By Dana Plotke
If you're like many association professionals, it doesn't take long before someone raises the $64,000 question at a quarterly planning meeting or an off-site retreat: “What should we do with our member magazine?”
Sound familiar? The good news is many of you have taken steps to survey members, or perhaps you've conducted focus groups or solicited industry feedback at trade shows or conference display booths. And depending on how you structured your questioning—or were influenced by the following year's budget—you probably came up with a data set pointing to “yes,” “no” and “maybe” when it comes to going the e-zine route.
Certain industries and age groups are more predisposed to reading on a screen, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of industry or member demographics, economic realities are pushing many associations toward digital solutions.
E-zines are far less expensive to produce, ship and archive than print. But do you risk alienating longtime members who may feel less comfortable with a digital-only magazine and might miss the tactile print experience along with its familiarity, shelf life, portability and heft factor? Don't underestimate these elements, especially when you've got thousands of dues-renewal statements in the mail.
In a perfect world, there would be a definitive “right” or “wrong” answer to print vs. digital, but it's not that simple. The reality is the two can work symbiotically and increase overall member engagement, rather than divide it. When we conduct reader surveys for clients who have both print and digital member magazines, one of our goals is to understand the unique value members assign to each medium.
What print brings to the table
Traditional print is visually appealing, portable, easy to access and favored by those who prefer the tactile experience of touching, holding and flipping through a high-quality magazine. As an added bonus, full-page display advertising has great appeal for marketers who want to tell stories and dazzle eyes with lush photography or copy that tugs at a reader's raw emotions.
What's more, a print reader is far less likely to be sidetracked or co-opted by peripheral competition for his or her eyeballs. And last but not least, the traditional magazine is a proven entity for which your members have a high comfort level—and know how to use.
What digital brings to the table
On the other hand, since most of us spend our work lives on computers, it seems logical we'd want to receive timely news and trends about our industry and profession in real time. Digital is quick, convenient, environmentally friendly and certainly cost effective. Not only do digital publications save publishers thousands of dollars in production, printing and postage, their audience reach can be expanded much faster and more measurably than print. And let's not forget the “cool” factor. Although e-zines have been around a few years, they're still an emerging technology with inherent “early adopter” cachet among users.
What the hybrid approach brings to the table
We've found most successful associations seem to rely on both print and digital to reinforce content and cross-promote member offerings. Most successful consumer media brands don't rely on a single medium to tell their stories. They use every tool they can.
Why shouldn't associations?
Take Oprah Winfrey and her eponymous multimedia empire. Of course Oprah has the broadcast brands, but she also has Oprah.com, the O Insider e-newsletter, an Oprah Twitter feed, and, of course, O Magazine. Tune in to any and you'll find content has been repurposed to fit each unique audience. You can bet the queen of consumer media knows integration and cross promotion are keys to her brand's success.
O Magazine is available in print and on the Web. And while the Web version is not an exact replica of the print version (i.e., an e-magazine or digital edition), the magazine's micro site serves the same purpose—to provide the reader with a generous portion of content that reinforces what is available in print, while cross promoting the print version and driving traffic between the two.
Here are some good examples of associations whose e-zines are resonating with members, bringing their content and advertising to life and reinforcing their print magazine experience:
APSP Quarterly (Association of Pool & Spa Professionals)
HR Pulse (American Society of Human Healthcare Resource Administration) www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/AHHQ0307/
Public Power (American Public Power Association)
Measuring your e-zine's effectiveness?
There are several options for measuring the effectiveness of your digital edition. Starting with a small group like your customer advisory council makes good sense. Moving on to a readership survey is probably the next best step. Although focus groups could be utilized—and in some instances probably should be—they can get rather pricey.
With the readership survey, make sure you keep it fairly short—12 to 15 questions max. While there's nothing wrong with sending out a survey via direct mail—as long as you also include a proper incentive—many prefer online surveys because they are quick and easy. You want to ensure enough responses to generate a valid sample of the member population.
If you don't have in-house technology resources to field and build online surveys, consider user-friendly Web-based options such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang, which are economical, reliable and surprisingly robust.
While focus groups and member surveys can be enlightening, the most reliable indicators of your e-zine success are in the number of reader e-mails you receive—regardless of their rating—and, of course, your advertising performance. If long-standing industry members and suppliers are buying digital space to enhance their print or conference spending, or if you are suddenly attracting advertisers your sales team previously couldn't entice into print or live event channels, it's pretty clear you're on the right track.
Striking the right balance between print, digital, live event and social media communication tools is an iterative process and should not be taken lightly. The answer can only be derived by testing, experimenting, tweaking and, of course, continuously asking members how you're doing. At the end of the day, there's really only one mistake you can make—ignoring the power of emerging media and staying on the sidelines.
Dana Plotke has worked in B2B marketing and communications for more than 15 years with a focus on association media and events since 2002. She leads the marketing efforts of Naylor, LLC.
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