Association Communications: One Format Doesn't Fit All

By Andy Steggles posted Jun 13, 2013 02:20 PM


A topic that seems to be of perpetual debate in the association community with regard to communications is the issue of "either/or." That's to say, should associations continue to deliver print communications or should they be switching entirely to digital. Some say that print is dead and that the only way to go is digital. Others contend that their members ONLY read print and aren't tech-savvy so digital is a non-option--period. My take on the issue isn't so black and white.

I think it's right for associations to be concerned about the information overload their members are experiencing, as it's a real threat--there's even a whole organization devoted to the issue. But I think that searching for the one solution that will solve the problem is a search in vain, because the reality is that there's no one format to suit all, or even just one. The reality is that most people consume media across a number of formats in any given day. Take my day, for example:

  • When heading to the office, I tend to start up my mobile app which downloads all the necessary info upon start up and then I can casually browse through the contents even when there is no signal reception.
  • When I arrive at the office, I typically jump on my PC and open my Chrome web browser where I have my home page set to a dashboard of many RSS feeds. This provides info from many different outlets which I typically skim through and respond or bookmark where appropriate.
  • Later I might jump in a cab to the airport where I might want to check-in for my flight online. To do this, I’d typically use my smartphone and open the airline website such as which is when I’d be presented with an “adaptive” mobile website (a website which looks like an app and is designed to provide a specific set of functionality such as airport check-in or look up the status of a flight etc).
  • When I get to the airport I might check my email and then perhaps click on one of the headlines in the Washington Post or New York Times email summaries. When I click on the link I would typically be taken to a “responsive” mobile website (a website which re-shapes itself based on the type of device/screen resolution the user has available). For example, when viewing on a tablet, I might see two columns of content but when viewing on a smart phone, I might just see one (longer) column of content.

Associations now have a duty to cater offerings to all members--a tall order in this day and age of blended generations and multitudes of ways to present content. As each individual member's preferences will vary, in addition to the variances across generations--older members who cling to print down to student members who don't even read email--the only effective way to communicate with all is to adapt your content to every possible format and let the member decide how they wish to consume and/or interact with it.

Using an online community as an example, members may be overwhelmed with emails and so they often want the content delivered via different means.  Those with long commutes with intermittent cell phone coverage may opt for mobile apps while others may want an adaptive mobile website.  Some may not want either and may be content with their regular email etc. And some may even want to print out discussion threads or documents. In all cases, those members are engaging with your organization, and being able to do so in the format that works for them keeps them engaged. So rather than resolving to switch to a mobile-only format or stubbornly resisting any digital formats at all, do what will benefit your association in the long run: provide good content that's accessible in any format a person could want and let the individual members choose how they'd like to consume it.