Building Association Membership Through the Written Word

This story appears in the
Association Focus Pub 2 2022 Issue 2

Membership growth and retention are important to most associations. If that is true for your association, do you have a magazine for your members?

Many associations have a strategic membership plan. Ideally, the plan includes a No. 1 priority so the association’s leaders can create an effective strategy to go with the priority. Possible priorities include increasing the association’s membership growth, reach or revenue.

Membership growth and retention are important to most associations. If that is true for your association, do you have a magazine for your members?

Associations grow when members and potential members think they are valuable. That’s more likely to occur when members believe they are part of an active community, with websites and magazines to keep them up to date on what’s happening. Although some associations have a very small staff and limited resources, making it difficult for association leaders to show its value to members, a good magazine can make the association’s value obvious. The magazine can:

  • List the association’s leaders and their contact information and give them a platform to communicate directly with members
  • List upcoming events that would be of interest to members and report on events that have already taken place with photos and summaries
  • Present interesting, relevant and timely articles by industry experts, subject experts or professional writers
  • List sponsors
  • Present ads and sponsored content for members
  • Provide membership directories and preferred provider lists

Reporting on magazine events has a double advantage. A magazine report gives members who attended an event a reminder and memento of the experience. But members who couldn’t attend can still benefit from the report about it (and possibly be tempted to stop skipping and start attending).

Some associations charge members for magazine subscriptions. Others don’t. But even if you don’t charge members for a subscription to your association magazine, it can still be a good source of indirect, nondues revenue. Ads and events make money. Members read ads and see what events are coming up, and they make spending decisions based on what they need or want and what they can afford. If the ads and the events are relevant, the magazine will be a way to attract attention and make money.

Creating value can be a challenge because the internet has free, alternative forums to share insights and tips. But a magazine printed on paper has an advantage over anything on the internet. You don’t need electricity or an internet provider. Members can put a magazine in a bag or on a desk or table; they can read it at home or work. But, if a member prefers reading an issue online, that’s possible, too. An association with a print and digital magazine has the best of both worlds.

If an association does have a magazine, the quality of that magazine matters. Publishing anything less than a professional magazine won’t help your association and might hurt it. More specifically, your association magazine needs well-written, original content for two reasons:

  1. Nobody wants to read junk, whether you define something as “junk” because it is badly written, boring or has appeared on too many websites.
  2. Search engines put junk at the bottom of their search results.

Matt Berringer wrote an online article about association publications, dated April 28, 2021, where he said 70% of association members feel it “is the voice of their profession or industry.” Your goal should be for your members to feel that way about your association’s magazine. Whatever your association or industry size, do the best you can to make your magazine matter to the largest possible audience.

Consider how to do that. The first step should mirror the same process you went through when deciding on the association’s direction. Think about your association’s purpose and what it does for members. Envision the kind of magazine that will be most valuable to them. That’s the magazine you want to create.

Make your magazines attractive. The more attractive it is, the more likely it will be for members to pick it up and glance through the articles. They won’t keep it open for long if the contents aren’t worth much, but getting members to pick up your magazine at all is a necessary first step toward reading it. People generally won’t pick up a magazine if they don’t care about any of the articles inside, so the magazine has to be interesting and worth their time.

Next, explain the association’s purpose and share information about how the association is doing when it comes to helping members and achieving important goals. Pay attention to important industry questions and listen to what members say at conferences and workshops. Monitor social media discussions and comments, too. Also, conduct regular surveys to find out more about what matters to your members. Center the magazine’s content on the issues you think are top-of-mind for them. Make the magazine a forum for industry leaders and important industry perspectives. Answer “how to” and “what is” questions for them, so they don’t have to hunt down answers somewhere else. Your magazine should build the association community by showcasing opportunities to meet other members.

All associations struggle with attrition, and the reality is that all members will move on at some point. It’s harder to retain existing members than to gain new ones, so try to keep members as long as you can – preferably until they retire or change careers.

Aim for a long shelf-life. Your magazine is not a newsletter, newspaper or webpage, all of which need regular, fresh content hourly, daily or weekly. At a bare minimum, whatever appears in the magazine should stay relevant until the next issue arrives. Most of the contents should continue to be relevant even longer than that. Repurpose or reuse content when that makes sense. You have to be careful not to use the same information too much, but maybe you can take information from another channel, such as a website or newsletter, and give it new life in the magazine.

Figure out ways to lighten the writing load. Magazine creation is a lot of work, so anything you can do to make it easier is a good idea. Just keep it legal; that is, don’t plagiarize articles or reprint someone else’s work without permission. Fill the magazine with a variety of different resources so there is something for every member.

Offer magazine space to sponsors. Spotlight their organizations and customize benefits for them. Also, you should offer valuable information to members and give them reasons to pay their dues. Although some information can be free, reserve the rest for members only.

Providing members with multiple channels for interacting with the association is a great idea, so publish printed magazines online, too. Doing that increases your association’s reach. That way, a member might accidentally leave the magazine home on a counter, but it won’t matter because they can find the digital version on the association website.

And don’t forget to ask members for feedback about the magazine.

There are several strategies to help you fill your magazine’s pages, including adding a message from one or more association leaders in every issue, interviewing a variety of association members, or perhaps getting permission from thought-leaders to print some of the articles they write. That may involve paying them, but this strategy will give you good content from recognized names.

All associations struggle with attrition, and the reality is that all members will move on at some point. It’s harder to retain existing members than to gain new ones, so try to keep members as long as you can – preferably until they retire or change careers. Also, people who aren’t involved or don’t see enough value in the association are the ones who are most likely to head for the door. That means you have to focus on using the magazine to increase member involvement and give members a return on their membership investment in as many ways as possible.