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Membership publishers wrestle with content conundrum

Content has become mission-critical for many membership organisations. But, Mike Sewell asks, should this valuable asset be regarded as an exclusive member benefit, or used as a marketing tool?

Mike Sewell

Posted on: 27 November 2016

It's not just newspapers and magazines that agonise over whether to make their valuable content available for free, or hide it behind a wall so they can offer exclusive access to those willing to pay. Membership organisations, too, have struggled with this dilemma for many years, although their concerns are often less about revenue and paywalls, and more about attracting and retaining members.

Membership organisations have long understood that communications with their members – and the wider sector for their specialism – is vital. Membership publishing has variously been used to attract new members and support existing members, influence policymakers and stakeholders, and generally to raise their public profiles as experts in their professions.

The traditional membership content vehicle was, for more than a century, a regular printed member magazine or newspaper (although often this will have been turned into a magazine by now). Some membership publishers dealt with the arrival of the internet by posting the print magazine content on their website; others sought to protect the magazine as a member benefit by putting it in members-only sections of their sites.

But the mobile publishing revolution of the past decade has lit a fire under many membership organisations. They are coming to terms with two uncomfortable facts. First, they now have to fight for the reading time of their current and prospective members against a flood of competing content arriving on smartphones, tablets and computers. Second, the low costs of digital publishing and the growth of business networking via social media such as LinkedIn mean the professional membership body is increasingly no longer the sole source of specialist and expert information. Both clearly raise issues of engagement and relevance that all membership organisations need to tackle.

The phenomenon that is content marketing has brought this all into focus for membership bodies. Their publishing definitely qualifies as the kind of expert, respected material that Google loves to promote – but does deploying it throughout the market devalue the membership offering?

We decided to take a snapshot survey of the market, using an independent researcher who approached eighteen membership organisations, including professional groups, learned societies and charities, with memberships ranging from hundreds to more than 100,000. Some were our clients; others were not. The results were analysed and turned into a report, The Content Conundrum. This article outlines its main findings.

Winning and keeping members is the key driver for content creation

Why do membership bodies primarily generate content? The survey shows that almost all (88%) membership organisations publish primarily in order to engage and retain members. Raising their profile was cited by 50% of bodies as their second most important reason for producing content. The content is extensive and includes a wide range of content types.

Nobody will be surprised to see that most membership bodies create news stories about themselves and their members; but 80% of these organisations also produce blogs and opinion pieces, with 60% also producing white papers and original research, thought leadership pieces and video content. During survey interviews, several respondents commented that it was hard for them to generate comprehensive industry news, and acknowledged that commercial trade publishers were better placed to do this well.

And who gets to see all this membership content? Our research shows the essence of the content conundrum, with some types of content being reserved mainly for members (notably CPD content), while others are widely available to non-members (notably blogs and industry news), with other types of content at the heart of the battleground. The fact that the percentages exceed 100% (see ‘Who has access to content?’ chart) for all but one content type shows that many organisations do not have a hard and fast rule about access, instead making some pieces of content in each type members-only, while allowing other pieces to go out to both members and a wider audience. The exception is blogs, which were universally available to everybody.

Despite this jumbled approach to distribution, virtually all (93%) of respondents currently market exclusive access to content as a member benefit. Some try to have their cake and eat it, by creating summaries or ‘tasters’ for good content available to all, but then restricting access to the full content to members – a not particularly subtle attempt to convert casual readers into members.

Print magazines still play a strong role

Nearly all (94%) of the organisations in the survey still produce a printed magazine for their members, and 72% publish a digital magazine (often a digital version of the print magazine) in addition. None produces a digital magazine only, and respondents were clear that the printed magazine is currently doing a good job as a tangible benefit of membership.

Indeed, one in three (36%) organisations said their members regard their print magazine as the top benefit of membership, with two in three (65%) saying that it is one of the top three benefits. However, some respondents did suggest that the print magazine’s perceived benefit might erode over time, as digital content improves in terms of frequency, quality and delivery, and as the older generation of members gives way to a new cohort of members who have grown up with digital.

Many respondents do not add the magazine’s content to the members-only section of their website, instead either allowing general access to it, or even giving the magazine its own website, at one remove from the organisation’s main website. The rationale for this separation was around the notion that the magazine could present a wider range of opinions while maintaining the objectivity and independence of the organisation.

Digital and print working together

The survey revealed that membership organisations are using all the main platforms to channel their content. Although the survey showed that only one platform – the e-newsletter – was being used by all the respondents, the channel cited as being most important to the organisation’s communications strategy was the website, followed by the print magazine; then e-news and social media.

In terms of content for each channel, most (71%) said that print and digital magazine content was broadly similar. However, some organisations have taken the strategic decision to use print and digital for different roles, with print typically becoming less frequent but higher value, carrying in-depth and long-form features and analysis with a long shelf life, compared to digital content, which is more frequent, centred on timely news and updates, and mainly short-form.

Digital delivery is driving change

The mobile revolution is changing the way membership organisations do their publishing. Almost six in ten (59%) said their approach to managing their content had already changed, and a further 35% said they were planning to change.

Much of the change is about re-purposing content built for one channel, making it apt for distribution via other channels. Many organisations are taking advantage of multiple channels to deliver privileged member access (rather than full exclusivity), releasing content to members first, and later repurposing it and sending versions of the content to non-members, with multiple publishing activities made possible by the low costs of digital publishing.

This new complexity, compared with just sending out a magazine every couple of months, has required more agility and planning from membership bodies; respondents speak of having to see the whole picture, and being more joined-up in their content strategy (and, indeed, of actually having a strategy for the first time).

In terms of spend, the overall picture is that the arrival of digital has not saved money, and some (29%) have increased overall content budgets. The vast majority (92%) of those surveyed said their organisations are planning to increase content frequency; 63% have started to do so already.

A sector that is reinventing the way it publishes

As we processed the findings of the survey, we could see a sector in transition as it rises to the challenge – and the opportunity – forced upon all publishers in the last few years.

Commercial publishers are dealing with an existential threat to their traditional business models, epitomised by the failure (so far) of digital advertising and subscriptions to fully replace print-based revenues; their prime issues are how to monetise digital content effectively, and how to protect their print-based properties while maximising digital opportunities.

Membership publishers, in contrast, rarely charge for the content they produce; but that content is now accepted as being critical to attract and retain memberships. And, without members, all these organisations are dead in the water – so, they too face an existential threat in the longer term. Some respondents spoke of increasing demand among members for more personalised content, tailored to each member’s needs; another hurdle to tackle.

The variety of current approaches to content distribution among membership bodies found in our report shows that they are still conflicted when it comes to giving access to content. However, with content being key to both attracting non-members and keeping current members engaged with the organisation, they will need to find a balance sooner rather than later. As is often the case, it seems inevitable they will have to do both at the same time.

About Mike Sewell
(Details last updated: 16 November 2016)

Mike Sewell is managing director at CPL, the Cambridge-based content marketing agency. Current CPL membership clients include the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

Tel: 01223 378000

Email: Send a message to this author


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