Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Addressing Convenience: When What Works for You Doesn't Work for Me

One of the things we will cover here on the blog periodically is a series of terms that we—in "the association world" and the outside world—don't define well or think about very clearly. Concepts such as convenience, networking, and value mean different things to different people and often each person has a nuanced way of thinking about things. These terms are easy for us to use in project and marketing plans as shorthand code for something much more complex, which helps us write the document, but doesn’t help when we do have to review our operations. Basically, shorter sentences can come at the expense of true understanding of our challenges and opportunities to improve.

"Convenience" is something our members & customers will often cite as a reason for preferring something—typically formats for publications, membership materials, educational/learning opportunities, etc.

In a magazine circulation study we conducted this summer, a large trade association was trying to boost magazine paid subscription and find a way to integrate its relatively new electronic version into the mix. To some degree, these two objectives could be cross-purposes. For example, if you make electronic use easy, it facilitates pass-on, and reduces paid circulation as a result. Or conversely, if you push paid readership far higher through aggressive circulation marketing, you take market attention away from the relatively new electronic version and may be fighting a losing battle long-term if preferences are naturally migrating toward electronic. We all knew going into the engagement that it might be a lose-lose situation: we might study market needs, demand drivers, and historical trends, but reasonably conclude that no amount of effort might help the association accomplish its goals. Then again, not doing something is a decision, too, and purposeful inertia is a valid mode of operation, sometimes.

When we measured satisfaction with the print/electronic formats and stated media preferences, then cross-tabulated them, we found some interesting things:
• People who prefer electronic publications and information (phrased in the abstract) were less likely to be satisfied with the electronic publication.
• More importantly, this group was a minority of the membership.
• Regardless of their preference, when asked why they prefer print or electronic, overwhelmingly members indicated "convenience" in their open-ended comments.

In essence, members were telling us that they were wedded to one format or the other because they fit their lives very well. We drilled down into these findings with personal interviews to learn more. Those who prefer paper wanted something they could take home or keep at home and read in the living room or the bathroom. Those who preferred electronic wanted something they could read on the job, that would be easier to search, and wouldn't pile up in their office. Media preferences and convenience didn't fluctuate widely by employee job function, age cohort, size of firm, or any other of the usual suspects that one uses to help explain findings in terms of audience segments.

We concluded the engagement with recommendations on messaging, database-driven circulation efforts, better pricing, etc. However, understanding "convenience" did serve an important function: it told us not to make electronic a focal point of the campaigns, and to recognize that it's a complement rather than a replacement for the print vehicle.

In your associations, how have you dealt with publication format preferences over time? Have you replaced print titles with electronic to "lead" the profession into the future? Did you do it for a single title or your entire array of communications vehicles? If so, how did you measure success of the conversion—total complaints, satisfaction with the new vehicles, exit surveys?

The iconoclast in me says that most mature consumers, including you and me, form preferences that are so personal and intrinsic that we rarely self-examine them, and we certainly don't articulate them well to others when they try to measure or describe them. As a result, research efforts can fail to accurate measure member/customer attitudes, and even if they do, the findings may feel inconclusive to us.

I would contend that it's important to ask the questions, and to probe below surface level concepts such as it is "convenient." Or you "did fine." You'll understand your readers and non-readers far better, and you'll probably find that the best choice between print & electronic remains "both."

It may be more efficient to use only one format to deliver your content, but it's less effective. In an environment where perhaps 60% prefer e- and 40% prefer print/mail, is it a good business decision to bravely disenfranchise a large proportion of your audience? You might have made the move, resurvey five years later and find the preference is now 80%/20%, but this doesn't validate the decision. The apparent shift could reflect a change in preferences vs. a steady loss of former members who continue to prefer the format you eliminated? Other research we've conducted shows that format preferences migrate very slowly, if at all, depending on the industry or profession. It's not the stampede toward electronic that we all probably expected 10-12 years ago.

Even if research may lead to "analysis paralysis" in cases such as this, I think that would have been a better outcome for some of our association than to make wholesale changes that carry a huge opportunity cost in the form of lost members and others who feel less connected without seeing your logo in their mailbox from time to time.

-Kevin  45 years old, ASAE member for 19 years, prefers print and electronic

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