Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
3 mins read

How a Southeast Asian publisher reframed its pitch to members

A lesson in the importance of asking your community what they want from you


I joined New Naratif as Membership Engagement Manager three years ago, which is apparently about as long as jobs like mine have existed in media.

My time at New Naratif has been a process of trial and error in figuring out the engagement part of my title. We knew that making membership feel exclusive in some way was the key to attracting and retaining members. But what exactly was that exclusivity?

My first attempts at figuring this out included randomly emailing members to ask them what they were enjoying about New Naratif and what improvements they would like to see. Spoiler — this is not the most effective way to go about surveying your members. But we just didn’t know how else to do this.


So last year, we raised enough money to hire an audience engagement consultant. With the consultant’s help I surveyed three key demographics of our audience:

  • Members
  • Newsletter subscribers who opened our newsletter at high rates
  • Donors who were not members

In this first round of surveys we wanted to answer some questions about

  1. why people were members and
  2. why they supported us.

We had different key questions for each demographic:

  • Members: Why did you become a member?
  • Newsletter subscribers: What’s stopping you from becoming a member?
  • Donors: Why did you donate to New Naratif?

The answers can be broken down to the following:

  • Members join because they support our values like freedom of expression
  • Newsletter subscribers who had not become members yet were unclear about the benefits of membership
  • Donors could not always afford a membership but supported our values

All these findings were illuminating. But the one about why we were failing to convert subscribers to members was the most important. It demonstrated that we were failing to create exclusivity.

Our pitch that membership would help tell the stories of Southeast Asian people wasn’t enough. We needed something else. But at the same time, freedom of information is one of our core values. How could we balance sustainability and accessibility?

That led me to my current round of audience research. This time I had two things to uncover:

  • Have the reasons for member support changed?
  • What would convince members to upgrade to higher levels of support?

Currently, all New Naratif members enjoy the same benefits whether they join at US$52 a year (the lowest) or US$552 (the highest). So what might make someone upgrade to USD102?


I asked members to schedule video calls with me through our weekly members newsletter. I aimed to speak with at least 10 members for thirty minutes with two months of membership free as a token of our appreciation. Since these were video calls, I could ask open ended questions like:

  • Are there events that you would like to see us organise?
  • Do you have any ideas that would make more people become members or upgrade their tiers of membership?

The second question was key to getting ideas and developing questions for my next round of surveying. Through this first round of interviews with 13 members, I got the following suggestions:

  • Make exclusive content available to members who support us at higher tiers
  • Create more behind-the-scenes content 
  • Frame higher support as a way to make content accessible to people who can’t afford memberships 

I then created a survey for members to fill out with the question:

  • After becoming a member and consuming our content, what might make you upgrade your membership tier?

I sent the survey out to people in the newsletter.

The clear winner: Pitch higher-tier membership as a way to make content accessible to people who can’t afford to sign up.

We have since revamped the copy on our site and our marketing materials for our upcoming membership drive. We will be spelling out how many people will gain access to our content with each tier of support. 

My video calls with members also revealed that members were enjoying our events and wanted more events where they could hear from the experts and contributors in our network. This led us to the decision to make events exclusive to members from May onwards. And just like that, we finally solved our exclusivity problem! 

This latest survey has shown us how important talking to our audience is. Regular audience feedback is key to shaping our future plans. For anyone trying to start a member-funded media organisation, the sooner you start surveying your audience the better. I hope our experience is something you can learn from.

By Deborah Augustin

Republished with kind permission of Splice: reporting on the transformation of media in Asia