Breaking Down Silos in Association Media
Leaders of non-profit organizations work through “mission-versus-margin” tension at the 2017 Association Media Summit.
Executives from association and non-profit organizations shared solutions to common challenges in sales, content creation, media technology, marketing and organizational silos in a series of frank and revealing discussions during the Folio: Association Media Summit Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
The event, held at the National Press Club, included topics that ranged from using content to drive revenue for the organization to sales challenges in the non-profit environment.
Overall, though, the theme centered on syncing up economic drivers between the overall organizations and their media departments. That may sound abstract, but any association media professional will tell you that issues around silos, resources, mission and more play out daily in very specific ways.
For example, in a session on maximizing a collaborative management environment, Dan O’Brien, COO of the Marine Corps Association and Foundation, and co-presenter Rob Lee, chief marketing and communications officer at ASAE, described the many pitfalls that afflict organizations. Lee described two dynamics in particular. One is a lack of a common purpose and consequent the emergence of conflicts associated with sub goals. “The thing I’ve seen that has crashed project after project is everyone getting into the weeds,” Lee said.
The second organizational dynamic was creativity. When O’Brien asked the audience how their organizations enable creativity, Lee took it in another direction. “I don’t think everyone’s good at creativity. I don’t. Not everyone is good at sitting around a table and developing ideas.” The challenge, he said, is to engage those folks as stakeholders in other ways.
Later, in a session with universal appeal among associations and non-profits — getting the most out of limited resources — Julia Rocchi, director of digital content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and John Rezek, manager of the magazines division of Rotary International, offered a series of insights of wide applicability. Rezek outlined a series of editorial cost-saving measures, including the creative use of stock art for covers.
Rocchi described discovering how her audience of preservation-minded people also turned out to love pop culture: “Our audience really ate it up when we did a story on the women of 'Hidden Figures' [the recent movie about African-American female mathematicians at NASA],” she said. That led to a content inventory and audit. “We walked away with a fine-tuned understanding of what our audience was looking for. And now we’re going to look at how our cross-promotion and cross-marketing efforts affect that.”
The event opened with a keynote from Bob Love, the editor-in-chief of the largest association magazine in the world — in fact, the largest-circulation magazine in the world of any kind, with a circulation of more than 22 million — AARP the Magazine. In an entertaining, freewheeling 20-minute address, Love described fact-checking 24-hour bodegas in New York City, Henry Kissinger, and David Geffen. He talked about how in his younger days at Rolling Stone he did all journalism through the prism of youth. And how now, later in his career, at AARP, he’s delivering journalism through the prism of people over 50 — “health, wealth and self.” He talked about sacred cows at his various career stops — at Rolling Stone, there could be no critical coverage of Yoko Ono, because owner Jann Wenner had a soft spot for her. And how now, at AARP, old jokes are taboo.
But most of all, he offered eight ways that for-profit consumer media is similar to association media, and four ways it’s not.
How it’s similar:
Cost. “The big Kahuna is always COST,” Love said. “It’s hydraulic. It’s relentless. It’s changing what the way we do business every day. We face all of the same financial pressures that consumer-facing publications have — maybe more in our case, because of those numbers.”
Readers come first. “We know that our readers are as busy, time-stressed and as media drenched as yours,” he said. “I like to tell my editors that the Internet is our best friend and worst enemy. Members can get plenty of instant information, data, and news from the Internet, but they come to print for something extra. Let’s call it inspiration — with a dash of entertainment."
Focus. “Like a successful consumer magazine, it’s all about relentless focus,” Love said. “Knowing your readers. Call it self-interest if you want. For those of you old enough to recall that phrase: it’s been a long, strange trip. At Rolling Stone, it was student loans; now it’s Social Security and Medicare. You know what? It’s all rock and roll to me.
Targeting. “We produce the magazine six times a year in three demographic versions: One for members 50 to 59, another for 60 to 69 year olds, and a third for Seventy-somethings. (After that we stop counting.)”
Attention to detail. “Neither [Kissinger nor Geffen] really appreciated the interruption, but each one took the call and spent some time speaking to a lowly fact checker,” Love said. “Which drove home to me the power of the printed word and most journalists’ desire to get it right. And that’s still true at AARP, where we maintain a full fact-checking and copy editing staff. I tell our editors: Read like your enemies will, searching for contradictions, mistakes, errors, hidden agendas, and lack of transparency.”
Reporting. “Style without reporting is nothing, even in the wiggy realm of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter [S. Thompson] got the important facts right,” Love said. “There are very few defects in a manuscript that cannot be cured by another phone call, a third source, a deeper level of curiosity about the story you’re telling — in essence, more reporting.”
Church and state. “At AARP there’s a bright line between advertising and edit — brighter even than conventional publishing in my experience. The magazine and the Bulletin remain fiercely independent.”
Sacred cows. “At Playboy, there were no stories about fathers and sons because Hugh Hefner had a bad relationship with his dad.”
How it’s different:
No newsstand. “We have a great luxury, not available to consumer pubs,” Love said. “We send issues to 22.5 million households, and we’re not put in the ungainly position of chasing millennials."
It’s not about you. “In consumer media, the publication is the big dance and the editor is king, queen, and show pony,” Love said. “At a non-profit like AARP, me and my team, the print professionals, represent just one channel of many of the association’s efforts to communicate with our members.”
Remember the organizational mission. “When we cover issues that are front and center for AARP, yes, there is an extra layer of internal oversight that doesn’t exist in consumer publications,” said Love. “If it’s a story to do on AARP’s bedrock issues like Medicare and Social Security, for example, we always work closely with our colleagues in Campaigns and Advocacy to make sure that the messages going out of the building are in sync.”
In the end, it’s about the mission. “Okay, the best thing about working for an association, this association in particular, is that I get to put my lifetime of journalistic skills to work for a larger cause than just increasing profits for Wenner Media or Playboy Enterprises or Felix Dennis,” Love said. “I’ll quote my former colleague, John Rezek of The Rotarian, “Underneath the ironies and idiosyncrasies inherent in a large organization, we have this preposterous notion that we can do something about the world’s problems.”