Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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Memberships and partnerships—the revenue models opening up new opportunities for publishers

“Memberships have been booming lately,” writes John Wilpers, US Director and Senior Consultant, Innovation Media Consulting Group in FIPP’s Innovation in Media 2021 World Report. He refers to The Guardian which grew from 632,000 to 900,000 recurring digital supporters between December 2019 and 2020—the publisher had 12,000 members in 2016.

“Joining rate of one person every two minutes”

“The Guardian has gained 268,000 new digital subscriptions and recurring contributions over the last year—that’s an increase of 43%, and a joining rate of one person every two minutes,” according to its Editor-in-Chief, Katharine Viner. 

Similarly, The Daily Beast’s membership product, Beast Inside, grew nearly 100% between the first and second quarters. Additionally, the average order value on the memberships is up 35%, the publisher’s CRO, Mia Libby told Digiday. Memberships are The Daily Beast’s second largest revenue stream.

The key to growing membership is focusing on the needs and wants that media companies can fulfil and that people are willing to pay for, says Grzegorz Piechota, INMA’s Researcher-in-Residence. 

He classifies these needs into five categories:

  1. Cognitive needs (acquiring information, knowledge, and understanding) 
  2. Affective needs (emotions, pleasure, and feeling) 
  3. Personal integrative needs (credibility, status, and stability) 
  4. Social integrative needs (family, friends, and community) 
  5. Tension release needs (escape and diversion)

Publishers generally focus only on serving the cognitive need, according to Piechota. 

We charge people to access the information, for the access to knowledge. But in fact, people actually engage with the media for many other reasons.

Grzegorz Piechota, Researcher-in-Residence, INMA

These reasons can extend from the need to contribute to the cause of independent journalism (The Guardian), to providing niche services, like some publishers do via clubs. 

“Zeroing in on very niche interests”

“Clubs are an even more refined and focused form of memberships, zeroing in on very niche interests, and offering both value and community,” explains Wilpers. They also make for a potent formula to engage members, as well as generate revenues. Publishers like The Boston Globe, The New York Times and NPR, for example, have wine clubs.

The Boston Globe organizes weekly cocktail making sessions for its members with local bartenders via Zoom. It’s an engaging activity for members which also supports bartenders who have been hit by lockdown measures. The New York Times offers a selection of wines curated by experts from vineyards across the globe. 

Typically, publishers partner with wine distributors to come up with offerings for members. NPR, for example, launched the NPR Wine Club in 2017 in collaboration with Direct Wines, along with Wines That Rock. The club has a high-retention subscriber base, Jane Scott, Head of Consumer Products at NPR told NiemanLab. And it has seen a significant increase in signups since the pandemic began. 

Clubs can be based around a wide variety of topics. Crochet magazine, for instance, has a “Collections Club” which brings together carefully curated collections of designer crochet patterns from scarves and shawls to afghans and baby items, all hand-selected by the editorial team, writes Wilpers. 

Meredith Corp.’s Parents magazine, on the other hand, launched “Raising a Future Reader Club” in August 2020. It offers members book recommendations by well-known authors, and tips on how to raise children who love to read. 

In the alternative revenue streams that support NPR programming, our efforts are always to extend the reach of the brand, deepen the brand connection, and provide a financial surplus that can feed back into the mission.

Jane Scott, Head of Consumer Products, NPR

“Extend the reach of the brand”

The right kind of partnerships are important for the success of clubs. They can also offer publishers a broad scope of opportunities going well beyond serving readers’ hobbies. 

The Wall Street Journal is one of the leaders in subscription bundling partnerships, writes Wilpers. The publisher has created more than 40 bundling partnerships in 25 countries over the last five years. For example, it signed up a partnership deal with Standard Chartered Bank in 2019, which gave WSJ and Barron’s subscriptions to the bank’s “top-tier” Asia-based customers. 

Similarly, Business Insider partnered with American Express in December 2020 and began offering credit card holders free six- or 12-month trials to its digital publication. Amex card holders include a high population density of small- and medium-sized business owners, as well as others in the high-end business segment, Selma Stern, SVP, Consumer Subscriptions, BI told Digiday. This opens up opportunities to grow subscriptions. 

“Continue to earn the right to be connected”

WSJ has partnered with trading platforms, telecom companies, membership groups, airlines and language schools in recent years. The Washington Post is exploring partnerships with brands in the fields of education, healthcare and finance. The key is finding simpatico companies—businesses that have a decent amount of overlap with the paper’s coverage and the interests of the customers.  

Any of the areas where people are seeking info beyond what the provider of that service can give to them offers a real opportunity for the Post.

Miki King, Marketing Officer, WSJ

Partnerships are “mutually beneficial because while the subscriptions are free to the non-publisher linked consumers, partner organisations have also been able to improve their own key metrics, such as acquisition, engagement and retention of their customers by using our subscriptions and content,” said Jonathan Wright, Global MD, Dow Jones (WSJ’s parent company).

“People often think it’s just about driving subscriptions, but it’s not,” adds James Henderson, CEO and Cofounder of subscription software company, Zephr. “It’s about driving to a connected relationship where you continue to earn the right to be connected, but you are the business that can leverage the first-party data relationship.” 


The full report is available here:
Innovation in Media 2021 World Report

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