Hello from the Netherlands!
This week Jay Rosen and I are in Holland, interviewing our first members for the Membership Puzzle Project. We’re starting with conversations with early supporters of De Correspondent as well as new members on their platform. We’re looking to learn what makes for particularly positive experiences – as well as sub-par ones – when it comes to participating with an independent media organization. What makes members proud to be involved? In what ways do they participate? What would they change?
This first set of interviews about member expectations will be followed by conversations with supporters of Texas Tribune, Slate Plus, and potentially your own organization. We’ll use learnings to inform a set of design principles: sound practices to inform media membership programs around the world, particularly those looking to engage in two-way knowledge exchange.
What does knowledge exchange mean? We think of it this way: Subscribers pay their money and get access to a product; members join a cause and participate because they believe in it. At the heart of our work with the Membership Puzzle Project is the social contract between the publication (including the journalists) and its members.
We see this contract as the basis for a productive knowledge exchange: What does each individual give, and what do they get in return? We’re less interested in the subscription scenario in which people give money and merely receive something like a magazine in their mailbox. That represents a beneficial but ultimately limited exchange. What we’re fascinated by is robust interactions: direct contact between an organization's staff and its supporters that benefits the journalism itself.
A notable example is Inside Story in Greece, which invites members to pitch ideas for investigations and then invites three members with winning ideas to co-report and publish with their editorial team. The resulting stories offer new knowledge that didn’t previously exist for reporters or for other readers, and these are the types of rich engagements that we’re eager to explore and share.
We’ll be publishing an open database with details about organizations that practice their own forms of meaningful membership, and this fall we’ll be seeking contributions. We’re also hoping to create a typology classifying these organizations, organizing the data we’re collecting into a limited number of descriptive categories.
But first, a status update
Our team is now six-strong, and includes researchers from NYU, the School of Visual Arts, and Northwestern. Over the next 10 months, we’ll be researching how to optimize journalism for trust. We’re delving into the ways organizations are diversifying their revenue with a particular focus on membership programs to this end.
Who we’re designing for
The core users of our project’s research are staff at media organizations who are developing or participating in nascent membership programs or giving their programs a revamp. Their job titles might be “development director,” “reporter,” or “head of design.” No matter what their core responsibility is, we want to give them knowledge from the wider ecosystem that they can use with their members. (If you think you might benefit from this knowledge and have questions you’d like our team to look into, please get in touch with us via email or Twitter.)
To give these individuals actionable info, we’ve spent the past six weeks interviewing media experts and organizational staff to understand their side of the social contract and orientation towards their audience members. We’re focusing on business-to-consumer (B2C) organizations because they offer the most highly relatable information for the media landscape. (While we're fans of the Associated Press’ work, for instance, you won’t find information about them as part of our project. Their business model of selling to member publications is less representative of the ways that most media generate revenue.)
We've been using a human-centered design framework that includes three elements for product development: desirability (What do people want?), feasibility (Can we make what they want?), and viability (Can we actually make what they want successfully?).
Historically, companies including news organizations have been good at thinking about product feasibility and viability without being particularly interested in what their users want. The school of thought that we’re employing and that human-centered design comes from, design thinking, encourages us to flip the premise and for teams to approach development by understanding users’ needs first.
In the case of the Membership Puzzle Project, this involves creating all of our forthcoming research products to meet the needs of the people who will be working with their organizations’ members. In the case of the sites we’re studying, this means creating news products to serve their audience members (people whose needs we’ll also be researching) and not just a profit and loss statement.
Some of the big picture questions we’re asking as we’ve gathered research insights from more than 20 news outlets include:
What do people want? (desirability)
- What are the points of distinction that make some sites’' membership programs stand out to users?
- What elements must be present in the membership social contract?
Can we make what they want? (feasibility)
- Who from a publication needs to be involved to make membership successful?
- What member participation activities are most useful to outlets and rewarding to members?
- What resources do outlets need to launch and maintain robust membership?
Can we actually make what they want successfully? (viability)
- How can an organization foster a membership culture, not just a membership program?
- How might we capitalize on market and social forces, such as users becoming more acculturated to paying for some media and entertainment on a monthly basis?
- What factors might help identify users who are most likely to become highly engaged members? (i.e., weekly time spent, values alignment)
- What can journalism learn from other industries' membership, co-op/joint membership, and participation programs?
How we’re addressing these questions: A methodological note
We’ve been conducting qualitative research in the form of individual in-person and remote interviews with media organization staff and thought leaders in digital publishing. Our interview list represents a combination of people we sought out, people who reached out to us, and others who were introduced to us by people whose opinions we value. You can find a list of the media organizations we’ve interviewed down below.
In this first set of conversations we’ve sought to gather a wide-cross section of types of organizations (non-profit, for-profit, co-op, highly member-engaged, new to the space, etc.). We know our list is incomplete and seek your suggestions in two ways: by emailing us with contact details for people at appropriate organizations you think we can greatly learn from, and by making additions to the public database in the fall.
We’ve encouraged our interviewees to share anything they’re comfortable talking about on the record, just as they might with Nieman Lab or another industry trade publication. We’re by no means trying to commandeer anyone’s trade secrets and are working in the public interest.
I like conducting 45 to 60-minute interviews as we’re able to get into the details and drawbacks of their programs much more than we might over, say, an email exchange. Following each dialogue we share notes from conversations amongst our research team and work together to identify key themes.
We’re planning to host a survey to broaden our data and include more public media stations and other organizations. Surveys are great for helping generate findings across a wide set of users, though they don't help in understanding nuances the way that interviews and ethnography can. We like to apply a mixed set of methodologies and will also be looking at site analytics for any organizational case studies we publish.
What you can expect from us next
In upcoming posts we’ll cover patterns that are emerging from our interviews so far, takeaways from members of those and other entities, and research we’re undertaking to understand what we can learn from analogous spaces beyond media.
Media organizations we’ve interviewed to date:
Publishers whose staff we’ve spoken to include ProPublica, Gimlet Media, Rocky Mountain PBS, Berkeleyside, The Ferret, Political Wire, New Internationalist, Inside Story, Audible, Slate, Talking Points Memo, Haverhill Matters, Krautreporter, El Español, WhereByUs, The Bristol Cable, Direkt36, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and Mississippi Today. Additional conversations, including those with Stratechery and Radiotopia, are scheduled for the coming weeks.