What do Burning Man, Bitcoin investors, and churches have in common? They're all among the organizations we're seeking out for our analogous research in spaces beyond news.
The challenges inherent in fostering long-term, productive relationships with loyal users (also called members) aren’t exclusive to the news industry . Organizations across sectors share similar concerns about growing loyalty, participation, revenue, and standing out in crowded markets.
After studying 40+ news sites, we identified 12 other spaces to understand what their membership practices might teach us. This post is our first dispatch with insights from teams working in these domains: coworking spaces, YouTube news shows, learning groups, gaming, intentional communities (also known as residential cooperatives), unions, gaming communities, and faith-based communities. Surprisingly, an intense New York City book club, a major metropolitan art museum, and an Israeli kibbutz have a lot in common and their experiences can benefit news, too.
The Membership Social Contract
In informing our research with perspectives outside of journalism, I was inspired to look at Jean Jacques Rousseau’s political theory of the social contract. Rousseau was an 18th century Swiss philosopher who believed that if that citizens and governments are bound together by mutual trust and an exchange of resources, both parties would be empowered to achieve higher-level goals.
We’ve seen many examples of this mutually beneficial exchange in these non-news domains, and this concept underpins the foundation of my research inquiries. Jay Rosen, director of the Membership Puzzle Project, will be writing more about the importance of the “contract” in membership models for news. In the meantime, I’m excited to share some of my own ideas around this term, which we believe is key to restoring trust between journalists and the people they serve.
Team Tryouts > Free Trials
Complimentary trial periods are a universal offering for many membership and/or subscription services. Yet we’ve become savvier shoppers spending tens of hours researching potential purchases and scrutinizing sales pitches we’ve become accustomed to hearing (and ignoring).
Veronica Yurovsky, a member of the Bit Palace Book Club in New York, describes this phenomenon as being synonymous to a university tour. “I think about that moment when you’re on campus and they sell you on their world class gym or Nobel Peace Prize researchers, but in reality you’re studying more than going to the gym and you’re never going to interact with those researchers. I just don’t understand how these things would sway you.” While your organization might offer multiple nice and shiny perks, if your members never use them or understand their value, they’ll likely cancel when it comes time to renew. More crucially, they’ll miss what your membership is actually is all about.
Aidan Vega, director of memberships at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts (PMA), believes that membership courtship is a lengthy process. She’s observed that members take an entire year to evaluate whether they want to commit in the long-term. To address this, she hosts “Staff Secrets,” an event where anyone can ask questions about how exhibits are conceived and curated. Aidan wants to engage members in a deeper way, explaining that “members want to know how it all works and that they have the inside information, as if they are a part of the team.”
PMA uses a “team tryout” approach, offering a richer experience that allows members to see themselves as part of the organization. This also buys them time to demonstrate their value and for members to get comfortable with them, which is effective for recruiting new members. They also host an annual Ice Cream Social for prospective members, in part to combat the stereotype that museum goers are pretentious. “You don’t need to be an art scholar to participate” and membership can be about both being a patron of the arts and having a fun social experience, Aidan said.
Chelsea Simpson, a community organizer for the Centre for Social Innovation, uses a similar strategy at their co-working spaces for social entrepreneurs and enterprises in Toronto and New York City. Chelsea shared a winning onboarding strategy: she invites members to experience shared rituals that make it distinct from similar spaces. Chelsea explained, “I spend time doing some cultural ‘unpacking’: what it means to be a member and breaking that down. I introduce them to a CSI buddy, someone who they can lean on, so they’re instantly plugged in. Then we all go to Salad Club [potluck lunch] together, held every Tuesday, where they can meet everyone at once and a good example of what it’s like to be a part of this space.”
Renée Chazan, a resident in the Mishmar Haemek kibbutz, shared the process for members to be accepted into their community in northern Israel. If their members are interested in a candidate, that individual is invited to live within the community for a whole year as part of an extended and intensive trial period. At the end of the agreed upon time, voting members and the prospective member decide together whether to move forward. This extended tryout gives prospective members experience in the day-to-day realities of collaborative living and working while ensuring that they are a good fit with other residents and members. This illuminates another advantage to this approach: affording time to scout potential members and leaders. By offering a chance for people to become much more familiar with the experience—to really understand how your organization works and how they could be an active contributor--you might unlock more opportunity on both sides.
Foster Belonging More Than Exclusivity
A few years ago, a group of comedians from the Upright Citizens Brigade decided to form a group of their own: the earlier mentioned Bit Palace Book Club, named after a meeting spot in Queens. Nicole Drespel wanted to find others who loved reading as much as she did. After joining several failed book clubs that quickly dissolved, she wrote a Tumblr post declaring: “I want to start adult book club, with regular meetings where people actually show up, read the book, and drink wine.”
Since then, she assembled a group of ten people, friends and fellow improv comedians, who’ve consistently met monthly for the past four years. Intrigued about how a group of people could have this kind of commitment, I asked original member Kristen Acimovic what’s kept her engaged. “It’s the best! It’s a community of people who are interested in the same things.” She said that passions can run high: “We also play games but it gets very heated. We get into screaming matches. We even have book club personalities. For example, Curtis is my book club enemy, somehow we just disagree on everything.”
When I asked Nicole what made this book club stay together, she reflected, “The reason the other book clubs failed were that they were too speciality, ‘we only read non-fiction or historical biographies,’ as opposed to realizing that it’s more about hanging out with people who like to read. They were more driven by the idea of the book club than focusing on the people.”
While their love for literature helped unite this group, what ultimately makes them stay together is a shared sense of belonging, not discriminating against the type of books people like but enjoying their shared passion for reading. Members understand that their participation creates a safe space for personal sharing. Kristen explained, “When you have good quality and thoughtful conversations about how a story affects you, it’s hard to be inauthentic about it. That’s why we trust one another.”
The Dinner Party brings young people together to help them grieve and deal with loss. Since the organization's 2010 launch in Los Angeles, individual local volunteers have hosted dinners across the country to provide solace to other people who have lost loved ones. Founding partner Dara Kosberg believes that the dinners “create brave spaces to be vulnerable to connect over shared experiences.” While originally founded around family loss, people have approached the organization about fostering gatherings for others who have experienced pregnancy loss or losing someone to Alzheimer's disease. The Dinner Party wants to create space for difficult conversations. A core tenet of the organization is that participants need to hold space for each other (which can be read as “don’t be the only one to talk all night”).
Guidelines hold that people refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Guests change over time, yet these guidelines ground the experience in trust and openness. “The event has lent a sense of freedom. People are not bringing their own conceptions of what my relationship with my mother should of been or what I should of done. It’s more about what you are feeling [now],” Dara explained.
To maintain consistency, they require new guests and hosts to fill out an application which asks “Where are you right now with your loss?” This ensures guests will benefit and enables organizers to flag those who may not be emotionally ready to participate. Similar to the book club, this experience is co-created with members who are expected to foster a positive experience for one another. Some hosts will even go as far as phoning guests in advance to ensure participants understand the tone of the event.
When they were growing in popularity, The Bit Palace Book Club was forced to implement a screening process, when 50 people suddenly flooded to a meeting. Chaos and disorganization ensued, as people constantly talked over each other. “Just because you love books, it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy book club,” Nicole realized. “If you don’t want to listen to other people’s opinions, or be willing to read and talk about books you may not have enjoyed, you’re probably not going to like book club.”
Since then, this group has been careful about which members can join and have mutually defined expectations. “It’s not about excluding people,” Kristen clarified. “We just don’t want it to be different from what it was originally intended.” They’ve welcomed new members more seamlessly since these expectations have become more clearly defined.
Both groups work to accommodate people with shared values yet hold space for diverse opinions (book club enemies) and diverse experiences (different types of personal loss). The screening process is less about determining who qualifies as a member and more about educating interested people up front about what it means to be a member. In other words, the contract.
“Behaviors first, rules second” was Nicole’s guiding philosophy for achieving this balance for the Bit Palace Book Club. “We set expectations, based on what [individual] people are doing,” she said, “being realistic that we are doing something unknown.” She believes that if you create too many expectations up front, people are intimidated and prevented from initially participating, or they’ll join, rebel against top-down guidelines, and question whether they are necessary. But if rules are drafted and implemented based on known observed behaviors, she said that members are more likely to accept them. Have rules -- but don’t assume you know what they should be in advance.
Offer More Flexibility to Meet Users Where They’re At
Organizations spend a great deal of time working to prevent membership cancellation and hoping that members become more deeply invested, but this effort would be better spent studying what individual members value. What if we built flexible or custom memberships based on specific member needs?
Haight Street Commons, an intentional community house in San Francisco, embraces flexibility for their residential communities. In response to rising housing costs and the urban diaspora people experience as they move into cities, residential cooperatives like intentional communities are forming. But this is not just living with roommates. Organizer Zarinah Agnew described it as “living with shared commitments, goals, and holding yourself accountable to those goals, and they can change. It’s about mutually assured accountability.”
Zarinah distinguished this from communes that were popular in the Bay Area during the 1960s and 70s: “Communes are spaces where you share resources but you can have a commune that isn’t very intentional. For us, we are deeply questioning the way we interact and give care.”
Their citizenship model is their way of “reimagining the future of home.” Citizenships have baseline offerings such as monthly rent and the ability to stay in guest rooms in other houses. But citizenships are issued with individuals in mind and are highly personalized. They’ll provide specific services such as childcare for single parents. They’ve also been willing to negotiate the cost of the citizenship depending on how much the person will contribute such as non-monetary value through workshops or professional services for their housemates. They have even offered citizenships, instead of waiting for members to come to them, actively targeting community members who they think will add special value.
Some might be skeptical about how this is financially viable, but it seems that this model is flourishing. The Embassy Network, a collective of intentional community houses, has locations that span worldwide to Greece, Germany, and Costa Rica. This is because there are numerous benefits to co-living that would otherwise be difficult on a single income. With the economies of scale, it allows for car sharing, food sharing, bulk purchasing, division of labor for chores, and the capacity to fundraise for causes they care about. Overall it lowers operational costs and opens up more resources for investments. One resident in his 20s who asked to be anonymous said, “I was initially surprised by the sense of abundance—not necessarily an emphasis on reciprocity. For example, for food, there’s so much of it, you don’t need to track it, so just take what you need and everyone is cool with it.”
How do these concepts of abundance and member curiosity connect back to news? As a recent Reuters Institute study on attitudes to paying for online news suggests, it’s smart for news sites to reduce the risk of commitment until members have a chance to see where the value is. They should remain flexible (including delivering more than one-size-fits-all news presentations for visitors) and open about members’ needs. Organizations that are always listening for what members care most about, and revising their membership program accordingly, will stand out.
WeWork, an international company that offers membership to co-working spaces, has evolved their offerings as their users range from solo entrepreneurs to mid-size businesses and corporate clients. Benjamin Gadbaw, director of user experience, shared how they customize offerings for enterprise companies: “We’ve worked with Microsoft to offer office space for employees who are remote or traveling. They have access to about 30 locations in New York, and their employees are considered members at WeWork. They can use all the buildings as touchdown spots, private offices, or hot desks.” This is a major shift from traditional cubicle culture as it offers flexibility for people to work in spaces most comfortable to them and to be in less structured environments.
The Swedish Union of Tenants’ (Hyresgästföreningen) approach to membership has led 40 percent of the nation’s renters to join, largely by establishing national recognition and trust. They extend their services such as housing representation to adjacent tenants. For example, let’s say you were a member of the union but your roommate was not. If you got into a dispute with your landlord, negotiation services are extended to your roommate. This dramatically increases the likelihood of converting non-members to new ones because they demonstrate their value when people need them, not just when it’s fundraising campaign season.
Approximately a tenth of their $110 equivalent annual membership fees underwrite production of the nationally recognized “Hem & Hyra” (Home & Rent) print magazine, which is made available to all Swedes for free. Martin Hofverberg, former negotiations strategist, explained that “a lot of people don’t have an interest in being a member in the Tenants Union” even though there is a large population of renters in Sweden. He believes that if they provide useful information to people even when they aren’t members, they may turn to the organization later. This is a good example of devising creative ways to provide supplementary services for the public good.
Seeking Thoughts on These Spaces
Our early research into these analogous spaces have shown us how organizations that offer rich opportunities for exchange with their members can foster trust. We’re curious to hear your own experiences with encouraging immersive tryouts, cultivating belonging, and offering flexible, user-centric arrangements.
Please tell us which of these elements your membership program delivers on well. How have your members behaved in response? Which have most difficult for you, and what challenges have you faced in implementing them?
We look forward to your thoughts, and please offer your suggestions in the comments and on Twitter for relevant organizations in these domains: service clubs, environmental co-ops, alternative currencies, recovery communities, and lobbying groups. Who else should we talk to? We appreciate your ideas for organizations that might be informative for news and are excited to share what we learn.