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How BRICKS magazine’s learning platform drives its membership strategy

BRICKS is a London-based independent print publication and online platform exploring social-political issues within fashion, music, arts and culture. The team – led by queer and working-class creators – are passionate about opening up access to the creative industry, amplifying under-represented voices from climate activists and BLM organisers to trans rights activists.

Although the publication is still mainly run by volunteers, their recent foray into reader revenue has allowed them to start paying contributors and freelancers. But rather than put a paywall up, BRICKS have taken the unusual approach of developing a whole new platform and content arm to build up a membership scheme.

BRICKS’ Digital Editor Madeline Reid spoke to WNIP about why they decided to go with a membership approach, how their strategy has evolved since launching, and developing a member-only podcast.

Choosing a membership approach

BRICKS had been experimenting for a while with a membership option in various forms. They chose to go with Steady HQ as a provider after seeing how well gal-dem  were doing on the platform. 

“Tori [West] and I launched [the membership scheme] relatively early on Steady in the pandemic,” Reid explained. “But we had it for almost a year without a lot of direction. It was just used as a ‘BRICKS extras’, as an opportunity for people in our community to financially support our endeavours.”

Although enabling fans and supporters to contribute without much in return is a legitimate strategy used by a range of publications, Reid said that the BRICKS team wanted to take advantage of the Steady platform to create something with its own USP and identity. This would also be a crucial part of its growth strategy.

“We reached our limit of the core, lovely, supportive community who would give us a bit of financial backing for maybe not that much in terms of content,” she outlined. “So last year, we launched our learner platform, which has its own content, strategy and direction.”

Some of the latest posts on the learner platform page

The platform is still designed for the BRICKS audience, but has a more educational approach, with recommendations for tools, resources and more. Rather than being paywalled on the main BRICKS website, the learner platform content lives in its own area on Steady HQ’s site – working in a similar way to how Medium hosts publications. Integrating the learner platform and the main BRICKS site is something Steady offers, and the team are looking to tie the two more closely together by the end of the year.

Podcasts as a member benefit

Reid noted that they will also be trying out Steady’s new Spotify integration for member-only podcasts. BRICKS’ ‘Navigating The Creative Industry Podcast’ was released in its first season as mp3s embeds in posts, which Reid admitted wasn’t an easy user experience. However, they are about to launch a second season, which will be available only to paying members of the learner platform. Rather than any complex walling off of the audio content, members will be able to listen to BRICKS’ podcast directly in the Spotify app itself.

Subscriber podcasts are still very much in the early days, with most mainstream platforms’ offerings still less than a year old. Spotify and Steady’s partnership will mean that subscribers or members of a publication will be able to log into Spotify and access exclusive episodes straight away.

“We’re in production of our podcast right now, so the end of the year is my focus for that because the platform just seems to be there for it,” Reid explained.

Tina Dingel, CEO of Steady is optimistic about the prospects of subscriber-only podcasts. “We’ve got different types of podcast creators on the platform,” she explained. “Some put out the content for free, and rely on this emotional connection and people’s willingness to pay. Some do a mixed model, where some episodes and snippets are open and some are exclusive. Then there are those who run an exclusive podcast all the way, so you either pay or you can’t listen to it.”

“So far, we haven’t heard much about listener apprehension about paying, and also not so much about creator apprehension about paying,” she noted. “So far, no big drama.”

Community

The refreshed approach has resulted in 840 paying members (and growing), and over 1,000 newsletter subscribers who get snippets of the paywalled content. Alongside the educational content, members also get a weekly Opportunities Board, which has details of grants, jobs and freelance roles.

“For us, BRICKS has always been a very community-focused project, and that’s something we really, really wanted to keep,” said Reid, talking about their focus on membership. “We’ve always had the amazing community engagement with our readers where the people that read it are also the people that make it, the people that come to our events, that DM us on Instagram.

We’re trying to keep those walls as down as possible, so although it’s run as a membership, we wanted members to really feel part of a community once they were in.

This approach feeds into BRICKS’ pricing strategy for the membership. Just 16% of creatives are made up of working-class and low-income people; something the magazine is aiming to change.

The team set up a dedicated ‘Low income’ level  of membership which is £3.50 a month rather than the standard ‘BRICKS Learner’ level of £4 a month. They also have an option of a ‘Pay it forward’ membership where a plan is given away to a member of the community who can’t afford to purchase it themselves. Benefits are the same regardless of plan level, so it is up to readers to decide what level of support they can afford to give.

“A lot of the resources that we’re offering are a considerably more affordable option than say going to university, or even going to a full-time course,” Reid said. “If you can only pay a little a month, or even if you only wanted to sign up for the trial for 30 days for free and stop that afterwards, you can still access some of the advice at prices that weren’t currently there for our audience.

It does have to cost some kind of money, but we try and make it as affordable as we can.

Revenue models

The membership scheme hasn’t been a silver bullet for BRICKS, but it has allowed them to move from being completely volunteer-run to being able to build up a network of paid freelancers. “The injection of money has allowed us to have both commissioning work on the learner platform, and also on BRICKS and its social, online and print content. So for us, it’s been the biggest financial driver.”

As well as selected advertising, BRICKS also has a photography studio space which it rents out as another revenue stream. They are also discussing building in pay-it-forward memberships as part of brand sponsorship proposals, to help increase access.

For now, the BRICKS team are targeting £3,500 a month from the membership scheme to help cover overheads, the monthly events programme and to continue paying freelancers and contributors. Being able to fund the ideas of creatives from marginalised backgrounds is a good starting point to help truly diversify the industry.