Much like their consumer and b-to-b peers, association publishers are trying to reinvent themselves and stay relevant with their audiences (last year the Society of National Association Publications changed its name to Association Media and Publishing). Unlike consumer and b-to-b publishers, many association publishers aren’t the core business of their parent organization, which makes their perceived relevance all the more important. (Although to be fair, as more consumer and b-to-b publishers turn to things like “marketing services,” publishing isn’t necessarily their core business anymore either.) 

At the same time, association publishers are pioneering audience engagement tactics that the broader magazine world can definitely learn from. This story looks at how revenue ratios and overall business development are changing for association publishers in 2010.

Market Breakdown

The largest group of respondents (24 percent) say they employ 10 to 24 people across their association publishing portfolio, with 21 percent saying they employ four to five [Chart 3]. However, a surprising 13 percent say they have 50 or more employees dedicated to their publishing operations.

Association publishers are prolific, with 29 percent saying they publish five or more magazines and 12 percent saying they publish 20 or more titles [Chart 4a]. Eighty-one percent of association publishers offer print magazines, while 84 percent have e-newsletters. Thirty-three percent publish scholarly journals, and 25 percent have newspapers or tabloids [Chart 4b].

The smallest publication for 20 percent of respondents has less than 1,000 in circulation, while the largest publication for the majority of respondents (33 percent) was between 10,000 and 30,000 [Chart 6a and 6b].

As overall revenue generators, magazines remain small for many associations. Twenty-four percent of respondents (the majority in this case) say the magazines account for between 1 percent and 9 percent of their entire organization’s revenue [Chart 5]. Twenty-one percent say the magazines contribute 10 percent to 24 percent of the overall revenue, while 13 percent say the magazines don’t drive any revenue! Just three percent of respondents say the magazines account for all of the association’s revenue.

Still, many association publishers are optimistic about their publishing performance in 2010 [Chart 10]. Twenty-eight percent of respondents say they expect an increase in publication revenue this year (with the majority citing an increase between 5 percent and 9 percent). Thirty-one percent of respondents say they think publication revenue will stay the same, while 19 percent say they expect a decrease (with the majority saying revenue will fall between 10 percent and 24 percent).

“Associations lag a recession, but they also lag a recovery,” says Rebecca Rolfes, founder and executive vice president of Imagination Publishing, a custom publisher that serves associations. “Over the last year, they finally started getting a little more money and more confidence about planning budgets.”

Last fall, Arthritis Today, the member publication of the Arthritis Foundation, hosted an executive summit at Samir Husni’s Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, inviting other association marketers and publishers to discuss the role of the magazine in a dramatically changing media landscape. Arthritis Today featured an ABC-measured rate base of 710,000, while full readership (as measured by MRI) was 4.3 million.

Arthritis Today’s marketing approach differs from many other cause-related organizations in that it’s based on a membership, rather than philanthropic model. Direct mail is the primary tool for both magazine and fundraising efforts.

“At the time we had cut back on our direct mail acquisition, but there was a big outcry at the meeting about why cut back on one of the best things the organization has going?” says publisher Cindy McDaniel. “This year, we held circulation steady and for 2011 we have the investment to increase acquisition again.”

However, 2010 was a record year for the revenue side at Arthritis Today. The magazine contributes about $30 million to the Arthritis Foundation, with about $10 million in direct revenue (advertising, subscription sales and sponsorships, plus revenue from planned giving, events and corporate sponsors); $19 million from indirect organizational revenue (membership and planned giving); and approximately $9 million in strategic value.

“We projected being flat over 2009, but we’re actually coming in at 3 percent ahead in print,” says McDaniel. “We’ve also seen dramatic growth online. We don’t have enough inventory for the online demand.”

Revenue Ratios Going Forward

Still, print advertising dominates. Respondents said print advertising accounted for approximately 63.4 percent of their publishing revenue in 2010, down from 66.2 percent in 2009 [Chart 7]. Paid subscriptions were the next highest revenue source, accounting for 17.1 percent of publication revenue in 2010, up from 16.3 percent in 2009.

Even with online growth, print still works for associations, according to Rolfes. “With association communications, it’s a controlled circ environment,” she adds. “If you send someone an electronic message, it’s too easy to ignore. An association publication may be the only tangible, consistent evidence that you’re a member. The association magazines I know are seeing healthy rebounds in print advertising.”

According to Glenn Cook, American School Board Journal’s editor-in-chief, print will eventually become “the new vinyl.” Despite the evaporation of its paid circ model, which has cut into his publication’s market, “people still want long-form and crave the full body, tactile print experience,” Cook said.

However, other associations are farming out their publications to custom publishers, as well as dedicated b-to-b publishers. Hanley Wood and the American Institute of Architects struck a five-year agreement that has Hanley Wood Exhibitions managing the annual AIA Convention and Design Exposition, with HW’s Architect becoming the association’s official publication. The magazine will maintain its editorial independence, the publisher says, but also will feature exclusive coverage of AIA programs and other initiatives.

The agreement calls for AIA members to receive digital editions of Hanley Wood’s Residential Architect, EcoHome and Eco-Structure and full access to their Web sites, as well as the formation of an editorial advisory committee, joint research initiatives and other support for AIA chapters

The AIA’s agreement with Hanley Wood becomes effective January 2011. The association’s current agreement with McGraw-Hill Construction and its Architectural Record expires at the end of this year.

Are Mobile Apps the Future?

Online media remains small and associations lag behind consumer and b-to-b publishers when it comes to online as a percentage of overall publication revenue, but it is growing. Online media accounted for 8.9 percent of association publication revenue in 2010, up from 5.9 percent in 2009 [Chart 7].

AARP has launched its first series of mobile products, including an app for the iPhone and iPod touch that enables members to carry a digital version of their membership card, allowing them easier access to member benefits, activities and programs. The rollout also includes three new publication apps developed with digital versions of AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin and AARP VIVA now available for the iPad, iPhone and iTouch.

The publication apps are available free of charge to both AARP members and non-members through both iTunes and AARP’s Digital Newsstand, which is built using Texterity’s Coverleaf newsstand model. The member app was developed by Bottle Rocket Apps.

“It’s less about us wanting to get 1 million people to download the app by the end of year as much as we want people to recognize AARP members are vibrant, tech-savvy users,” says Nataki Clarke, vice president of digital strategy and operations at AARP. “You can find us online, you can find us in print and TV and radio. This is just the next expansion. We’re looking forward to making apps bigger and better, so users can get not only information but also discounts.”

Since launching the digital newsstand earlier this year, AARP has seen “tens of thousands” of people downloading its digital editions, according to Clarke.

“Right now, some of the big associations are launching mobile apps and some are doing iPad apps,” says Rolfes. “Even some of the smaller associations are doing mobile phone apps. My personal feeling is that the mobile space is where it will go for associations. Obviously, that’s where it’s going for a lot of publishers, but in many cases, association members don’t sit at a desk and they’re not in front of computer. A digital publication that comes on a laptop really doesn’t help in many instances. Mobile has a lot of legs.”

Association Challenges

Despite staffing levels that compare favorably to many consumer and b-to-b publications of similar size, staffing remains the largest challenge for association publications, according to survey respondents [Chart 9].

Competing with for-profit publications was the next largest challenge, followed by a lack of editorial independence from the association.

While many of the respondents to this survey come from smaller association magazines, they are investing—often more so than their consumer and b-to-b counterparts. In 2009, 11 percent of respondents said their organization spent between $1 million and $1.9 million on publication-related products and services [Chart 8]. Another 11 percent say they spent between $100,000 and $249,999.

At opposite ends of the scale, 5 percent of respondents say they spent less than $10,000 on publication-related products and services in 2009, while 1 percent say they spent $4 million or more. A combined 16 percent of respondents say they spent more than $1 million on their publications.