In April 2019, the Chilean nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, Centro De Investigación Periodística (CIPER), was on the brink of disaster: The GIJN member’s main patron had left a few months previously, taking 90% of the outlet’s funding with him.
It was a make-or-break moment for CIPER, an outlet that has covered everything from the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret fortune to the COVID-19 pandemic, its community editor Claudia Urquieta told the 12th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC21).
“Losing financial support was very hard but at the same time, also an opportunity to decide — close or reinvent,” she said in a session exploring successful business models for investigative journalism. “That was the question and we answered it — reinvent.”
Four months later, the outlet, which is also a foundation, created the CIPER community. And in just two years, it has more than 4,800 members or “partners,” who support its journalism. Its partners have allowed CIPER to hire four journalists after it lost 11 of its 14 staff reporters during the funding crisis. Meanwhile, 70% of its journalism is now funded by members, said Urquieta. CIPER’s goal now is to grow to 6,000 members by the end of 2021.
It works like this: Partners can sign-up for a monthly fee ranging from 3,500 to 20,000 Chilean pesos ($4 to $25) or set their own price. Annual partnership fees range from 42,000 to 240,000 Chilean pesos ($52 to $295). In return, partners have access to CIPER’s stories, receive advance notice of investigations, have a designated members’ site, take part in monthly coffee meetings with the CIPER team, and gain free entry to its annual gala.
Membership felt like a suitably “disruptive income model” for CIPER’s challenging circumstances and took into account people’s need to be part of something bigger, said Urquieta. In its 12 years of existence, CIPER had often received donations from readers, especially after publishing stories that “shook” Chile, she added. That led to testing out the partner-model idea by speaking with readers. Now, Urquieta advises investigative outlets aspiring to create a membership model from scratch to tailor it to their specific circumstances and resources.
“Don’t jump into something you can’t do,” said Urquieta. “We made our difficult situation public two years ago so people had the possibility to support us. That allowed us to continue investigating and start with those recurring contributions.”
Eight Steps for Starting a Membership Model
- Define a name: “It sounds small, but it’s important — it gives you an identity,” said Urquieta. CIPER’s program is called Comunidad +CIPER. Making members feel part of the newsroom is crucial.
- Select a payment platform and install a CRM: Look into the payment platforms currently operating in your market and choose one that integrates with a customer relationship management system (CRM). Ideally, both systems should work together from the beginning and help keep track of new member payments, renewals, and more. This GIJN guide to tech support for your membership program can help.“We didn’t know this and it was a small nightmare,” explained Urquieta. “We had to hire a payment platform at the beginning… then I did everything by hand, and then we developed our own CRM. Today, both systems complement each other but, for a long time, we didn’t have that because we didn’t know we needed it.”
- Choose a communications tool: Decide how your organization is going to communicate with your members and select the best email/newsletter tool for your organization’s needs. CIPER uses MailChimp – this GIJN guide offers more tools.
- Set the tone: This is crucial to how you relate to your members. “CIPER is a very serious medium and the publications have a very serious tone,” said Urquieta. “We opted for a much more affectionate and intimate tone with the partners and that allowed us to establish a bond with them and give them the feeling that they are part of the community, too.”
- Help your members: Answer questions “always and very fast” when they are asked, said Urquieta, who regularly calls partners to help with technical issues or respond to queries. It shows your members that you care and can turn even frustrated ones into your greatest advocates. “These things take time and some extra effort but, for us, the special attention is a commitment, our partners really know and feel it,” she said.
- Make a plan for failed transactions: Membership payments will frequently fail for “a thousand reasons”: “You need a strategic plan to get these failed transactions back,” she said. “It’s not that people don’t want to be part of the membership program, it’s just that their credit cards aren’t working. You need to call them, send them a lot of emails, and talk to them like partners, not a call center.”
- Think about building member loyalty from the beginning: CIPER wants its partners to feel like part of the newsroom family and many of its member benefits focus on building this close relationship. Urquieta’s regular emails and calls to partners enhance this loyalty.
- Maintain your value proposition: Signature CIPER investigations focus on information relevant to Chileans and lead to spikes in membership. For example, a 2020 investigation that revealed how the Chilean government had submitted different COVID-19 death figures to the World Health Organization than what it reported in Chile led to the resignation of the country’s health minister and added 600 new CIPER members in six days. Recognize what your audience values about your organization and stick to it as part of your drive for new members.
CIPER made its name in Chile for its dogged investigations into the powerful, such as projects digging into the finances and estate of former dictator Pinochet, or another exposing the offshore wealth of Chile’s elite including billionaire President Sebastián Piñera in the Pandora Papers.
With this in mind, CIPER set up its membership model so it could stay alive and continue to pursue the investigative stories it is known for and that its audience cares about — a clear goal that has paid dividends. “We were experts in investigative journalism, not these things, but now we know,” said Urquieta. “We are already certain that it was the best decision for us to continue investigating and to create a space where our readers feel part of the medium. We are in a different moment than two years ago. Our partners saved CIPER.”