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What publishers can learn from membership programs

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In recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more about membership programs for media. One of the most well-known examples is The Guardian; with the recent announcement they had recorded their first operational profit in many years, it’s a good chance to check back in on the world of media memberships. With all the work that’s been done in this field, there’s a lot to learn, even if you aren’t considering one yourself. We’ve gathered three big learnings from successful membership programs that all types of publishers can benefit from.

Educate your readers

The Guardian has pioneered the art of asking readers to support their journalism. Amanda Michel, the Guardian’s global contributions director and product manager, advises other publishers to take what they do best and use it to solve their funding crisis. Newsrooms tell stories, but they need to be telling their own story as well. That’s why The Guardian has been so successful by explaining to readers that advertising revenues are declining, meaning newspapers need reader support to continue. While all of us in the news industry are starkly aware of this, many readers simply have never heard it before.

While researching the second chapter in our series “Reinventing Digital Editions“, we had the opportunity to speak directly with readers. A common refrain we heard was why should readers be asked to pay for online news, when newspapers are already making so much money from advertisements? Educating readers on the realities of media today, including the extensive work that goes into every story, can be an effective way to convert these readers. The New York Times is currently experimenting with this, including compelling ads during their podcasts that feature journalists explaining in detail their reporting process and all of the effort, time, and resources that went into the article.

We’ve seen simply educating readers on the current situation work for combatting the rising usage of ad blockers as well. The New York Times experimented with a pop-up stating “The best things in life aren’t free. You currently have an ad blocker installed. Advertising helps us fund our journalism.”

“We tell publishers to focus on educating their audiences. Rather than feeling pestered by ads, users should develop an understanding that ads significantly contribute to financing high-quality content.” 

Gerald Grünberger, Austrian Newspaper Association (VÖZ)

This lesson can also be applied to converting paid subscribers. When The Wall Street Journal explored how their subscription promotions were faring, they found often the team had overlooked certain benefits that were important for readers. We know there can be a bit of anxiety around signing up for a new subscription, thanks in part to “subscription fatigue” and a feared difficulty in cancelling the subscription later on. The Wall Street Journal was able to increase subscriptions 10% by simply highlighting the ease at which subscribers could cancel (which had no impact on the average tenure of subscribers).

Develop passion

Another lesson The Guardian has learned is the importance of activating readers based on their passions. The team at The Guardian looked at what stories people had read right before becoming members and found that the environment was a particularly triggering topic. So they’ve focused more of their resources into reporting on the environment, even recently announcing they had changed their style guide to more accurately describe the situation (“climate emergency crisis” rather than “climate change”).

Focusing on passion is also a good way to distinguish between what readers are interested in and what they actually value. We know from the days of valuing clicks over quality that there is a lot of content people are interested in, but don’t find worth paying for.

Don’t substitute the word ‘interest’ for ‘value’. People might be interested in a car crash, but don’t value it enough to pay for it.

Gwen Vargo of the American Press Institute

Matt Skibinski, reader revenue advisor for the Lenfest Institute, advises publishers to not look at the volume of clicks on a piece of content but instead the number of readers who found it valuable. To this, publishers will have to focus on content that is local, relevant, useful, and reliable. Sebastian Esser, publisher of Krautreporter, has similar advice, which he explains using this graph charting media brands according to their business model and the emotional engagement of their users.

For a membership program to be successful, a publisher needs to engender passion in its readers as it is passion that is the key driver to join membership-based business. When a media brand has the perfect mix of passion and exclusive access, they can be qualified as membership-driven if they don’t label themselves as such. This is an interesting distinction, being member-driven doesn’t mean you have to have a membership program, but it’s more of a mindset that can drive your editorial and product teams.

Focus on long term relationships

To reach their ambitious goal of one million paying members, The Guardian has focused on building deeper relationships with their most loyal readers. Katharine Viner, editor in chief of The Guardian, credits their success to the strong sense of community they’ve been able to build among their readers.

We have a lot of readers who just love The Guardian and always have. But big stories lead to contributions, doing the most valuable journalism in the public’s interest inspires more on every level…readers feel they want to help us, with more than just money, such as ideas on how to cover stories.

Katharine Viner, editor in chief of The Guardian

The Guardian has been able to build this sense of community through better understanding their readers. This understanding can be through direct conversations with readers or investigating patterns in behavioural data. In the Netherlands, NRC has taken this lesson to heart by visiting readers in their homes to see how they have made the newspaper part of their daily routine. They’ve turned all their attention to long-term relationships only, completely stopping short-term subscription offerings. De Telegraaf has also taken this strategy, and with a 24% decrease in their marketing and acquisition budget they’ve been able to see a year-on-year subscription growth of 66%. For De Telegraaf, visiting readers opened their eyes up to a surprising truth: even for their most loyal subscribers, the only contact between newspaper and reader was a yearly invoice. It’s not always possible to visit readers in their kitchens or start a new membership program, but all publishers can prioritise building relationships with their readers that go beyond just the invoice.

Building direct relationships with readers makes business sense as well, we know from Reuters that publishers who do have direct relationships are better able to convert readers to paying subscribers. Reuters also found that of people who do pay for an online subscription, most will only pay for one. To become that one, publishers need to stand out for offering distinct content that is valuable in their readers’ lives.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

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