. We invite partners to contribute blog posts, share their story, and contribute to the conversation as much as possible. We’ve also relied on partners and their networks to build our audience and to invite speakers to our events.

This year the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce hosted their own event in conjunction with the 2016 Chicago Forum on Global Cities. It would be great if one day we could coordinate to have other institutions participate with auxiliary events as well, such as the Art Institute of Chicago arranging an exhibit on global cities.

Samantha Skinner: We have a conversation with every organization that partners with us about how we’ll work together to build the in-person and digital audience for the event. We work with them on outreach—not just event promotions, but useful, engaging articles, reports and blog posts. We provide infographics they can use on social media. Not all of our partners are equally active on social media, but overall it’s always a positive experience. I would definitely recommend anyone who’s focused on reaching wider audiences to consider how you can partner with others on the content.

Leff: How does event-driven content fit into the mission of the Council?

Juliana Kerr: I’ve been here 14 years, but this organization was founded in 1922. Technology has completely changed the landscape of how we engage and connect and share information. We host more than 200 events a year, and since we take two months off in the summer, when you do the math we’re hosting more than one event every weekday. To the extent that we can extend the shelf life of a particular conversation and connect the dots, event-driven content is crucial.

Samantha Skinner: Event-driven content helps us think about what we do in a different way. The Council started as an organization that held live events to engage the public in discussions of international affairs. We invited people to a venue to watch someone speak on a stage. Our focus has shifted and expanded significantly. We’re committed to engaging broad public audiences about issues of global affairs—not just those in person at our events.

By expanding our communications team, we are now able to be active on a wide variety of platforms. We have expanded the conversation and the size of our audience via live streaming video, blogs, and social media.

Leff: What’s the future of your digital content strategy?

Juliana Kerr: I’d like to get more of the grassroots community involved—the people actually affected by the issues we’re discussing: immigration, climate change, food security, global cities, energy, economic competitiveness, and so forth. If I can get the leader of an organization involved, informed, on the board, then I’m hoping the information disseminates through that person’s broader community.

Samantha Skinner: We’re still in the experimenting phase. We’re starting to do more with online interactives, beyond the traditional PDF download, and those have proven to be a fantastic engagement tool. We recognize there’s a lot of potential for video, but we need to figure out the best way to use it; one idea is to interview event speakers and ask, for example, one last question that didn’t get raised during the event itself.

Recently we helped promote a Council fellow’s book through a suite of content. We did a video, a digital preview interactive, blog posts, and excerpts. That’s had great engagement. Not everything works in every medium, so it’s a matter of figuring out what’s best as a visual, what’s best as prose, what’s best as video—then building those assets.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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