You can't fix it if you don't know it's broken. Having current and accurate readership information and feedback is crucial to a publishing team's ability to lead the association's media products into the next decade.
By Carla Kalogeridis
EVERY 10 YEARS, THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ATTEMPTS to track the nation's population. The 2010 Census questionnaires will arrive in mailboxes across the country by mid-March, followed by U.S. Census takers going door-to-door to make sure the questionnaires are answered and not ignored.
It got me thinking about association publishers, and when and how we take a "census” of our members and readers—not just counting them, although that's important, but actually gathering some other useful information that will help us plan and create better media products. Hopefully, for most of us, it's more often than every ten years; and yet, I'm willing to bet those once-a-decade surveyors are out there, too. (You know who you are.)
Everyone's talking about engagement, and social media is the tool we're supposed to be embracing right now. But perhaps one of the earliest kinds of engagement—the time-tested reader survey—still has a few breaths left in it as well.
Actually, there are quite a number of experts that serve the association field with their knowledge about how to conduct very effective reader surveys. The good news is that many of them are members of Association Media & Publishing; the even better news is that in an upcoming edition of this e-newsletter (as well as in a near-future issue of Signature magazine), these experts are going to be writing for you about how to harness the power of reader surveys.
For now, we can take a few moments to get into the association publisher census-taking mindset.
According to the U.S. Census, "Census information affects the numbers of seats your state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives. And people from many walks of life use census data to advocate for causes, rescue disaster victims, prevent diseases, research markets, locate pools of skilled workers, and more.” Gaining an accurate count also helps the federal government determine where to allocate funding each year on projects such as infrastructure and services for hospitals, job training centers, schools, senior centers, and the like.
Obviously, your association's reader "census” isn't likely to help you rescue disaster victims or cure diseases. But it can certainly help you figure out where to "allocate funding each year” for various media products your association currently produces or is considering for the near future. It will also help you forecast the viability of specific publications.
I happen to live and work in Michigan. Michigan is not going to be a shining star in the 2010 U.S. Census. How do I know that? Well, last December, the U.S. Census released preliminary numbers related to the U.S. population, and it does not look good for Michigan. The only three states to lose population from July 2008 to July 2009 were Michigan, Maine, and Rhode Island. This means that Michigan will lose a Congressional seat and our clout in Washington, DC. We also will lose federal funding to those states that gained population.
Now, suppose that Michigan is one of your association's publications. If you've got accurate and recent data, you know what challenges are coming down the pike, and you can start making a plan to deal with them. If your publication is well-read and respected, the survey will confirm that—and if the opposite is true, the survey will open your eyes to that fact as well. Then, if you are tasked with cutting back in some way, you know without a doubt, which publications are scoring well with your members and which are not.
And better yet, if by some chance you have a little fun money in 2010, survey results will tell you which of your association's publications need some investment—and in what areas.
The bottom line is that publication performance data is your ultimate tool for competitiveness and survival. Knowing exactly how you are performing and competing can tell you when to take action to prevent losing clout in your industry or funding from your association—if you have the numbers early enough to do something about them.
Just as the U.S. Census sticks to its 10-year schedule without fail, gathering information about your association publications' performance and competitiveness on a regular basis will also allow you to take stock of where you were and how it compares to where you are today.
Associations should take time to send out their own "association census,” and start engaging members in a discussion. While you may or may not need an expert's help to conduct a well-executed reader survey, you can go ahead and lay the groundwork with a quick "association census” of your own. Take time to ask:
- Why did you join our association?
- Are we communicating enough with you? Providing you with enough relevant information?
- If not, how would you like to be communicated with? How can we deliver the information in a format that is better for you?
- What publications or media products are we not providing you that you would like us to look into?
- When it comes to our association publications, what do we do well?
- What can we do better?
- How are our editors doing in meeting your information needs?
As leaders within your own associations and industries, acting on the results of a survey is your opportunity to take leadership and ownership over the future of your association's media make-up. Association publishing teams must work harder to develop relationships with the members and advertisers whose support you will need to grow. And regardless of how strong your "census” numbers come back, in this highly competitive media environment, you will have to work harder to deliver value to your members and continue to be thought leaders and a resource to the industry or profession you are serving.
Your publications land on your members' desks and in their inboxes every day—there's no better door-to-door than that. Measure everything about your publications that can possibly be measured—your future depends on it.
Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaKalo.