Lessons on Solving the Media Membership Puzzle

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The Membership Puzzle Project has shared some of the challenges the news industry faces in genuinely connecting with audiences. They’ve talked about their human-centered design approach to understanding what makes for a powerful social contract: what do members and news organizations give each other and what do they get? And now, at last! They want you to know the three things they’ve learned so far from conversations with publishers.

1. A membership program is no longer a “nice to have” for media orgs. Now is the time to invest in yours.

Membership programs are in a state of rapid evolution as more organizations see them as an imperative way to diversify revenue. Some organizations are investing in their membership programs as a growing portion of their overall pie, which has been heavy on advertising to date (Gimlet, El Diario, The Guardian).

Others are launching with membership as their main means to support their reporting, with some highly interactive approaches emerging (The Ferret in Scotland, The Bristol Cable in England). There are drawbacks to both approaches: it isn’t easy to try to strike a balance or to rely exclusively on members. Yet we’re encouraged by the high levels of interest we’re seeing in meaningful membership that improves storytelling and the bottom line.

2. Two complicating factors for news sites in launching or revamping membership: internal resource constraints and limits on potential members’ attention.

In this evolution process, internal resource constraints can slow change. Taegan Goddard, founder of Political Wire, told us that maintaining a membership program is a constant challenge for a one-man news operation, requiring significant effort and time to maintain. Still, after trying other revenue models, he feels committed to keeping members from being tracked around the web by advertisers on his site. He calls membership “the most honest model you can have.” In an era of declining trust for journalism, this is a crucial insight.

We’ve found that larger newsrooms can often lack incentive structures and useful systems for journalists to be in efficient touch with their audience members. This is a long-standing problem as innovation work has been focused elsewhere.

Yet people who work on membership efforts within news frequently tell us that they need better systems for identifying which audience members they might engage with for best returns, as well as for testing and tracking communications to different audience segments.

Andras Petho said that managing membership is highly complex for the investigative site he edits, Direkt36 in Hungary. “We don’t have digital software to keep the database, so we do everything manually and it takes a lot of time.”

New Revenue Hub offers consulting services in this space based on founder Mary Walter Brown’s experiences with Voice of San Diego’s membership program, and De Correspondent is working on a software solution to help address the communications management gap. We’ll be watching for additional approaches.

Also, news companies tell us unsurprisingly that their prospective members are bombarded with competing demands for their attention. Simultaneously, most online news consumers aren’t used to underwriting journalism, which leads to more complicated and time-consuming crowdfunding efforts than media entrepreneurs say they expected.

Chris Faraone from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism said that “people are just not used to funding journalism directly.” Inherent in this is the fact that the vast majority of the media that we news consumers encounter is subsidized, whether it be by advertisers, funders or the journalists themselves. Yet at the same time, Faraone has found that “people want to be involved with journalism, especially at the local and community level.”

Even for members who are highly supportive of the sites they support (to the point of participating in member forums and closely reviewing story source material), there is an understandable expectation that they will get added value or skills in exchange for their time. Peter Geoghegan from The Ferret says that when it comes to his publication’s events, members are much more likely to want to participate in workshops to learn about fact-checking, investigating and video editing. “Meet The Ferret”-type gatherings to encourage informal team and audience member interactions are less well attended.

Stateside, Rebekah Monson said her team at WhereByUs (a company she co-founded which runs The New Tropic in Miami and The Evergrey in Seattle) considered traditional online fundraising for media to be unnecessarily difficult, from determining pricing to managing resource-intensive fulfillment.

“Fundraising is ‘expensive money’ because of all of the marketing and campaign management time that’s required,” she told us. WhereByUs chose a nontraditional approach of pursuing seed investment from its readers, but there’s no easy way to know your audience without a major time investment. “To have a great membership program is something you have to work on. It can’t just grow like weeds.”

The New Tropic recently offered space for 10 members to join hardhat tours of Miami’s science museum, which served as a chance for staff to talk to members about what they care about. Reporters learned that there was a great amount of interest in the topic of the museum budget and complications that resulted in a delayed museum opening, and this led the team to extend coverage more than they might have otherwise. In inviting members to join the tour and “by putting out the call, we got high responses and knew it was of interest. And we had people to call [on] once the stories ran,” Monson said.

3. The social contract needs to be more rigorously considered.

Many membership program details are treated ad hoc and roughly benchmarked to competitors’ offerings (a line of thinking that goes if the other station in town costs X per month for members and if subscribing to Spotify costs Y, then we can charge…). Most media companies don’t carefully plan the details of their social contract, including pricing and participation asks.

Treating these components as an afterthought is not a long-term way to gain and retain members. Eric Nuzum, SVP of Original Content at Audible and former VP of Programming at NPR, hosted public radio pledge drive workshops for many years and saw a common problem across many stations’ fundraising efforts. “The value of fundraising didn’t match the value of their content. The same editorial value was not present in their fundraising,” he told us, referring to inconsistencies in voice and editing between the stations’ daily journalism and its less frequent (and less thoughtful) fundraising language.

We Can Do Better As An Industry

Let’s start treating membership as both a science — with its own principles, community of practice and lexicon — and as an art that requires vision and attention to detail.

Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, said that the company’s strategic shift towards loyal and engaged readers and listeners, including members, has entailed more work but also greater rewards. She said that publishing with these users in mind has had substantive virtuous effects on Slate’s journalism. With their willingness to provide feedback and to offer story ideas that sometimes make their way into editorial, Turner considers members the “princess at the end of the video game.” (This is a more colorful take on the funnels, targets and other metaphors that dominate conversations about audience targeting within digital journalism.)

Sebastian Esser says that the site he co-founded and edits, Krautreporter in Germany, also takes a non-precious but intentional approach to its membership. Their strategy is three-fold: explain, engage, feel. Krautreporter researches topics that its co-op members suggest warrant independent investigation, even if they’re covered on other sites. Their most popular topic to date has been a 60,000 character explainer on the Civil War in Syria written in informal language.

“We are not a shiny product or a piece of literature,” Esser said. “We can’t be elitist.” The site’s authors are encouraged to connect to their audience members and not hide personal feelings.

The site similarly encourages members to be forthcoming and asks members to list their areas of expertise and hobbies while registering. This allows the editorial team to reach out to individuals for advice on relevant stories. Half of of members have provided this data.

Their interest in members has set a courteous tone, though one that can still be confrontational. Esser said, “We never had to kill a single comment on our website over a three-year span. People talk differently inside the community.”

Regarding Those Pesky Perks

When it comes to membership benefits, we’ve heard that there is rarely a golden ticket. Jill Shepherd, who manages online donations for ProPublica by way of Chicago Public Radio, said that many organizations over deliver on bundling perks that members don’t actually use. She identified benefits like discounts at local restaurants as being resource-intensive for staff to coordinate and potentially counter-productive: they “get in the way of talking about the journalism,” Shepherd said, “There is a difference between finding a way to acknowledge a member and a selling proposition.”

Derick Dirmaier, head of product and creative at the politics site Talking Points Memo, said he’s been surprised by the high number of the site’s 21,000 members who cite the ability to support the organization’s work as their primary reason for joining. “They aren’t talking about perks, but about community, our work and reporting,” Dirmaier said. “I underestimated the drive of members to just support something they believe in.”

Talking Points Memo is working through the “moral challenge” of finding an appropriate balance between offering exclusive content for members and making their work freely accessible. “It’s a delicate balance. We don’t want to hide news but [we] want to give members extra value,” Dirmaier said. Among other offerings, their members can access extended stories that are longer than those available to the public, as well as editor’s notes on pieces in progress.

Being in close touch with current, former and potential members is a good way to know whether exclusive member content is of greater interest than branded bags, for example. Slate Plus editorial director Gabe Roth said that physical premiums have worked for the company. “But we haven’t found the ‘one thing’ that really drives everyone. Perks work when they are associated with an appeal to people’s values,” he said.

His team takes an experimental approach to trying different benefits for members, including events and exclusive content in the form of show segments and in-depth “Slate Academy” shows on individual topics. That means cutting offerings quickly when they aren’t offering worthwhile returns, such as TV recap podcasts that didn’t stand out.

Roth said that editorial staff have participated in member-focused work with interest, even when it entails an extra 20 minutes in the recording studio creating bonus content for each episode. He said that he wants Slate political writers to feel validated by readers joining as members in high numbers after the US presidential election. The membership program growth was a testament to their reporting and the value people got from it, Roth said. Slate is currently exploring ways to formalize and expand its member community.

Coming Soon: Research into Analogous Non-Media Spaces

The Membership Puzzle Project want to know whether these findings — the first of many to come — resonate with your experiences. They’re also starting to research analogous organizations that have strong membership programs. These are organizations that aren’t journalism-related, but are of interest because their membership programs have something to teach independent media. They’ll be looking at intentional communities and co-working spaces, faith-based communities, YouTube news shows, learning groups, gaming communities, eco and environmental cooperatives, alternative currencies, unions, lobbying groups and service groups. It may be that their contract is particularly rich or the design of their membership program especially innovative.

Which organizations (in media or elsewhere) do you think of as being especially notable with regards to their approaches to membership? Or if you’re involved with membership work yourself, The Membership Puzzle Project is curious to know where you look for inspiration. If you’re a member, they want to know which groups you’re proud to be part of. Tell them on Twitter.


Refer to Emily Goligoski for any questions regarding this piece. Gonzalo del Peon and Andrew Urodov contributed to this post.

This story originally appeared on the website of The Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project into membership models by the Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent and New York University’s Studio 20 Program. Sign up for the Membership Puzzle Project newsletter for future stories.

Emily Goligoski is research director for the Membership Puzzle Project. She acts as an advocate for news consumers and delivers actionable insights to media organizations. She was the first user experience research lead in The New York Times newsroom and brought design research to Mozilla Foundation. She is also a board member of the education non-profit Youth Radio.

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