Taking your magazine from good to great: 11 ways to get you to the next level

by Tuesday, March 1, 2016

An association magazine should be the most highly valued tool in an association’s communications toolbox. When done well, it’s an invaluable member benefit, provides a solid source of non-dues revenue, and is the perfect vehicle to solidify your organization’s leading voice in the industry.

The sheer complexity of producing a member magazine, however, can prevent us from seeing the flaws and recognizing where it falls short in the long run. More often than not, we become satisfied with the ability to produce something – anything – and get it out the door. It can become all too easy to exist and operate in this state of autopilot.

And like most things left on autopilot, and not being scrutinized and questioned from time to time, it ends up falling short. We wake up one day realizing it’s not serving the organization as it once did in the past, competitors are leaving us in the dust, and we’re missing opportunities in which to connect and serve members. What we’re producing seems like more of an obligatory burden vs. a can’t-live-without-it communications vehicle.

When approached with some thought and a solid plan for improvement, making your member magazine better doesn’t have to be such a daunting task. And you don’t necessarily need to overhaul the whole thing to make an impact.

To help you take your magazine from good to great, explore the following 11 questions. Take notes, write down what can be done better, and also note the things you’re doing really well. By analyzing where you stand, then uncovering where you want to go, you’re able to create your game plan to get your magazine to the next level.


1. Is it serving and supporting membership and business objectives?

It’s all about alignment.

What are your association’s goals for the year? Maybe you’ve set out to recruit more young members or you’re aiming to promote ongoing education and professional certifications. Whatever exists as your business goals should also be reflected in your member magazine.

Ignoring the impact of aligning business objectives with your magazine’s content strategy is leaving a lot on the table, and most associations can’t afford to take this route. By creating content that is goal-focused, you’re helping your organization get to where it needs to be by utilizing current tools and resources. Bottom line: It’s all about alignment.


2. Does it fall short of effectively promoting association events?

Integrate your marketing efforts.

Speaking of using your member magazine to achieve business objectives, I’m sure that increasing event attendance is on your list – or has been or should be. It’s one thing to mention events in your member magazine, but it’s another thing to completely integrate marketing efforts with valuable content that members will love.

Have you used speakers as content resources to write articles based on their speaking engagement(s)? Are you engaging members and asking about their experience at past events (in order to demonstrate the value of attending from their perspective)? Are you adequately covering events after they happen to highlight award winners, big moments, and the industry’s game-changers?

Go beyond the typical, boring save the date, and promote your event in a way that offers value back to your members. Pitch them on the event’s valuable content, whether they’re able to attend or not.


3. Are you treating your magazine like a magazine?

Longevity is key.

One of the biggest no-nos I come across is magazines being treated like they’re newsletters, newspapers, or worse yet, webpages. While it may be your first instinct to think of your magazine as a news delivery tool, you’ll have to resist temptation to put in news-type items, especially if your magazine’s frequency only rolls around every three months. When strategizing content, the most important thing to consider is longevity and shelf life.

Think about it: if you take a commercial magazine from six months ago and pick it up, you’d expect to find that at least 60 percent to 80 percent of the content is still relevant. If you’re too focused on delivering news, you’re cutting exposure short and undermining the printed nature of a magazine. You want it to feel special, and you want that special feeling to last as long as possible. If you’re focusing on news items, members will lose interest too quickly, and that means your advertisers will, too.

Repeat after me: A magazine is not a hard-hitting news outlet, but rather a feature-rich publication that’s relevant in six months to a year from now. So, moving forward, ask whether what you’re putting in the magazine is better suited for a webpage (ahem, board lists) or your weekly eNewsletter.


4. Are we repurposing content, and are we tapping into all the content sources available to us?

Reuse, repurpose, recycle. Repeat.

Developing content for a large member magazine can be a daunting task, especially if you start from ground zero every time. If you’re crafting original content for every issue – for every story – more power to you, but utilizing other outlets and sources for content makes your job easier and further connects your association’s communication objectives.

Take note of the educational resources stored in your learning management system; is there a way to repurpose some of that content for the magazine (while also promoting your learning platform)? And to think about it in the other direction, say you invested a lot of time and energy into a great feature article for the magazine. Are you following through and posting this article on social media, or are you repurposing it for your newsletter, website, or your learning management system?

Think about your content as multi-dimensional: Just because it originally existed as a feature article in your magazine doesn’t mean it can’t take on a second (or third or fourth) life as something different. To appeal to all members, you must deliver content (the same content) in more than one way.


5. Are we effectively promoting the magazine and its content to members?

Promote it like you mean it.

So you’ve created an issue, it went to press, and it’s now hitting members’ mailboxes. So you’re done, right?

Nope. Not yet. This is when it becomes critical to push out the content and make it well-known. Relying on members to pick up their issue and read it cover to cover is asking a lot, and most, well, won’t do it without a little nudging.

Look at it like this: You invested all this time into creating a product you’re proud of, then when the critical point comes, instead of sharing it with the world you unintentionally sweep it under the rug and move on. And that means members do, too. Articles, features, and the magazine, in general, should be heavily promoted on social media (and in more ways than one), in other member communications (think about your weekly newsletter or anything else you’re pushing out to members), it should be prominently displayed on the home page of your association’s website (yes, home page), and it should always make a public appearance at association events and included in new member welcome/orientation packets.

If you don’t show that as an organization, you truly value this communication tool, members won’t value it either. If it’s heavily promoted and talked about, then members will be more inclined to follow suit and talk about it as well. They’re taking cues from you, so show them that it’s an important part of your communications mix.


6. Does the magazine have its own brand, and how does it support the association’s image, mission, and the industry at large?

Don’t be afraid to stand out.

A member magazine can and should be one of your strongest tangible member benefits. It’s a unique tool that an association should use to convey its stance and leadership in the industry. Through and through, it needs to support the association’s mission and vision, and should live and breathe to support the association’s brand.

Are you the lead­­ing resource for information in your given industry? Your magazine should convey that. Are you leading the conversation about the latest trends and their effect on the industry? Your magazine should be leading those discussions.

In addition to being ingrained in your association’s communication objectives, your member magazine should be able to stand alone as its own brand – independent from your organization. Why not have a magazine that’s so well-done everyone wants a subscription, and then lo and behold, they learn that your association is the publisher and the powerhouse behind the brand. This only further solidifies your organization’s place in the market as a true industry leader and resource.


7. Is the magazine’s content diverse and meeting the expectations/needs of large member segments and the association as a whole?

Speak to everyone.

Think of the different segments of membership. For the most part, they all come to your organization for different reasons. Identify what they’ve come to you for – whether that’s education, networking, or industry resources – and deliver content that satisfies their appetite. When planning content for your magazine, keep every membership segment top of mind, and aim to deliver to them all. While they all might not have equal weight, it’s important to be mindful of the smaller segments of membership and aim to provide value to them as well.

In addition to speaking to everyone, you have to keep in mind that people learn and absorb information in different ways. Your magazine doesn’t have to be filled from cover to cover with text-heavy articles. The content delivery itself should be diverse, whether that’s through publishing listicles, how-to articles, infographics, interviews, quizzes, success stories, business sense, or professional development. Hit them all.

And one of the most important things we can do to keep ourselves in check is to regularly ask for feedback. It gets easy to assume that we know exactly what members want. We really don’t know unless we ask. On an annual basis, ask members what they like, dislike, want to see more of, etc. Do this through simple polls, in-depth surveys, and through open discussion and dialogue.


8. Does the magazine embrace, encourage, and support member participation and contributions?

Make participation easy and rewarding.

When you ask for contributions from members, you’re increasing member engagement, diversifying content sources, and creating an avenue to source free relevant content. All members should know where to go to learn more about writing for your magazine. Encourage members to get involved by creating an easy outline that identifies the steps, guidelines, and criteria to get published. The more you can guide and direct them from the onset, the likelier you are to receive submissions that are high-quality and exactly what you’re looking for.

Remember, that for some, writing is intimidating and doesn’t come easy, so if you wanted to take it a step further, offer to work with members to guide them through the process – whether by approving their content outline in advance or offering to edit it for them before they submit the final version.

Your members are one of the most significantly untapped resources for great content. And, more and more, you’ll realize members are most interested in hearing from other members. That type of collaboration and sharing is what belonging to an association is all about.


9. Do you have your content plan finalized at the optimal time each year?

Don’t come across as an amateur.

Each summer, aim to have your complete editorial planner finalized for the following year. It’s usually during Q3 and Q4 that media buyers are making decisions, so, realistically, editorial planning and media brochures should be completed way before they’re ready to make final decisions.

In order to gain advertiser support, you have to convey that you know what you’re doing. And nothing says amateur more than not having a plan. You have to know what you’re talking about for the coming year. And aside from serving them, you’re also creating a blueprint for yourself moving forward. You’ve laid the groundwork for the coming year, so the question isn’t, “what are we going to write about,” but “who’s the best person to talk about these things that we’ve deemed important?”


10. Does your magazine show love to advertisers and associate members?

Embrace your partnerships.

Think about it: A magazine is typically half advertising, half editorial (or somewhere around there). Without all those advertising pages, there’d be no editorial pages. Traditional magazine business models all rely on the participation of advertisers to support the ongoing costs of publishing a high-quality product.

On the other side of great content are the great advertisers (and associate members) who invest in the magazine, thus investing in your association and members. Show them some love by publicly thanking them for their support within the pages of the magazine, or at the very least, be sure to include a list in the magazine that outlines participating advertisers. Acknowledge their support every issue. It will go a long way.

Give them the opportunity to contribute neutral articles that meet submission guidelines. Aside from members, advertisers are an underestimated, untapped resource for content that’s relevant to your industry – content that members want and need. Make it easy for them to contribute to the magazine. If you can sell them on the idea of getting in front of members with original unbiased content, then you’ve created a scenario where everyone wins. You’ve gained a content powerhouse, and they’ve gained exposure in front of your selective audience.


11. Is your magazine relevant, helpful, one of a kind, well-written and error-free, and industry-leading?

Make sure it’s worthwhile.

Magazine content should always provide a good answer to the question: “As a member, what’s in it for me to spend my valuable time reading this article?” Members are busy and already oversaturated with content and information. As an association, your content should be industry-leading, informative, and offer something back to the reader. Articles should help solve common problems and offer readers concrete, actionable ways to improve the way they work and do business.

To ensure content is on point with what members want and need, create an editorial board to review magazine articles prior to publication. At the very least, all articles should be reviewed by key association staff who can spot errors and ensure messaging and claims align with industry standards.


Ready to take it to the next level?

As an association, it’s your job – and purpose – to lead the industry, shine the light on trends, and actively promote the people who make your industry great. Don’t be afraid to be on the cutting-edge of trending topics and ideas, and use your magazine as the powerful tool it is.

Beyond a communications vehicle for your organization, your magazine is a tangible member benefit, potential source of significant non-dues revenue, and can be a game-changer in terms of attracting and retaining members. The more you pour into it, and the more strategic you are, the more your magazine will give back to you, and, most importantly, your members.


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