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Publications Go Digital

September 1, 2009

By Masha Zager

As REALTOR® associations watch their advertising revenues dwindle, many face a tough choice: support their magazines with membership dues or radically trim the publication schedule. Neither option is appealing. In today’s economy, most associations are looking to reduce dues-funded activities, not add to them. And no one wants to curtail publications, which are among the most useful and popular association benefits.

A number of associations are experimenting with a third option—making some or all content Web-only, just as many national newspapers and magazines have started doing. Digital publication not only is far less costly than printing and mailing, it also offers benefits unavailable through print, such as embedded video, live links, and support for online comments and discussions. Still, digital publishing is far from a panacea. Some associations believe it’s an idea whose time has not yet arrived; others say it’s a viable strategy but requires member education.

Marrying print with online content

By lowering the page count and reducing the number of print issues while simultaneously introducing a digital edition, the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS® is exploring the best of both worlds. (Yet it won’t replace print with digital for at least two years, if at all.)

“We have just widened our viewing choices,” says Jill Landsman, director of communications and -media relations for the NVAR. “I really believe both media complement each other, and they’re not mutually exclusive. The portability of a hard-copy magazine can’t be beaten. . . . If I were an advertiser, I’d want both.”

Landsman sees the Web edition primarily as a means to increase readership. The digital edition has attracted attention from readers worldwide—not surprising, given the international clientele for DC-area real estate. In addition, members can easily e-mail HTML versions of articles to their employees or clients. “The viral community element is a definite plus for the online presence,” Landsman says.

The Illinois Association of REALTORS® is following a similar strategy, cutting back its magazine to four times a year and publishing print and digital concurrently through 2010. In 2011, the association will consider phasing out the hard-copy publication, offering printing on demand only. Straddling the line between print and digital makes sense for the association, especially given recent survey results that revealed that only about half of members would be likely to read the magazine online. “We don’t want to pull the rug out from under them and remove all print information until they get accustomed to [the digital edition],” says communications director Mary Schaefer.

During the transitional year, Schaefer will make the digital edition available 10 days ahead of the print publication, alerting members through e-mail. She will also promote the digital edition through the association’s Web site, its blog, social media such as Twitter, and the president’s podcast. The association is also considering “online extras” such as video enhancements to stories.

Schaefer’s long-term goal is to build a revenue base for the online publication. “It could take time for advertisers to understand the cool features of online publications—such as linking to video ads—and learn to take advantage of those to sell products,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Association of -REALTORS® will publish four of its six issues for 2010 in digital format only. The May and September issues, which attract the most advertising, will remain in print. Through its e-mail newsletter and a targeted e-mail blast, the association will alert members to the move to digital editions. Brandie Miner, director of communications and marketing, says the association will sell combined print and digital advertising packages, as well as digital-only packages. “Some advertisers may view digital as being of lesser value, but being able to point the customer to their service [through a link to the advertiser’s Web site] is pretty valuable,” she emphasizes. Still, she’s realistic about the financial implications of the switch. While she isn’t optimistic about turning a profit, she hopes to lose less money or at least break even.

A survey of the Georgia association’s members showed that a majority prefer print publications. Miner hopes that a six-month transition, starting with informal communications and followed by a message from the president, a meeting session, and finally the e-mail blast, will prepare members for the change. “I think they’ll come around,” Miner says. “The last time we surveyed them, two years ago, 80 percent wanted a print publication. Now it’s down to 60 percent. They’ll catch on.”

Are members ready?

The Long Island Board of REALTORS®, New York, announced to its membership that it was transitioning from 10 print issues per year to six print issues and four digital issues. So far, the experience has been disappointing. When the first digital issue appeared in March 2009, marketing and communications director Tricia Chirco sent an e-mail blast to members and launched a major publicity campaign. “We promoted the heck out of it online,” Chirco says. The result: Fewer than 1,000 of the association’s 23,000 members opened the link to the digital edition.

Of those who read it, some members reacted positively, especially those who liked the idea of saving paper for environmental reasons. Others complained the format was difficult to read. The next time around, Chirco added helpful instructions in the e-mail, such as how to adjust the font size or print out -articles, but to no avail. “Just because it suits us financially doesn’t mean it will be embraced by this population,” she cautions.

LIBOR is committed to exploring the mixed print and digital strategy through 2010, at which point it will re-evaluate. “I’m buying another year of getting them used to digital,” Chirco says. This year, advertisers in the print magazine get free exposure in the digital issue. However, in a best-case scenario, the online audience would grow, with readers clicking through to advertisers’ links, which would enable Chirco to sell ads in the digital edition.

Seeing the benefits

Firmly off the fence, the Arizona Association of REALTORS® now publishes its magazine online only, in both HTML and enhanced-PDF formats. Still, about two-thirds of the members who responded to the e-mail announcing the change said they missed getting the magazine in print.

Communications manager Sage Dillon, who is new to the organization and was not involved in the decision to switch to digital-only, says, “We told them they’re absolutely welcome to read it in print. They just have to hit ‘Print.’” Some of the skeptics have promised to give that method a try.

Other members have responded more positively, saying they’re pleased with the digital edition and find it easy to follow.

In addition to saving money, Dillon says, the online format has other benefits. “We don’t know how many of our 42,000 members were actively reading the magazine,” she says. “This way we’re reaching just those who really want to read it.”

Another benefit, according to Dillon, is that readers are more likely to follow links to the association’s own site. “We can easily link them to all the great -articles and information on the Web site already,” she says. “It rounds out the picture so much—they just keep following the trail. We’re using Google Analytics to track their paths through the site and see the pages linked to this month’s story rise up to the top again.”

A core group of advertisers is field-testing the HTML version of the magazine, paying minimal rates for ads until the association collects statistics about reads and click-throughs. After the second digital issue, Dillon plans to survey the advertisers about their experiences and develop a pricing strategy.

Although many American associations are close to or ahead of the digital publication curve, a study called E-Publishing Trends and Metrics from the Angerosa Research Foundation shows that others are just starting to make headway. Of the 316 associations questioned, the study found that fewer than half—offer any original online content or sell ads online.

Overall the technology and financial barriers to digital publications are low, yet so is the buy-in from advertisers and readers. Still, it’s likely that digital publications will be in your future; the only question is when and as part of what kind of communications mix.


Technology behind digital magazines

Publishing a digital edition, even one that looks like a print publication rather than a Web page, does not have to be difficult or expensive, communications directors told us. Some are doing their own production using in-house designers, while others have contracted with vendors. Vendors’ prices range anywhere from a low of $19 to more than $1,000 per issue; higher prices buy bells and whistles, such as support for mobile devices or for text showing up in Google searches. Some vendors will also host the magazines on their Web sites for an additional fee. Even low-cost vendors provide statistics showing which articles are being read.

Communications directors using outside vendors recommend checking out the longevity and reputation of the vendor before entering into a contract, and making sure that files are in a standard format that can be transferred to another vendor if necessary. “Some of the vendors that are here today won’t be here next year,” warns the Illinois Association of REALTORS’® communications director, Mary Schaefer.

Digital flip-book-style magazines, commonly known simply as “digital magazines,” are a Flash-based online magazine with a “print” look. Readers turn pages and view things much as they would in a magazine or newspaper in real life.

PDF magazines are excellent for a more budget-conscious publication that still wants to keep its print format or wants to make the publication more portable. Creating PDFs for distribution online is no more difficult
than creating them for printing.

Blog- and Web site-based magazines can be the best solution for publications not also keeping a print presence. The idea is to discard the print-style magazine or newspaper format and simply set up a blog or Web site with a news- or magazine-style theme.