Staffing a Membership Strategy

Who in your organization is going to do all the work recommended by this handbook? What are the human resources needed to get membership off the ground, and sustain it successfully?

There are no simple answers to these questions. There are dozens of variations on membership-connected job titles, from membership manager to director of development to audience growth specialist.  

There are also variations in where membership sits within an organization. In some organizations it’s an executive-level position, while in others managing membership is just one of many tasks handed to someone with a broader title, such as engagement editor. 

Membership-connected roles can sit in editorial, audience growth and engagement, or revenue. Where these roles sit has implications for your membership strategy as a whole. A role reporting into revenue is likely to have a fundraising focus, while a role reporting to editorial will be more concerned with engagement. 

Membership responsibilities can also be diffused throughout an organization. MPP believes that if your organization is pursuing a thick membership model, membership should touch multiple parts of a news organization and can’t be fully contained to one role, or even one department. 

In recognition of this variety, MPP refers to the newsroom employees who work on membership as membership-concerned staff. Tow’s Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement defines this as: “Professionals who focus some or all of their job tasks around talking with and working with members and other supporters… including copywriters, community managers, web developers, fundraisers, project and program managers, designers, and user researchers.”

Whatever version of membership you aspire to, MPP recognizes that hiring for any kind of extra capacity is often a non-starter for small newsrooms. For single-person news operations, which are increasingly common, staffing for membership can be extremely difficult.

All of this makes staffing membership a major stumbling block for any member-driven newsroom. 

Because staffing can be a challenge, this section begins with a focus on membership skills. It has suggestions for which skills are critical for a member-driven newsroom, and which are nice-to-have. It also differentiates between which skills (and tasks) are needed to manage your membership program, and which are needed to manage your memberful routines. This section also offers advice on deciding how much time your newsroom should dedicate to each of these categories.

Once you’ve identified the skills you need, you can think about what roles you need and where your membership-concerned staff should sit in the organization. By the end of this section, you may find that you don’t need new people, just new ways of working with the people you already have. If you realize that you do need to hire someone after all, starting from skills rather than roles will help you write a job description that more accurately captures your newsroom’s needs.

In this section, MPP will provide:

• A skills checklist for the set-up and management of a membership operation
• A framework of ongoing and periodic tasks for managing membership work
• Job descriptions for membership roles in practice
• Troubleshooting advice to help you tackle common problems in staffing membership

What skills do we need to staff membership?

If you’re starting a membership program, hiring new people does not need to be your first move. The research team encourages you to think in terms of skills first, then roles, then organizational charts (MPP has encouraged this kind of “skills-first” thinking before, in Federica Cherubini’s guide to making data-informed membership decisions). If you already have the necessary skills in your newsroom, you might be able to meet your membership needs by building an interdisciplinary membership team instead.

Below you’ll find a checklist of skills MPP recommends for building and sustaining a membership program.  The list is divided into four categories: revenue, marketing and sales; research, data, and analytics; engagement; and editorial.

The worksheet below further breaks them down by critical, important, and nice-to-have, meaning that you should only worry about these if you have extra budget and/or staff time.

You can use this checklist to carry out a skills audit and identify what you already have available in your organization. Not all of these skills will be necessary until your membership program reaches a certain size. When it does reach a certain size, it might be worth exploring automation of some of these tasks.

Membership Skills Checklist
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Revenue, Marketing, and Sales

  • Growth strategy
    • Design and execute membership drives, experiment with new formats to attract members, set revenue and membership growth goals
  • Digital marketing practices & techniques
    • Email marketing, social media marketing, content partnerships
  • E-commerce management & customer service
    • Benefits fulfillment, credit card processing, chasing lapsed members, processing cancellations and refunds
  • Experience with database management
    • Develop and maintain member databases and mailing lists
  • Business development
    • Business modeling: Business model generation, building revenue and cost projections, checking revenue and cost assumptions
  • Branding
    • Establish brand strategy, identity, and messaging 
  • PR and communications strategy
    • Secure other media coverage of your best work

Research, Data, and Analytics

  • Experience with analytics/metrics measurement
    • Track key performance metrics, identify data trends, create metrics reports, assess campaign successes and failures, identify best practices accordingly, report back to stakeholders
  • Product development and testing
    • Audience research: Designing and administering surveys and focus groups, interpreting audience data for audience segments and audience needs
    • A test-and-learn mindset: data-led decision making, A/B testing, user testing

Engagement

  • Community management
    • Respond to member queries, solicit member input, organize member surveys, moderate member discussion
  • Newsletter strategy
    • Design newsletter products, write and format emails, evaluate newsletter performance (*If newsletters are not a core component of your editorial and audience development strategy, then this is not a critical skill)
  • Social media strategy
    • Use social media platforms to engage existing members and reach new audiences
  • Comfortable being the face/voice of the organization
    • Ability to command the room, do deep listening, and facilitate conversation
    • Vulnerability; willingness to own up to mistakes
  • Events planning/organizing
    • Planning flow of activities, sourcing speakers, coordinating venues
  • Collaborative/cooperative decision-making experience
    • Organizing consultations, polls, and votes

Editorial

This checklist is specifically focused on membership-concerned editorial activities, not core activities. 

  • Excellent written communication
    • Writing copy for newsletters, social, and onsite member appeals
  • Able to effectively communicate [external]:
    • Organization’s mission
    • The impact of membership/what it means to be member-supported
    • Engagement initiatives (crowdsourcing, crafting callouts, drawing knowledge from members, inviting participation) 
    • The results of those initiatives (including key decisions)
  • Able to effectively communicate [internal]:
    • With editorial about revenue activities/campaigns
    • With editorial about member feedback
    • Analytics information

Once you have completed the checklist, consider:

Which critical and important skills are you missing? Could you develop these within your existing team, or do you need to hire for them? If the skills gap is contained enough, you might be able to hire a short-term consultant or outsource the work.

Where in your organization do the majority of the critical skills reside? In other words, where does the reporting line end? For the skills you already have on your team, take a look at where in the organization they are staffed. If most of them are concentrated on the revenue side, MPP recommends revisiting the question of whether you are trying to launch a thick or thin membership model. (Jump to “Defining membership”)

With a thin membership model, a revenue-side concentration focused on membership program management may work, although the research team would still recommend staffing community management with a strong customer service focus. If your newsroom plans to develop a thick membership model, consider how you could fill the gaps in the critical skills in engagement and editorial. These are the skills you will need to staff to manage memberful routines. 

If you’re a newsroom that does not have a membership program but does want to develop memberful routines, a focus on the critical and important skills in the engagement and editorial sections of the checklist can help build a robust framework to support these routines, without the skills needed for membership program management and/or growth. 

For more on the skills needed to staff membership, see:

What meetings can facilitate membership efforts?

MPP has found that you often don’t need new roles to staff your membership program, at least early on. Sometimes, you don’t even require new skills. But you might need new meetings to bring together existing staff with relevant skills from across your organization. 

Look at where your critical membership skills exist across your organization – editorial, product, and audience growth, for example – and bring these people together on a regular basis to create your membership team. 

The decision as to whether you develop an interdisciplinary but ad-hoc membership team or a full-time membership department will be largely dependent on your newsroom’s size and resources. But the way your newsroom approaches membership also plays a role. If you see membership as a discipline, for example – a vital engagement method, but perhaps not integral to your business model – an ad hoc team may make sense. If membership is or will become part of your engagement and revenue lifeblood, then developing a dedicated staff may be the right route for you.

Here are some examples of how newsrooms have used meetings to facilitate their membership efforts.

Chalkbeat in the U.S. has been doing this with their “AudSquad” for the last year. Senior Marketing Manager Kary Perez said in an ideal world Chalkbeat would have a dedicated audience development team, but without this in place, the AudSquad fulfills this role. Once a week it brings together staff from across the organization to consider audience growth and development questions such as: How do we create new products that teachers/parents would need to build a new relationship? How do we have a meaningful relationship with members? How can we move a casual reader through the membership funnel? 

 

How Chalkbeat built its cross-functional AudSquad

You might not need to hire new people to support your membership strategy. You might just need a new squad.

The Bristol Cable in the UK organizes strategy areas using a “circular” model to bring roles from across its newsroom together and staff membership work. The Cable’s membership circle is broken down into sub-circles of conversion, engagement, membership tech, and comms, and each sub-circle has its own lead and cross-departmental team members. The comms circle, for example, has responsibility for branding, PR, member communications, and newsletters. It is led by Cable co-founder Alon Aviram, who is responsible for convening and project-managing the group, as well as coordinating with other sub-circle leads. Membership and distribution lead Lucas Batt and reporter Matty Edwards are also circle members. (The letters in each circle are the staff member’s initials)

The Bristol Cable’s circular organization chart, June 2020

Over the last year, this model has allowed their small team to more effectively allocate and execute membership work, while common connections across circles ensure the work does not become siloed.

 

How The Bristol Cable manages membership cooperatively

To avoid a hierarchical structure that would run counter to its cooperative model, The Bristol Cable's uses a circular staffing model.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Daily Maverick in South Africa has a seven-strong team whose primary responsibility is to support their membership program (Maverick Insider) and memberful routines, with specialties including webinars and events, community management, and customer service. All Insider staff come together once a week to “set the tone” and troubleshoot any problems, but there are also smaller breakout meetings to carry out targeted work on areas such as webinars and events and marketing, with additional staff from other areas of the Daily Maverick in attendance as necessary.

“Most of the team work full-time on membership activities, [but] we’ve tried to design it so membership and our aim of being a memberful organization means they naturally get involved in other areas of the organization. For example, webinars started out as a member benefit but evolved into live-journalism efforts to a wider audience that is now part of membership acquisition efforts. It’s run by the membership team and requires coordination with journalists and editors in the hosting of these events, publisher and CEO, Styli Charalambous told MPP. 

 

How Daily Maverick gradually staffed up its membership program

The team went from two people working on membership part-time to seven people working on it almost completely full time.

Who has responsibility for membership work?

One risk of the mantra that “membership is everyone’s responsibility” is that it becomes no one’s responsibility. Whether you hire for a specific role to lead on membership or assign leadership from within your existing staff, it’s vital to clearly establish who is responsible for making sure the work gets done. 

Establishing responsibility for membership work entails thinking beyond a single membership manager and mapping out your internal set of stakeholders. Who is responsible? Who is accountable? Who will be consulted? Who will support the person responsible? Who will be informed? These elements form the RACSI framework for decision-making.

MPP suggests using a tool such as the RACSI framework to clearly define lines of responsibility and accountability for each membership decision you make, while also ensuring membership activity and member-focused culture is distributed across the organization. (Scalawag has used the similar MOCHA framework to assign ownership of its events strategy.) 

Defining areas of responsibility is particularly important for newsrooms that do not have a dedicated membership team, but do have a large number of membership-concerned staff. 

To use a tool like RACSI, use the following steps.

Specify the decision or change or problem you want to map. 

First specify the decision your organization needs to make, or a change you want to implement, or a problem you want to solve with the help of the RACSI framework. Scoping the decision/change/problem correctly is important. If the decision is too small, you will be micro-managing too many stakeholders. If the decision is too big, there will be too many moving pieces to coordinate. A well-scoped decision/change/problem should also have a goal attached to it, so you and your colleagues will know what success looks like. Jump to “How do we set measurable goals?” for more on this.

Break the decision (or change or problem) down into component parts.

What has to happen first, second, and third in order to make the decision or implement the change or solve the problem? This process is similar to creating a product roadmap. Jump to “How do we execute our ideas?” for advice on how to use product roadmaps to break down a problem.

Identify who could be involved.

Once you have the decision or problem or change broken down into parts, reflect on which people or roles in your organization could be productively involved in that component. You can start with a wide list, and then narrow down as you specify involvement in the next step.

Narrow and specify participation.

Make a table that has the components of the problem/change/decision down one side, and the list of possible people to involve across the top. Now you can start to specify and narrow participation.

For each step, ask the following questions:

  • R – Who is responsible? This person will carry out the work to complete the task.
  • A – Who is accountable for this? This person will oversee the task being done and must sign off or veto a decision prior to implementation.
  • C – Who will be consulted? This person/people will have input, but they are not responsible for the task being completed.
  • S – Who will support the person responsible? This person/people will carry out additional work to complete the task.
  • I – Who will be informed? This person/people will be made aware of what’s happening.

Check with your participants. 

You can do a first draft of a RASCI map by yourself, but MPP recommends checking it with all the participating stakeholders before you start to execute on the decision/problem/change. Getting buy-in, especially for collaborative membership efforts, is vital for success in using this kind of framework.

The Texas Tribune’s Director of Loyalty Programs, Sarah Glen, outlined for MPP how the RASCI model would have looked when the Tribune simplified its membership tiers. Previously audience members were given different names depending on the level of financial contribution (above $35 was a member, below was a small dollar donor) which was causing confusion. They changed this to ensure that anyone who contributed financially was called a member.

Here’s how Glen broke down responsibility for making and implementing this change:

Targeted change: Simplifying membership tiers.

LPSales AdminEngCEOAud
Review of existing tier structure and retention dataRICCA
Drafting of proposed new tiersR
Editing of proposed copyCI/CR/A
Editing of Salesforce metadataIRC
Implementing changes on donation pageCRIC/I

How can our members help us support membership?

MPP’s skills checklist can help you identify the critical skills gaps you need to hire or develop for. But what about important or nice-to-have skills that you can’t staff internally? It may be possible to turn to your loyal readers and existing members for help with tasks that expand the scope and impact of your work, and which free up your staff to fulfill critical membership tasks in the process.

Here are some suggestions for drawing on members to help staff membership:

  • Look at your skills checklist for gaps. Which “important” or “nice-to-have” skills are you lacking?
  • Identify opportunity areas. Where are you missing skills that line up with what you know about your loyal audience members and what they are excited about?
  • Make a continuum of participation opportunities. Break down the participation opportunities by the time and training necessary for members to participate. The continuum should range from “one time, little to no training needed” (such as staffing events) to “recurring responsibility with expertise needed, some training offered” (like hosting a show, offering visual design capabilities, or working on website or mobile app development).
  • Offer those opportunities to your members. Use your member communication channels (Slack, newsletter, members-only site) to offer those opportunities to your members along with a clear way to signal interest. Be specific about your needs and clear about what you will provide in return, whether that be payment, training, or perhaps the opportunity to “pay in participation”. 
  • Register, vet, and train members. Create a registration page so you can communicate directly with members who want to participate. Be sure to vet members before they participate in any activity. Provide appropriate training for the task, and be sure to check in regularly.

Some examples of members helping to support the staffing of journalistic and membership operations include: De Correspondent in The Netherlands asking members for help with fact checking, data scraping, and more; and WTF Just Happened Today members providing moderation support and open source project editing help.

Two notes of caution: First, if you work in a unionized newsroom, there are clear guidelines for what member volunteers are allowed to do. Generally speaking, you cannot bring in free labor to do something that a staff member would normally do. Always check with your newsroom’s union representative before asking for audience participation in a new way.

Second, treat audience members as collaborators, not volunteers. Their contributions are not free labor, they are part of a give/get exchange. The opportunities to participate should be mutually beneficial, and collaborators should receive meaningful acknowledgment of their support. Without this, you risk leaving audience members feeling used and even more distrustful of your organization than they would if you invited no participation at all. Jump to “Developing memberful routines” for additional advice on inviting non-extractive participation and identifying desirable opportunities for participation.

What ongoing tasks support membership?

Membership programs require ongoing care and feeding to thrive and grow. This section breaks down the ongoing tasks and practices you should undertake to support your membership program on a daily and/or weekly basis.

Many of the practices listed here will help your organization keep a finger on the pulse of your members and broader community and can ensure your members continue to feel valued. Some of these tasks support the administration and management of your membership program. Other tasks fall into the category of memberful routines (Jump to Developing memberful routines for more on inviting audience participation). This section is concerned with routines and tasks that manage and nurture your member community). 

While the membership-concerned staff that MPP has spoken with are usually responsible for a mix of memberful routines and program support, it’s worth considering how much time you want to dedicate to each. Both kinds of tasks are important and feed each other, and doing too much of one set without the other can lead to problems.

For example, Jorge Caraballo, growth editor at Radio Ambulante, told the research team he tries to be very careful about he balances memberful routines and membership program support. He estimates that he spends 70 percent of his time nurturing the member community (through memberful routines), and 30 percent on the administration and management of their membership program. “If somehow I end up devoting more time to the administrative part, it will be useless,” he said. “If there’s no engagement… that bond between Radio Ambulante and the community, if you don’t have the momentum of the community, then whatever you do for the administrative part will be less efficient.”

 

How Radio Ambulante has made community building routine

By empowering their listeners to host listening clubs, Radio Ambulante extended the reach of its community.

With that in mind, the amount of time you spend and whether these are daily or weekly tasks will depend on a combination of the following:

  • The size of your newsroom
  • The distribution of your membership responsibilities
  • Whether you have a thick or thin membership model
  • How central membership is to your business model

Use the detailed information below to help you understand the regular hours required to support membership. 

Many of the examples provided in this section are from De Correspondent. As one of the most mature member-driven newsrooms MPP has studied, DeCorrespondent has seven years of experience with testing and learning about the ongoing tasks required to support membership. These examples are provided for your own newsroom to experiment with and learn from. (The author of this section previously worked at De Correspondent as operations lead for their English-language expansion.)

Managing member community support

This important category of tasks bridges membership program management and memberful routines, encompassing customer service and engagement. At its core, member community support is about ensuring prompt responses to member concerns and queries. Whether you have a thick or thin membership model, it is vital to ensure your members feel heard, listened to, and understood. Managing member community support can be broken down into the following tasks.

Monitoring the member inbox. The primary ongoing task that ensures a prompt response to member concerns and queries is managing the member inbox. Ideally this includes a same-day response to outreach from members. 

Acknowledging member queries. If you can’t solve a member query immediately or without help from a colleague, an acknowledgement of their email and your intended course of action will go a long way to helping the member feel heard, even if the issue remains unresolved. 

Resolving membership-related technical difficulties. The person responsible for inbox management is likely to be dealing regularly with the resolution of technical problems, managing credit card processing issues, and cancellation requests. 

Engaging with member feedback and contributions. Compliments and complaints will also come through the membership inbox (membership program management). The person responsible for member community management  might also be fielding story suggestions, requests to speak to reporters, and responses to member call-outs (memberful routines).

Managing the membership community is not a small task. For example, De Correspondent has four part-time staff dedicated solely to member support. In combination, they ensure the member inbox is covered throughout business hours Monday-Friday. The Daily Maverick has two full-time employees – a Membership Retention Manager and Junior Membership Business Administrator – who cover the member inbox.

Sharing member learnings with your organization. Through community support, your newsroom will also gain a wealth of information about your members, how they feel about your journalism, and their experience as a member. MPP recommends finding routine ways of sharing these insights with the rest of your newsroom.

At De Correspondent, the support teams write a weekly report about what members are telling them, which is mailed out to the whole organization. CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth said this has helped to make members even more visible in the newsroom.

If your newsroom is not in a position to hire for dedicated member inbox support, MPP recommends the following to ensure this important daily task is easily managed:

A dedicated institutional inbox for member querieshello@newsroom.com rather than firstname@newsroom.com. Although responses should be signed from a named individual to give the interaction a human face, a dedicated inbox ensures queries will not get lost, and that more than one person has access. Many newsrooms MPP studied use Zendesk or a similar inbox management system for this.

Set clear expectations on response times. If limited staff resources mean you cannot ensure an immediate, or close-to-immediate, response, an autoresponder detailing a timeline within which the member will receive a reply will help with setting expectations.

Tracking and sharing key metrics

Developing routines that monitor member movement at different stages of your audience funnel will help your team to understand which messages are resonating with potential and existing members. How many new members are joining? How many are leaving? When and why? Here are MPP’s recommendations for tracking and sharing key metrics. (For more on which metrics to track, see “Developing Member Metrics”.)

Review key metrics on a weekly basis and share with the newsroom. Use the data generated by this monitoring to keep the whole newsroom connected with the pulse of membership. (You should also decide which metrics are best tracked and reviewed monthly — see the Metrics section for details. And for more mature member-led newsrooms, it may be valuable to monitor key metrics on a daily basis.) Crucially, if member gains are connected to a story that was published or an event that was held, this is an opportunity to demonstrate to others in the newsroom the role that they play in membership growth.

For example, De Correspondent sends weekly metrics reports to the entire organization with a summary of what happened on the platform that week, and the team also presents the most insightful data – such as growth, engagement, and page views – to the whole newsroom once a month so all departments are kept apprised of the state and impact of membership efforts. 

Monitor and share why members are joining. MPP recommends that you capture why members are joining. At Honolulu Civil Beat, members have the opportunity to share a short note about why they joined when they sign up. They use a Slack bot to share those answers via Slack, which helps the whole newsroom be more attuned to member motivations. It’s also easy to set up a Slack integration with a Net Promoter Score tool such as AskNicely so that each survey response is viewable to the whole team. Share why members are joining with the whole organization.

De Correspondent recently introduced a Slackbot called Pulse that shares daily updates on how many new members joined, how many members cancelled, how many members they actually have, and what their goal is for the year.  They also have a Slack channel in which they can see real-time reasons for why people cancel their membership. “It’s not a fun channel,” Pfauth told MPP. “But it tells you a lot.”

Impact monitoring

Establish an impact monitoring routine. An impact monitoring routine that runs continuously will ensure you have plenty of material for the report-back moments on your calendar, and allow you to respond quickly if something is more time-sensitive. Tracking impact includes tracing the outcomes of your work beyond consumption. For example, did a local politician address cite your work in a public address? Do you know that your work contributed to a new policy in your community? 

For example, The Tyee in Canada treats impact monitoring as part of its ongoing maintenance work, with a Slack channel called #impact-moments. All staff are asked to keep an eye out for The Tyee’s reporting out in the world – cited in the House of Commons for example – and to share that impact in the channel. Publisher Jeanette Ageson uses these insights when putting together impact reports and member appeals. See here for a good overview of various approaches to impact tracking.

Report back to your members on the impact of their support. Reporting back to your members on the impact of their support is vital for building trust and ensuring retention (there’s more on this in the section on periodic tasks to support membership). 

Special Considerations for Single-Person Newsrooms

A one-person newsroom will have very different considerations from an organization with a dedicated engagement team. If you are struggling to balance memberful routines and membership program management, it can be fruitful to prioritize tasks where one supports the other – such as surveys that engage your member base and provide valuable insights to help you iterate on your membership program. 

For example, at De Correspondent, new members are sent surveys about their expectations within 30 days of joining, then surveyed again about their experience of membership approximately quarterly (with questions requesting reactions to editorial style and what changes they would want to see on the platform) and again as their annual renewal date approaches. This kind of task supports both program management and is a memberful routine.

For more on memberful ways of working across your newsroom, jump to “Developing memberful routines”.

What periodic tasks support membership?

Supporting a robust membership program involves planning and executing a set of periodic tasks that will allow you to cultivate member loyalty month-on-month, year-on-year. These tasks will ensure your members and broader community continue to feel valued. MPP recommends the following periodic practices to support membership:

  • Designing and launching membership products that promote transparency
  • Designing and executing new member and member renewal campaigns 
  • Designing and executing subject-specific awareness campaigns 
  • Designing and executing member surveys

These tasks do not need to happen every day or week, but MPP recommends you consider them at regular intervals throughout the year. 

Designing and launching member products that promote transparency

MPP recommends periodically designing and launching member-only products (like a special email newsletter) that offer a window into your newsroom. You can use these products to:

  • Illustrate how members’ contributions support your work
  • Show how your newsroom pursued an important story or put together a special series
  • Ask for members’ input into design or coverage decisions 

Creating these products over and above your journalism will help promote transparency around your organization and make membership more valuable. You can create these special members-only products on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. 

For example, Chalkbeat produces a quarterly newsletter giving a behind-the-scenes look at the newsroom, including interviews with reporters and an ICYMI section for their biggest stories. 

The Bristol Cable holds an annual general meeting each year where Cable staff share progress and achievements from the previous 12 months. Members are invited to vote on business and editorial issues. Read the reports for the Cable’s AGM’s in 2017, 2018, and 2019.) 

(Membership Puzzle Project will be covering cooperative models in news like the Bristol Cable in a fall 2020 addition to this Guide.)

Designing and executing new member and member renewal campaigns 

While your site and email newsletters should be configured to continually cultivate new members (Jump to “Growing our membership” for more), you should also plan for a handful of concerted member drives or campaigns throughout the year. These campaigns give you the opportunity to channel concerted effort into communicating your value proposition and to actively recruit and renew members. Many of the newsrooms MPP studied run multi-platform, resource-intensive new member or giving drives once or twice a year. The timing of these drives is often selected to tie-in with wider giving initiatives, or at other times when the member base is more likely to be ready to donate.

For example, De Correspondent’s annual campaign runs each September to coincide with the anniversary of the platform’s launch in 2013. Membership Strategist Mayke Blok said she dedicates five weeks to planning their annual campaign, and outlined the tasks involved in that preparation as follows:

  • Develop a 30-day email marketing plan for non-members newsletter
  • Prepare assets for social media
  • Prepare annual financial and editorial reports for members (see more on this here)
  • Design and implement campaign banner on platform and optimize renewal flow 
  • Create a social package for staff and ambassadors to share 
  • Create campaign design assets (logo, visual style)
  • Produce campaign video 
  • Collect testimonials from staff to use during the campaign
  • Make an external communication plan and securing press coverage

If the majority of your members give on an annual basis, rather than an automatic monthly renewal, well-planned renewal campaigns for existing members are also a vital periodic task. While it can be tempting to remind members what they receive in return for their membership fee, MPP recommends focusing renewal campaigns around what their membership has made possible. 

For example, De Correspondent’s annual renewal campaign includes all of the tasks listed above, with the annual editorial report and annual financial report as crucial centerpieces. CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth said these two communications take a number of weeks to produce, but show members “what we’ve done with their membership fee and… what we want to do better.”

If you have instituted a regular impact monitoring routine, you can also highlight your most compelling impact moments in your campaign. For example, Jeanette Ageson at The Tyee uses examples from their #impact-moments Slack channel in their member campaign communications.

 

How The Tyee plans a crowdfunding campaign in a week

Each campaign is built around a theory-of-change formula, and follows a time-proven template.

Designing and executing subject-specific awareness campaigns 

If you’re a single-issue-focused news organization, subject-specific awareness weeks can be a powerful anchor around which to build a regular membership campaign. Chalkbeat, for example, runs a mini membership drive around Teacher Appreciation Week each May. 

You may also want to consider timely topical appeals, as outlined in the Marketing section. These appeals build on particularly powerful coverage to make a pitch for why membership in your organization matters. Mother Jones is particularly skillful at weaving in timely topical appeals to their campaign strategy. See the Mother Jones INN/Shorenstein case study for more.

Designing and executing member surveys

MPP recommends checking in with your members at least annually about their experience of membership. Soliciting member feedback is crucial for ensuring your membership program is fulfilling, responsive, and relevant. You can use the RACSI framework outlined earlier in this section to set up and execute routines for survey design, data collection, data processing and analysis, and member feedback. 

For example, De Correspondent surveys new members about their expectations within 30 days of joining. It surveys members again about their experiences approximately quarterly (with questions requesting reactions to editorial style and what changes they would want to see on the platform), and again as members’ annual renewal date approaches. 

Member surveys are also an important element of memberful routines. Krautreporter in Germany takes an “always on” approach to surveys, using them on a weekly basis to achieve a range of engagement and editorial goals. Members are surveyed on the topics they’re interested in, the questions they have on a specific topic, and their knowledge and/or experience of an issue, and more. Krautreporter has found that members who take surveys have an increased level of engagement with Krautreporter’s journalism, and that readers who participate in at least one survey stay on as members for roughly four months longer than non-survey takers.

 

How Krautreporter uses surveys to engage, co-design, and grow

Krautreporter is running three to five surveys at any point in time.

For more on memberful ways of working across your newsroom, jump to “Developing memberful routines“.

How do we write job descriptions for membership roles?

MPP has collected more than 20 real-life job descriptions used by newsrooms hiring for membership roles that you can adapt for your needs. View our library of job descriptions.

We recommend using this database in conjunction with the skills checklist to check your assumptions about how different responsibilities could be assembled under one role. After you’ve identified what skills you’re missing, think about which skills might or might not fit together into a new role. You can consult the database for ideas on what to name the role and how to scope it.

For example, you could hire a community manager to address the audience engagement skills you’re lacking. This new role could also take on daily communication with members. But it might be too much to ask a community manager to also be in charge of analytics.

If you have a membership-concerned job description that you think would be useful for other newsrooms, please email it as a PDF to ideas@membershippuzzle.org.

How do we tackle the responsibility/authority gap?

One common problem, particularly with small newsrooms that have a single membership role or where membership is just one part of someone’s job, is that the membership-responsible person has too much responsibility but not enough authority to meet their membership goals directly: the responsibility/authority gap. This gap comes up when someone responsible for all or part of a membership program has to work through the priorities and resources of other people and other teams to get their work done. A common problem!

For example, De Correspondent CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth said they’ve seen the responsibility/authority gap arise between staff responsible for membership strategy and staff responsible for technology priorities. While a membership strategist may push for features that improve the member experience, their tech colleagues may prioritize improving the content management system for journalists. 

To address this gap, De Correspondent created a set of member-centered questions to ask for every development decision. These questions include, “How many members will benefit from this?” and “Can we see from how members use the site if they’re actually waiting for this feature?”

Focusing decision-making on members is what Pfauth called the hierarchy or “why” solution. With the common goal of putting members first, De Correspondent has found that different teams can effectively meet in the middle of the responsibility/authority gap. 

To help address the inevitable responsibility/authority gaps in your membership program, MPP recommends coming up with your own set of member-centered questions that can help colleagues navigate through conflicting priorities and resources. These questions could include:

  • Who is this [product/feature/story] for? 
  • What member/audience data or insights do we have that indicate a need for this [product/feature/story]? 
  • How does this [product/feature/story] serve members, either directly because they’ll interact with it or indirectly by giving staff members more time to serve members?
  • Who are the staff outside membership that can make this [product/feature/story] happen, and who will be responsible for implementing this for members? (Jump to “Who has responsibility for membership work?” for more on that.)
  • How does this further the membership “story” we are trying to tell? 

I’m a one-person newsroom. How do I staff membership?

If you’re a one-person newsroom or the only person working on membership at your organization, MPP understands that you can’t do everything outlined in this section. Based on our discussions with newsrooms of all sizes, the research team suggests the following for managing membership in small and one-person newsrooms: 

Prioritize for the critical skills listed in the skills audit, particularly community management, metrics measurement, and basic marketing strategies. Jump to “Growing our membership” for an overview of how to create a largely automated marketing strategy.

Lean on software and outsourcing to streamline your processes.  Software costs may seem hefty until you calculate how much time it will save you, freeing you up to do the membership-concerned work only you can do. For example, Eric Lubbers, in charge of tech and strategy at the Colorado Sun in the U.S., is the only person working exclusively on membership in his newsroom. He uses Zendesk to track and tackle recurring issues and make community engagement more manageable.

The Sun’s Zendesk account features a list of frequently asked membership questions such as: 

Courtesy of the Colorado Sun

By putting systems in place for members to answer their own questions, the Sun was able to lighten its burden.

You can also outsource tasks like member benefit fulfillment. For example, The Narwhal in Canada decided to hire someone part-time to manage swag fulfillment after some back-of-the-napkin math revealed that it would cost less to hire part-time help than to make staff members spend hours every week packaging and mailing swag. The Narwal calculated this by taking the hourly pay of a staff member and multiplying that by number of hours spent on fulfillment.

Be honest about what you can do – and what you can’t. Setting realistic expectations with yourself and your members is key. “You’re in the relationship business, so approach your membership program with the same authenticity that earned you your reader’s attention in the first place,” says Matt Kiser, the founder and sole employee of WTF Just Happened Today. Sherrell Dorsey, also the founder and sole employee of The Plug for its first four years, is emphatic that you don’t have to do everything that members or subscribers ask you to do. For example, some readers have urged her to improve the user experience of The Plug, but because it doesn’t seem to be hurting progress toward her growth goals, she has set that aside for now.

Keep it simple. Kiser advised keeping your membership program simple but flexible. “Maybe your program is $5 a month or $50 a year and it does pretty well. What would happen if you added a pay-whatever-you-want option but with a suggestion contribution? What if someone wants to write you a check? Can you cash it under your brand name?” Also keep in mind that adding tiers to your membership program might sound like a good idea when you are a small newsroom, but multi-tiered programs are much more complicated to manage on the back-end and may represent additional commitments to member support and engagement.

How do we staff membership during a time of crisis?

This handbook is being published in September 2020, as the world wrestles with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The global health crisis has placed intense pressures on newsrooms around the world, including their membership-concerned staff (how can we appropriately adapt membership appeals, and who is available to do this work when it’s all-hands-on-deck? How can we pivot to coronavirus-safe online events, particularly if no-one in the team has experience of running virtual events?).

When it comes to staffing membership during a time of crisis – whether it be a pandemic, wildfire, or local tragedy – MPP acknowledges that you may not always be able to fix the problem with an interdisciplinary meeting.

Instead, MPP believes newsrooms should ask which membership-concerned tasks are truly necessary in the new context, and use the answers to that question to create a “Stop Doing” list – an idea stolen and adapted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. You can create this list by doing the following:

  • Revisit the goals of your membership strategy. Tasks on your to-do list that do not meet at least one of the goals in your strategy go on the Stop Doing list.
  • Tasks on your to-do list that target your strategy goals but are not working should also go on your Stop Doing list. 
  • Tasks that target your strategy goals and are working, or have worked in the past, but that you no longer have the expertise for also belong on the Stop Doing list.

Once you know what you’re going to stop doing, you create room for those tasks that contribute effectively to your membership strategy goals, and that you have the resources and expertise to accomplish.

For example, when it became clear that COVID-19 was about to significantly alter life in the UK in March 2020, The Bristol Cable conducted a SWOT assessment to work out how they could best provide value to their community and protect their organization during the crisis.

The Cable’s Membership & Distribution lead Lucas Batt said they knew they had to focus on tasks that would help their members and the wider community navigate the pandemic. Other tasks would take a backseat.

Following a survey to see what kind of coronavirus coverage Cable members were looking for, Batt and his colleague Matty Edwards launched the weekly (later biweekly) Coronavirus in Bristol newsletter, featuring local COVID-19 news and regular surveys and call-outs. The newsletter invited a lot of engagement, so Batt and his team have been heavily involved in responding to emails from members and survey responses. In order to prioritize this newsletter production and engagement work, the Cable put its events and print edition on hold.

Establishing what you will and won’t do during a crisis through consultation with members as well as some form of prioritization exercise allows you to be clear with your staff and your audience about how you’re responding, and helps you find your place in the situation.