Discovering a Value Proposition

Underpinning all of MPP’s research is the question of how membership models address their audience members’ needs for affiliation, connection, and sense of belonging to a cause bigger than themselves. The cornerstone of any membership program should be a value proposition that articulates how the experience of membership provides value to members.

A value proposition is a statement of the value a product or service creates to address a particular user need. You can and should define a value proposition for any product or service you create.

Part of the challenge of defining a membership value proposition is that these terms – “membership,” “value,” “audience member need” – are fuzzy. During the user research process, MPP asked more than 25 newsrooms what membership means to them. The answers varied considerably:

• “It’s the heart of our organization because it influences commercial opportunities and editorial, and drives the event side. Our membership director touches every part of the organization, and that’s the way it should be. It’s not just a revenue line, it’s the core culture of our organization.” 

• “It’s a different relationship. Money is still changing hands as though you are buying something, but instead of saying, ‘This is giving me access to something,’ it’s saying… ‘This is part of my suite of things I’m doing to try to make the world better, such as donating to a food bank or a nonprofit. All of these are things I do to push the world in a more positive direction.”

• “An alternative to a paywall, I think membership is a little bit kinder, a little bit more gentle, more of an ask rather than a demand. When you talk about user generated revenue and reader generated revenue, I think paywalls and membership. Paywall is a forced thing. Membership empowers readers to get involved.” 

Defining your membership value proposition will help you turn ideas like these into an experience that offers value to your members. It offers a blueprint for what your membership program should accomplish for them and what you need to build to get there.

It is the first step in making a pitch to audience members to join your membership program or participate in your journalism through memberful routines. 

A member-driven newsroom needs to be able to tell a compelling, accurate story about its mission. This story makes it easy for audience members to understand how your work improves the world they live in and how they can play a role by supporting you, whether that’s with their time, ideas, expertise, connections, or money. All of this begins with defining your newsroom’s value proposition, then your membership value proposition.

Though the idea of a “value proposition” may be new to some newsrooms, there are analogues in different news ecosystems across the world. In Argentina, the “reading contract” is a tacit agreement between a news organization and its audience.
 
The agreement is “proposed” by the news organization with its content, design, and tone, and the audience “accepts” it by reading and supporting their work. Successful reading contracts find the match between their editorial mission and readers’ expectations, motivations, and interests – and they evolve as expectations, motivations, and interests change.

MPP has found that a successful membership program usually grows out of something deeper and prior: a reading contract that has already started to “bind” audience members to journalism even before any request is made to become a member.

This section will help establish the role a value proposition plays in making the case for membership, and walk you through how to identify your value proposition. 

What is our newsroom value proposition?

If you are launching a membership program, you’ll need to have at least two value propositions: one for your newsroom itself, and one for the membership program. 

Your newsroom value proposition guides your organization’s overall strategy and direction, forcing your newsroom to focus on what it does well. It articulates what your newsroom exists to do, and why you are the one who does it best. For most news organizations, your newsroom value proposition and your overall organizational value proposition will be the same. (If your organization creates significant value from services other than journalism, your organizational value proposition may be broader than your newsroom value proposition.)

A membership value proposition builds on your newsroom value proposition, articulating why an audience member should go beyond just consuming your journalism and become an active participant and supporter of it.

So what is a newsroom value proposition? A newsroom value proposition is a statement of how your newsroom serves a particular audience. It connects what your audience needs to what your newsroom creates. 

A strong newsroom value proposition is understood by everyone on your team and incorporated into all parts of a news organization. You will hear iterations of it repeated back to you by audience members. It will show up in everything you do, from the editorial products you offer to how and who you hire.

A strong newsroom value proposition will help you: 

  • Define what you stand for consistently and clearly
  • Decide what not to do when you can’t do it all
  • Articulate why people should choose you
  • Distinguish yourself from competitors and collaborators
  • Develop a brand strategy
  • Hire the right people

Audience research should help inform your value proposition, but you won’t really know if you’ve gotten your value proposition right until you launch a product or service and test your assumptions with your audience members. It’s that process of testing and iterating against your value proposition which will help you refine your product or service over time.

Then, when you launch a membership program there is a specific value proposition to figure out: how the experience of membership offers value to members. It gives them a reason to join, and gives them a clear picture of what they’re opting into.

With most newsrooms launching audience revenue efforts, whether subscription, membership, or donations, identifying your membership value proposition will help you:

  • Pitch membership 
  • Develop a membership brand strategy 
  • Identify membership benefits and experiences that align with your mission

The rest of this section will focus on how to identify your membership value proposition. MPP assumes your newsroom has already refined your newsroom value proposition, but if you haven’t, the process we outline can largely be used for either, and you should articulate the newsroom value proposition first. 

What makes a strong newsroom value proposition?

Value propositions can be phrased in different ways. MPP’s preferred format for a value proposition is based on the Value Proposition ad-libs template by Strategyzer:

Designed by Jessica Phan. Content by Strategyzer.

These elements – what you make or do (products/services), who you serve (user segments), your user’s motivations (user jobs to be done), and how it works (how you reduce pain and enable gain) – are what you need to figure out in order to create a value proposition.

The value proposition is not necessarily something you’ll ever publish. But it will become your internal North Star for everything from how and when you invite audience participation to how you brand your membership program. 

Strategyzer also offers a manual and instructional video for using their Value Proposition Canvas, but MPP prefers the ad-lib template, which is a bit simpler. 

Strategyzer Ad-Lib Template
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Membership Puzzle Project has studied its founding partner De Correspondent closely to understand how it succeeded at building a sustainable, robust member-driven newsroom and what lessons we can learn from their success. 

If De Correspondent had used the Strategyzer model to write their value proposition, it might look something like this: “Our journalism helps Dutch readers who want an antidote to the daily news grind by eschewing hot takes and by doing deeply researched reporting that articulates not just the problem, but what can be done about it.” 

That value proposition – an antidote to the daily news grind – shows up not just in the way they produce their journalism, but their calm visual design, which gives readers space to focus without constant demands on their attention (an example of how the value proposition carries over into branding and design).

One thing is clear: their value proposition resonates, and it has a strong overlap with the core principles that De Correspondent staff have defined for themselves. One of their members told our researchers, “You get the feeling they really looked into it.” To learn more about De Correspondent’s value proposition, check out “What members say about why they supported De Correspondent.” 

How do we identify our membership value proposition?

A membership value proposition articulates how you intend to create value for your members. Membership is a social contract between a news organization and its members in which members give not just their money, but their time, energy, expertise, and connections to support a cause that they believe in. For this reason, a membership value proposition should do more than satisfy individual needs with a bevy of benefits. It should make the case that becoming a member of your organization is a way to fix something in the world that feels broken. 

Start with what you already know 

If you use the Strategyzer ad-lib template to figure out your membership value proposition, two things will be easy to define: (1) what you make or do (your product or service) and (2) who you serve. 

What you make or do is your membership program. Your membership value proposition should apply to your membership program as a whole. At this stage, do not worry about specific benefits such as access to content or VIP events. Those are features of the program.

Who you serve is your most loyal audience members. MPP’s research into membership supports what others in the audience revenue space have found: it is the audience members who are the most engaged and who have a habit of turning to you regularly that are the most likely to become members and/or participate in your journalism. Thus, your membership program serves your most loyal audience. 

If you want to get more specific about how you define loyalty at this stage, you can – for example, you could define the target user as daily newsletter subscribers who open 80 percent of the time. Breaking down your loyal audience by behaviors (like open rates) or demographics (like neighborhood) can help you eventually refine your membership benefits and marketing, but it’s not essential at this stage.

Articulate your special capabilities 

Because membership sits at the intersection of your newsroom’s special capabilities and your loyal audience members’ motivations and needs, the next step is to isolate what your newsroom is really good at. These special capabilities should tie back to your newsroom value proposition. 

Understanding what you’re good at and what is distinctive about the work you do will help you define the unique ways that you can reduce potential members’ pains and increase their gains.

Design by Jessica Phan. Content from Strategyzer.

You might already know this if you have a newsroom value proposition. If you don’t, MPP suggests a simple “First, Best, Only” exercise.

Bring all your membership-concerned stakeholders together, and invite each person to complete the following sentences.

  • We are the first ones to…
  • We are the only ones who…
  • We are the best at… 

We recommend each participant write each answer on a separate post-it note. Once everyone is done, you can present your answers. Synthesize the answers by clustering those that are similar. Those that show up multiple times across all the participants are a starting point for defining your special capabilities. 

Save these in a list you can come back to. They will help you craft the specifics of your membership program later on. Now you can turn to understanding your audience. 

Discover your potential members’ motivations and needs 

Membership value propositions connect your special capabilities with your loyal readers’ motivations. In the Strategyzer model, these are the pains they’re trying to reduce and the gains they’re trying to increase.

This step is about discovering what would motivate your most loyal audience members to become supporters. (If you’re using this process to craft your newsroom value proposition, you can start with a wider group: your target audience. Some of them will become members, and some will not.)

Understanding your potential members’ motivation for membership is what you need to discover. By motivation, MPP means underlying needs, desires, and aspirations – not swag. When you have a solid value proposition, you can proceed to designing membership benefits.

MPP has done extensive research to help newsrooms understand loyal readers’ motivations for membership. Here are some common reasons loyal audience members join news organizations as members:

  • A sense of affiliation or belonging
  • Feeling my concerns are heard by the organization 
  • Offering the world something that I think should exist
  • Advocacy for important issues on my behalf 
  • A sense of uniqueness
  • Being connected to other like-minded people
  • Being connected to other like-minded organizations
  • Ease of use

There may be other reasons unique to your community. While these tend to capture the motivations of supporters of open-access newsrooms, if your loyal audience members are motivated by exclusivity and access, you may find that you can build a straightforward value proposition on those motivations alone. See, for example, how The Plug’s exclusivity-based value proposition is reflected in its membership page. You can add your hypotheses to this list, and see if they resonate in the responses. 

You’ll likely need to conduct a survey or focus group to gather this information. MPP recommends asking your readers to identify the top reasons they would join and to leave space for them to write in any not captured in the list.

The research team offers detailed guidance on choosing between surveys and focus groups, as well as how to survey your audience members about their values in order to design your membership program. Jump to “Conducting audience research” for that.

Once you have their responses, look for patterns: what is the most common motivation? What is the least? 

The other way to approach understanding why a reader would choose membership is to think in terms of jobs to be done. This idea comes from Clayton Christensen’s theory of innovation. Instead of focusing on the attributes of a product (like whether members want a tote bag or a t-shirt), this framework focuses on what unfulfilled need or desire a customer has which the product helps to solve: the job that the product does.

By applying the jobs to be done framework to your own membership strategy, you’ll likely realize that your organization isn’t just competing with other news organizations. You’re competing for time and attention with social media, busy calendars, and even phone calls. The jobs to be done framework offers a way to process and act upon this knowledge.

For example, Krautreporter in Germany prides itself on its engagement-focused approach to journalism that emphasizes context, not breaking news. But as it interviewed members in late 2019 and examined its metrics, the team learned that members often canceled their membership because they didn’t have enough time to engage with their coverage. Krautreporter described this as “time expensive.”

So Krautreporter set out to make it easier for its members to fit the site into their lives. It reworked its morning newsletter to feature aggregated major news headlines along with Krautreporter’s more in-depth reporting so readers can get both in one place. The organization is also thinking about grouping stories by length, and continuing to look into developing more finite news experiences so readers can feel like they’ve caught up to the news.

All of the membership motivations listed above are “jobs to be done” that your membership program could help your readers do. Human-centered design practices often use the “jobs to done” idea as part of understanding user needs and motivations. It can be a potent frame for newsrooms because it forces you to focus on what you are doing for audience members, rather than what you are publishing as journalists.

Determining how it works

The final step is addressing how your membership program addresses your loyal audience members’ needs and motivations and helps them make progress on their jobs to be done. 

The “how it works” part of a value proposition is the point of overlap between what your newsroom does distinctively well and what motivates your loyal readers. It takes you one step closer to designing program features, particularly benefits.

You still don’t need to design the details of your membership program yet, but you do need to decide on some general ways that you will address motivations for membership. The “how it works” part of a value proposition is seemingly simple but vitally important because it proposes how membership meets a user’s need in a way that you can actually test and learn from over time. 

In MPP’s research on how newsrooms can create value for members, MPP found the following set of practices:

  • Ability to interact with reporters
  • Exclusive access
  • Events/opportunities to connect online
  • Merchandise/physical branded goods
  • A good user experience, such as easy site navigability  

For example, if your membership value proposition is “Our membership program helps our loyal readers feel a sense of belonging by connecting them directly with reporters working on issues that matter to them,” you’ll be able to test this by offering opportunities for audience members to connect with the reporters. Did your members take advantage of connecting with reporters? Did it motivate audience members to join? You could also survey them to find out whether it increased their sense of belonging.

For materials that can help you survey potential members and construct a membership value proposition, see the Membership Value Proposition worksheet.

Membership Value Proposition Worksheet
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As you match up reader motivations with membership features that address those needs, keep in mind the following principles:

Focus on meeting your readers’ needs with what you do well. Go back to your list of special capabilities. Extending what you already do well to membership will help you integrate members and memberful routines more easily into your newsroom. It will also make your membership experience feel continuous with your journalism. It will also, quite simply, be easier to deliver than something beyond your capabilities. 

Avoid journalism jargon and buzzwords. Steer clear of statements based on the premise that journalism is intrinsically valuable, as well as journalism buzzwords (such as “participatory journalism,” “save democracy,” or “information needs”). 

Balance meeting individual needs and shared purpose needs. People are motivated both by values they hold and by rewards. Your membership value proposition will draw on value motivations when you appeal to a higher purpose (“support a free press”). Your membership value proposition will draw on rewards when you articulate how your program will fulfill that motivation (“gain access to exclusive content”).  MPP has found that powerful membership-driven organizations use their value proposition to draw on both values and rewards.

Here is what is special about how membership value propositions work: successful membership programs are about meeting more than individual passions and motivations. In research into member-driven organizations beyond news, MPP found that the most inspiring and sustainable membership-driven organizations connect individuals to a shared larger purpose. They frame membership as a way to restore what feels broken in the world. They offer membership in their organization as credible grounds for optimism. And they give members a way to feel like they are part of the solution. 

It’s also important to understand what motivations and needs unite your readers. The Southeast Asian publication New Naratif publishes across many countries and many languages, meaning they can’t appeal to a sense of place-based sense of affiliation or belonging. Instead, they appeal to readers’ concerns about a free press and democracy, both of which are under threat across the region.

On their “About” page they write: “A common refrain heard across Southeast Asia is the idea that ordinary citizens cannot make a difference: “What can I do?”. New Naratif was founded in 2017 as a response. We build a better Southeast Asia by empowering Southeast Asians with the knowledge and skills they need to address our shared challenges and take collective action.” That’s a value proposition. 

What does a membership value proposition look like in local news?

If the community you serve is defined in part by a place, as is usually the case for local news organizations, you cannot stop at offering distinctive content and opportunities to participate. You need to lean into the special qualities of that place and position membership in your organization as one way to make that community a better place for everyone who lives there.

You should use the words “we,” “our,” and “us” to further position yourself as part of the community you’re serving, rather than holding it at arm’s length. 

A sense of place is one of the most powerful sources of affiliation and belonging that people can resonate with. When you draw on the distinctiveness of a place to help you create value in your membership program, you help meet your readers’ needs for affiliation and belonging. 

Describing its value proposition at a Solutions Journalism Network revenue summit in October 2019, the Richland Source in Mansfield, Ohio said, “Our community deserves to hear the whole story. We uncover through our journalism effective responses to problems that hold us back from our true potential. In supporting us, you help us guide our community to a better future.”

Here is how that shows up in their mission statement, and their membership value proposition. Their stance on crime reporting is a strong example of a way that their work reduces a pain for audience members. 

Courtesy of the Richland Source
Courtesy of the Richland Source

In nearby Akron, Ohio, audience-owned cooperative The Devil Strip goes further. In a Medium post, publisher Chris Horne introduces the Devil Strip’s eight values, including:

Our work is for Akron. This is our reason for existing, not merely our editorial angle for stories. We are advocates for the city of Akron and allies to its people, so we may be cheerleaders, but that won’t keep us from challenging the city’s flaws. What’s the point of being part of the community if we can’t help make it a better place for human beings to live?

Our work should be done with Akron. We would rather build trust through cooperation and collaboration than authority. Our place in the community is alongside it, not the outside looking in or trying to stand above it looking down.

We care about you, not just your eyeballs. Sometimes, we love a good fight with the status quo, but conflict and antagonism will never be a way of life for us, especially not to boost clicks, views, comments, shares and “eyeballs”. We are a watchdog to hold our leaders accountable, not to keep the neighbors up all night with our barking.

Love our neighbors. Our stories humanize the people in our city. We not only want to counter sensationalized and alarmist reporting but to eventually render it obsolete. We advocate for justice, freedom and equality because those qualities make this city, and our lives, better.

These values statements hit all the notes of Strategyzer’s value proposition framework, and lay the foundation for the Devil Strip’s pitch to Akronites to become member-owners of the co-op:

Courtesy of the Devil Strip

The clearer you are on who you serve and the better you know them, the easier it is to define your membership value proposition. And with a clearly defined audience and value proposition, it becomes easier to speak to your community in critical moments. This was the case in the spring and summer of 2020 for WURD Radio in Philadelphia.

“So many people rely on us for socialization. With people in lock down, I knew that people were uncertain. I knew having the consistency of voices that people trust, that would matter a lot. …We had this real focus on providing credible medical information. Lots of our listeners are older, they are economically disadvantaged, they have a lot of pre existing health challenges. It was the vulnerable population for COVID,” explains President Sara Lomax-Reese.

The combination of the impact of COVID-19 on the Black community and the wave of racial justice protests amid the pandemic helped crystallize for many listeners why they needed WURD. Lomax-Reese was able to build on her station’s service to their community to craft a powerful appeal for support. She wrote a personal essay during their summer membership campaign which articulated what WURD would do to keep serving the community, and why the station needed their listeners’ support.

How do value propositions work in crowdfunding?

It is becoming more common for startups to launch by crowdfunding, then transition those crowdfund supporters into members after they begin publishing. 

The Correspondent, the global English-language publication which raised $2.6 million in 2018, is perhaps the best known example of this, but organizations like De Correspondent in The Netherlands and Krautreporter in Germany helped pave the way. In Colombia, La Silla Vacia is about to transition to membership after a couple successful crowdfunding campaigns. (Disclosure: Membership Puzzle Project was closely involved in The Correspondent’s campaign as a research partner.) 

Making the transition from crowdfunding to membership is incredibly challenging, and many newsrooms MPP studied lost a significant percentage of their crowdfunding supporters when the first renewal came around.

The transition from crowdfunding to membership is challenging for two reasons that connect directly to the newsroom’s value proposition:

  • Crowdfunding value propositions generally emphasize what a newsroom is not. Crowdfunding value propositions focus on one-time events (i.e. a launch) and usually emphasize how a newsroom is different from the competition. Membership value propositions are about the value of ongoing support and the value of a membership experience. This disconnect can be confusing to crowdfunding supporters who are suddenly asked to become members.
  • Crowdfunding value propositions are aspirational, whereas strong membership value propositions are backed up by a track record of distinctive coverage. When you don’t have a strong body of published work to build a membership program with, your audience members can interpret your value proposition to suit their own motivations. This can set you up for a mismatch of expectations. 

These challenges played a significant role for Krautreporter, which launched with a crowdfunding campaign in 2013, and lost about half of its 17,000 crowdfunding supporters when it was time for renewals.

Co-founder Sebastian Esser told MPP, “People weren’t really sure what we were. They could tell we were different, but before us telling them and being very explicit about this is what we do and this is what you get, they were a little bit confused. Just putting our stories out there in the different formats didn’t explain what we do.”

They realized that after publishing for more than a year, they needed a new value proposition – one that made clear how central members were to their work. 

A Google translation of Krautreporter’s value proposition (Courtesy of Krautreporter)

If you are planning to launch a newsroom and a crowdfunding-to-membership program at the same time, be aware that you are in for a steep learning curve in which you’ll have to test and iterate on your value proposition frequently to avoid that drop-off at the end of the first year.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be sure that the audience research which supports your newsroom value proposition is rigorous. You want to be sure you have evidence to support your ideas of what potential members will value.
  • Be able to solidly meet at least one or two of your early supporters’ needs. Quickly establishing trust and sustained attention amongst your crowdfunding supporters will accelerate their transformation into loyal readers.
  • Survey crowdfunding supporters soon after your launch. You need to evaluate how much of a gap there is between what audience members expected and what they have experienced since you launched. Do not wait to do this until the time for renewals is coming up. 

When you survey crowdfund supporters after launch, you should ask them questions such as: 

  • Why did you contribute to the crowdfunding campaign? 
  • How closely does our work reflect what you expected when you contributed to the crowdfunding campaign?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend [newsroom] to a friend or colleague?
  • How likely are you to renew your support at the end of the year?

Their answers will give you an early sense of how likely they are to renew their support when it’s time for them to do so, and give you time to address any gaps in their expectations and what you delivered.

 

How Krautreporter approaches retention after losing half its members

In its second year, Krautreporter implemented a paywall, prioritized annual recurring payments, and allowed sharing.

Newsrooms which start up with foundation funding can face similar challenges re-orienting their value propositions to serve members, rather than funders. For foundation-supported newsrooms that want to transition to a membership model, the research team recommends engaging in robust audience research to understand what value its audience members are drawing from its coverage before launching a membership program. For more on how a group of single-topic newsrooms took on this challenge, see the work of the Single Subject News Project.

At the time that this was published, The Correspondent’s crowdfunding contributors were due for renewal. Because no one knows yet what percentage of their crowdfunding contributors will stay, the research team did not study them in depth. The decision to base its headquarters in Amsterdam angered some supporters and MPP will know more about how that affects their retention in fall 2020.