By Hank Berkowitz
Associations and their hardworking communications staffs are at a crossroads. On one hand, they need to keep up with for-profit trade publishers and upstart Web competitors to appear cutting edge to their members. On the other hand, they need to justify the additional resources needed to build, maintain and support those exciting new communications offerings for members.
So how cool do you really need to be to in order to stay competitive? In the current issue of Forbes, editors Lewis D’Vorkin and Tom Post said being cool for coolness’ sake is a waste of time and resources. “Start with clarity first, then come up with cool,” they advise. “If you don’t, you end up with new, but incoherent.”
Jim Vick, staff director of IEEE Media and publisher of the electrical and electronic engineering profession’s 400,000 circulation Spectrum magazine, said his organization is still trying to get its arms around social networking. But IEEE is committed to it (for now) since members and volunteers seem highly engaged in Facebook and LinkedIn, he said.
“This is very different from our other media channels in which the objective unequivocally is to be financially successful,” Vick said. “Ultimately, however, IEEE’s social media offerings will have to pull their weight financially if they want to be part of the diverse IEEE media universe.”
So, is the disparity narrowing between associations and other sources of information their members turn to for trusted information? Naylor CEO Alex DeBarr thinks it has: “Thanks to the Web, social networking, digital publishing technology and on-demand printing, associations are closing the gap on their for-profit competitors’ content creation and distribution capabilities,” he said.
But, DeBarr cautions that the window of opportunity is closing. “Those same technological tools are making it easier for anyone with a laptop, broadband connection and flip camera to compete with you for your members’ attention,” he said.
Last month’s Association Adviser enews reader poll also supports the notion that associations are being more proactive. For instance, nearly 40 percent of readers told us the next version of their member magazines will be digital-only. Nearly one in four expect their member magazines will resemble a microsite more than a magazine per se. And, less than one in six (15.7 percent) believe their flagship magazine will remain print-only. Still not convinced? According to our 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Study, two-thirds (66.3 percent) of the 674 associations that responded to our survey are producing digital versions of their member magazines today and 27.6 percent are publishing their e-zines on a monthly or more frequent basis. That’s about six percentage points higher than the number of associations that publish their print magazines on a monthly or more frequent basis.
Case in point: IEEE’s Vick thinks the next iteration of his organization’s flagship magazine will be customized for tablets. “It will be an entirely reformulated product that will change the whole content experience and advertising business model. For instance, advertisements for cars will allow the reader to see the vehicle from all vantage points, turn it around and look inside. We’re also doing an IEEE digital newsstand just for our own IEEE-branded publications,” he said.
Does this spell the end of print? Hardly. Our research finds nearly one in four associations (23.6 percent) plan to use an integrated publishing approach that offers members their magazines in a variety of convenient platforms, including digital, Web and print.
Vick said it’s hard to ignore the cost-savings of a digital magazine versus print when you have more than 400,000 copies to distribute. But Karen Renk, executive director of the Incentive Marketing Association, told us she expects the next iteration of her organization’s magazine to be a hybrid of print, digital and microsite.
“When I travel, I still see more people reading (print) magazines on the plane than I see them reading on tablets, mobile devices or their PCs,” she observed.
Technology’s impact on live events
Technology is not only making its imprint on association media offerings, but also at live gatherings of members. Nearly one in four (24.5 percent) Association Adviser enews readers told us in a recent poll that attendees are posting instant updates and photos on their Facebook pages right from the show floor or lobby. Nearly one in six (16.4 percent) said attendees are tweeting from the show, and nearly an identical percentage are sending LinkedIn updates (15.9 percent) and blogging (15.8 percent).
We expect this trend to continue as mobile devices improve and budgetary constraints pressure attendees into justifying their time spent at an event and sharing what they’ve learned with the home office.
Vick said customizing information and best practices for members is one of his organization’s highest priorities. Considering that IEEE works with 36 different technical societies, that’s no small undertaking. The IEEE website and publications are organized around channels, and they’ve had tremendous success with IEEE Xplore, one of the world’s largest digital libraries of technical publishing. Xplore provides IEEE members with Web access to almost 3 million full-text documents–growing at a rate of 25,000 new documents per month–from some of the world’s most highly cited publications in electrical engineering, computer science and electronics. The content in IEEE Xplore comprises 151 journals, more than 900 conference proceedings, 3,400 technical standards, 400 e-books and 200 educational courses.
Talk about a membership benefit you can quantify!
It’s clear that even the most conservative associations are thinking in terms of Web 2.0, and even Web 3.0, to build their brands. But they’re not eschewing traditional media channels. In the short run, that’s more work for short-staffed associations. But in the long run, that effort will result in happier and more engaged constituents who are more likely to share your message with their peers.
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association AdvisereNews.
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