A national, born-digital publication focused on policy analysis and investigative journalism that has branched out into lifestyle, sports, and business coverage
In the months leading up to the Daily Maverick’s August 2018 membership launch, they migrated “just about everything” that the Daily Maverick ran on technologically, CEO and Publisher Styli Charalambous writes. By May 2018, everything was in place for a membership launch – other than the critical technological infrastructure.
Rather than wait to ask for financial support until they were technologically ready, the staff decided to launch a pre-membership minimum viable product. They had two goals: start bringing in much-needed audience revenue as soon as possible, and test some of their assumptions about whether, why, and how much loyal readers would financially support them so that they could have a more impactful official membership launch.
When they officially launched their membership program in August 2018, they were thrilled – but not shocked – at the enthusiastic response. The donations drive and surveys to donors afterward had already shown them they were on the right track.
Why this is important
Launching a membership program has a lot of moving parts, and not everything will go according to plan. The Daily Maverick ably turned an unexpected delay into an opportunity to gather additional insights for designing their membership program, reducing the guesswork.
This case study is also offered as an example of a low-investment, accessible way to test some of your assumptions before committing to a high-stakes launch. MPP is sharing their approach because it doesn’t require any skills or tech beyond what most newsrooms already have.
What they did
Only a couple days elapsed between the decision to launch the one-time donations drive and the actual launch.
On June 1, 2018, they launched a call for recurring, pay-what-you-can donations with no benefits attached. With that campaign they sought to answer the following questions:
- Whether people would financially support the Daily Maverick on an ongoing basis
- Where on their owned platforms they would find their most engaged readers
- What membership messaging most resonated
- How button placements and color schemes affect signups
They answered the first question simply by asking for donations in the first place. There were no benefits or rewards offered for donating during this time.
They tested their second question by placing a call for donations at the bottom of their long-form features and in their newsletters, and studying the conversion rates on each. Although they lacked the technology to A/B test different messages on their site, they gathered data to answer their third questions by running different messages in their newsletter to assess which motivations for joining resonated most strongly. They tweaked button placements and color schemes over the two-month campaign and studied the data to determine how that influenced sign-ups, to answer the fourth question.
When the donations drive concluded, they surveyed the donors, treating them as a group of beta members who could inform the design of Maverick Insiders. They asked them the following questions:
- How long did you read the Daily Maverick prior to donating?
- How frequently do you visit our site?
- You have previously donated money to Daily Maverick. What made you decide to donate? (Open-ended question)
- Which content most influenced your decision to donate?
- Who is your favorite author?
- What was your primary reason for donating to Daily Maverick? (Choose one)
- Credible investigative journalism costs money and needs public support
- Quality independent journalism is worth paying for – it’s the right thing to do
- I no longer buy newspapers and feel I should pay for news
- The newsletter is an invaluable start to my day and worth paying for
- I’m aware that advertising doesn’t cover the costs of news publishing any more
- My contribution helps keep DM free for others who can’t afford to pay
- We’re launching a membership plan for readers who want to contribute to the cause and engage with DM staff and other members across a range of platforms and events. Is this a community you would be interested in being a part of?
- What benefits would motivate you to join our membership plan? (Please drag items in terms of importance to you; see image below)
- What other potential benefits would influence your decision to join our membership plan? (Open-ended question)
- Would free Daily Maverick branded merchandise on sign-up influence your decision to become a member?
- Which Daily Maverick branded merchandise appeals to you most?
- What, to your mind, do we do well? (Open-ended question)
- What do you feel we could do better? (Open-ended question)
- Thanks! Anything else you’d like to share with us? (Open-ended question)
At the end of the two-month test, they had 314 recurring donors giving an average of 100 rand a month (about $8) and 621 one-time donors, giving between the minimum charge of 15 rand (about $1) up to 25,000 rand ($1,670). Donors could choose how much to contribute.
This told the Daily Maverick a couple key things about their audience that influenced the design of their membership program:
They did not need to set a floor for membership contributions. Supporters willingly gave what they could, rather than the minimum required.
They had an engaged group of readers willing to provide recurring financial support, even without any benefits.
They would find their loyal readers at the bottom of articles and on their newsletter lists. Calls-to-action elsewhere on the site were less effective. This allowed them to invest their limited time and resources on the places they knew they would be most effective at converting members.
Button placement and coloring would have some impact on sign-ups. They experimented with a few arrangements, and found that adding a bold background and pre-selecting their most desired contribution amount (R150) helped swing recurring contributions from an average of R75 to R150.
That R100 average recurring contribution benchmark allowed them to develop more informed revenue projections for their membership program.
They received 645 responses to the survey they sent to the donors. The responses told them a few critical things:
Mission-aligned benefits such as opportunities to get to know the journalists and a members-only newsletter resonated much more strongly than special offers and discounts.
Their investigative reporting motivated the most contributions, and they also learned which journalists had the most loyal followings – two valuable data points for marketing efforts
A resounding 92 percent of respondents said that swag upon sign-up would not motivate them to join.
CEO Styli Charalambous told MPP, “At the time we were debating whether a high-value prize would entice readers to join, and it ranked so poorly that it emphatically ended the debate for us.”
What they learned
From these data points and survey results, the Daily Maverick inferred the following:
Their cause alone was enough to motivate readers to support them financially. If more than 300 people were willing to become recurring supporters without receiving anything in return, offering benefits and a sense of community via a membership program would lead to even stronger returns.
A pay-what-you-can model, which would make membership financially accessible to more readers, had viability. They could reasonably expect an average contribution of 100 rand (about $8) a month and readers who could give more might do so.
They did not need to implement a paywall to incentivize people to support their work.
Cause-driven membership appeals would resonate more strongly than membership appeals tied to perks, particularly those oriented around keeping the journalism freely accessible.
The experiment also changed the way the Daily Maverick thought about testing new ideas. The success of this test encouraged them to suppress their “perfectionist” tendencies and just try things.
As Charalmbous wrote on Medium, “This was a great example for us to show us how we could launch something good enough, very quickly that could test multiple hypotheses and provide rich data and insights that are currently still being used today. It’s fair to say our membership launch was more successful because of it and we made fewer mistakes along the way. MVPs are a useful way to be more audience-centric because it removes the guesswork and assumptions from decision-making and actual user behaviour is used.”
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
If you have clarity about what you need to know about your audience members, it’s easy to design tests to find that out. When designing tests, it’s helpful to go back to the basic framework of a scientific experiment. What is your hypothesis? How can you test that hypothesis? Can you design the test such that you can isolate the variables and draw meaningful conclusions from the results? Your most loyal supporters are eager to see you succeed and can be valuable “product testers” for big strategic changes like launching membership.
- Styli Charalambous on Medium, article: Launching a membership program: Lessons from the frontlines
- Nieman Lab, article: At 7,000 members, our lives are already changed for the better
- Membership Puzzle Project, article: How newsrooms can begin making data-informed membership decisions
Disclosure: Membership Puzzle Project has provided support to the Daily Maverick’s membership program through the Membership in News Fund.