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Meeting the Challenges of Digital Subscriptions - 2/26/2013 -

As more content moves from print to digital, association publishers wrestle with how to package access to digital content for members and nonmembers, as well as what stats to report back to advertisers.

By Carla Kalogeridis

A recent discussion on the Association Media & Publishing listserve included a question about how to define online publication subscriptions. "Obviously, if you subscribe to a print publication, you pay your money and you get a copy in the mail,” points out James A. Baumann, director of communications and marketing for the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International. "But what does subscription mean in the online world? For me, it means that you have checked a box in your online membership profile of the association’s management system, and when a new issue is available and posted, you get an email telling you it is ready with a link to the publication.”

Baumann says his association’s marketers use words like "auditable” and "official” when they talk about ACUHO-I’s online publications, but Baumann believes that "advertisers don’t really care about how many people subscribe to an online publication. They want the stats about page views and click-throughs.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to audit and certify digital subscriptions. Kim Kett, vice president, national accounts, for digital publishing service provider Godengo+Texterity and a member of the Association Media & Publishing board of directors, notes that the delivery method of an online subscription is really up to the organization. The member can be notified when the online publication is available, or to boost reader engagement, a direct link to the publication can be sent. Some associations offer an either/or option to their members for print or digital, while others offer a completely separate digital subscription independent of membership.

"The ones who offer an either/or have done so as a cost-reducing measure or to more efficiently serve their international members,” Kett says.

Today’s auditing organizations like BPA and ABC have a column on their audit statements for digital. The auditor requires log files to prove that these digital subscribers have first opted in (or in the case of some associations, opted out of print), and second, that the digital issues were sent to them, Kett explains. A packet for each issue sent is prepared at audit time and delivered to auditor for verification. That way, if 8,000 of your members receive print and 2,000 have opted for digital, the 2,000 can still be counted for the audit and reported to advertisers. "All of the stats on readership are available as well,” she adds.

Shaunna Cahill, media production coordinator for the Society for College and University Planning, says SCUP published the final print issue of its quarterly journal last July and stopped offering subscriptions about a year or two earlier. "We're currently working to get all of our archives online in html format, and our next step will be to resurrect subscription offerings,” she says. "Eventually, readers will have access to any article in their browser in html format or to a PDF download, as well as an EPUB or Kindle file when available.”

Cahill says SCUP is currently mulling over this questions regarding digital subscriptions:

  • Should members have free access to the association’s newest material—and all of the archives in all file formats—as a benefit of membership?
  • Should nonmembers be able to purchase a subscription for a limited time (perhaps one year)? As Cahill sees it, this subscription fee would cover access to any new material published while the subscription is valid. She also believes the nonmember subscribers should have access to archives—but which file formats? "We have not yet established the subscription fee for a nonmember individual,” she says.
  • What about library subscriptions? "We want to offer them, but we need to research into what libraries want from an individual publisher,” she says. For example, do they want to give anyone on their campus access to the online html journal? Or, do they simply want a collection of PDFs? SCUP’s online content is offered through a few aggregates such as ProQuest, but the association wants the content available as individual units if libraries are interested.

Circling back to the question about what digital advertisers are really interested in, Scott D. Oser, president of Scott Oser Associates, agrees with Baumann that potential advertisers for an online publication want to know statistics that are more common to an e-newsletter or a website than those commonly connected to a print audience."The number of subscribers is good to know, but the number of readers is more important,” he says. "Digital advertisers want to know the number of people who have access to the publication (subscribers/ members), the number of people who download an issue, the number of people who actually read the issue, and the amount of time they spend with an issue.” Oser says that association publishers should be able to get this information fairly easily from their digital service provider.

Regarding the value of having an auditable online subscription base, Oser believes that a statement from an auditing organization like BPA or ABC is not a requirement to sell advertising."You do not need to have your online publication audited unless you are working with a large number of ad agencies or are in an industry where all of your competition is auditing their publications,” he advises.

Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing.


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