How important is a print magazine to an association’s communications strategy? Words by Roslyn Atkinson.

Even up to 12 months ago I would have said ‘critical’. But now that nearly everyone has a smartphone and access to a tablet device, the world has changed. Now I am frequently finding myself telling associations that their print magazine is important, but not the centre of their communications strategy.

For some associations, this involves a shift in thinking about the balance of print and digital in their communications strategy. It might even change the way they think about their membership value proposition, given that a print magazine (and its content) is usually regarded as one of the main benefits of membership.

I can see this reflected in the results of the latest Member Communications Survey conducted jointly by Mahlab Media and Associations Forum, which received responses from 120 associations in Australia (download it here).

The survey shows that associations are adding more digital ways of communicating with their members, yet are mostly keeping the traditional print publication going the same as they always have done.

Website news updates and social media are the most popular communications platforms and associations want to grow them even more: 59 per cent plan to publish more website news in 2014 and 58 per cent plan to publish more in social media.

At the other end of the scale, 5 per cent of associations plan to publish more in print, while 82 per cent intend to publish about the same and only 13 per cent intend to reduce their print publishing. Quarterly publications remain the most popular frequency.

No wonder marketing and communications managers are feeling pressured! They’re expected to do more with the same resources. It’s not surprising that the top four challenges cited by associations were:

  • Lack of staff (62 per cent, up from 49 per cent the year before)
  • Measuring return on investment of member communications (44 per cent)
  • Disengaged members (39 per cent)
  • Adapting to new technologies (37 per cent)

The next two challenges in the list are also interesting: declining advertising and high production costs.

So how can an association’s marketing and communications manager alleviate some of these problems? One way is to re-evaluate the role of print in your mix and see if you need to shift the balance more strongly to digital – for some associations, this could even mean reducing the number of pages or the frequency of its flagship magazine.

I believe the value in a print magazine is the experience it gives to the reader. It’s quality time they are giving to you. I tend to picture a reader sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee on their lunch break, reading their member magazine and smiling. It’s a highly personal experience. They’re inspired, energised, learning something new, bookmarking a page to show a colleague or friend, or tearing something out to blu-tack on the wall. It’s a tangible benefit of membership.

This kind of reading experience is valuable, but it’s not possible every day. What is possible every day is for your content to be available at any time, from anywhere, on any device, so that you’re completely useful and relevant at the exact moment that your member or prospective member needs you.

Picture your reader sitting in the same cafe, with the same cup of coffee on their lunch break, this time using their mobile phone to do a Google search, and tapping onto a story on your website… and then sharing that story on Facebook or forwarding to a colleague who isn’t a member yet … and that colleague signs up to your enewsletter … and eventually becomes a new member themselves.

That’s an example of how content marketing works, and why digital content is so vital.

Imagine you were starting your communications strategy from scratch, and didn’t have a legacy magazine to think about. What role would your website have, and what kind of print publication would you have? How frequent does it really need to be? How does that differ to what you have now?

I’m not suggesting that you abandon print. But print no longer plays the same role that it once did as the central communications tool for an association with its members.

If you’re further along the journey and you do have a good print/digital mix, but are still under-staffed, it’s worth considering whether outsourcing some of your communications functions would free up your time to dedicate to other projects, and overall be more effective in delivering better member engagement, retention and growth.

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