Recently we wrote that membership programs are in a state of rapid evolution, and we’re eager to show you the considerations that publishers face as they launch their membership efforts. We hope that these experiences can be helpful if you’re revamping or expanding an existing program, too.
To understand how four quite distinct organizations are undertaking their work with site supporters, we asked these questions:
Why membership? How did you decide membership was an approach worth trying?
What assumptions did you make about who would support you and why?
How much time are you planning for the program launch and/or redesign?
What are your biggest unsolved questions and challenges?
Spoiler: many of responses you’ll read emphasize listening to users as a crucial starting point. I was lucky to be at City Bureau this autumn as their supporters and staff came together to co-design their membership program. The things their inaugural members said they most wanted: to be part of a new, unique relationship that is doing meaningful community work. Similarly, Youth Radio’s fans told them to focus on what they uniquely do well, and that is directly impacting their upcoming membership proposition. Read on about identifying mission-aligned audiences, strategizing for individuals’ support amid syndication, and more.
Question #1: Why membership?
Who: Sarah Glen, product & growth manager at Chalkbeat
What: A nonprofit U.S. education news network.
Where: Chalkbeat reports from and about New York, Tennessee, Colorado, Indiana, and Detroit
Sarah Glen: “At Chalkbeat, membership is something that's long been on our minds. After all, our singular focus on education means that while our readers span locations, jobs, and beliefs about best practices, they’re connected by a shared dedication to serving students and communities. Pair that with the excitement that fills the room when we host local events and the increase we’ve seen in reader donations, and membership becomes a model that’s almost impossible to ignore.
Our membership conversations started in earnest in late 2014 with, of course, the creation of a mega Google Doc. We listed ways that dozens of other organizations defined their membership programs,* noting similarities and differences in what might appeal to our audience. But when our discussions transitioned to how we could execute a program of our own, things got difficult. Questions like ‘what will our offerings be?’ and ‘who will manage this work?’ proved to be roadblocks because we just didn't have the capacity for the work.
Despite that capacity gap, positive feedback from readers primed to become members continued to roll in. ‘Chalkbeat is the Bible on local education news,’ one Indianapolis reader told us. ‘Chalkbeat covers the story the way you wish everyone had time and skill to do,’ a Detroit reader said. Even more inspiring than that has been watching readers put their dollars where their praise was. In the last three years, we’ve seen a more than 75 percent increase in participation in our end-of-year fundraising campaigns.
So now it’s 2017, and we still don't quite have the capacity to manage a membership program, but we’re close. Since we started this conversation, we’ve dramatically improved the ways we communicate with our readers. We can now filter out prior donors from donation campaigns (no duplicate asks!) and we’re building out lists based on the ways readers said they want to engage with us (opportunities to connect with other readers for those who asked for them!). Over the course of the 2017-18 school year, we plan to use these lists and others to get feedback from our most member-ready readers on what our program should look like. For now we’re defining a member as someone who believes in our mission, and steps up to join us in creating high-quality education journalism.”
* If you’re seeking a similar resource, see our membership models in news database with information on nearly 100 news organizations that have membership programs and high levels of interaction with their members
Question #2: What assumptions did you make about who would support you and why?
Who: Bettina Chang, editor, and Andrea Hart, community director at City Burea
What: A self-described “neighborhood media lab” that operates as a non-profit. It launched its Press Club membership program in early October.
Where: The South Side of Chicago, Illinois
Bettina Chang & Andrea Hart: “We’re not making any assumptions about potential members. City Bureau ran a Kickstarter last year, and we got contributions from far and wide—folks who live in Chicago, the suburbs, all across the country and even overseas. We put out a survey to get a sense for what people want from membership, and we hosted a public meeting to have face-to-face conversations with our most loyal fans. This is all helping us determine how to structure our membership plan. And we intend to make this feedback process ongoing by baking in ways to stay responsive to our members.
City Bureau is built on community relationships—we put engagement at the center of all our work. That means a lot of things: our readers and followers know when we choose a big-picture story topic for our fellowships, they may help us collect information or record public meetings in service of those stories. They have opportunities to see inside our reporting process and offer feedback. We open up our newsroom once a week for workshops that are attended by an average of 35 people where they can discuss civic issues, learn new skills, and meet each other. So it made sense that as we began to develop an individual giving program for our nonprofit journalism lab, membership would be central to that.
Our greatest challenge is that membership plans often come with some sort of perk system—however, City Bureau currently provides all of its programs for free. (We often pay people to participate as Reporting Fellows and Documenters.) We’re brainstorming members-only experiences that we’re willing to offer that wouldn’t compromise our identity as a service-oriented publication. One idea is to have members-only events that are livestreamed, so that folks who can’t afford a membership can still tune in.
Aside from tangible rewards, part of what we are curious about is what, if any, kind of investment folks will make who believe in City Bureau as essential to a healthier local democracy.”
Erin Milar: “We are making our big bet on membership because of all the many revenue models we have researched and tested, membership is the most aligned with our mission and values. I founded Discourse Media, in part, because as a reporter at media outlets that relied on advertising revenue, I was incentivized to create content that achieved large reach rather than creating real value for my audience.
We've been experimenting with community-engagement techniques in our journalism practice for three years. We made the decision to put our learnings at the heart of our business and revenue strategy in March 2017 and spent several months researching and creating a comprehensive three-year business plan around the strategy. We started the design process of our membership program in the beginning of July and will have a rebrand and beta version of the digital experience by November 1. The goal is to launch our membership program publicly, accompanied by an ambitious marketing strategy, in March 2018.
It's exciting to nerd out on researching, developing, and testing membership features that reimagine the mutual knowledge exchange between journalists and our audiences. I initially assumed that the most loyal audience members would be equally engaged in the unique value exchange at the heart of the digital experience of membership. However, similar to many digital products, we expect that only one percent of our total audience (and only 10 percent of paying members) will actively engage in the features we've developed to facilitate the members-journalist relationship. And so, with that assumption overturned, we are attempting to avoid devoting all our resources towards over-serving a small portion of our membership by thinking hard about how to create value for that larger 90 percent our paying audience.”
In regards to thorny unsolved questions in membership program design, Erin said “pricing” with little hesitation. She explained, “It seems that most media membership products are priced according to gut feel and comparables, as opposed to robust analysis. We are currently figuring out how to do some original pricing research and test a pricing strategy as part of our November beta.”
Question #4: What are your biggest unsolved questions and challenges?
Who: Ellin O’Leary, executive director at Youth Radio
What: A nonprofit newsroom staffed by next-generation journalists and artists.Youth Radio will launch its membership campaign this fall to compliment foundation and government funding, as it works towards a sustainable model of at least 20% earned income by 2020.
Where: Oakland, California
Ellin O’Leary: “We’re excited to be testing what it means to be a member of Youth Radio — especially when the membership campaign is run by content creators who are ages 14-24 and from a wide variety of cultural, economic, and geographic backgrounds. We see Youth Radio’s role as introducing networks of diverse youth to the possibility of a ‘new public media’ that supports journalists and artists with editorial and creative freedom — and payment for content, jobs, and a pathway to grow and experiment in your craft.
We have a number of sticky questions open to interrogation:
1. What’s the best way to serve up our distinctive mix of content, which includes journalism, arts, and education information, each with its own audience sweetspot? For the past 18 months, these three content groups at Youth Radio have been doing experiments over short timeframes, testing outcomes for a variety of types of content. A notable success: we opened up our current media platforms to young contributors who were not trained in the Youth Radio approach and within six months added 50 new freelance reporters from 20 grassroots newsrooms around the country. A notable challenge: we ran a short-term video series on YouTube, and though we loved the content, it did not attract enough audience, so we had to move on.
2. How will young content creators engage audiences in supporting their content, beyond ‘liking’ it, or will they? These experiments in many ways made it possible to expand distribution to new outlets while also doubling audience on our own platforms. We’ve been able to pretty rapidly develop new content for new partners, including op-eds and essay series for The New York Times, columns for Teen Vogue, and a music station for Pandora. The challenge now is sustaining these partnerships and inspiring new audiences to want more directly from Youth Radio.
3. What is the right membership package for each of Youth Radio’s audiences, or is it the same across the board? We started out ‘just going for it’ but realized at each step (sigh) that there’s a science to this that we should employ. We’re testing our assumptions through audience interviews, surveys, market research, and our own experiments.”
What’s Up Next
Next we’ll share what sites have learned after clearing their launch day Champagne cups. We’re reminded that even after opening programs, it’s vital for organizations to listen to the ways that their members want to participate. This demands flexibility—don’t just set the program and forget it!—and being adaptable based on what supporters need and want. Until then...