Trust the Data and Leash Those Pet Projects

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By Rebecca Stauffer

We all have an issue or cause that’s important to us—something near and dear to our hearts.

So, it is not surprising that within an association, there are numerous volunteers working on specific issues important to them and their segment of a specific industry. In association publishing, this can put us in a difficult place, if their “pet” project conflicts with the mission of a publication or is on a topic that draws little reader interest.

How can association publishers manage members’ passions for their pet projects versus meeting the needs of readers?

First, always follow the data.

Frequently monitor the analytics for your Web content. These numbers tell you what is popular and what is not. I recommend analyzing the articles with the highest pageviews by year. This should show you the topics readers prefer the most.

I rely heavily on Google Analytics. With three years of data, I know which topics draw the most reader interest. In the past, the all-volunteer Editorial Committee would recommend issue themes around the topics important to them. About two years ago, I began working with them to align editorial themes with the Analytics data. Since then, our pageviews have increased significantly.

Now that you have your numbers, you must consider how to respond to the volunteer. This does not mean killing a story but it may mean approaching it from a different angle. A volunteer may want an issue of your magazine focused around their pet topic; instead, maybe a single article would be better. This requires having some tough conversations with your volunteer authors. This also goes for your other publication offerings. Ever since my team started producing videos, volunteers want their pet topics covered. Again, we talk to the volunteer and if the topic is not suited for a video, we suggest another angle to approach the topic.

Going back to the data, you may find that interest in the pet topic may be growing. This is why it is good to continually analyze what articles are trending. An unpopular topic eight months ago may be one of your top ten today.

And sometimes you may need to make a judgement call. The pet topic may actually be a slow indicator of something of critical importance to your association’s members. In this case, you will need to determine how your publication will cover it. While it is good to look at the data, sometimes we need to also think about the future. I am sure there are association magazines from the early 1990s about how cell phone technologies will change their respective industries. Imagine if these kinds of forward-looking content were ignored!

Still, as editors and publishers for association publications, we will need to constantly balance the needs of covering the topics our readers want versus pet topics from our volunteers. There are no easy answers, but I hope my tips can help.