Well, it was a very interesting month as we absorbed and analyzed our reader’s survey feedback on potential changes to the Tandem Club of America and our newsletter, DoubleTalk.
Three different issues need to be addressed, ultimately, to return the TCA to a successful path: a sustainable business plan, a path forward for its primary means of communication, DoubleTalk, and a means of succeeding and replacing officers and volunteers. And the three are inter-related, of course. For the time being, we have set aside the issue of officer succession (and hence ensuring the organization’s longevity) of the TCA and DoubleTalk. But the clock is ticking; none of us is getting any younger! We will need to return to this in the future.
After a lot of discussion and reflection, the consensus bottom line is that converting DoubleTalk to a multi-editor, commented blog, imbedded in a fully featured TCA website seems to be the optimal path forward. The TCA continues to seek to be a common ground for communication amongst tandemists. DoubleTalk was and remains our primary means of communication. When DoubleTalk was a printed bulletin, the TCA needed to be a Club, with a business plan calling for a subscription membership. If we are open to electronic distribution only, then a massive amount of cost associated with printing, collating, mailing and the costs of distribution goes away. Additionally, a massive amount of work associated with the print process drops away, reducing the load on the organization’s volunteers. The maintenance costs for a blog website are at least an order of magnitude smaller than physical print, meaning ten cents on the dollar. But this is a radical change. Our entire business plan of subscription memberships, and hence the whole club concept, is called into question.
In addition to the electronic survey results, we also solicited paper responses, since one of the key questions was moving from print DoubleTalk to an electronic format. We realized that some of our readers were likely not participating in the blogosphere. We were not really surprised that of the dozen paper responses we received from the printed survey, all but one were generally in favor of retaining DoubleTalk in paper format. Cross indexed with the age of the tandemists, it also was evident that these tandemists were in our old guard, and also were among our most loyal readership. While we value our loyal readership, we do not value it so much that we will charge, like lemmings, over a cliff. The TCA has been losing membership year-on-year for the last couple decades, and our change is overdue. We can no longer afford to remain exclusively a paper-based organization.
There was a lot of discussion about the pluses and minuses of converting DoubleTalk to an electronic newsletter. With conversion to an electronic newsletter, we would have an electronic means of distribution, which would be less expensive. It would require us to continue to format articles and information into a print format, probably PDF, and then send it out as email attachments to TCA members. Members could then either directly read the electronic version, or alternately print it out locally. This could be a very successful format. We could retain the club format, and a subscription business model would continue to fit – only TCA members would receive DoubleTalk as a benefit of membership. When we debated it, though, we concluded that club formats are becoming increasingly archaic and scarce in an internet-fueled world. Even many of the US regional tandem clubs are virtual organizations, with only a web or Facebook presence. Secondly, the core mission of the TCA is to get the story of tandems and tandeming – in all its formats – out to the cycling public. [Virtually all of our members and converts start riding on half-bikes, the primary exception being sight-impaired and blind stokers.] If our mission is to communicate about tandems, isn’t it better to get that word out more widely, especially to people who are just thinking about taking up tandeming? Sure, we want to retain our loyal readers, but we suspect we will do so with a consistent, high quality, indexed message, attractively formatted and freshly delivered, rather than delivered with a club format and a sense of exclusivity. So in terms of getting the word out and proselyting cyclists new to tandeming, the blog website format works better because it is immediately accessible to newbies without the barrier of first joining the TCA. The blog also has the attraction of being the format that gets news accessible to the most people, most quickly. Over the years, we have occasionally observed that our events listing and classified ads are outdated by the time they get into the hands of our readers. So a website for Events and classifieds would be more timely, more widely available, and more useful.
An additional attraction of a blog-website format is that it comes with a proven track-record of an alternate business model, advertising. One of our surprises was that advertising was positively perceived by the membership! Several of you commented on the usefulness of it in DoubleTalk. Far from detracting from the other content of DoubleTalk, advertising was used by our members to enhance their overall cycling experience. So with a bit of additional effort, we can reestablish an advertising cash stream. There are multiple ways to do this, either with dedicated, tandem industry-specific advertising, or with a Google-style interactive advertising stream. The TCA solicited advertising for both DoubleTalk and its website in the past, and apparently we only got away from it due to volunteer fatigue. In terms of volunteer’s work effort, this would probably result in an net overall reduction. We believe the amount of work to reestablish and maintain an advertising stream is less than the not-inconsiderable effort to maintain subscription memberships.
A second option is to convert DoubleTalk to a combination of blog and bimonthly newsletter. This is something we may yet explore, not least because it most strongly models the majority opinion expressed in the membership survey. There, the most frequently voiced opinions were for an e-newsletter, or blog and e-newsletter. The cost is only the extra effort required to bundle up a temporal section of the blog (ie, a blog bimonthly archive) into a e-newsletter format and send it out as an email attachment. Readers then have the option to print out the e-newsletter so they have a hard copy, or read it electronically. Less cost and fewer trees felled, too.
Is there a volunteer tandem team out there who would be willing to take on this formatting challenge for the organization? What would be required is a team willing to make an extract of the blog, reformat it into PDF, test it on one or more printers, and then email it to TCA members who register for it. This would happen bi-monthly, six times per year. If this works, it would be retained as an ongoing benefit of membership. A similar service would be required to publish the TCA membership list, which logically would also continue to be pushed to members once a year.
The Tandem Club of America – DoubleTalk Survey
Here are the tabulated results of the survey. Thanks to Mark Livingood for his help creating the surveys, and then charting and analyzing the resulting data. We appreciate it, Mark! Those of you who participated will recall that there were actually two separate, parallel surveys posted, one for TCA members, and one for the general tandeming community. We took the results and combined the survey responses below, while keeping their totals separately. In addition, the survey was also printed in DoubleTalk, and TCA members were invited to respond in paper format. The results of this were manually combined with the other TCA members’ electronic responses. The paper survey was done so was not to skew the results, in case a significant portion of the TCA membership were not online. We were particularly interested in collecting the information of both groups, since the question of DoubleTalk remaining on paper was a critical component. As it turned out, 12 of 166 TCA members responded on paper, while 160 non-member surveys were returned, totaling 326 teams overall. We thank everyone who participated for their feedback.
All the numbers below are raw counts of responses. In some questions, multiple answers could be selected, so totals exceed 326.
The most immediately striking information was the sharp contrast in demographics between TCA members (dark green above) and the general tandeming community who responded (light green). The TCA members respondents were the loyal core, typically having been riding tandems ten to twenty years or longer, while the general community was younger and had less miles under their wheels. In retrospect, perhaps this is not too surprising, given that the TCA membership has been waning as people moved to electronic communication and left the paper DoubleTalk behind.
It was interesting to see this distribution of riding styles spread fairly evenly across group riding, club rides, and event rides. The big numbers of tandem rally respondents is self-evident; just attend virtually any tandem ride or rally. The surprising part to us was the substantial numbers of tandem tourists and vacationers. Since it is unusual to get a large group of tandems together for a tour, we suppose that this segment largely sleds in under the radar. It is perhaps over-represented in terms of DoubleTalk article content, however; the adult travelogue version of ‘what I did on summer vacation’!
Not surprisingly DoubleTalk content is valued more highly by TCA members. The eye-opener here was that roughly 60% of the non-member community, close to 100 respondents, had never seen an issue of DoubleTalk, even though many had been involved since tandem cycling activities a long time: 53% of those non-member respondents had been tandeming for eleven years or more.
There was surprisingly diverse support for all sorts of articles in DoubleTalk, with the event calendar leading the pack of favorites, closely followed by hardware reviews of tandems and components. Readers expressed interest in writing articles, particularly in a rejuvenated format, which is always a welcome sign. The ideal of DoubleTalk always has been to exchange information amongst the tandeming community, rather than one of a few individuals writing exclusively. So we were encouraged by the idea that we could get back to reader-written technical articles, tandem reviews, and discussion of hardware and how-to, in addition to the ride reports that have been a staple.
The strength of the response for the event calendar surprised us. But it is one centralized clearinghouse for events nationwide. We were also pleased at the strength of the membership list, as teams use it to locate fellow enthusiasts. The appeal of the advertisers also was a surprise, since many people find advertising tiresome to wade through. But this response indicated that a good number of readers like to hear about products, presumably new products, and DoubleTalk could be a place to find that for the tandem community.
Perhaps the most critical question to us concerned the future form of communication. In both member and non-member populations, the vast number of readers wanted some form of electronic delivery. The readership’s first choice was for an electronic newsletter, in essence an electronic push-it-to-the-reader format. This was strongly followed by the combination of a blog-style format (a pull format) with an electronic push of key information. Leaving the newsletter as a paper rated third. Since the second ranking blog-and-push -e-newsletter option includes the possibility of the first, we will look to do this, simultaneously pivoting the club from a subscription business plan to an advertising business plan.
The response to this question was equally striking, contrasting between members and non-members. The vast majority of TCA members were relying on DoubleTalk and club newsletters as their primary source of information about tandems. By contrast, the vast majority of non-TCA members were relying on online list servers, blogs, and forums.
Please do not send me a refund for my subscription. Now that you will be on the internet I believe you should expand some departments and start new ones.
1. Cue sheets for bike rides. Have a library of cue sheets – that will attract single riders, too. I coordinate hundreds of rides near New York City.
2. Connection to eBay. Be able to link to eBay from the club site for tandems, and tandem-specific parts such as stoker stems or tandem wheels.
3. Library of old tandem sales on eBay and others.
4. A listing of tandem dealer’s catalogs.
5. Listing of commercial tandem tours.
6. The ability to link to tandem rally websites.
7. Reprint articles from books and magazines.
8. Assistant Editor(s) to follow [and translate] foreign language bike journals for tandem interest.
9. Assistant Editor to cover issues related to traveling with tandems: airline requirements for shipping tandems, hotels accepting tandem boxes for storage, etc.
10. Assistant Editor for technical news.
11. Photo editor – specifically for members’ submissions and travel.
12. Continue with articles by members (like now).