Newsletter or Professional Journal: What Should Your Publication Be?

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By Steve Milano


A potential client recently told me they were struggling with an issue common to many trade associations. "Should our magazine serve as the official publication of our association or as the professional journal for our industry?"


The Aug. 23 survey of Sidebar readers shows this is a common question. Eighteen percent of respondents said their flagship publication was the official communication tool; 23 percent said it was the professional standard bearer for the industry; 9 percent said it was both; and 50 percent said they were not sure.


I explained that, while each publishing strategy has a specific advantage, you lose the benefits of the direction you don't take. This publication strategy is not as simple as including both industry-specific editorial and internal association news in your magazine — it takes careful planning and specific publishing techniques to achieve an association's desired results.


If you've been considering a review of your publication's brand and position in your industry, here are some pointers to help with that analysis.


Internal Member Newsletter

Why buy the cow if the milk is free? A trade magazine that's only available to paying members makes membership in an association more valuable. It can help stimulate new memberships and increase retention. For some trade associations, their publication is their main membership benefit. For any trade association, it should be one of the top three or four benefits — confirmed by your annual membership survey.


If you want your magazine to serve as the voice of your industry, you'll need to open your circulation. That might mean making it available for free online or allowing non-members to purchase subscriptions, which can decrease memberships.


Industry Professional Journal

Positioning your magazine as your profession's trade magazine brands you as the voice of your industry. It helps create a barrier to entry for competing publishers who might then expand into continuing education, trade shows, conferences, and other services you offer. If your association has enough substantive member benefits beyond your publication, opening your magazine to non-members can turn it into a valuable recruiting tool. Your non-member readers will see all that's happening within your organization and learn what they are missing.


If expense is an issue, you can keep the print version of your publication available to members only. Non-member digital readers generate more traffic to your website, giving you another way to market memberships. It also increases advertiser interest.


Having it Both Ways

It's possible to publish a trade association magazine that is both the industry's professional journal and the association's member publication. The key to doing so effectively lies not in what content you publish, but how you publish it. This means creating the correct editorial flow from the front of the publication to the back, resulting in a logical, coherent read each issue.


To create an effective dual-purpose association publication, you cannot mix the placement of your industry-specific content and association news throughout the publication. You must make the first part of your book the industry's professional journal, using the latter half or third of your publication to highlight and promote your association.


This sends the message, "This is the trade journal of this profession … brought to you by t

the National XYZ Association, the voice of this industry." While this might sound simple enough, it requires careful thought and planning, including how and where you place the editor's and executive director's letters, departments, columns, vendor and house ads, and how you handle features.


To make your magazine more valuable to members, make some of your magazine's content exclusive by offering premium (extra) content in the members' area of your website.


Test the Concept

Before you commit to a single-purpose re-brand or a multipurpose repositioning, your editor and designer should take an old issue of your publication and create a prototype of the proposed magazine. Place articles to show how you would handle your editorial flow. You can put a password-protected PDF of the prototype online and ask select members, non-members, and advertisers to review the proposed publication and give their opinions.


Associations don't have to choose an either-or publishing strategy for their magazine or newsletter. A dual-purpose trade magazine can be an effective marketing tool, but only if it's guided by a careful SWOT analysis, prototype creation, and evaluation by target stakeholders.


Following these steps will help you make the right strategic decisions for your association's publication.


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