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Dan Loomis' Articles

The Explosion of Online Content: What Associations
Need to Know

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A few years ago, associations felt pressured by the “Go Green” philosophy to stop printing and to put their conference content and publications online. However, the underlying motive to go online was fiscal combined with the desire to take advantage of the surge in new technologies and faster Internet speeds.

Today, “Go Green” is no longer an association reaction to external pressure, but rather it’s an environmental stewardship awareness that’s built into every thought and decision regarding the production and distribution of association content. How can only the necessary content be produced without waste or excess?

In addition, the global economy certainly contributed to associations carefully scrutinizing their expenditures. The costs associated with printing conference material were no exception. The survival of many associations depended on reducing costs, while increasing membership value. Not an easy formula for success.

Associations were searching for a ‘Silver Bullet’ solution. Putting content online seemed the logical choice and “everyone was doing it.” New mobile devices and Wi-Fi connectivity had forever changed the landscape of content distribution. In addition, these online technologies eliminated some of the historical difficulties associated with print production:

  • Producing and shipping materials is costly.

  • Print production cycles are not conducive to last-minute changes.

  • Printed material is dated. Appending late material is often not done because of expense.

  • The disposal of overproduced quantities is wasteful and expensive.

  • Event staff doesn’t like the hassle of handing out on-site materials.

  • Younger attendees seem to prefer content online.

  • Managing multiple printers and/or fulfillment houses is challenging.

  • Spending valuable internal association staff time for shipping printed content.
    The Explosion of Online Content

The Explosion of Online Content

Associations viewed online technology as a viable alternative to print primarily because of cost factors, as well as being able to increase content circulation and extend their marketing reach without increasing distribution costs. New technologies such as Android and Apple devices provided users the ability to read content nearly anywhere and at any time. As Internet speeds increased and Wi-Fi became more prevalent, the demand for content on mobile devices grew accordingly. Finally, 24/7 content consumption became possible: members can access relevant content whenever and however they want and on a multitude of mobile devices.  



Today many associations are beginning to embrace the benefits of an online solution by creating central repositories of ALL association content in a single online location. Central repositories serve as an online library of industry rich content produced by the association along with hyperlinks to other online resources. The Society for Maintenance & Reliability Professionals (SMRP) has created an online resource, SMRP Library of Knowledge, a great example of how associations can create a central repository with rich content from publications to conference proceedings.

Placing content online also allows associations to generate revenue in ways much more versatile than in printed format. Content can be sold by file, chapter, conference, etc. It no longer needs to be event specific. Content can be sold and distributed by topic, subject matter, across proceeding and publications. Content purchases can be customized to meet the user’s requirements.

Placing content online was quickly recognized to be a great marketing tool. Search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo naturally became an extension of an association’s marketing arm. By making association content more findable associations remain more relevant. Print and Online Media Options Meet Different Needs

Associations should stop thinking about replacing one media with another. Instead, they should think about how print and online technologies can complement each other. They also need to think about how doing either impacts their association’s overall strategies. It is important to remember people want to consume content in different formats based upon what the content is and why the learner is accessing it. A bibliography is easily and conveniently accessed online; whereas one may prefer to attend an on-site event, complete with printed session handouts, to hear the keynote presentation by the leading light in the industry Associations typically produce content for conferences, publications and continuing education courses. We will consider each of these types of productions and discuss the possible application of print and online technologies.


Quantities and demand for the printed conference proceedings have decreased substantially for most educational events. In fact, the quest for the “
paperless meeting” seems to be the goal for most conference planners. Cost is a primary driving factor for this change, but other factors such as the ease of distribution and the type of content itself (scholarly papers being replaced by with slide presentations) are strong influencers to this online strategy. Let’s start with large bound printed conference binders. These are sometimes being replaced with the individually printed handouts being distributed in each session room. However, in most cases, the printed proceedings (and/or other educational handouts or recorded sessions) along with the program/agenda are put into an online approach.

Online conference materials provide associations many options to control access to this portal making it an attendee only offering, or opening it up to the greater public… something they couldn’t do with print. Many associations are seeing the year-over-year proceedings archive as an opportunity to provide its members a year round resource. Other associations are using this conference content as part of their marketing and membership strategies to be more discoverable by search engines as well as offering different access models (some
 of which are a revenue source). One example is the Transportation Research Board who is taking their annual meeting materials which consists of 2,250 technical papers and 3,500 oral and poster presentations, and creating a multi-year archive which attendees can access for free and the greater public can use for a fee.

Associations are also offering attendees the option of purchasing printed conference proceedings at the time of registration. In the context of the average attendee spending up to $2,000 to attend an event, an additional $20 for the printed proceedings seems reasonable and more fitting for a society that is used to having a multitude of choices.

The printed program may more commonly be used at the conference when attendees are reading the session details and organizing their daily schedules. However, this printed piece is beginning to face pressures from the online/mobile strategy where attendees can use their smartphones to access their itineraries and program information.

In the end, there is no one way solution. The combination of print and online is critical to the attendee experience. Whether attendees are at home, in the office or at the conference; providing multiple formats allows them to consume content when and how they want it. Issues traditionally associated with printing should not prevent the production of printed content
if this is the most preferred format. And likewise, associations may need to be thinking bigger than just putting this year’s session handouts online.

Educational Publications

An “educational publication” means something different to each association. Associations may produce journals, or several titles consisting of resource manuals and reference guides. The traditional model for printing and providing these publications is changing too. Print on demand and e-versions of publications have folded into the mix creating more options and more complexities for those managing their publications.    

When printing resource manuals and reference guides, most associations produce large volumes to take advantage of lower per unit cost, and to replenish store inventory  for anticipated future orders. This printing model has been followed for many years. Today, associations are using print on demand options to carry smaller inventories. Even though the cost per unit is increased, the overall print cost is less as unwanted, outdated inventory does not need to be disposed of.

To reduce costs and meet the demand for online content, some associations have begun distributing journal content using online magazine solutions: a great way to increase distribution without increasing print and shipping costs. Like conference materials, the opportunity for reaching a new audience, lowering costs and being able to track usage is a big advantage for e-publications. However the printed journal is not completely eliminated since there are members who prefer a printed copy over an online version. But this reduction in the circulation quantities has a positive impact on the bottom-line.

Publications used as reference guides might be better suited to an online Knowledge Center, where members can access publication content in a central online association content repository. Online Knowledge Centers have many search and navigation features that make finding relevant content very easy for users. Laptops and tablets can both utilize the advantages of online distribution.

For associations, eBook or page-turning software options are better choices for publications that will be read cover to cover, rather than as reference guides. Typical uses include reading on a tablet while sitting in bed or maybe on the commuter train.

Now that one in six Americans own an eBook (according to a Harris survey July 2011), an online distribution strategy such as eBooks makes sense. Associations are not alone in their development of an eBook strategy. Universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Berkeley will be participating in an
e-text pilot program spring of 2012 to test moving printed course books to e-formats to learn the impact of costs, education and preferences. With eBooks comes a few natural challenges with putting anything online: conversion of content and distribution. EBooks lose page-by-page integrity so users can resize text to fit their needs. And, distribution also has many unique challenges. The biggest challenge is profitability. Many online distribution models make it difficult to earn substantial revenue since many distributors take 40-60% of retail sales.

Whether it’s online or a print on demand strategy, both need upfront planning and ongoing monitoring to ensure its success.

Continuing Education Training

The explosion of putting content online is a little different for the association training events. Although there are many online educational courses and credentialing opportunities for members, face-to-face training with onsite printed materials is not going away (or declining rapidly) any time soon.

Our most recent survey, "The Impact of Educational Material on On-Site Training,” was taken by over 280 association personnel directly responsible for producing continuing education programs for their organizations. They indicated printed material was the preferred format for face-to-face, instructor-lead continuing education events (81.7%). They also indicated that printed material, such as a course book, was an effective or highly effective learning tool for on-site courses (87.7%). Course participants can easily follow along and take notes on important points or topics.|

To manage costs, reduce waste and keep materials current associations are producing printed course material on demand which allows them to produce exact quantities for each event. For example, The Appraisal Institute produces printed material for over 800 training events each year, and the exact quantities ordered are sent directly to the  event site. The Appraisal Institute is able to manage costs, because there are no charges for overprints, and there is never any outdated material to be disposed of.

Print on demand solutions are more than a means to manage costs. They also allow associations to increase brand awareness as training content is more frequently updated. The distribution of new, relevant content is a great way for associations to market their brand. If content requires more frequent updates to ensure training contains the industry’s latest findings, laws and regulations, print on demand is also an excellent option.

Even though print was indicated as a preferred format in our survey, that’s not to suggest associations aren’t thinking about an online solution to complement the on-site training experience. Our findings indicate associations are beginning to allocate more of their training budgets to an online solution. In fact, 26.8% of respondents indicated 50% or more of their total 2012 training budget is being allocated to an online solution. That was nearly a 7% increase over the previous year. Nothing startling, but early trends toward online solutions are emerging. For many, an online solution consists of allowing course participants to access and download study material before the actual on-site course. This is a perfect example of combining technologies. The online component helps participants prepare while the printed course book allows them to learn effectively in a face-to-face environment.

Staying Relevant to Your Members

The Internet is forever changing the association landscape when it comes to publishing its content. It is forcing associations to make better decisions on manage costs as well as keep members happy. It’s not about changing from print to online. It’s about staying relevant in fast-moving, competitive world regardless of which media is used.

Coauthored with Christopher Uschan