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“Sell more than a product or a cause”: How memberships can help publishers build a sustainable future

Membership requires a “mindset shift,” suggests the Membership Puzzle Project’s newly published, The Membership Guide. “Instead of just assuming what members want, successful membership organizations have developed ways of listening, fresh thinking about what their members actually want, and strong feedback loops to get it right.” The guide lays how news publishers can do the same. 

The most important lesson throughout the years to build a membership-focused newsroom is: don’t consider members as an afterthought, but include them in your daily thinking.

Maaike Goslinga, Managing Editor, and Gwen Martèl, Conversation Editor, De Correspondent

The guide has been produced in partnership with the Lenfest Institute and Google News Initiative, and authored by Ariel Zirulnick (Managing Editor of the Membership Guide), with Emily Goligoski (Senior Director of Audience Research at The Atlantic) and Jay Rosen (Co-Founder and Director of the MPP). It took three nearly years to complete, during which the researchers consulted 50+ publishers and over 200 newsroom supporters.

“Membership takes time, experimentation, and iteration to get right”

It offers a comprehensive look into the challenges publishers face while creating and sustaining a robust membership program. They include critical questions related to getting started, audience research, setting prices, figuring out the revenue, marketing the program, and metrics for measuring success. The insight and solutions presented are backed by research and case studies from 34 news organizations that show how to put the advice into practice.

Inspiring membership-driven organizations connect individuals’ passions to a shared larger purpose. They sell more than a product or a cause. Successful membership organizations recognize and celebrate the individual while making them feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

The Membership Guide

Publishers getting into membership need to keep in mind that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all formula for success. This is because there are too many variations in news organizations and the communities they serve. 

“Membership takes time, experimentation, and iteration to get right – and even the “right” answer will change over time,” the authors suggest. “The organizational capacity to test, learn, and iterate in repeated cycles is crucial for adopting and growing a membership program.”

“The cornerstone of any membership program”

The starting point is a well-defined value proposition. It serves as a blueprint for what the membership program should accomplish for members and what the organization needs to build to get there. 

The cornerstone of any membership program should be a value proposition that articulates how the experience of membership provides value to members.

The Membership Guide

MPP suggests a format based on the Value Proposition ad-libs template by Strategyzer:

MPP’s founding partner, De Correspondent has successfully built a sustainable, robust member-driven newsroom. The publisher was a part of the study. According to the authors, if De Correspondent had used the Strategyzer model to write their value proposition, it might look something like this: 

“Our journalism helps Dutch readers who want an antidote to the daily news grind by eschewing hot takes and by doing deeply researched reporting that articulates not just the problem, but what can be done about it.”

De Correspondent’s value proposition – an antidote to the daily news grind – shows up not just in the way they produce their journalism. It’s also reflected in their calm visual design, which gives readers space to focus without constant demands on their attention.

Practices that can help newsrooms create value

“Audience research should help inform your value proposition,” the authors suggest. “But you won’t really know if you’ve gotten your value proposition right until you launch a product or service and test your assumptions with your audience members.” 

“It’s that process of testing and iterating against your value proposition which will help you refine your product or service over time.”

The Membership Guide

“When you want to use a test and learn strategy to develop and launch a product, you may need to create a minimum viable product, or MVP,” they add.

“MVPs don’t need to be perfect. They are the most basic expression of your idea or product. When developing an MVP, focus on what you think are the most important features. Keep the list very tight and very focused. You can layer on additional features after you’ve tested your concept.”

In its research, MPP found that the following practices can help newsrooms create value for their members:

  • Ability to interact with reporters
  • Exclusive access
  • Events/opportunities to connect online
  • Merchandise/physical branded goods
  • A good user experience, such as easy site navigability  

“What hooks potential members”

But designing a membership program entails more than choosing what benefits to offer members. The authors recommend using audience research to understand what potential members value and integrate that in the value proposition. “You’ll use that to design a product – the membership program – that speaks to those values, aligns with your mission, and can be implemented with your existing capacity,” they explain.

While benefits can make the membership experience more enriching, they’re not as important as knowing your potential members deeply and getting the membership value proposition right. This is what hooks potential members and tells them what they’re opting into.

The Membership Guide

The next step is designing the membership program. This involves branding, selecting the benefits, setting prices, and determining what other pathways to membership can be offered.

While choosing benefits for the program it’s important to keep in mind that it should be desirable as well as feasible. The authors recommend publishers to ask the following questions when they are putting the program together: 

  • Who is this element of the membership program for? 
  • What does this element of the membership program cost you in actual costs and staff time?

The following matrix can be useful in selecting the elements of the program. A value survey would help decide whether a benefit belongs in the high value or low-value quadrant. And effort can be correlated to the cost and staff time spent on implementing the benefit.  

“The most daunting part”

“Pricing discussions can be the most daunting part of designing a membership program, especially for smaller organizations that don’t have a business-side team,” the authors write.

MPP suggests one or a combination of the following strategies for setting the price:

  • Examining other membership organizations that are geographically close or mission-aligned
  • Asking readers what other causes they support and for how much
  • Studying the range of contributions to previous crowdfunding or donations campaigns
  • Launching with multiple options, or a pay-what-you-can option, and learning from the patterns that emerge

A membership program is a work-in-progress and publishers need to keep tabs on the performance and cost of the program and adjust the offerings when required. “Some of your benefits might take off, while others are rarely used,” the authors write. “As your membership program grows, some of the more intimate benefits, such as the opportunity to attend editorial meetings, may not feasibly scale, and new opportunities to improve the member experience might arise.”

Krautreporter and Steady co-founder Sebastian Esser recommends sending members a simple survey that lists all the benefits and asks them which one they value the most and the one they value the least. The internal ranking from the responses will help decide the benefits that can be discontinued. The most valued benefits can be packaged into a higher tier (in a tiered membership program).  

People “do support multiple good causes that resonate with them”

What’s heartening to know is that unlike subscriptions the membership ceiling has not yet been reached, according to MPP. While membership is not a silver bullet for solving the revenue crisis in journalism and is still used by a minority of publishers, many of them are generating substantial proportions of their revenue from it. 

These include De Correspondent which reported 78% of its revenue from membership in 2018 and 54% in 2019. However total revenue from readers was 95% in 2018 and 98% in 2019 when combined with earnings from book sales and donations. 

El Diario reported generating 35% of its revenue from membership and the remaining from advertising before the pandemic was declared in March. In May, the publisher said that it was making more revenue from members than advertising and expected it to continue. VT Digger is another publisher whose membership program grew from generating around $10,000 in 2010, to nearly $330,000 in revenue in 2017. 

The Daily Maverick in South Africa uses a “pay-what-you-can” model, partly to make supporters’ look at membership from a charitable perspective. Its CEO Styli Charalambous says, “Subscription fatigue is a thing, and publishers in South Africa have to compete with the New York Times for a slice of people’s subscription budget… 

“But people can and do support multiple good causes that resonate with them.”

Styli Charalambous, CEO, The Daily Maverick

The full report is available here:
The Membership Guide