Audience Engagement Top Stories
5 mins read

‘ThinkIn’ outside the box: how publishers are using member-exclusive conversations to add value and originate stories

As publishers grow more sophisticated with their reader revenue strategies, one trend in its early stages is the introduction of group calls and meetups as a benefit for subscribers or members.

Here, we look at how three publishers have found value in subscriber and member-only calls and meetings, not just for their audience, but as a vehicle for sourcing new stories and connecting with potential new readers.

ThinkIns with Tortoise

The most well-known example of group calls is the ‘ThinkIns’ from new publisher Tortoise. The publisher, which was launched in April 2019 following a crowdfunding campaign, is promoting ThinkIns as a key member benefit.

ThinkIns are billed as ‘live, unscripted conversations’ where Tortoise journalists ‘harness the diverse experience and expertise’ of their members to shape their work. Members can join in person at venues around the UK, or watch live online, in the app or on-demand. 

Recently, Tortoise has also started expanding their ThinkIn locations, and have hosted gatherings in Amsterdam, New York, Lesvos, Davos and more.

But ThinkIns are more than just a call or a meeting. They are advertised as ‘a forum for civilised disagreement’, where everyone has a seat at the table. Attendees are briefed in advance with ‘Tortoise Notes’; a short primer on the upcoming topic designed to ‘stimulate and inform’ the upcoming conversation. 

The ThinkIn itself is kicked off by a panel of experts, but is then open to all attendees, whether they want to contribute or just listen. Finally, all ThinkIns are followed up by ‘The Readout’, a summary of the key points and discussion in the room.

“They’re a potent marketing mechanic and a powerful commercial proposition for partners,” said Tortoise in a statement to WNIP. “But most importantly, ThinkIns are the engine of our journalism.”

Since launching in early 2019, Tortoise has brought together 11,000 people in over 280 ThinkIns; an impressive number for such a new publisher. Tortoise estimate that around 1 in 5 of their London-based members have personally attended at least one ThinkIn, which are frequently hosted in the capital.

The ThinkIns also play a vital part of Tortoise’s member recruitment strategy. Some ThinkIns are open to non-members who have to buy a separate ticket. But members can share up to 10 complimentary ThinkIn tickets with friends and family. 

“Once somebody has been in a ThinkIn, they’re very likely to join,” a Tortoise spokesperson explained to us. “It’s a super-powered word-of-mouth recommendation device, baked into the product.”

It’s effective as well, with 60% of new members to Tortoise coming through referrals by another member.

Most importantly, the ThinkIns are a vital way for Tortoise to discover new stories, and are seen as the engine of the publisher’s journalism. “Around half of Tortoise’s stories have originated in ThinkIns,” Tortoise told us.

ThinkIns therefore play a valuable part in connecting the whole member experience together. Not only is it a valuable addition to the membership offering in terms of involvement, but attending a ThinkIn is a real opportunity for members to understand and influence the direction of the publisher.

This in turn is raising other challenges for the Tortoise team around member diversity. Editor and Partner Polly Curtis told the FT’s Future of News event that corporate-sponsored memberships which are then distributed to “people who don’t usually have a seat at the table” are a step towards mitigating the risk of creating yet another media echo chamber.

“We need a sustainable model, so we have to make every membership a funded membership. We can’t just give it away,” she explained. “But we have to work ten times as hard to make sure it’s diverse, because it’s quite a high bar we’re asking people to engage with.”

Membership conference calls with Quartz

But they’re not the only publisher bringing members directly into the newsroom. Quartz have also included membership conference calls as part of their membership package, launched at the end of 2018, for $14.99 per month, or $99.99 a year.

“A core tenet of Quartz membership is to give members a chance to engage directly with the news and our journalists,” said Quartz to WNIP. “Our member calls are one of the ways we do this.”

“It’s a conversational format that brings community and education together in a way that feels natural to our business-oriented audience.”

Quartz CEO Zach Seward told Business Insider that the first six months of the membership programme involved “experimenting with a bunch of potential offers to see what would work.” During this time, they increased the conference calls on offer from one a week to three, and increased the number of videos available exclusively to its 10,000+ paying members.

The calls themselves are often based on field guides that Quartz produces just for members, on topics like the cannabis industry, battery technology, and life after cash. The topics are more business-centric than many competitors, as Quartz is pitching the membership as more of an investment in the reader’s career.

“Every week we produce a really deep dive on a company or industry or business trend that we’ve identified as really for you to understand if you want to understand the global economy,” Seward told NiemanLab. “We’ve done nearly 50 of them at this point. Those are very unlike news coverage, in that all 50 of the news guides we’ve produced remain valuable today.

The conference calls are available on-demand to members shortly afterwards.

The publisher sees the conference calls as a way of building two-way communication with readers. “We chose the word ‘membership’ deliberately,” said Seward to Digiday. “In addition to the content you get, it’s a relationship with Quartz.”

Group calls at the New York Times

But member conference calls aren’t a recent phenomenon. The New York Times tested subscriber-only conference calls two years ago (albeit not without hiccups) for those who paid for the All Access Plus or Home Delivery tiers. 

Times reporters and editors discussed topics from racial inequality to Game of Thrones to the opioid crisis, with NiemanLab stating that ‘several hundred’ subscribers typically dialled into these calls back in 2018.

The difference with these ‘conference calls’ was that, although hundreds of subscribers could join the call, only a select few would be able to ‘call in’ to talk, with Times staffers managing the call from an online dashboard, like a radio station. 

Senior Manager of Events Marketing at the Times Elizabeth Weinstein referred to the calls as “participatory podcasts,” with a recording of the call then available for subscribers.

However, no information has surfaced about the calls since mid-2018, and the NYT didn’t respond when we asked them about whether they were still a regular feature. Group calls are also not listed on any of the membership benefit pages.

Although there are technical considerations about getting members from all parts of the world involved in member discussions and conference calls, these publishers have demonstrated that they can be a good way of adding value to a subscription and making people feel involved in a community.

As publishers develop their subscription and membership propositions to rely more on reader revenue, it is likely we will see more of these group events on the ‘benefits’ list for subscriptions and memberships.