Between tight budgets and a culture that keeps championing digital, associations have been tempted to abandon their print publications. Here's how editors can both support their cause and rethink revenue.
It seems that association print magazines are always candidates for the chopping block. But is the move toward eliminating print publications premature? Even with the trend toward digital media and communication, research shows that, like other consumers, association members enjoy and still want print.
According to research firm GfK MRI's fall 2011 "Survey of the American Consumer," 92 percent of adults in the United States read magazines. In addition, the International Periodical Distributors Association reports that consumers spend more than $300 million each month buying magazines at the newsstand.
Further, most member surveys indicate that associations' flagship publications are highly valued member benefits. Some associations have also learned that their members prefer print publications.
Such was the case with the Consumer Electronics Association's monthly magazine CE Vision, which was rebranded earlier this year as It Is Innovation. "In our annual reader survey, we found that many of our executives say they still prefer to read the print version of the magazine, particularly while traveling," says Cindy Stevens, CEA's senior director of publications.
It seems evident that there is still a demand for print publications. Yet publishing staffs are still put in the position of defending their product.
Three years ago Erin Pressley, vice president of publishing for NACS: The Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, successfully made the case for continuing to publish her association's monthly magazine. Pressley says the concern about publishing the print magazine "percolated internally first because the magazine had lost $200,000 the prior year before salary and overhead."
"When the economy tanked, ad revenue was down, and many associations questioned the value of print publications," Pressley adds. "But I successfully defended the proposition of keeping a monthly magazine to our board of directors by emphasizing the original purpose for NACS creating the magazine: to share our voice and get our message to our members—not make money."
Here are some strategies that you might implement if you find yourself in the position of protecting your print publication.
1. Strengthen revenue sources. While not all association magazines are required to turn a profit, finding new avenues for generating revenue is never a bad idea. "It came down to the numbers," says Pressley. She knew the publication wasn't tapping the full market for advertising, but she wanted specifics before moving forward with developing a plan to remedy the situation.
After conducting a competitive analysis of the association's market share of potential advertisers, Pressley and the current ad sales director identified approximately "$6 million in revenue out there that we hadn't tapped." The identification of potential new advertisers served as the catalyst for the reorganization of magazine's circulation into territories, which should help the publication make more money.
2. Emphasize the value to current and potential members. According to Stevens, CEA staff discussed the challenges and costs of producing a print publication and whether the association should continue to do so. Those discussions lead to a rebranding of CEA's 15-year old magazine, CE Vision.
With the launch of It Is Innovation (i3) magazine in January, CEA renewed its commitment to providing members with key resources. "The magazine is a valuable member benefit that provides unique information about CEA and the CE industry," Stevens says.
In addition, the print magazine "serves as a great leave-behind about CEA for potential members and partners. Each of our member companies, partners, and policymakers on Capitol Hill receives a copy."
"We also distribute it at Reagan, LaGuardia and Logan airports and have exclusive distribution at the International CES and other CEA events during the year," she notes.
3. Enlist others to help make your case. There's a good chance your colleagues haven't given that much thought to how your association's magazine gets produced. It's important to get them on your side, so to speak, by forming internal partnerships and making sure they know the value your publication brings to them.
"The challenge is to sell the magazine internally to people that I don't interact with regularly," Pressley says. "To them it might make no difference if the magazine wasn't around. It's hard for them to see the value of a magazine, so I waged an internal PR campaign. I kept reminding them how valuable the magazine is."
"We were also more proactive about tapping internal experts for article development," she adds. "And we looked for opportunities to partner with other groups internally. For example, if you're selling trade booth space and we're selling ads, how can we work together?"
4. Demonstrate how print fits into your overall communications strategy. "I believe an integrated strategy is the most effective, and print is still an important part of our platform," Stevens says.
From her perspective, "as a technology association magazine, i3 must continually evolve and embrace new technologies. The publication encompasses a well-rounded publishing program, including a compelling print magazine, a dynamic web presence, a mobile app for Apple and Android tablets, an email alert, and a robust social presence."
She believes "it is more important than ever to provide value to readers and give them something they can't get somewhere else whether that is delivered via print, online, or an app."
5. Conduct a SWOT analysis. "I would recommend a SWOT analysis to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to their print publication," Stevens says. "It is difficult to be objective sometimes, but it is necessary to find the best way to deliver your association's messages and information to the industry. The print publication may become just one channel in the overall publishing strategy."
"In an uncertain economy, it is wise for associations to evaluate all of their projects and the return that they receive from them," she adds. "I believe there will always be a place for print publications, but they may become a smaller slice of the overall circulation and may be distributed to a premiere group like top industry executives and policymakers."
Apryl Motley, CAE, is a writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Columbia, Maryland, and a past editor of several association publications. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org