Are you ready for membership?

If you’re thinking about membership, here are 11 questions to ask yourself before you dive in.

By Ariel Zirulnick
Membership Puzzle Project
Are you ready for membership?
Membership is a social contract between a news organization and its audience members. Illustration by Rishad Patel using avataaars, a free online avatar generator designed by Pablo Stanley.

The Membership Puzzle Project set out three years ago to prove with finality that membership could be a viable editorial and revenue model around the world. We looked at hundreds of organizations in more than two dozen countries in our pursuit for answers.

We’ve still got a lot to learn, but we think we’ve done that – and along the way we’ve realized a few keys to that viability. If you’re thinking about membership, here are 11 questions to ask yourself before you dive in.

 

Are you starting with an audience you can ask to support you?

Have you created enough of a relationship that they want to support you? And do they have the means to do so? We’ve seen a lot of encouraging experimentation with membership at organizations that serve low-income or otherwise vulnerable communities. We’re still figuring out what works there, but we know this: finding the right membership formula will be even harder here, and you’ll have to find ways to value in-kind contributions, not just financial ones. Feel free to hack our audience research materials to answer this question.

 

When’s the last time you had a real conversation with your audience members?

If you want readers to support your organization, you need to know who they are. This doesn’t have to be time or money intensive, though – you can start in a regular, casual way, holding office hours in your newsroom, the local library, or a coffee shop, for example. City Bureau’s “anti-gala” public newsrooms are a great example of this. 

 

Do you know what your readers value about you?

This goes beyond the fact that you produce good journalism. Membership is a social contract between a news organization and its audience members, who are giving not just their money, but their time, energy, connections, and expertise to support a cause they believe in. Have you articulated that cause clearly (Strategyzer’s value proposition canvas might help), and asked how it intersects with their own motivations?  

 

Are you comfortable offering meaningful participation to members and being transparent about your decision-making and finances?

We know from talking to members of news organizations around the world that these are two things they expect. Here are 25 jobs to be done in news organizations that you can invite your audience members to do.

 

Is there a person on your team whose job it is to work with your audience members? 

No, really. Who will do this? Membership is a deeper relationship, and maintaining that relationship is a lot of work. Digiday called the “membership editor” the latest key newsroom job, and we agree. 

 

Do you have a strong channel with your readers, listeners, or viewers already?

This can be through a newsletter, SMS, or something else entirely. The key is to not depend on a social media algorithm to get in front of your readers, and to be able to reach them directly.

 

Can your organization flex?

We wish we could say “charge x, hire y membership-responsible staff, partner with these types of publishers for z stories annually, then watch the money and audience collaboration opportunities come in.” But it doesn’t work like that. There are too many external forces at play to offer a single equation, and it’s going to take time, experimentation, and iteration to get it right and keep it right. This is where design and product thinking come in.

 

Is there an ability and openness to paying for things online?

Audience revenue is an e-commerce business, too, with the many payment, security, and marketing challenges that entails. The value of a frictionless payment experience for your prospective members shouldn’t be underestimated. 

 

Have you set a benchmark for how much revenue membership needs to bring in for you to afford to run the program?

At what point will you break even, not just in actual money spent, but the cost of your staff time as well? How long do you have to get there? With most organizations we’ve studied, membership brings in only a fraction of revenue, particularly in the first year or two. Breakout membership successes like the Guardian and De Correspondent are the outlier, not the norm and they made major financial and resource investments to get there.

 

Can you think like a marketer, or are you willing to learn?

You’ll have to nerd out on pricing and marketing strategies to get this right (get familiar with funnels and the price sensitivity meter), and you can’t be shy about reminding people your program exists. Don’t underestimate how busy and distracted people are, even among your most loyal audience members. It might feel like “everybody knows” because you’re in the middle of it all, but they don’t. 

 

Can your tech stack support membership?

You should have a CRM that you’re reasonably happy with, and you should understand how it communicates with platforms such as your email service provider. But membership is still a pretty new concept in the journalism industry, and the perfect tools for managing it still elude us. Romania’s DoR spent a year trying to find their perfect tech stack. They’re still looking for that, but they shared a few of their in-between solutions. 

 

Have you educated your audience on why you’re pursuing membership and what it means for them?

Get out in front of people. Explain your membership plan to them as simply as possible, and take note of what things they find confusing or ask a lot of questions about. You’re introducing them to something new, and it has a cost attached to it (whether that’s in money or time given), so clarity and understanding are key.

Have you answered “yes” to these questions? Then head to the Tow Center Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement and our membership launch handbook beta

Ariel leads the Membership in News Fund, which supports exceptional experiments in membership in news organizations around the world. The fund is part of the Membership Puzzle Project, a public research effort at New York University to catalyze new ways of thinking about how to optimize all parts of a media organization for trust. Follow Ariel Zirulnick on Twitter.

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