How to Know If We're Ready For Membership

Many mission-driven, cash-strapped newsrooms enthusiastically embrace the concept of membership and rush to launch, skipping many of the steps that allow for membership to become a true organizational commitment and source of financial sustainability. 

Those organizations soon realize that a membership strategy requires much more than enthusiasm about working with audience members and a payment processor. It requires a longterm investment in building relationships, getting to know your audience, and developing the capacity to flex. Once you have that, the mechanics of designing and launching membership and implementing memberful routines will be comparatively simple. 

This section is intended to be a reality check on whether your organization is ready to commit to membership. If you can say “yes” or offer a path to “yes” to the following questions, it might be the right time for you to design and launch a membership program. If you cannot, it’s time to take the foot off the gas. 

These nine questions are an amalgamation of the ones that Membership Puzzle Project, News Revenue Hub, and the Facebook Membership Accelerator challenge organizations with when they say they want to launch a membership program. A lot of experience lies behind them.

If you need some guidance identifying what it will take to get to “yes” on these nine questions, use this worksheet with your team to identify your gaps and what steps you’ll take to close them. 

“Are You Ready for Membership?” Worksheet
Download

Do we have loyal audience members?

The number one question you should ask before you pursue any audience revenue strategy, whether membership, subscription, or donations, is whether you have a loyal audience. Attention and habit have to combine to create loyalty. You have to be producing experiences worthy of your audience’s attention, regularly enough that they can build a habit around it. Those behaviors become the context for participation – monetary and otherwise.

There are different ways of measuring this; repeat site visitors and newsletter open rates are two popular measures.  No matter how you measure it, an audience that is turning to your organization and engaging with you regularly is a precondition for asking people to become members. For more on how to assess the loyalty of your audience members and where to find those metrics, jump to “Developing membership metrics.” 

A loyal audience won’t necessarily be a paying audience, but the more often you have the attention of your readers or listeners, the more often you can ask for their participation and support. 

Sebastian Esser, founder of member-driven newsroom Krautreporter and now the CEO of membership platform Steady, calls it “liberating” to realize that a big chunk of your audience will never become members and that you can focus just on those who might.

He says that if at least 10 percent or more of site visitors come to you three times or more over a 30-day period, that signals a tight relationship. He also encourages news organizations considering membership to look at the number of people who have filled out a survey, replied to an email, or engaged in some other way. Esser discourages news organizations from looking at their reach or their social media engagement. Neither is correlated with willingness to pay among Steady’s clients.

If you don’t have a loyal audience yet, the next question is whether you know how to build one.

Many people use the audience funnel to think about this, which can be a helpful starting point for organizations who are new to audience development. Better News offers an excellent primer. But the membership journey is often not linear. In thicker membership models, the number of ways a person contributes might actually expand after they become a paying member. They might also become a volunteer, a moderator, a product tester, or contributor, which is why MPP prefers a flipped funnel, like below.

Illustration by Jessica Phan

MPP thinks Digital Marketer’s “Customer Value Journey” is another accurate schema because it shows that many audience members will zigzag through these stages based on their motivations, needs, and availability over time.

Content provided by Digital Marketer

The key here is to know what motivates your biggest fans and how to ask them for support. This will require a mix of intentional audience research (Jump to “Conducting audience research”), careful attention to what the data on your audience tells you about their enthusiasm for what you do (Jump to “Developing membership metrics”), and digital marketing know-how to act on that knowledge (Jump to “Growing our membership”).

If you do not yet have a loyal audience, then the Membership Puzzle Project suggests the Tow Center Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement.

Are we comfortable offering participation and transparency?

Membership Puzzle Project knows from talking to hundreds of members of news organizations around the world that members expect the newsrooms they support to offer transparency and opportunities to meaningfully participate. This is a key point of differentiation between membership and subscription.

Instead of presenting as a disembodied institution, member-driven newsrooms should show supporters who they are, including what they’re currently working on, how people can contribute to it, and where they’re coming from. They want to know how supporters’ money and other sources of revenue are spent. They want opportunities to contribute that match their passion and expertise, or at least to see that those opportunities exist. Transparency also entails being open about mistakes that you make, challenges you face, and when you need help.

But it also means being clear with members about the limits of their involvement. Members have to know that they can’t act like censors, they don’t get to dictate how the story comes out, and not all their suggestions will be adopted. 

Having members does not mean you have to offer participation opportunities at every stage of your work. Newsrooms that succeed at implementing a membership strategy find the intersection point between their newsroom’s needs and the motivations of audience members to contribute. That might be just one or two things. But adopting an ethos of transparency and audience participation often requires not just workflow change but deep culture change in the way a newsroom works. Jump to “Developing memberful routines” for advice on developing that capacity.

Can we explain membership to our audience members?

If you’re launching membership from scratch, you will need to educate your readers and potential supporters on “why membership” and “why now.” Get out in front of people. Explain your membership strategy to them as simply as possible, and take note of what things they find confusing or ask a lot of questions about.

Honolulu Civil Beat’s Ben Nishimoto told Membership Puzzle Project that their transition from a for-profit subscription model to a nonprofit membership model required significant public education.  

“People have a hard time understanding why we’re different from the local for-profit newspaper. Most have always seen journalism as a product and not as a service, and it’s hard to drive that messaging when we’re the only local nonprofit media.” 

 

How Honolulu Civil Beat rebranded itself to be “friendlier”

Positioning itself as a disruptive outsider was not a good fit for an organization about to launch membership.

Making this case comes down to your value proposition. If you can’t succinctly, clearly explain what your organization stands for and what role audience members play in your impact and sustainability, you will struggle to make a compelling appeal to audience members to join or participate. You can’t just do professional-quality journalism. You have to serve a demonstrable public interest, and answer a community need. (Jump to “Discovering our value proposition” for advice on articulating that.) Your launch is a powerful moment to tell that story. (Jump to “How do we tell a good launch story?“)

In some countries, the concept of paying for news is still new, and you’ll have to explain not just why your journalism is worth paying for, but why journalism is something people should pay for at all. Before committing significant resources to a membership program, you might test people’s willingness to support your work with a crowdfunding campaign. This is a particularly common tactic among member-driven newsrooms in Latin America, such as Mutante and La Silla Vacia, both in Colombia.

Do we have audiences willing to pay for things online?

Membership in news is right now primarily a digital product, and most of the advice in this Guide is geared for digitally-focused membership programs. 

You should always offer an analog payment option so that you don’t risk excluding those who don’t use credit cards or are unbanked. But if you can’t get most of your members to pay for their membership online with a credit card that can be put on file for future charges, running a membership program will be a manual, highly time consuming process – and you should proceed with caution. This question can be answered through market research.

Do we have the skills required to support membership?

Membership is a complicated intervention because it touches every part of an organization and requires editorial, analytics, community management, and marketing skills. That means that unless you’re a one-person team, several people will own some part of the membership effort.  Still, membership can be managed on a one-person team, as WTF Just Happened Today in the U.S. illustrates.

Thinking about membership as either a “business side” or an “editorial side” effort will make growing a robust membership program more difficult, particularly because the many skills required might be spread across different roles. 

That said, it helps for designing and launching a membership program to have a designated membership point person. In 2019, Digiday called the “membership editor” the latest key newsroom job, and MPP agrees. Jump to “Staffing our membership strategy” for help figuring out what that role should look like in your newsroom.

Do we know how to test our ideas and iterate?

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all formula for membership. The research team wishes it could say “charge x, hire y membership-responsible staff, partner with these types of publishers for z stories annually, then watch the audience collaboration opportunities and money come in.” 

But there are too many variations in news organizations and the communities they serve to offer a single equation. Membership takes time, experimentation, and iteration to get right – and even the “right” answer will change over time. The organizational capacity to test, learn, and iterate in repeated cycles is crucial for adopting and growing a membership program and memberful routines.

The organizational capacity to test and iterate can grow from creating a “product mindset,” learning to seek out and interpret audience research, and creating new ways to engage with audience members. Even a little bit of flex at the start – some small organizational experience with testing and learning you can point to as successful – will massively help your nascent membership efforts. This is why we say the basic unit of membership practice is the “try.” Make an educated guess about what will work with members. See what happens. Revise if you need to, or quit if it’s not working. The trick is not to invest too much in any one try until you know you have something. Jump to “Adopting a product mindset” for more on building this capacity.

 

How The Narwhal adopted a test-and-learn mindset

The Narwhal has developed a rhythm of running small tests to optimize every stage of its audience funnel.

Can we think like digital marketers?

To grow a successful membership program, you’ll have to become a savvy digital marketer. A membership program is an e-commerce business, too, with the many marketing, payment, and security challenges that entails. Don’t underestimate the value of a frictionless payment experience for your prospective members. The experience a user has at your site says a lot about you. Jump to “What does a good payment checkout process look like?” for more on that.

You will also need to nerd out on pricing and marketing strategies, and you can’t be shy about reminding people your program exists. For news organizations accustomed to remaining aloof from their readers, marketing themselves and asking readers for support early and often can feel uncomfortable. 

But don’t underestimate how busy and distracted people are, even among your most loyal readers. It might feel like “everybody knows” you have a membership program because you’re in the middle of it all, but many of your readers likely don’t. Jump to “Growing our membership” for advice on building your marketing strategy.

 

How Daily Maverick developed a membership marketing roadmap

It begins with recording the conversion rates of every piece of marketing outreach at the weekly Maverick Insider meeting.

Can our tech stack support membership?

It’s important to ensure that you have the technical tools and workflows in place to manage member data. At the very least, you will need a customer relationship management system (CRM), audience analytics software, a payment processor, and an email service provider (ESP), and they will all need to speak to each other via an integration or API.

Membership is still a relatively new concept in the journalism industry, and there is no out-of-the-box solution or suite of tools that perfectly fits each newsroom. Romania’s DoR spent a year trying to find their perfect tech stack, and they’re still looking for it. But even though the perfect membership tech stack doesn’t exist yet, there are plenty of good content, payment, analytics, and marketing tools available. Being able to knit them together in a smart way will build a strong foundation for your membership program. Jump to “Building our membership tech stack.

 

What WTFJHT learned from a bad membership tech choice

WTFJHT founder Matt Kiser is on his fourth payment processor since launching in 2017.

Have we set engagement and revenue goals?

Launching, running, and growing a membership program requires ongoing investment of staff time and money. To assess whether it’s worthwhile, you will need to set engagement, growth, and revenue goals for your program. At what point will you break even, not just in actual money spent, but factoring in the cost of your staff time as well? How will you know if membership is “working” for you?

Membership brings in only a fraction of total revenue for many of the organizations MPP has studied, particularly in the first year or two. Breakout membership successes like the Guardian and De Correspondent are outliers, and they made major financial and resource investments to scale their programs. You need to have realistic membership growth, revenue, and cost projections.

If you need guidance on setting objectives for your membership program, jump to “Developing membership metrics.” MPP walks you through a step-by-step process for developing realistic revenue projections and what costs to take into account in “Making the business case for membership.

When Chalkbeat in the U.S. decided to launch a membership program, they spent two months answering a fundamental question: What does membership success look and feel like for us, and how can we measure it? They shared that process with MPP in this case study.

 

How Chalkbeat defined and measured membership success

They started with four hypotheses about what implementing membership could do for Chalkbeat.