In looking for book recommendations for cross-Atlantic flights this summer, I’ve been well-served by asking Sebastian Kersten, one of the co-founders and CTO of De Correspondent. He’s quick with ideas for compelling reads and audiobooks and recently suggested “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World.”
Our research team has identified cryptocurrencies as an area well worth studying for our research into analogous (non-news) spaces, and I admittedly have limited knowledge of the space. I was 10 pages into the book when I wrote YES! on a Post-It next to this sentence: “Trust in business is the expectation that the other party will behave according to the four principles of integrity: honesty, consideration, accountability, and transparency.” Authors Don and Alex Tapscott claim that “active openness is central to earning trust.”
At the Membership Puzzle Project we strongly believe this, and we’ve found that radical openness serves media organizations that are looking to grow the reach and depth of their audiences, too. A good way for publishers to start demonstrating this model of integrity, I think, is in crafting their communications as if they were talking to a friend.
But my members aren’t my friends, you might think.
They might inspire your reporting and pay your bills, but your staff doesn’t necessarily consider members to be among their pals. So I wonder: what would it take to enjoy a richer and more real relationship?
I’m not just talking about using friendly terms, calling on would-be members with opportunities to become “Friends of [organization].” I saw this phrase in an email ask recently, and even the capitalized letter F didn’t trick me into perceiving closeness—partially because the organization’s membership program with nine different pricing tiers felt so complex. Simple is better.
In a world where anyone can give a “friend” designation with a click, we’re interested in deeper two-way knowledge exchange that conveys familiarity and trust. This begins with carefully considered communications from publishers: communications that don’t just try to be interesting to audience members but that convey interest in them and their news needs.
As we work to collaboratively propose shared membership definitions for the news industry, we welcome your thoughts in the comments about clarifying the types of people that publishers are communicating to. We’ve encountered confusion around and frequent interchanging of these terms. Researcher Elizabeth Hansen and I are defining supporters as follows for a forthcoming audience revenue report for the Tow Center:
Donors give their time, money, or ideas without the expectation of personal benefit beyond the organization growing its work;
Subscribers pay money and get access to a product, such as access to the New Yorker in print and online, but the exchange ends there;
Members give their time, money, connections, professional expertise, or ideas to support a cause they believe in. They have a clear expectation of what they will get in return, including access to information, events, merchandise, and recognition. Membership represents a two-way knowledge exchange that is more robust than the donor and subscriber models.
How Publishers are Thinking about their Most Committed Users
Of course there are cultural considerations at play with these descriptions. Renata Rizzi, co-founder and editorial director of Nexo Jornal, told us that in Brazil the Portuguese translation of “member” conveys political party or club affiliation that could be “very dangerous” if used inappropriately. Their subscription offering looks more like our description of membership with its opportunities for readers to engage in real life. Yet they understandably chose to name supporters “subscribers,” employing a commonly used expression that their Spotify-subscribing users would easily understand.
Ben Thompson, founder of tech site Stratechery, chooses the term “subscriber” to refer to his paying readers as he sees the arrangement between them as a direct exchange of well-defined value, a concept he wrote about here. “The greatest commitment I ask of my readers is for money,” Ben said. “They give me money, and I give them value,” referring to the four weekly posts he writes for subscriber-only access. (Similarly, staff at Patreon, a self-described “membership platform that gets artists and creators paid,” told us that they encourage creators to talk about exchange of value when communicating with potential patrons, not defaulting to begging for funds.)
Ben said that he finds Stratechery’s subscribers’ input valuable, particularly their subject matter expertise as business executives and because he works alone without an editor. Yet Ben said he chose to pursue subscription almost completely as a business decision, not an editorial one.
This represents a larger economic trend: subscriptions are on the rise in digital media as advertising dollars shift to the big tech platforms, and we see subscription offerings expanding in non-media realms too. As venture capitalist Mary Meeker wrote in her most recent Internet trends report, consumer interest in digital subscriptions is “rising owing to massive user experience improvements.” Increased personalization, a la carte choices, and better payment options all represent progress that we also hope to see impact the third supporter category, members.
What might it look like to expand potential with this subset of highly loyal supporters? I’m hopeful for a future in which sites’ “work with us” pages refer to more than job openings and include invitations for meaningful member participation. (As described in this post on human-centered research design, this means activities that are useful to a sites’ growth and storytelling and that reward members with skillbuilding, a sense of contribution, and/or recognition. ProPublica is doing this well with its call to “help us investigate.”) And we’re hopeful about the emergence of membership programs that are truly co-designed by publishers and potential members. This will represent a major shift from what we currently see—org-conceived and initiated program design—to designs that are more considerate of members’ needs and ideas. We hope you’ll take on the challenge!
But first, some inspiration. I’ve been struck by a few fresh approaches to this space, such as the Atavist Magazine splitting membership revenue 50/50 with its writers. Read on for other similarly humble and refreshing examples.
Demonstrating Vulnerability Shows Strength
One thing we heard from De Correspondent members is that when publications’ writers acknowledge their blind spots and areas where they need readers’ help, they actually earn more confidence. “The more you give, the more you get” sounds hackneyed, but it’s been true for that org’s interactions between correspondents and members. Asking for non-professional journalists’ assistance to strengthen reporting and narrative isn’t something we’ve traditionally seen news orgs do, yet it represents humility and a willingness to show humanity that we’ll need moving forward.
Similarly, explaining your organization’s financial and editorial decision-making process may sound terrifying. But don’t close your computer or phone just yet! This approach has served many subscription and membership-funded organizations well, the publishers we’ve spoken to have said, because it offers transparency and clarity instead of letting questions fester.
Earlier this year, PandoDaily was forthcoming about its choice to drop its paywall for stories on discrimination, harassment, and related topics. As CEO Sarah Lacy and editor Paul Bradley Carr wrote in frank terms: “This is a horrible business decision. Those stories drive the bulk of our traffic, and the bulk of our new subscriptions. In spreadsheet terms, it’s business suicide. But in moral and journalistic terms it’s also, plainly, the right thing to do.” After publishing they saw their largest new subscriber days ever and plentiful renewal requests from existing subscribers.
Painting an accurate portrait of your organization’s resource considerations and culture can also have a demystifying effect. (Before I worked in a newsroom, I remember picturing people smoking at their desks and getting story leads at Billy Goat-style bars. Smoke-free workplaces and anonymous tip technologies have done away with much of that, but many of our lingering cultural conceptions of news orgs suggest the glamour of “The Devil Wears Prada” more than “The Paper.”) I appreciate that Latino Rebels identifies itself as “a self-sustainable institution, in other words: no office, no pool table and full bar, no big mahogany desks, nada. We’ve dedicated our voluntary efforts to create quality content and highlight our community voices.”
Like the concept but not the term "member?" Latino Rebels calls all of its donors “loyal fans” no matter how much they contribute.
Explain More, but Keep It Quick
Giving exact details can be valuable for the uninitiated, and it’s important to provide as full an understanding of the considerations you face as you’re able to succinctly. Baseball stats and analysis site Fangraphs shares information on the people behind the site in pitching its membership offering: “FanGraphs now employs eight full-time staff members and 50 contributors that produce over 400 articles each month, in addition to our ever growing database of stats and graphs.” This is illustrative and clear. They could go even further, helping contextualize the number of person hours that go into creating the coverage and briefly mentioning other operational costs.
Politics site Talking Points Memo shares details about their revenue diversification and subscriber goals in the following site pop-up (which can be an annoying attempt to interact with visitors, so use them sparingly). There is some confusion between TPM subscription and membership offerings in the language they use, and they’re not alone in doing this. Still, naming a goal revenue percentage is admirable and I hope to see more sites be similarly direct:
Tone Matters Too (A Lot)
The Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill caught my attention in his request for new members for the investigative site: “I believe the notion of ‘objectivity’ as it has been defined in U.S. journalism is bullshit; it is often used as a euphemism for bias toward the views of the powerful.” He went on to describe key journalism principles using highly personal examples and closed with this note: “We want to welcome you to The Intercept community and we promise not to let you down.”
This sounds like a person talking, and the demonstration of commitment to the work helps. Note that the lack of institutional language here is purposeful and conveys directness, not sloppiness. (Another good instance of when to use human-sounding language is when you need to ask forgiveness of your users. Mistakes happen, and establishing an approachable voice and concern for your users from the beginning of the relationship will serve you well in potentially troublesome moments.)
Being clear about for whom you are publishing is a way to be respectful of visitors’ time -- and it shows that you have good sense in not trying to be all things to all people. Ryan Evans, founder and editor of foreign policy and national security site War on the Rocks, told Nieman Lab: “If every guy that [sic] needs something to do for 30 seconds on his phone starts reading War on the Rocks, we’re doing something wrong. I want this to be a publication that you need if you work on national security.”
Ryan used an appropriate, easy-to-read voice in his note to potential members (emphases mine):
“What do you want from us? Yes, that’s right: You. That is a fundamental question every media outlet, online or otherwise, should constantly be asking its readers, listeners, and viewers.” I’m nodding my head with this orientation around what matters to audiences, not just the publication’s growth goals.
“Success for War on the Rocks is not about massing [sic] the highest number of eyeballs on our digital terrain. It is about getting and keeping the right eyeballs.” A quick lesson in business media economics and how this site is different could be valuable here. Also, I’d never advise reducing readers to “eyeballs,” which conveys a tired form of the traditional ways that readers are valued -- and mostly aren’t.
“As for everyone else? Meh. If we become a site for everyone else, our raw readership numbers will go up, but we will be doing something wrong. We will have given up on what makes us what we are.” This seems to be at attempt to evoke a reader reaction of “they get me, we have the same interests, and they aren’t trying to be everything to everyone.” Offering exclusivity as a perk may work better with some audiences than others, so test this approach with a small audience base first.
“That question boils down to this: What could we offer you (yes, you) that you would pay a small amount of money for? And how could we do this in a way that strengthens rather than compromises the mission-oriented principles that animate the War on the Rocks Project?” Well done. Take them to sign up.
Per the “we” phrasing Ryan uses, Molly de Aguiar of the News Integrity Initiative recently pointed out that Roman Mars' frequent use of "we" in his communications for the podcast network he founded, Radiotopia, refers to staff and supporters alike and conveys a closeness that is well in line with the way that org talks with, not at, its donors. I see two shared approaches in each of these pitches that can help new and legacy orgs alike:
They treat people they’re communicating with like they’re smart, including being respectful of their limited time and offering them something worthwhile, which can be background on news reporting processes.
They have a clear call to action. Offering someone you’re familiar with a chance to give their time, money, and knowledge in form of an invitation can work if the offer is compelling enough. This is a technique that you can read more about in Lynne Twist’s fundraising primer “The Soul of Money.”
One final thought from the blockchain book: co-creating with consumers is usually a better way to have a sustainable business than treating them passively (or, worse, as a burden on your time), Don and Alex Tapscott write. This begins with how we start conversations with users and encourage meaningful dialogue that creates better journalism. I welcome your thoughts on ways that we can deepen the transactional interactions we commonly see, and we’ll be sharing more thoughts soon about social contracts that work well.