An Association Media Expert Reflects On The State Of The Craft

May 17, 2022

Association media in most respects is identical to commercial B2B and B2C journalism. The best practitioners are among the top journalists in the country, and the best brands are vital to their served markets, delivering news, trends, investigations and research to their communities. What’s more, association media (and I include societies, institutes, foundations and the like in that term) produces top trade shows, prestigious awards and recognition programs, and much more, just like their for-profit counterparts.

In some ways, though, association media is distinct. As membership organizations, their communities are very strong, almost familial—fully invested. In commercial B2B media, by contrast, there are usually two or three options in any given market.

It’s also true that in association media, the organization looks at the media operation differently. Whereas commercial media itself is the business, some non-profit organizations have equal or higher priorities, like membership development, donor fundraising, or forging strong relationships with the industry’s key players. In some cases, the media operation is seen as a cost center and not the primary revenue engine that a for-profit business is by definition. This can lead to resource and staffing issues.

Nevertheless, association media has grappled with the same issues as the rest of the media world over the last two years, including pandemic, the abrupt shift to work-from-home, economic turmoil and social upheaval. For these reasons and more, we wanted to talk about association media with the person we think has the best global perspective and expertise in the market. So we asked Jen Smith, Director of the AM&P Network’s Associations Council at SIIA, for her take on the world of association media. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Jen Smith.

Fox Tales: What’s on the minds of association media executives and their teams as we approach mid-year 2022?

Jen Smith: Our community is regularly talking about talent recruitment and retention and how to best build teams for the future. There also are a lot of discussions around a return to in-person events and gatherings. Each content staffer within an association has a role to play in events as well, so this is top of mind for our members.

FT: What are their major challenges?

Smith: The Great Resignation has hit associations just like all organizations. Finding the right talent at the right time continues to be a challenge. Some teams are looking to bring in gig workers or freelance partners to help sustain their workflows.

Executing sponsored content continues to be very challenging for many associations. While the concept of native advertising is generally accepted and understood, many associations don’t have the right resources or bandwidth in place to appropriately execute on the content while feeling comfortable that they are maintaining the editorial integrity of their products.

FT: Are these challenges long-time structural issues (say, divergent visions for content creation between the association/society/institute’s leadership and the content team) or new ones, perhaps related to the pandemic?

Smith: There will always be institutional challenges when publishing association media. The pandemic has brought new and different challenges as well.

FT: How did the non-profit sector hold up during the pandemic in terms of events, audience engagement and the like?

Smith: We saw that during the height of the pandemic, marcomm teams were the front line of response when it came to providing COVID-related information pertaining to their respective industries and fields. Events struggled of course, which ultimately meant that content teams carried the brunt of professional development, communications and continuing community engagement during that time as well. But overall, the specific context that an association can provide as part of the dissemination of information is perhaps the greatest success of a mission-driven membership organization.

FT: What do affiliate members, like Fox Associates, bring to the table for Association membership groups like AM&P? How is a company like Fox’s industry expertise a valuable component of your mission?

Smith: Service providers are often an untapped resource for industry expertise within association publishing. An organization like Fox Associates is able to gather intelligence from numerous organizations, large and small, that not only informs their work on behalf of their clients, but positions Fox as an industry leader and expert in securing non-dues revenue for associations. Our members look to partners like Fox to offer new ideas, resources and tools to confidently and successfully launch new revenue streams and monetize traditional communication products.