Long-Term Practices and Emerging Trends for Trade Associations

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We are bearing down on the end of one year and the start of another.


Amid all the hustle and bustle, questions about goals — new and old, met and unmet — swirl new plans, new strategies, and — if we’re honest — more than a little guessing as to how we intend to meet whatever is coming down the pipe.


We asked Steve Milano, a trade association publishing consultant, to share his take on what focusing on the future should look like for association publishers.


Sidebar: What type of questions come up the most in your interaction with associations?


Milano: I’ve worked with trade associations for 30 years. Many, if not most, wrestle with whether they want to be a member newsletter, an industry journal, or both, and some organizations don't even realize this is a critical decision they need to make. That's because they're plumbers or landscape architects or restaurant professionals, not publishing experts.


According to ASAE, the U.S. had approximately 64,000 501(c)(6) organizations in 2016. How many of those do you think hired dedicated publishing professionals to create their newsletters or magazines?


Even when an association makes a decision one way or the other about their position in their marketplace, they often struggle to meet their objectives because they don't have staff members who know the four Ps of marketing and have strategic publishing training.


Many associations use teams of siloed editorial, design, communications, and sales staff to publish their magazines. These employees often don't understand that their primary job is not to produce a publication, it's to produce an audience — and to produce an audience that acts in a specific manner.


For example, even if you decide you want your association's publication to be your industry's professional journal, it's not just what you say, it's how you say it. When I teach association publishing courses, I emphasize editorial flow as a key branding tool. What you place at the front of the book and what you place toward the back tells readers whether you're a particular association's newsletter or the industry's professional journal. There's a science to doing that correctly. and it's not something editors, designers, sales people, and executive directors intuitively know to do.


When I took over Georgia Defense Lawyer for the Georgia Defense Lawyers Association, for example, I took the president's message off the front cover and ran an article about the state's new tort reform law. This, along with other editorial flow changes, instantly changed the publication from a promotional newsletter about the GDLA to a defense attorney's publication for practitioners in Georgia. It completely changed the perception of the association. The GDLA set membership records the next two years.


Another problem with publication brand management is that most associations can't afford to hire a magazine designer, so they hire a graphic artist.


How can you tell which one you have? In a job interview for a magazine designer position, a graphic artist will show you individual layouts he's done for magazines. A magazine designer will show you her grids, editorial flow. and typography.


Good graphic artists create beautiful layouts. Good magazine designers create readership. They know their job is not to create beautiful layouts, it's to get the content read. They are communicators, just like the editorial staff.


Too often, trade association publications look like a series of beautiful, random layouts, rather than a book that takes you from the front to the back with a logical order and plan. When I look at many trade association magazine layouts, I can't initially tell if I'm looking at an ad or an article.


A trade association can create a publication that serves as both a valuable tool to promote its organization and the profession's voice, but this requires a true publishing team that starts with the four Ps of marketing. That includes the membership department and operating from a strategic publishing plan, not just an annual editorial calendar that repeats each year.


If a board manages an association’s staff, rather than steers them, that can exacerbate the problem because it's difficult to teach new board and committee members how strategic publishing works.


One way to avoid well-meaning interference is to create a strategic publishing document that new board and committee members receive when they come in. This document should make a board member say, "Gulp, this is more complicated than I thought. I'm COO of a widget company. I think I'll keep my mouth shut and just provide input about the industry, not publishing suggestions."


Sidebar: What other publishing identity concerns do you see or hear?


Milano: Associations are competing with more and more commercial publishers for authority status. For example, a for-profit publisher in the plumbing industry doesn't need to secure lists of licensed plumbers and spend significant dollars to print and mail a magazine to them.


Almost anyone can start a plumbing website or blog, and these companies often expand into trade shows, online continuing education offerings, or conferences. Their content and digital delivery is often better than the trade association’s because they can focus most of their resources on editorial instead of member retention or certification credits or legislative lobbying. In many industries, the association magazine is the #2 or even #3 book in the space.


This makes it even more critical for associations to brand their publication as the voice of their industry or profession and to emphasize the first three Ps of marketing in their planning, not just the fourth P.


Sidebar: When it comes to evaluating content strategies, what questions aren’t associations asking themselves?


Milano: "What are our publishing goals?" For example, do you want the publication to increase membership recruitment and retention, meetings attendance, or non-dues revenue? If so, why? What do those goals have to do with your mission statement, articles of incorporation, and bylaws?


"Should we be the member newsletter of the National Widget Association or the industry's professional journal?"


"Do we have a strategic (not just tactical) plan for the publication?" Your editor can be in charge of the latter, but your marketing director should be in charge of the former. Your editor works for the marketing director and should not have primary say regarding the editorial calendar.


"What are the non-financial ramifications of dropping print and going to digital?"


"Is our publication an integrated part of our overall strategic marketing and service delivery plan or a stand-alone brochure for the association?"


"Are sales, membership, continuing education, editorial, design, and IT aware of the strategic goals of the other departments?" – If not, you don't have a publishing team.


Sidebar: When you recommend a course of action or major publication change, what types of support do you offer?


Milano: A major problem today in publishing in both corporate and nonprofit America is that we have countless terrified baby boomer executives who don't want to be seen as out of touch when it comes to technology, so they hire countless tech-savvy Millennials who know how to tweet but have no clue what to tweet.


This leads to IMC grads, digital marketing agencies, and publishing consultants dazzling trade associations with all the digital tools and technology for publishing, but using no strategic content plan as it relates to the organization's mission.


Many people think creating an integrated social media, digital newsletter, email marketing, and app plan is a strategy. If these efforts aren't created to promote a mission-centric publishing strategy, they are just tactics that have been combined to integrate random pieces of content.


If an association wants to hire a consultant to take a strategic look at its publication, it should look for three qualities in the consultant.


First, the consultant should have a four Ps background. Too many people think marketing is advertising, social media, PR and promotions. That's not marketing. That's marketing communications.


One of the first things I was taught in advertising class is that good advertising won't save a bad product; it will only kill it faster when people try the product, find out it stinks, and then spread the word. Focusing on the fourth P is sexy because it's so easily visible. Selling strategic planning isn't sexy, and so the first three Ps often get shortchanged in trade association publishing.


If a trade association publishing consultant doesn't start talking about your mission statement, member demographics, competitors, five-year strategic plan, and other product, price, and place topics before she starts talking about social media, digital platforms, analytics, app programs, design, and mailing services, that's a red flag.


Beware of a magazine makeover that's primarily a graphic redesign or digital upgrade. That's putting lipstick on a pig.


Second, the consultant or consulting company should be or have someone on their team who has worked at a trade association. If you don't know how trade associations work, it's going to be hard to create a strategic publishing plan for one.


Third, you want someone who has magazine publishing training. Creating great editorial is not helpful if you don't know where to place it in the book, how to lay it out, the critical importance of typography, what a grid is and why it's important, and how to create a strategic annual editorial calendar.


Note that I didn't mention technology skills.


Digital publishing expertise is critical for associations, but that comes after you create a strategic publishing plan. The best digital publishing consultants can't help you if you don't know what you need to publish. They rely on you to give them that direction.


A strategic publishing consultant helps teach association staff how to message correctly for many years to come without needing more outsourced help to continue that. Once an association has that competency, it can hire a digital publishing consultant to help create the technology piece of the association's plan.


Creating a strategic publishing plan is the most important and least expensive aspect of trade association publishing. Unfortunately, it's also the most ignored.


No association was founded to have X number of members or have X number of people attend its annual meeting or sell X dollars in magazine advertising. A trade association publication's main goals should align with its mission statement. If it does that, an association will see increased membership, meetings attendance, advertising, booth sales, and sponsorships.


In other words, if you build it (flashy), they won't necessarily come. But if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.


Steve Milano is a magazine consultant specializing in trade association publications. You can contact him at or at