Does anyone read your union’s journal?

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This will be a fairly short post, and it focuses on the vexed issue of union journals/magazines.

Most unions have a regular journal or magazine. But I would bet that it’s not a priority for your union. I’d further bet that

  • there’s not much effort put into tracking how many people read it;
  • it’s written and edited by union communications staff as one of their many other duties (although I do know that at least two unions have a dedicated staff member for their magazine);
  • that the content is not systematically reused for the union’s other communications channels (e.g. website, social media, email, etc);
  • that advertising may be outsourced to one of the semi-predatory companies that scam unions into outsourcing ads.

All of this is rhetorical way for me to suggest that many unions don’t take their union publication seriously.

But very large membership based organisations that aren’t unions do take their publications seriously.

For example, the RACV in Victoria (which provides car insurance, etc) has a widely read, professionally produced and written magazine. The AARP (the retirees association in the USA) has one of the most read magazine in the US, bigger than the ESPN and People magazines. The NRA (yes, the National Rifle Association, which has 5 million paid member), has a range of popular hunting magazines and podcasts. Other member organisations, like CPA Australia, run glossy magazines, which are for both members and their broader stakeholder group (businesses who hire accountants).

Why? Because their media content (which includes dedicated websites, social media, Youtube channels, podcasts, even feature-length documentaries and movies, etc) not only drives membership growth and retention, but brings in vast revenue from advertising.

Should unions consider investing in their magazines and journals?

The answer is “probably”.

A few months ago, I wrote a long newsletter about “sticky unions“. The point of that newsletter was to highlight some of the activities and tactics to improve retention for your union.

That issue mainly focused on social activities as the way to improve “stickiness”.

But there’s another thing your union can do to increase retention: develop engaging content that your members find interesting and value.

This is obviously easier said than done.

The media industry is grappling with its own revenue crisis, and most major media companies are caught in an income death-spiral due to the collapse in traditional advertising. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that this industry is one worth imitating.

Nonetheless, very large membership organisations have invested significantly in content development.

The way that this content makes the membership organisation “sticky” is that enable the organisation to become more relevant to the member’s life (rather than make the member more engaged in the organisation’s activities).

The magazines and podcasts become a tangible benefit of membership, and because they’re “lifestyle” focused (rather than issue focused), as well as professionally produced by editors, writers and designers, they stand up to other media organisations’ content.

Ultimately, this helps ensure that the member builds a habit of engaging with the organisation. Members actively choose to read the publications from the AARP or NRA. In fact, they drive re-subscriptions.

Once they’ve built their media/content platforms, these large organisations can use them to deeply influence their membership base. For example, most AARP magazine issues have the general “lifestyle” content that you’d expect for a boomer-targeted 60+ audience. But at key times, the AARP pushes beyond lifestyle to powerfully shape the views of members on issues like Medicare/health care. Because they’ve built trust with their members, and members are habitually reading their content, the issue-based content is more effective.

The most striking example of a media platform strategy comes from AARP, whose magazine’s circulation is three times larger than the next largest US publication’s. A lifestyle magazine with multiple versions targeted at various senior demographics, including a Spanish version, AARP The Magazine is a potent mechanism for AARP to influence its members on cultural and policy issues. The magazine is seen as a highly valuable member benefit: I was amazed by the number of AARP members who told me that AARP The Magazine, with its stories about senior health and wellness, over-50 celebrities, and world travel tips, was the primary reason they renewed their membership year after year. (Secret of Scale)

It’s also worth remembering that 5+ decades ago, unions ran widely distributed newspapers, as well as radio stations. These newspapers and radio stations were run like the media outlets of the time, but over the years were sold off or closed down.

This takes me back to my earlier question: should unions run a magazine? Would members read it?

My answer was: probably.

Investing in the kind of content/media infrastructure that the RACV or AARP has is a big one, with no guarantees of returns.

If your union is relatively small, then an investment in a professionally produced/written magazine probably isn’t worth it.

But for larger branches, or for national unions, I’d definitely suggest that you take a second look at your magazine.

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