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.  (Google’s News Consumer Insights defines “loyal readers” as those who visit between 3 and 14 times a month and “brand lovers” as those who visit 15 times or more a month.) Esser 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. Google News Initiative’s Digital Growth Program also provides playbooks on developing your audience and assessing your audience revenue opportunity.