Members only: how news organizations can use membership programs

29 August 2017
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The Atlantic was in the news this week with its announcement that it would be introducing a membership program, so we decided it’s time to take a deeper look at what this could entail. We’ll look at what’s happening in the world of membership programs, what their benefits are, and what could be coming in the future.

But first, what is the difference between a subscription and membership? A subscription gives readers access to the final product, whether print or digital. A membership goes further, giving the reader a sense of belonging to a group, with access to insider-only perks and the ability to interact with the newspaper’s members. In essence, subscription is a financial concept and membership is a relational concept.

Membership is the most important because I think it is the measure of whether you have a passionate following.

Joel Kramer, CEO MinnPost

Membership programs in practice

At de Correspondent, reporters send weekly emails to members that explain what they’re working on, as well as listing how readers can contribute to their reporting. Members are viewed as a resource, able to provide relevant knowledge, tips, or contacts.

With a different twist, the Wall Street Journal’s membership program is complimentary for print subscribers. Since September 2014, the program offers experiences such as talks, private museum tours, and discounts on golf fees, amongst others. Such events are designed to ‘bring the Journal to life’.

At the other end of the spectrum is Condé Nast’s Wired Media Group, with their membership program costing $4,000 a year. Members join the “Emerging Technology Council”, which gives them access to events including presentations by tech startups, an online community, and a monthly newsletter. This membership program is targeted towards CEOs, and limited to 100 members.

More than just additional revenue

It is true that such membership programs can serve as alternative revenue streams, from the membership fees themselves to fees for events members can join. But there are other benefits to the programs as well:

  • Better insights: publishers get a better understanding of who their most loyal readers are, and what interests them from membership programs. Demographic information given at the time of signup can be one source, but also detailed information about what events a member attends can help publishers grow a larger audience.
  • Build community: membership programs help to build a sense of community amongst readers and writers. By giving direct access to the writer, either through in-person events or access to Slack channels where stories are workshopped, readers feel their voice is heard. This can help activate them even further, to become a larger supporter, either financially or through encouraging friends and family to join.
  • Reduce churn: by putting a face to the newspaper, membership programs can help encourage readers to renew their subscriptions year after year. Readers understand the hard work reporters put into the creation of each publication.

Historically, most of our connection with our readers has been the bill we send them. We’re trying to create a face-to-face experience.

Jeff Johnson, Publisher at San Francisco Chronicle

The future of membership

Two initiatives are currently working on encouraging newspapers to create membership programs, through developing a better understanding of best practices and streamlining the creation process.

The Membership Puzzle Project, a collaboration between de Correspondent and Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 program at New York University, is in the process of studying what makes membership programs successful. This public research project will run through May 2018, with findings published throughout the year.

Started as an initiative from Voice of San Diego in 2016 before being spun off, News Revenue Hub is dedicated to helping newsrooms set up membership programs, by taking care of the software, recruitment/retention, messaging, and maintenance for a fee. They also help to understand best practices by encouraging communication amongst their participants. So far, they’ve worked with 10 news organizations and helped to raise more than $1 million in member-driven revenue.

With these initiatives and the success from existing membership programs, we will undoubtedly be seeing more programs springing up in the future.

This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.

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