The Young Publishers' Approach to Audience Apathy

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2016 Association Publishing Emerging Leader award winners share their insights into the best ways to increase audience engagement.

By Thomas Marcetti

When Christina Unger is asked about audience apathy, she feigns ignorance.

“What? You mean everyone isn’t sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for every single thing I have to say?” Unger says with a laugh. As marketing manager for American Institute of Physics, Unger is actually all too familiar with the daily struggle associations face in engaging and retaining their members’ attention.

As we prepare for the new year, association publishers are setting goals to serve their members better, to engage them in more meaningful ways, and to do it all under budget. And yet, by some estimates, more than 2.5 quintillion (yes that’s 17 zeros) bytes of information are created every day. That’s more than 10 million Blu-Ray discs of information — each and every day. So, how does your association’s publication or app or press release stand a chance of getting seen in the mix?

The Association Publishing Emerging Leader Award is presented to up-and-coming association publishing and communications professionals under the age of 35 who are already making a clear impact on their organizations. The awards are presented at AM&P’s annual EXCEL Awards Gala in June.

Joining Unger in the 2016 class of Association Publishing Emerging Leaders are Chris Okenka, design and brand marketing manager and JCR creative director for Turnaround Management Association; Rebecca Harp, subscription strategist journal media for American Academy of Family Physicians; and Jenny Mazer, director creative services for the Society for Human Resource Management. Since Millennials are a social savvy group, Signature decided to ask our Emerging Leaders for their take on audience engagement. Here’s what they had to say.

Signature: Aside from everyone’s favorite debate — print vs. digital — there are so many ways to frame information. How do you decide what’s the best way for your audience?

Unger: You need to know what’s actually happening in your market. I wouldn’t presuppose that how people or groups generally react is how they are going to react with you or your product. Just because some data show Millennials or Boomers or whomever tend to behave a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how they are going to engage with you. …If you’re using consumer-based data for a science-based product, you don’t really have any idea what to expect.

Okenka: I think we have to frame “Bill’s” story in regard to the way it’s being communicated. If it’s an email or online, maybe it’s a Q&A or something flashy. If it’s in print, maybe it’s more indepth, more substantial. If it’s inward-facing communication, we might focus more on the human side. … Who is Bill? What is his life like outside the office? What is he doing in his community? … If it’s more outward facing, we’re going to be more focused on Bill’s professional successes, his business story.

Harp: Some publishers seemed to move quickly toward Facebook’s Instant Articles, and then pulled back when traffic and engagement with those articles stayed on the social media platform and did not reach their own site. Alternatively, Facebook’s live videos have given brands the ability to connect directly and authentically with their audiences in a way that wasn’t always possible before.

Mazer: Every time you ask the user to interact with you, you’re asking them not to interact with something else. Whether it’s a brochure or an email, you’re asking them to put off cooking dinner or watching TV. You have to do it right, every time. If you do it right, there won’t be a question. They will see your brand, and they will know they have to read it. The highest praise you can strive for is to become someone’s habit. When you can become part of their daily routine, when you become the first site they open on their lunch break — jackpot.

Signature: What’s the best way to gauge reader engagement?

Unger: Numbers are nice. But whether or not an email was opened doesn’t tell me if the person actually read it or if it fell into all the other noise. What’s more valuable to me is what our sales reps tell me. Numbers are numbers. There is no gray area. 50 percent is 50 percent, that’s all it is.

But when I have a conversation with someone, there is a gray area. A rep can tell me, “Yeah. They are going to buy it, but they really wish we were doing X.” Now I know how to make it better. There is some assumption you’re making with numbers. You don’t have to assume when you are talking to someone.

Harp: If your audience is disengaged or disinterested, don’t expect them to respond to surveys and polls. Your surveys and polls will be completed by members of your audience who are true believers or those who have a grievance they want to air — both of those segments are still engaged because they care enough to feel something about your organization, brand, or mission and take the time to respond.

Mazer: The best gauges of engagement are metrics, heat maps, reporting, usability feedback — but you can’t track everything. You can’t track every single angle. It’s important to hear from people, hear what is working and what is not working.

We went with a third party to help ask our members what they wanted. It’s easy to have bias when you’re asking questions about something you’re working on. You know what you like and what you hope members like. It’s also easy for members to want to give answers that are complimentary. So having that impartial third party makes a big difference.

Signature: If we assume that an association’s members are knowledgeable of the group’s goals and message, how can associations engage industry peers who are not members?

Okenka: Stories of member success might get lost outside of the group. Visibility is hugely important. It’s tough. It’s a problem for most associations. It’s tough because they are so specialized. There is an association for everything, which is great. But it also tough because many organizations are so specialized.

One of our goals this year is to really promote TMA members outside the TMA community. We want to give them more exposure, which will help them. But it can also help to explain who we are, who our members are. Which will, again, help our members.

Harp: For me, audience engagement begins with connecting with a secondary audience, outside of our membership. The non-member primary care clinicians are our audience for subscription revenue, which in turn supports our organization’s mission. Communicating and resonating with that audience in a targeted and meaningful way — connecting what our journal content can do for their day-to-day patient interaction, practice efficiency, and career-life balance — is our audience engagement.

Unger: Associations tend to get shy about research. But you really should let people tell you what they want from you. Once you know that, you can just do it. The main thing that drives me is an understanding of who we are trying to reach. Once you know who they are and where to reach them, it’s like fish in a barrel. It just makes life so much easier, and then your efforts become more about long-term strategy than just hoping you’ll connect with someone.

Signature: What personal or team goals do you have for the coming year?

Harp: We are continually tweaking our communication tactics and messaging. For next year, our team is focusing on honing our communications and best methods of engagement, with the end goal of increasing subscription revenue for our journals.

Unger: I don’t interact directly with our member societies, but a goal for everyone at Physics Today is putting out a pristine product because it reflects on us and on our member societies. It really is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that magazine is membership worthy. We all have to be on the same page, all trying to put out the best product.

Mazer: We’re going to improve our visual storytelling. The need for visual storytelling has gone through the roof. People don’t always have time for a 20-page report, but maybe they can get an understanding of the report through five infographics. I don’t think it has to be an either/or scenario. The survey or report can be there too, geared toward the user who has the time or has made the time to go through it. If it’s a topic that matters to the user and a level of analysis would help them, we should give them both.

That’s where collaboration is even more important. Designers know how to communicate. They know how to make information digestible, but they might not be subject matter experts. The experts can figure out the concept and what is most important, and then designers can help express it in ways that are more accessible and digestible.

Okenka: We’re focusing on not communicating in a top-down way. We want to make an extra effort to talk to our members and chapters like colleagues, like friends…because we are.

It’s easy to fall into a top-down habit. Instead of looking at things from the member level or chapter level, you can get stuck at the national or international level. That’s not where things are happening. It’s the chapters and the members who are driving business, who are making local deals. That’s where people are living their daily lives, not way up at the national level.

Thomas Marcetti is associate editor for Signature magazine.

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