Breaking the Mold
If there was any doubt association magazines could do well to go beyond simply trumpeting the mission of the association, these four titles handly prove it. In this select round-up, all four place a premium on journalistic and design excellence, with a healthy peppering of online strategies, that help launch the magazines to the top of the member benefit list. Despite modest budgets and staff sizes, these titles adopt and execute strategies more akin to their commercial cousins, whether attracting top journalism and in-house design talent or utilizing contemporary approaches to online efforts.
A PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
How tiny Conservation In Practice attracts big-name talent on a shoestring budget.
Conservation in Practice Magazine is a lesson in resourcefulness for other publications.
With a circulation of 8,500, an annual budget between $400,000 and $500,000, and a full-time staff of three, Conservation in Practice still manages to draw international talent to contribute at a fraction of the usual fees and win awards, such as the 2006 Gold SNAP for General Excellence for magazines with circulation of 20,000 and fewer.
Launched in 2001 through a professional organization called The Society for Conservation Biology, the magazine’s original mission was to be a trade title for people in the field of environmental conservation. "There were a lot of academic journals and a lot of non profits such as Sierra Club and Audubon selling the idea of conservation in the organization but we didn’t see any trade magazines out there," says founding editor Kathryn Kohm. "If you’re in business, you can read The Economist or Harvard Business Review or some sophisticated trade magazine. We wanted something similar but smaller for conservation."
Conservation in Practice originally piggybacked off the Society’s 20-year-old academic journal, which primarily had a library circulation. The subscription-only (no ads), magazine began doing one direct-mail drop per year, and offered membership to the society (the opposite of most associations, where the magazine is a benefit of membership). "I think it’s just one of the bizarre things about how this board works, it’s not a deliberate marketing strategy at all," says Kohm.
Frequency remains quarterly. "We’ve always wanted to make it six issues per year but haven’t gotten there yet," says Kohm. The magazine launched with partners such as The National Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. "I told them I think I need five years to make this magazine go," says Kohm. "They each put money in for five years. Right now we’re 60 percent supported by subscription revenue, 40 percent by partners. We’re trying to close that piece of pie so more is supported by subs."
SETTING THE STANDARD
Kohm says the magazine owes its success to its evolving editorial model. "Originally we had more scientists writing," she said. "We’d go from edit to edit to edit and we’d go from bad to okay after 7 or 8 drafts. We just weren’t getting quality we wanted, which was a Scientific American level of writing."
Kohm went to the McArthur Foundation and Packard Foundation to develop a budget for freelance writers. "We pay $3,000 or $4,000 for articles which is well beyond what a magazine our size would pay," says Kohm. The magazine has drawn writers from Scientific American and The Economist, including The Economist’s former environmental editor, an avid birder who wrote about a scientist in Tel Aviv developing a warning system for military aircraft to detect bird migrations. Cartoonists and illustrators from The New Yorker and The Atlantic also contribute. "They’ve already done some of the work, they own the copyright, we pay them but well under what they normally would get," Kohm adds.
Conservation in Practice is trying to establish a travel budget for writers but has also been able to piggyback on other magazine assignments. Kohm knew a writer for Smithsonian who was traveling to Nicaragua to do a story on coffee and was able to persuade the woman to also pick up a story on water rights while she was there. "We couldn’t send her down to Nicaragua to do a story on our own but we just asked her to keep an eye out for an angle for us," says Kohm. "We’ve had to be resourceful that way."
Next up is developing a Web strategy. Conservation in Practice is planning a site redesign and considering setting up a conservation blog. The magazine is searching for a stable funding source and would like to hit its original goal of six issues per year. That’s going to require more visibility. "We get these top authors and we’re looking at using them as a brand, doing more PR around them," says Kohm. "We’re also doing fundraising to do a single topic-specific fifth issue that could be sponsored. We’d hire a guest editor to do it."
SHAKING THINGS UP
Blogs and news dailies may be standard practice at for-profit magazines but it’s a walk on the wild side for this association.
Healthcare Financial Management, the 33,000-circulation magazine of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, has always prided itself on going beyond the parameters of the typical association magazine. "It comes down to good journalism and resisting the temptation to avoid saying anything that might be seen as a cardinal sin by the association," says editor-in-chief Robert Fromberg (and current president of SNAP).
However, converting to an online strategy that would be considered standard at any for-profit magazine proved to be a bit of a shock for the association’s senior level membership. The goal for Healthcare Financial Management was to create daily, weekly and monthly touch points that all built the same brand. "We realized that although we were doing things online, people thought that our weekly e-mail message was a separate entity that didn’t correspond to the magazine," says Fromberg. "It was easier and made sense just to revamp everything."
The first step was to create daily news postings to the Web site, then a daily e-mail message. The next component is a weekly e-mail newsletter that provides excerpts from the 10 most important stories HFM generated that week. "It has to be enough content so people aren’t opening something and being teased but not so much they’re bogged down reading it," Fromberg adds.
Where HFMA really raised eyebrows was in the creation of a blog, which invites industry figures to contribute. "By and large associations don’t have blogs," says Fromberg. "We want to be seen as a neutral, trusted source. But we didn’t have an outlet to be little off the cuff, a little less formal." The blog is updated three or four times per week. "I was talking to a member and I heard these guffaws of laughter and a voice said, ﾑHFMA is starting a blog? Are you kidding me?’" says Fromberg. "I love getting that reaction. Yes, we are. A tame blog but still a blog."
Since revamping its approach in mid-2006, HFMA expects online sponsorship revenue to triple.
"What we’re doing may be old news but we felt good about it because we don’t see a lot of other associations doing this," Fromberg says, and adds that its just another example of HFMA trying to stay ahead. "About 10 or 15 years ago we offered this service called Washline which was an answering machine message played the daily news," he says. "I think it’s lovely that we’ve been working toward this pre-Internet and now it’s come together."
CONTENT AT WORK
An emphasis on design and timely, actionable content has helped workspan become its association’s top member benefit.
Like many association publications that have a long history as a member benefit, workspan has seen its share of market changes. Its parent association, WorldatWork, was formed 51 years ago in Ohio as the Midwest Compensation Association, changed its name to the American Compensation Association, and then in 2000 changed its name again to WorldatWork.
"For about 45 years we made compensation our brand. Our professionals spent their time figuring out how employees get paid," says workspan executive editor Ryan Johnson. "Now it’s anything an employer provides the employee in compensation;benefits, work-life amenities, career opportunities and development, and recognition. It’s much more than just pay."
Johnson says that the magazine, a monthly, started out as a newsletter focused on compensation, which still forms WorldatWork’s core audience category, but has grown to incorporate the expanded compensation issues.
As a result, the magazine is providing more content to its members and Johnson has solicited the help of academics and consulting firms in reviewing and contributing content. "We don’t believe that we own all the thought leadership in this field," he says.
Over Johnson’s six-year tenure he’s stressed editorial quality that provides takeaways for the association’s membership. A strict ad/edit ratio is maintained with 60 percent edit and 40 percent ads, averaging about 100 pages per issue. "We will never have greater than 40 percent advertising," he says. "Our mission is to serve the membership."
Operationally, what Johnson considers unique is his dedicated creative staff. In a market that traditionally contracts design and even edit, Johnson has placed a premium on keeping art and design in-house. "I think a lot of people are jealous of that," he says. "We use the creative staff in a lot of different ways. We do some book publishing, which they’re involved with, and they have a lot of input into the Web site. They do an outstanding job with our marketing materials, too. The creative folks over time learn the field so they’re better equipped to make judgments about the art for the content we’re providing."
Johnson credits a membership actively involved in the direction of the magazine as a characteristic that sets workspan apart from its commercial competitors. "I think an association magazine is so unique because we have such an engaged readership," he says. "The quality of our magazine is dependent on our membership. The private guys can make editorial decisions based on what they think is right, but we have a membership review process where members review content before it’s published."
Johnson says when members update their profiles they’re asked if they want to volunteer to review articles for the magazine. Several hundred have signed up to do so. A random group of five-to-seven names is selected as reviewers for a particular article. Those volunteers get a blind version of the article along with a questionnaire and a ratings scale as a review template. Results are sent back to the author for revision. Johnson adds that the process will soon be automated via the magazine’s Web site.
A redesign in 2005 produced a bump in revenues, which Johnson says have grown 42 percent since 2000. Much of that growth is attributed to more timely and actionable content. "If you looked at our magazine six or seven years ago you’d see some articles that weren’t so timely. Now we’re delving into some public policy issues and current events that make it more relevant to our readers.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
A robust editorial and art ethic helps Common Ground remain vital to its readers.
Common Ground stresses a service-journalism approach to help the 30,000 members of the Community Association Institute navigate their way through community association governance. That, coupled with a purposeful effort to attract top freelance writing talent for the more in-depth feature stories that deviate from the how-to template, and trained eye for cutting-edge design, has helped the magazine remain a frequent SNAP award winner, the number-one member benefit and keep its budget at break-even.
The magazine’s core mission is to serve the membership of CAI as a resource for community-association governance, management, and operations. In other words, for the thousands of residents who volunteer as members of a community board, whether for a condo community, co-op association, or similar organization, the magazine provides content that helps them with issues from running productive meetings to maintenance trends to understanding legislative and regulatory developments.
"The magazine is very service-oriented," says editor Chris Durso. "We have very practical, very how-to articles on how to run a board meeting, how to manage a budget. The commitment to the service journalism comes from the association itself, which considers itself a clearinghouse, a central information source for members. The magazine descends directly from that."
Integral to the service orientation, which is primarily fulfilled through contributions from association members, Durso has doubled the magazine’s freelance budget over the last couple years. This has allowed him to attract trained journalists to chase down meatier stories ranging from human-interest pieces to those that involve national trends that have an impact on community-association governance. "We did a cover story on Megan’s Law and to what extent a community association is responsible for or capable of tracking this and notifying its community," says Durso. "It’s the type of thing you need a trained reporter to go after."
The magazine, which is published bimonthly and won a 2005 SNAP General Excellence award, breaks even and Durso likes it that way. "An average issue is 65 pages with about a 40 percent ad ratio," he adds. "The advertising pays for printing, production and mailing. The association is committed to the magazine as a member benefit and to deliver the best information we can to our members. We’re not interested in leveraging profits out of it."