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From the Listerver: Replacing a Print Journal with Digital-Only - 3/16/2010 -

Your colleagues discuss the challenges of eliminating printed journals and replacing them with digital-only versions.

Q. Last winter, we moved our journal for to online-only access for our international members with option to pay an additional fee to receive the print journal. Three months after implementing this policy change, about 300 members have decided to pay for the print, five have cancelled membership, and about 1,700 we have not heard from either way. This last group now gets online-only access.

Now we are considering eliminating the print journal for all other members, which is about 14,000 U.S. and Canadian members, with online only access included in the membership fee. Our journal is self supporting, as we receive advertising, reprint, and subscription revenue that exceeds our fixed monthly expenses. I'd like to ask the journal publishers out there if any have gone from a print/online journal to an online-only journal and what type of feedback did you receive from your membership?

A. I wrote a feature about college and university magazines' experiences going online-only; many that tried it reversed the decision before much time had passed, and most that considered the move ultimately rejected it and stayed on paper for a number of reasons. Of course, there were a few sources who strongly spoke in favor of online-only magazines.

Kim Fernandez, freelance writer

A. Have you polled your members in a blunt way: If you had to choose between the print version and an online digital version, which one would you want? We ask a similar question of our readers when we do our readership survey every three years. 85% of our members continue to want the print version despite our online digital publication.

This answer really depends upon the makeup of your members, how quick they are to embrace technology, whether you have other programs (i.e. certifications, PAC efforts,) that would still tie them to you and not force them to drop membership because your print journal is digital or online only. Many of your members may not be involved in leadership positions, chapter events, etc., online forums, or annual conference attendance – typical areas which tie members to coming back. Your journal may be the only tangible connection your members receive especially with much of our marketing efforts now via email. It can turn in to a Pandora 's Box of lost membership, therefore revenue, when killing the print version of a journal. I am not sure if the one you mentioned is the flagship publication or not.

It is quite an attractive financial prospect to kill the print version of anything. But before the board of directors makes a drastic decision, they really should ask the members first. At least you would be armed with good information.

Kim Howard, editor in chief, ACC Docket, Association of Corporate Counsel, and board member, Association Media & Publishing

A. For economic reasons, we decided to publish 12 issues this fiscal year (as we've done for years now) but offer four of them in a digital-only format. We offer both the "fancy” version (using Advanced Publishing Services/APS) and an HTML version.

Our first digital-only issue was in December. I got some push-back at that time, but I figure many people were too involved in holiday activities to really miss the print edition. However, the second one (February) was not nearly as "un-noticed.” I received one, maybe two, positive comments, compared to 25 or 30 negative comments. That might not seem like a lot, as we have 36,000+ members, but I'm still not sure everyone is aware of the change.

Our sales folks are having an extremely tough time selling ads in the digital-only issues. One of the main reasons is that our open rates are very low. When advertisers hear that we have some print editions and some digital-only, they are more comfortable buying ad space in the print edition. We still offer the digital edition when we publish print copies, so advertising in that is a given. (Full disclosure: we are having a very tough time selling ads in print as well, but it's exponentially more difficult for the digital-only versions.)

We are learning that for our audience, the tactical, tangible, print-in-hand version is what our members want. We hope to resume printing 12 issues next fiscal year. If that's not possible due to budget constraints, we will combine issues so that if we print eight, for example, we'll also offer those same eight digitally – no digital-onlys for the near future.

Terri Tracey, CAE, vice president, technology and publications, Institute for Supply Management

A. I have had a personal experience with an association magazine that went digital without doing the proper advance legwork and asking members what they wanted. The association's decision was strictly financial (and a bit in desperation—their industry was really struggling, and still is).

The digital version was not planned well or received well. Within 18 months or so, both the association magazine (25 years old) and the digital edition had folded. Now, the members have access to a family of vertical e-newsletters, which they seem to like OK. But the advertising revenue has pretty much dried up. And there is no longer a communication forum for the in depth, technical articles that the members loved in the magazine.

I would tread very carefully here, and if after thorough research and surveying you do decide that a digital edition is right for your association, be sure to get the help of digital magazine experts/consultants who can help set you up forsuccess.

Carla Kalogeridis, editorial director, Association Media & Publishing

Don't miss the upcoming article in Association Media & Publishing's Signature magazine (May/June 2010) featuring case studies of associations that have replaced a printed publication with a digital-only version.


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