by Linda Zebian
Association magazines have emerged from the shadows of their organizations as publications with authoritative editorial, credible advertisers and savvy design. Though many of these magazines are front-runners against their print b-to-b and consumer for-profit competitors, they are still generally lacking substantial e-media and events programs, which have become huge revenue generators for publishers. For our first-ever association magazine survey, Folio: teamed up with Readex Research to uncover the state of association magazines;how much of an asset they are to their organizations, and the likes and gripes of the people who produce them.
Tight budgets, small staffs and a general lack of understanding from association management appear to be the main causes of concern for association publishing staffers. Meg Featheringham, assistant editor and advertising manager at the American Health Information Management Association, explained the reason for her dual title at last month’s SNAP conference in Chicago: "It’s a matter of condensing everything into a more efficient management," she says. "I think they didn’t want to hire someone separately and there’s not a whole lot of advertising issues to deal with, so it doesn’t take as much time as the editing portion."
Working for an association magazine does have its benefits. A number of respondents say service and quality are the bottom lines, rather than revenue. One respondent wrote, "Serving the association’s community, not stockholders," is the most rewarding aspect of working for an association publication.
The Magazine vs. The Association vs. The Market
When asked how many titles they produce, 23 percent of respondents said they publish three, followed by 22 percent who said they produce between five and nine publications, with the average association cranking out about eight different titles. (Chart 3a) Those eight include a variety of publication types, including print and e-mail newsletters.
Print newsletters still hold strong in the association world, with 45 percent of respondents producing them. Thirty-two percent say they produce scholarly journals, while 16 percent produce newspapers and tabloids. (Chart 3b)
The international presence of association magazines is strong, as 59 percent of respondents claim a global membership scope, while 28 percent target only domestic members. Almost half of association magazines are produced by professional associations, while about a third come out of trade associations. (Chart 1)
The average number of members in each association was reported at 152,000, with 15 percent of respondents citing 300,000 individual members or more. (Chart 2)
Circulation sizes range from less than 1,000 to over 500,000. The average circulation size for an association’s smallest publication is 17,200, while publications with the largest circulations averaged 161,000. (Charts 5a & 5b) Of those figures, on average, 21.4 percent of the largest publication’s circulation comes from non-association members.
Competition comes from predominately for-profit publications, 81 percent of respondents reported. Even the association market is overloaded: Sixty-five percent of respondents also claimed other association titles as direct competitors.
Bringing Home the Bacon: It’s All About Print
Generally, association publications make a slight dent when it comes to their organizations’ overall revenue generation. Twenty-two percent of respondents claim 10 to 24 percent of their company’s revenue comes from its publications, followed closely by 20 percent who say their publications bring in only 1 to 9 percent of the pie. Fourteen percent generate between 25 and 49 percent of total company revenue. (Chart 6)
In 2005, the amount of revenue pulled in by association magazines ranged from as little as less than $100,000 to upwards of $10 million, with the average association publication bringing in $6.5 million for its organization. Twenty-two percent of respondents said their publications generated between $1 million and $2.9 million, followed by 15 percent who said their publications generated a mere $100,000 or less. Twelve percent saw revenue reach the $10 million mark. (Chart 7)
Where is the money coming from? Like their consumer and b-to-b peers, print is the main revenue driver for association magazines, accounting for about 91 percent of total revenue. Nearly 68 percent of revenue generated in 2005 was derived from print advertising, while 23 percent was generated through paid subscriptions. (Chart 8)
This sum generated by print properties is notably higher than b-to-b and consumer magazines, which reported combined revenue from ads and subscriptions to be about 71 percent of total revenue, respectively, according to Folio:’s b-to-b and consumer CEO surveys published in May and October, respectively. Only 6 percent of association publishing revenue came from online and e-media ventures, while events accounted for a tiny 2 percent.
This year looks somewhat hopeful for association magazines looking to bring in more revenue. Forty-three percent of respondents expect to see an increase in revenue compared to 2005, with 18 percent of those expecting to see an increase between 5 and 9 percent. Others aren’t so optimistic: 41 percent expect revenue to stay about the same for 2006 and 6 percent expect the numbers to decrease. (Chart 9)
The last three years have shown steady growth for most association publications, as 59 percent of respondents are projecting 2006 revenue to be up compared to revenue generated in 2003. Of those, 31 percent expect a 10 percent to 24 percent increase. On the flip side, 21 percent expect no growth at all, projecting revenue in 2006 will show no significant change from 2003. Seven percent say 2006 revenue figures will decrease compared to three years ago, while 3 percent of those say they expect a drop between 5 and 9 percent. (Chart 10)
Expenses are still flowing for association publications, as the average association spent $509,000 on publication-related products and services in 2005. Twenty-six percent of respondents claimed their organizations spent $1 million or more on publication services and products (Chart 12). A number of respondents cite a recent redesign as a notable accomplishment in the last year, while others say they’ve finally created Web sites for their publications or have added to their e-media list of products, which has led to increases in revenues.
Likes and Gripes
Working for an association publication has its benefits. Seventy-seven percent of respondents indicated that they enjoy working for their title because of the closeness to the market they get through the association. Similarly, 74 percent said they like it because their publication is a market leader, while 52 percent claim to like the ability to leverage association research and market information. "Because you are part of an association, you really get to bond with your readers," says Dan Tratensek, editor and director of publications for the American Hardware Association’s Hardware Retailing. "We really address the needs of our members better than anybody out there that’s just a commercial publishing house and doesn’t have a deeper tie to the industry."
Not all aspects of association publishing are easy. Sixty percent of respondents claim lack of staffing as challenging or very challenging. Staff sizes range from one to more than 25 members, with the average association publication employing 12. Twenty-seven percent have 25 or more staff members, while 20 percent say they have between 10 and 24 people on staff. (Chart 4) "You have to work editorial miracles with a very small staff, little resources, and very low pay," says one respondent. "In my office there are two of us. We do everything, including ad sales. It is very frustrating and a lot of pressure." Fifty-three percent of respondents say competing with for-profit titles is a very challenging aspect.
Forty-four percent of respondents say lack of editorial independence is not a challenge that they face in their day-to-day duties. Twenty-nine percent claim, however, that this aspect of their job is challenging or very challenging.
Another hot issue: Association politics. A number of respondents say that politics from members, board members and top management are always in play.
"Learning the ropes and then abiding by the politics of the organizations [is a challenge]," says one respondent. Another takes issue with the association’s executive suite, noting that "explaining to management the standard operating procedures of the publishing business" is problematic.
The survey sample of 539 included all Folio: subscribers classified with association publishing as their company’s primary focus.
Data was collected via mail survey from September 12 to October 24, 2006. The survey was closed for tabulation with 194 usable responses;a 36 percent response rate. As with any research, the results should be interpreted with the potential of non-response bias in mind. It is unknown how those who responded to the survey may be different from those who did not respond. In general, the higher the response rate, the lower the probability of estimation errors due to non-response and thus, the more stable the results. To best meet the survey objectives, the results have been filtered to include only the 176 respondents who indicated they work for some type of association/society and their organization produces at least one publication. The margin of error for percentages based on 176 usable responses is ﾱ6.1 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. That is, 95 percent of the time we can be confident that percentages in the actual population would not vary by more than this in either direction.