January 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 1

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From The Executive Officer
sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

The Limitations of Electronic Communication: Returning to a Printed Footnotes

As ASA Executive Officer, reading and responding to emails is an important part of my work on behalf of the Association. I don’t know how other ASA members—for whom emails may only be a small fraction of their professional responsibilities—manage to keep up; I barely do!

Yet electronic communication is essential to all our lives and a vital part of how ASA keeps its members informed. And ASA’s monthly newsletter Footnotes is at the heart of that communication process, especially because we assume that members don’t have the ASA website as their homepage when they log on to the Internet each day.

The move to e-Footnotes

In August 2009, the Executive Office responded to the Committee on the Executive Office and Budget (EOB) and Council’s urging that ASA contain costs with a list of many cost-saving recommendations, including eliminating the printed and mailed version of Footnotes. Council voted to make the newsletter “online only” but gave members the opportunity to opt into a print copy. The move to an electronic newsletter had been suggested previously by some ASA members and leaders, not as a way to cut printing and mailing costs, but to bring ASA’s member communications fully into the electronic age. The assumption was that most members are reading online rather than on the printed page and that making Footnotes electronic would enhance ASA’s communication of important news and information to members.1

The disappointing results

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The “online-only” version of Footnotes began with the January 2010 issue. The surprise was that far more members opted to receive printed issues than we expected and the number increased the second year (about 650 in 2010 and almost 700 in 2011). We had anticipated significant savings in printing and mailing ($65,000-$70,000), but the actual annual savings were somewhat lower (about $55,000 net of one-time design and improved user functionality costs). The higher than expected and increasing rate of opt-ins cut into savings (costing about $14,000 per year, or more than $20 per member).

More importantly, however, has been mounting indicators that members aren’t reading the online Footnotes. Those who opted into print aren’t just members from the generations who didn’t grow up “online.” An informal survey of members who were prominently featured in Footnotes’ articles, for example, had not seen the articles about their work. Members who were queried about reading Footnotes and who said they always browsed through the whole print issue and then read selectively, reported with some hesitation and embarrassment that they didn’t do this with the e-version. Polling ASA Council members produced the same results—they meant to read it, they reported, but with the pressure of current emails, they put Footnotes into their electronic “follow-up” queue and somehow it got further and further toward the bottom as time passed.

Staff contacted other scholarly societies like ours. Some that had gone from print to electronic newsletters had the same concerns that we had. Organizations that hadn’t made the move away from print were hearing sufficient concerns from their own members as well as from other associations that they were considering various interim options.

Over the last two years that Footnotes has been e-only (with opt-in to print), when each issue was published online ASA has sent members an e-mail version of the table of contents with links to articles. Very few members requested that we “unsubscribe” them from Footnotes, so we assume most members have interest in at least some of the information it contains. Nevertheless, according to Google analytics, between April and the end of June 2011, the main page of the April issue (which included a number of articles on ASA finances and revenue related to the proposed new dues structure) received 748 unique views. The article about the financial well-being of the Association, “Ask the Executive Officer,” in the March issue of Footnotes, received 373 unique views. Despite e-mails sent to 14,000 members per issue, articles receive, on average, about 400 page views. Furthermore, many of these “hits” appear to have been the result of ASA posting a link to a specific Footnotes article on Facebook and/or Twitter rather than the distribution of the table of contents to members.

Not only are the online usage statistics small, interactions with members (at all levels, including major committees), indicate that members are not aware of Association activities, important deadlines, or programs in the same way they used to be. As Internet-savvy as our members are, the online version of Footnotes is simply not garnering the same attention that the printed version did. Yet keeping members informed of ASA programs and activities as well as disciplinary news is vitally important at all times, and it will be particularly important as ASA moves toward the full implementation of the member-approved new dues structure in 2013.

The return to print

This January 2012 issue of Footnotes has been printed and mailed to all ASA members except those who “opted out” of the printed copy when they renewed for 2012. Our efforts to enhance the visibility of the content through Facebook (www.facebook.com/americansociologicalassociation) and Twitter (@ASAnews) postings, discussion forum topics, e-mail links, etc. will continue to link members and nonmembers to the online version of Footnotes on the ASA website. We hope these social media options will see significantly higher use when combined with a printed issue. The online Footnotes will continue to allow members to easily distribute articles via e-mail that they see in the printed issue to students and colleagues or to post via social media sites.

The annual cost of returning to printing and mailing Footnotes toall ASA members who do not opt-out will be approximately $55,000 beginning in 2012. For now we will keep the same format (8½ x 11) and design as the current online pdf version, which members seem to like. The cost of this change is entirely the number of copies printed and mailed. We are making efforts to reduce the environmental impact by using recycled paper, widely publicizing the opt-out choice, and using the least expensive postal rates available based on deadlines and content.

At its July 2011 meeting, EOB discussed and unanimously recommended this change to Council, which likewise discussed and approved the change. The ASA leadership focused on the vital importance of more and better communication with the membership, not only reflecting good organizational governance in the formal sense but, more importantly, ensuring the membership is fully informed of current news in the discipline as well as how the Association is working on its behalf.

Following these discussions, ASA staff began an Executive Office-wide discussion of ways to improve member communications. We recognize that ASA members experience, in the extreme, the increasing information overload that all internet-savvy people face. That means they miss some of what ASA provides from our research on the discipline and profession, deadlines for our small grant and fellowship programs, news about TRAILS, successful media outreach, and federal science policy changes. We will keep you informed; we welcome your feedback as to how we can do this better.

  1. For many years, Footnotes has been in electronic format on the ASA website, available for searching back issues and printing new and old articles. Except for a new format, this did not change with the switch from mailing printed copies to emailing electronic copies to members.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at mailto:executive.office@asanet.org.

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