and Analytics Reveal What’s Reasonable to Expect of Your Publications in 2015
exclusive interview with Monica Bussolati, principal of Bussolati Associates, she
encourages associations to think about whether they are doing enough to
understand their members — or planning to do basically the same thing they’ve
always done next year.
Signature: If you were sitting down with a group of Association Media
& Publishing’s most active members, what would you say to them? Is there
something burning inside of you that you would want to share?
Bussolati: Yes, there
is something burning. We all know that how everyone gets and shares information
keeps changing. I see that as nothing less than a mandate for associations to
lead the way for how communities are engaged by the owners of that community.
Associations put a lot of care into cultivating these niche
audiences, and once they've been cultivated together, it's pretty easy pickings
for a for-profit company to come in and get the attention of that community for
their money. We've seen it happen. With how easy it is to get data and
intelligence and to find people through all the social channels, now more than
ever, associations need to be on the very cutting edge of marketing and
So that means that when associations are considering their
plans for next year, they need to think further than being iterative on what
they did in previous years. Look at what other organizations with big member
bases are doing. How do they measure engagement? How do they build their
Signature: Do you think that the association paid membership model is
still a contemporary business model, in light of the fact that there are so
many nonmember for-profit groups putting out great content, events, and
Bussolati: I think the
membership model in general is brilliant. In fact, it seems that the whole
world agrees because you can find restaurants that are moving to a membership
model — members are the ones who can get reservations and nonmembers can't. You
can see grocery stores having membership models. Costco membership is their top
revenue-building product. REI and lots of other corporations are looking to
have membership models and lots of media outlets. So the idea of having
membership and paid membership and different levels of membership is very
But now that almost everyone you meet on the street is a
member of something, it's important to consider the levels of membership and
what the benefits are because expectations have really changed. It used to be
that people were only members of these niche communities. But now, most people
are members of a lot of communities — and that really informs their
expectations of what membership means. Think about someone who is an Amazon
Prime member; his or her expectation is in two months this membership is more
than paying for itself.
And now you've got these communities that can build up and
really provide a lot of support in LinkedIn or in other social channels that
are outside of the control of the association, even though the association may
have their own social communities. It's even more important that associations
take a hard look at the value of membership through a very contemporary lens.
Signature: There are some
associations where members can actually see the amount of money they're saving
by being a member and can easily justify the cost of membership. But for other
groups, their member benefits are less tangible. Should associations put dollar
amounts on the different types of content they offer so that it’s easier to
connect the dots between the cost of membership and the value of membership?
Bussolati: Not every
member is a value-conscious member. That
won’t convince everyone. Each organization has an audience with its own unique
mix of perceptions. There is some value
in making it a bit more tangible for people who need to see it.
We work with one organization, they have a membership, and a
magazine, and they do remarkable events. On paper they look a lot like an
association, but they are a media company. We are helping them now to define an
"engaged” member. How do you define a mid-range versus a low-range engaged
We define all of that so that we can target market to them
in different ways. For instance, you could define it based on offsite actions
like attendance to events — combined with onsite activities like opening up
emails, clicking on links, spending time on the websites, commenting on a blog,
being engaged with the group’s social media content — and that sets parameters
for what is a highly engaged member. And this needs to be automated, if it is
time-consuming to gather this data then it is not sustainable.
Signature: And then what do you do with that information?
We can measure it and use to it to set goals and to segment
audiences. We now have a list of people that was automatically generated based
on the parameters that we created. So here's the list out of everyone in our
universe, in our marketing database, that meets the criteria of a highly
engaged member, and then we create sub-lists of those lists.
Then we can start to uncover the pattern of an engaged
member and how that connects to the bottom line. If we are successful in making
more people match the same pattern of that highly engaged member — that is, our
most profitable, low-cost acquisition member — is it worth it?
Getting more people to match the highly engaged model is
really important. That doesn’t mean that
you are only trying to change the behavior of your existing members –some
members will never be more engaged. Rather you now know what the success
profile looks like and you are trying to get more of them. So measuring
engagement in and of itself is not that important, but tying it into the bottom
line is really important. This is what tells you about the value of your
community for the things that are not so tangible. When you're measuring
everything, you start to learn what really matters to your communities, and it
gives you more authentic information than a member survey does.
If you're measuring everything, you'll know what they're
after, and you'll be able to give them more and more and more. You'll be able
to see what changes when you give them more and more and more. You can say,
"Here's where we measured six months ago and here's where we are today. Do we
have a community that's more engaged? Are they relying on us more as a leader
or sole source of trusted information from this niche?"
Signature: It’s tempting to say that what you’ve talked about so far
is the membership department’s job and not the publisher's. And yet, it's
obvious that publishers, editors, designers — anyone involved in the
communication side — must be thinking about these things when they create
Bussolati: You bet. I
think the days of those kinds of silos are gone because the demand is overwhelming
for an association's content. And no association is going to make a dent in
meeting that demand, if they have silos and if they don't really start
collaborating at the highest possible level.
Signature: You’ve mentioned the importance of measuring, digging in
deeper, and really getting into the analytics. Is Bussolati in the measurement
who's in marketing is in the measurement business. Anyone who's in publishing
better be in the measurement business.
Signature: So if a client of yours comes to you for design work, is it
likely that you would then say, "What are you going to do to measure the
effectiveness of this?"
Bussolati: It's always
been a big part of how we work. We have always been proponents of design as a
tactic to support your strategies, and so when anyone hires us for design, we
explore what existing strategies are in place. We explore their goals, and so
the natural next questions are: "How are you going to measure the success
of this project? How are you going to measure the success of us working
So many times we find that associations might be looking to
restructure and rebrand their magazines, but they still want to approach it the
same way they did a decade ago. They want to find a designer whose samples get
them all titillated. They want someone they enjoy speaking with. They want
someone's whose got a process that inspires confidence, and they want to feel
like they're in good hands — and all of that is still valid.
It's just that it isn't enough any longer. Now you need a
provider who really understands, "All right, what is a magazine?" It’s content marketing, and so how should this
magazine be performing for you? What is reasonable in 2015 to demand of your
publication? What's reasonable in 2015 to demand of your website? I think
that's the important way to look at it now. That's why we do design, but it's
inextricably woven with the metrics.
Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing.
Read more of her interview with Monica Bussolati in the next issue of Signature magazine.