A Letter to My Association Family: Embrace the Pursuit of Non-Dues Revenue!

By Heidi Boe • May 24, 2018

Part 5 of our 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Study series

To my association family:

Generating non-dues revenue (NDR) and increasing those figures year over year for associations is a key responsibility of being a Senior Group Publisher (that’s me!) at Naylor Association Solutions. Each association is unique in their goals, needs, communication platforms, members and legislative functions. It’s important to embrace each association uniquely; however, my experience working with many associations allows me to recognize the successful and similar components of generating NDR across associations and industries. We don’t need to recreate the wheel each time. I’m here to help associations with my experience, it’s my job and I love it.

The 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Report brought to light an interesting point that we may not want to look at straight in the face, but as your business partner I don’t sugar coat the truth: Only two out of five survey respondents felt their inability to generate non-dues revenue from their communications was a serious or significant challenge.

41 percent recognize NDR problem
Source: 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey

Just 40 percent think not being able to earn extra money is a serious challenge?

On the bright side, this is an improvement from the 54 percent who reported the same problem in 2016, but still an increase from the minority of 11 percent of respondents who said this was a major issue for them back in 2011. On the flip side, only 17 percent said they have a good understanding of their readers’, members’ and advertisers’ needs and expectations of their association publications. Three-quarters of association respondents have some type of process in place for measuring member engagement with their communications—which means a whole 25 percent don’t!

How can 3 out of 5 respondents have no concern about generating non-dues revenue when only 17 percent of them know what their readers’, members’ and advertisers’ needs and expectations are?

Only 17 percent of associations beleive they have a good understanding of reader and advertiser needs
Source: 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Study

We all want to believe our publication, e-newsletter, video or tweet is the most important, relevant and interesting content in our industry. Sometimes, they are. Often, they aren’t—which is where we run into trouble with membership growth, retention and revenue. We have many tools available for us to understand what is important to our readers’, members’ and advertisers’.

I hear the concerns about staff time, and I completely understand. Hear me out. There are ways to overcome the staffing concern. Many surveying and reporting tasks can be handled by your media partner, or they can be automated reports that require a bit of setup on the front end but seamlessly arrive in your inbox as often as you want. A little planning upfront will positively impact your NDR and your staffing capability.

Five questions that probe your revenue-earning potential

If you are part of the 83 percent of associations who don’t know what their readers’, members’, and advertisers’ expectations for your member communications are, consider these five questions for increased NDR earning:

1. Which articles are most read? What topics do they cover? This is important so you know what features to include regularly in each publication. Track member engagement on the digital edition of your publications.

2. What are your top 10 company categories? Run an advertiser history report that includes the category of the companies. Feature an article about one or more of those categories in each issue so your sales team can be more effective.

3. How often are you asking your members what they want to read, watch or hear about? Conduct regular, frequent member/reader surveys as well as advertiser surveys so you know what your members expect to gain from your publications. Conduct advertiser surveys to learn what vendor or supplier members want, in terms of what will help their business, in exchange for financial support of your association.

50 percent associations survey members every 12-24 months
Source: 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey

4. Do you have a website for your publication? Here is an example of the American Bankers Association’s bimonthly magazine website. Their support team tracks their top advertiser categories through an automated monthly traffic report. Use the stats from your main website to gather this information if you don’t have a website specific to your publication.

5. Do you have a content plan for your member communications that is planned well in advance of when you want to earn non-dues revenue? Does it account for reader requests as well as advertiser requests?

Our traffic, advertiser and website reports are used to plan for an editorial/content plan one year ahead of time. Don’t get me wrong; the content plan is not advertiser-centric, but advertisers are not ignored, and neither is the sales team generating the non-dues revenue. The content plan is prepared in advance with topics that are important to members (known from studying traffic on digital edition/website and surveys) and advertisers. This content plan is created with all stakeholders communicating together.

The most successful partnerships I work with have a solid editorial plan that all stakeholders are involved in producing and have access to throughout the year. If I could give a piece of advice, please do not create this in a vacuum. I say (and plead) this, because only one in four associations reported having a department-specific or platform-specific content strategy. Almost half of respondents rely on a one-size-fits-all strategy. A content plan helps ensure your association will cover all the areas of knowledge, news, industry trends, and other info your members tell you (from your survey!) they want to learn about.

More info about content plans is here. Here are two great examples: IA Magazine and ABA Banking Journal.

Five things to embrace in the pursuit of more non-dues revenue!

1. Don’t be afraid of the words ‘sponsored content’ or ‘thought leadership.’ It’s not selling your editorial or engaging in pay-to-play. Advertisers have become very sophisticated with how they want to present their solutions. We wouldn’t dream of telling them what their logo should look like or how to lay out their advertising. Let your advertisers suggest how their content could enhance your publication.

Sponsored content can and should be valuable to your members. That is a requirement for any sponsored content in the publications I work with. It is also reviewed and approved by the association before publication. Here are a few great examples of how well this can be done in a publication, on a website or even a podcast!

Check out The Asosciation Adviser Podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or Google Play.
Check out The Association Adviser Podcast on Anchor.fm, iTunes, or Google Play.

2. Open source your communications and let people know what you’re working on and why they should be a member of your association. I understand there may be requirements to put a digital edition behind a login due to security information, but for the most part our associations can and should be proud of the communications they produce and use it as a recruiting tool. The member benefit can be receiving the print issue in the mail. Don’t hold back on promoting the digital edition. Be loud and proud! This will positively impact your membership and NDR.

3. Market your communications. It’s not enough to produce a publication and expect everyone to automatically read it, listen to it, or watch it. If you print it, they will NOT necessarily come.

  • 67 percent of survey respondents said they think members are too busy to read their publications. 56 percent said they don’t target or segment their communications as well as they could, and 47 percent said they could do a better job of promoting communications as a member benefit.
  • In terms of NDR, the more eyeballs you have on your magazine/video/website/directory, the more you can hold it up as an example of THE place advertisers should be, and the more you can charge for space in or around that publication.
  • The more you promote your communications, the more value members AND advertisers will recognize in them.
  • The more people pay attention to your publications, the more feedback you’ll receive, and the more opportunity you have to transform your communications into their best version. It’s a positive cycle of feedback that only increases the ROI everyone gets from your communications.

4. Social media is not just an available tool; it’s imperative to communicate with your members about all of the activities of your association, and this means more than just your annual event. It’s also great for recruitment! One topic of discussion I hear more than any other at board meetings and annual events is concern over succession planning and membership of the younger generation. Social media is key to reaching your members and it can be a source of revenue without being intrusive. Much like sponsored content that is valuable to members, information and infographics provided by advertisers can be promoted on your social media channel and become a source of non-dues revenue. Here is a great example.

5. Be responsive! By that, I mean both in terms of responding to readers’, members’ and advertisers’ and with technology. Make sure your content is responsive in design in all platforms (digital edition, e-newsletter and websites). Don’t be afraid to put your content in multiple platforms. For example, promote articles from your digital edition in your e-newsletter. Put the articles from the digital edition on your website. Discuss with your partner how to utilize their content management system to do this seamlessly so your staff does not have to do it. Your NDR can increase by selling advertising based on the editorial in the print, digital edition and online.

Generating NDR can be an adventure, and it’s extremely satisfying to see it grow quarter by quarter and year over year by following three simple recommendations: (1) Know what your members and advertisers want; (2) Have a content plan with all stakeholders involved; and (3) Promote your communications.

Final advice

My last piece of advice would be to conduct a financial review with your decision makers at least every quarter. Review advertising goals, requested editorial updates, needed industry updates, potential new non-dues revenue opportunities, what’s been sold and non-dues revenue year-to-date, year-over-year and performance to budget. It takes 30-45 minutes each quarter and makes sure there is complete transparency and that expectations are met with all parties.



About The Author

Heidi Boe is a senior group publisher with Naylor Association Solutions.  She serves the professional services market group to include banking, insurance, financial services oil & gas and public safety.  Heidi has worked in the printing and publishing industry since 1995 and held positions in all areas ranging from production, sales, editorial and management.