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Start with Strategy - 7/21/2009 -

Don't expect your publications to grow and thrive if you keep on doing the same things the same way. Here are several specific ideas to get your association publishing team started on the path to developing a strategic media plan.

By Carla Kalogeridis

IN TODAY'S HIGHLY COMPETITIVE MEDIA MARKET, an association publishing team's ability to think strategically has never been more important. At last week's Michigan Society of Association Executive's (MSAE) ORGPRO Conference, keynote speaker Rich Horwath outlined the key elements of strategic thinking to drive:

  • Profitability (more resources invested in the right activities) and
  • Productivity (fewer resources invested in the right activities) to achieve competitive advantage and profitability.

Why do association publishing teams need strategic thinking? Horwath says, "Most people have a love-hate relationship with strategy. They know they need it, but they don't want to add anything else to their crowded to-do list.”

The goal for association publishing teams, he says, should be to set your own course instead of reacting and being on the tail-end of everything. "New growth comes from new thinking. You can't just keep implementing the same old strategies and plans and expect new things to happen,” Horwath points out. "That's like a farmer expecting a new harvest without first planting the seeds.”

Here are some highlights from Horwath's presentation that have particular relevance to association publishing teams:

  1. Don't use only one tool to develop your strategy. Association publishers must embrace a wide variety of media to reach all member demographics and to attract new ones. "It's like hitting 18 holes of golf with nothing but your putter,” says Horwath. "You can get through it, but not very successfully.”
  2. Stay focused on what's important—not just what's urgent. Association publishing teams may have endless deadlines to meet, but if you don't set aside time every two weeks for strategic thinking, you'll never get where you want to be, says Horwath.
  3. Understand that you do have enough resources. The claim that you can't do something because you don't have enough resources is just mental laziness. If you have a shortfall somewhere, it's because you have chosen to allocate your resources elsewhere. Make sure you are consciously choosing what you want to do and where you are allocating your resources.

    "A good strategy is nothing more than the intelligent allocation of limited resources through a unique system of activities to outperform the competition,” says Horwath. "Having the most resources doesn't guarantee anything. Just look at General Motors.”
  4. Figure out how you are different from the competition and make sure you can articulate that to members, readers, and advertisers. What is the differentiated value that your publication(s) provide to members or readers? "There is no ‘better' because ‘better' is subjective,” says Horwath. "Is blueberry pie ‘better' than apple pie? Who knows? It depends on who you ask. The real question is what is the differentiated value between you and your competition?”
  5. Don't be afraid to give strategic responsibility to someone on your publishing team with expertise but little experience. "There's a big difference between experience and expertise,” points out Horwath. "Look at the U.S. Post Office. It's been in business for more than 100 years, while FedEx has been in business for 38 years. Which one is more proficient at delivery?” Someone can pile up years of experience and never really get any better. Experience should never be the leading criteria upon which you base strategic thinking.
  6. Record your insights. Spend time every day writing down what you learned about your work that day. Keep these insights all together in a journal (handwritten or digital). Reread them from time to time—both to yourself and at your publishing team meetings. And don't hesitate to use drawings and doodling to capture your insights. Models are often better at conveying what you learned than the written word. A recent Nobel Prize winner said daily recording what he learned was his most important secret to success.
  7. Think more about the member than the magazine, e-newsletter, journal, or website you are producing. What are some of your members' existing needs that you could supply but are currently not supplying? Figure that out and then let those insights drive new media products.
  8. Periodically, prune your publications. "You can't be everything to everyone,” Horwath reminds, "otherwise you will be spreading your resources too thin, and you'll never be memorable to anyone. When was the last time your pruned your products? Don't be afraid to say, ‘We're going to stop doing X, Y, and Z because it's no longer adding value.' Good leaders must be able to do that.”

Ask: What are we choosing not to offer? Who are we choosing not to serve?

"Stop running around doing things without a plan,” Horwath says. "Strategy has to drive what you are doing, day in and day out. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this project? What's driving it? Does it fit in our strategic plan?' If not, stop doing it.”

Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing (formerly SNAP). Richard Horwath's latest book is Deep Dive: The Proven Method for Building Strategy.

ORGPRO is the annual conference of the Michigan Society of Association Executives. This year's event was held July 13-15 at Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, Michigan.


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