How can we turn our members into ambassadors?

One of the most exciting things about the challenge of growing a membership program is what a powerful asset your members can be. Members support news organizations because they believe in their cause – and that means there are ways to turn them into amplifiers and advocates. Membership is a way to identify your strongest supporters and incorporate them in your quest for sustainability. Few initiatives embody that more clearly than the use of ambassadorship.

Ambassadorship taps into members’ passion for your work – one of the six key motivations MPP heard when analyzing responses from hundreds of supporters of news organizations about why they gave their support.  Members motivated by the chance to show some love for your mission are proud of their affinity with your organization and want people to know about it. One simple way to harness this motivation is to offer the ability to gift a membership or bundle of articles as a member benefit.

Although only a small percentage of your members will likely respond to your call for ambassadors (the 90/10/1 rule is that 90 percent of members will just consume the product, 10 percent will interact with you, and 1 percent of that 10 percent will become core contributors), that small percentage can have a transformative impact.

Zetland harnessed this motivation powerfully with its members-getting-members campaign in 2019. The campaign brought them 3,500 new members in about a month, bringing Zetland to 14,000 members – the point when it became financially sustainable. 

From their first ambassador campaign in 2018, which did not retain a meaningful percentage of the members recruited, and their much more successful campaign in 2019, Zetland learned a couple key things:

Be honest about your financial situation. Zetland’s second ambassador campaign began with a blunt financial tell-all article laying out their financial situation. (“Right now, our expenses are greater than our income – in other words, the amount in our bank account is shrinking every month,” former CEO Jakob Moll wrote.) If you’re going to ask members to leverage their connections to help you grow, you owe them transparency about why you’re asking. Zetland’s radically honest article published prior to the ambassador campaign’s launch (including how many more members, exactly, they needed to survive) helped mobilize their current members into action, who saw a clear way to ensure that Zetland continued to exist. 

Focus on recruiting people who are willing to pay in the near future. Having ambassadors give free memberships in 2018 was much less successful than the 2019 tactic: enabling ambassadors to offer a one-month trial in which the recruited member could pay what they wanted. At the end of the month, the new member’s price fell in line with the price for all members. Offering freebies is likely to bring you members who haven’t given much thought as to whether it’s something they want. In 2018, about half of the people who received a free membership didn’t log on to Zetland at all after the campaign ended.

Make it easy for ambassadors to promote you. Zetland equipped their new ambassadors for both digital and print recruitment campaigns. After a member signed up to become an ambassador, Zetland gave them a unique signup page URL that included their name. The URL was easy to remember so that ambassadors could seamlessly share the link both in conversation and on social media. The URL brought potential new members to the pay-what-you-want sign-up form. Zetland also gave ambassadors the option of postcards or posters to spread the word offline. They shipped out more than 20,000 postcards and 2,000 posters with ambassadors’ personal URLs for the ambassadors to share when the campaign launched. 

Say thank you. The Zetland team worked hard to make their ambassadors feel special, empowering them to recruit new members either digitally with their personalized URLs or manually with postcards. Ambassadors also received small gifts like stickers and packets of plant seeds. The Zetland team was sure to say thank you often, and to keep their ambassadors updated on the newsroom’s progress and success along the way. 


How Zetland turned its members into powerful ambassadors

In 2019, Zetland faced a hard truth: they still weren’t profitable, and they were running out of time. Could their members help?

While Zetland’s ambassador campaign was a full-team effort, this motivation can be harnessed in smaller ways that are less resource-intensive. For example, you could add an email to your member onboarding series that sends your member a thank you at the 1-year mark, inviting them to invest further in your work by recruiting a new member during their second year of membership. Something like this could be fully automated. 

The Skimm’s well-known Skimm’bassadors referral program is another example of harnessing the power of ambassadorship. This case study outlines the key components of that strategy.