An independent media startup in Myanmar covering current affairs and business in English and Burmese
421 (plus 147 print subscribers grandfathered in)
By 2018, media startup Frontier Myanmar knew they needed to diversify their revenue streams to continue resisting government and commercial pressure and maintain editorial independence. But they knew that putting up a paywall and launching a subscription would shut access off to the overwhelming majority of readers in Myanmar.
They decided a membership program was the right way forward. But visiting other newsrooms in Asia with membership gave them little insight into what a membership program in Myanmar should look like. So they took the question back to their readers instead, identifying their target users, hosting focus groups, and sharing prototypes along the way.
Why this is important
Frontier Myanmar had no experience with audience research or design thinking when they decided that a membership model was the right next step. Guided by Asian media consultancy Splice Media, they undertook a several-month audience research and product design process.
Although they received guidance from Splice, Frontier’s team did most of the research themselves. MPP offers this overview of the steps they took to show that a fairly simple audience research process can yield incredibly useful results if you have an engaged audience already and you know what information you need from them. The focus groups challenged several of Frontier’s assumptions about what types of member-only products would resonate, and gave them confidence that their message of paying to keep Frontier’s journalism free for everyone would resonate.
What they did
Frontier Myanmar began the process in spring 2019, after receiving a Google Digital News Innovation grant. They started simple: a landing page announcing that they were building a community to support Frontier, and asking people to sign up for updates if they wanted to learn more. They promoted it on Twitter, Facebook, with a banner ad on their site, and in their biweekly newsletter to digital magazine subscribers. Six hundred people signed up almost immediately, and by the end of the audience research phase, which took about a month, there were more than 1,000 people on their beta list.
At the same time, they identified five target users, which they assessed based on two factors: those who relied on Frontier’s continued existence and saw it as a critical player in Myanmar’s transition to a democracy and who would be willing and able to support it financially. They identified diplomats, journalists, NGO workers, academics, and businesses, then used their personal networks to bring in representatives of each for focus groups (one focus group for each persona, usually with about five people). They also did some targeted 1:1 interviews. They did all this over a month.
During those conversations, they asked those users “What do you need for your life? What do you need in order to do business?” (See Slides 22-27 in this presentation from Splice Media to see the types of questions they asked.)
They thought they might hear requests for comments or a members-only Slack. They didn’t. Frontier also assumed that roundtables and panels with politicians, academics, and other experts would be a key component, but they heard from participants that existing organizations like the chambers of commerce already did this well, that there were already more events than people could attend, and users didn’t think Frontier would offer a particularly good event product, Digital Editor Clare Hammond said. Frontier still plans to experiment with casual events, featuring a brief Q&A with a Frontier journalist, followed by drinks, but the coronavirus pandemic interrupted those plans after just one such event (which went well).
Their target users wanted two things: help monitoring Burmese-language media and a daily news briefing that would bring the top headlines together for them. At the time their target users relied heavily on Burmese colleagues to tell them what to pay attention to and many organizations spent a significant amount of money on getting local news translated into English.
Frontier realized that if they took that responsibility on, they could solve a key problem for thousands of entities and individuals, and save them money. A Frontier membership would be cheaper than individual translation services.
From there, they designed prototypes of two member-only newsletters:
- A daily current affairs email newsletter that rounds up the top things to know, including government statements, company statements, top headlines, and other bits of information their reporters hear that don’t rise to the level of full stories
- A daily media monitoring report that translates the top headlines from the six biggest Burmese newspapers, and fully translates a couple top stories
They sent those to a beta list for free for two months while they worked out the other details, such as pricing and tiers, which they also surveyed the beta list about. Frontier also regularly surveyed the beta newsletter recipients for feedback on the tone, design, and length.
The process, from the receipt of the GNI grant, allowing them to begin their work with Splice, to the membership launch, took about seven months.
They launched their membership program in January 2020, just before coronavirus began dominating headlines in the region, with the following tiers:
They also provided the option to join as an individual (1 login), small institution (5 logins per membership), and large institution (20 logins per membership). Most of their members are individual members, but as of July 2020, they had 16 small institution members with 93 logins total, and three large institution members with another 60 logins.
About 80 percent of their members are expatriates, which Frontier expected and designed for – their membership products are in English, the pricing is comparable to media products in the U.S. and Europe and they can handle payments in credit cards. They have gotten comfortable with the fact that designing elite newsletter products is what will bring in the revenue they need to keep their journalism work free for anyone to access.
“Frontier is a bridge between local journalism and international reporting on Myanmar. It’s read by a lot of expats, and [the five target users they identified] pretty much is all the expats in Myanmar,” Hammond said, noting that Burmese speakers are able to access for free what expats needed Frontier to package for them. She added that they do receive support from Burmese readers, but for them it’s more about supporting the mission of independent journalism in Myanmar.
In January they also launched a “Frontier Fridays” newsletter, a free weekly news roundup that anyone can sign up for. Their goal is to give people a taste of what they could get daily if they became a paying member, and to build a relationship with those for whom a daily news briefing is more than they need. They have 3,800 people on that list.
By July, the revenue brought in from membership already exceeded advertising revenue, which had cratered due to coronavirus.
Frontier is now forming its first sales team, which will focus on pitching institutional memberships and working with the editorial team to design products that they can find sponsors for, as well as more typical advertising responsibilities. They’ll also soon be sending out a six-month survey to newsletter recipients.
What they learned
You can’t copy someone else’s model. During the planning stages, Frontier founder and publisher Sonny Swe visited Malaysiakini in Malaysia and Rappler in the Philippines, which both have membership programs. But it didn’t do much to help him figure out what membership should look like for Frontier. That only came when the team sat down with their biggest fans, their readers in Yangon. “You can’t just copy and paste someone else’s model. We live in a different country, different landscape, different spending power,” Swe said. “It has to be tailor-made based on our audience, based on this media landscape.”
Membership is a hospitality business. Swe realized early on that customer service is a critical component of success, so they hired a membership manager who had previously worked at one of the foreign chambers of commerce in Yangon.
Engagement matters more than scale. Swe knew this, in theory. But what really drove it home for him was what happened when a daily newspaper in Myanmar with 22 million followers on Facebook launched a membership program 1.5 months before Frontier launched theirs. The core component was asking people to give 3,000 kyat a week (about $2.25 in July 2020) to access previously free video streams. It’s gained little traction. Swe says that showed him that, “No matter how big your audience is, the most important thing is who your real audience is, who is the hardcore follower. We have only a few hundred thousand, but they feel that Frontier is part of their life and their community.”
Don’t assume you know your audience until you’ve talked to them. Premesh Chandran, co-founder of Malaysiakini, hammered this point with Swe. “Do you know your audience?” he kept asking. Swe says he thought he did because he had been writing for them for years, but accepting that this was not the same as knowing their audiences was a key moment for Frontier.
Design thinking is a muscle. Going through this cycle of audience research and product design has taught Frontier a new way of designing journalism products. They’ll use these skills again and again. They’re considering applying this approach to future journalism products that they expect they can get underwritten, opening up new revenue streams.
Key takeaways and cautionary tales
There is no copy-and-paste for membership. While there are a few almost universal truths about what motivates people to become members, what that looks like in practice is highly individualized. The audience research process Frontier undertook was a significant up-front investment, but the return on investment has been equally significant. Building in time to co-design with your engaged readers is likely to help you design more desirable products that gain traction more quickly. This is applicable to all kinds of journalism products, not just membership.
- Presentation, DW Akademie: How we designed a membership program for Frontier Myanmar
- Presentation, Splice Low-Res: Why we launched membership at Frontier Myanmar
Editor’s note: This case study was edited after publication to correct the year that Frontier Myanmar launched its membership program.