How do we develop a membership marketing strategy?

Once you can clearly articulate the membership value proposition, you can think about how to recruit members. A marketing strategy articulates where, when, and how often you will make your pitch. The research team will make recommendations on what to include in your strategy based on your capacity. 

Before you decide what channels you’re going to invest in, it helps to take a step back and think about all the places and ways you could market your membership program. 

Some marketing strategies can be automated and require only occasional updating and adjusting, while other marketing strategies have to be done manually each time.

The assessments of impact for each marketing channel are based on what the research team knows from News Revenue Hub’s work with its newsrooms, who are mostly U.S.-based.

The research team offers the channel-by-channel impact assessment as a data point you can use for deciding which channels to try, based on your team capacity and the returns you’re likely to get. Mileage will vary based on your own audience behavior, and you should ultimately choose which channels to invest in based on channels your audience members already use habitually and where you have strong relationships with your audience members. For newsrooms outside the U.S. and Europe, that might be WhatsApp or Facebook, rather than e-mail.

Later, the research team offers advice on tracking member acquisition, which will help inform your own impact assessment.

AUTOMATED

ChannelMost common level of impact*
Website Medium 
Homepage banner button
Fixed-in-place navigation bar unit (Ex: “Donate” on this page)
Inline story widget
Sticky sidebar widget (Ex: “Support nonprofit journalism in Hawaii”)
Bottom-of-story module
EmailHigh 
Calls-to-action in newsletters
Newsletter subscriber onboarding
Member renewal reminder series
*This impact assessment is based on News Revenue Hub clients 

MANUAL 

ChannelMost common level of impact*
WebsiteMedium/High
A donation popup on high-interest stories or during a specific time of year, like during your year-end campaign
Articles promoting membership (Examples from Mother Jones and the Daily Maverick
Email Highest 
Standalone membership appeal or a series of appeals
Networked platformsLow 
Facebook 
Twitter
Instagram
WhatsApp**
Other owned assetsNot enough data to assess
Events 
Referral programs
Podcasts 
Mobile messaging
Gift memberships
External assetsNot enough data to assess
Bundled memberships
Advertising 
Direct mailers (snail mail) 
*This impact assessment is based on News Revenue Hub clients 
**WhatsApp exists somewhere between email and the other networked platforms on the list. News organizations can reach audience members directly, rather than relying on an algorithm, but depending on how the organization is using WhatsApp, they might be writing to a group of people who can also communicate with each other.

The strongest membership programs refine their marketing strategy over time based on how different channels and messages perform for them. 

First stage

This marketing strategy is for newsrooms with no one on staff dedicated to marketing. You should develop evergreen(ish) membership marketing copy and collateral and place it on all owned assets that can be automated or do not require regular updates. That would include:

  • All website assets detailed above
  • A membership call-to-action (CTA) within editorial newsletters
  • Your onboarding series for new newsletter subscribers 
  • Automated member renewal emails 

While these tactics do have that set-it-and-forget-it allure, it is important to have a schedule for refreshing copy and assets, such as images and testimonials, so they don’t become wallpaper. A year is the longest you should go without changing these. It’s important also to remember to adjust things like your CTA in newsletters when there is a crisis and the tone might be off, or when you learn something new about your members. 

An onboarding series for a non-member newsletter is part of the process of developing a loyal audience member. A basic rule of thumb is that emails 1 to 3 should introduce subscribers to your organization’s purpose, what they can expect from the newsletter, various team members, and other product offerings. The emails should be useful and interesting to anyone who reads them, whether they’re members or not. 

After those introductions, emails in the series should make a concerted case for your mission and explicitly ask them to join, as the Montana Free Press does with its onboarding email which starts “I’m excited to tell you about our membership program, which is essential to our existence.” News Revenue Hub recommends that you ask a newsletter subscriber to join within 30 days of them signing up for a newsletter, which Spirited Media applied in Memberkit 1.0.

Over time, you can add more evergreen appeals to the end of this series (for example, three months from sign-up, six months from sign-up) so that you have a permanent member recruitment campaign running in the background. 

Because this section focuses on the stage of converting existing loyal audience members into members, we will not go too deeply into advice on crafting a newsletter onboarding series, but you can find more advice on welcome emails from media consultant Cory Brown on The Byline by Pico.

If you have a one-time donation option for membership, you should also set up automated emails to let those one-time donors know when their membership is about to expire, inviting them to set up a recurring payment instead. For this purpose a “current member” is someone who has donated to your organization in the past 365 days.

Second stage

You have all of the above in place, member conversions look promising so far, and you still have some additional capacity. It’s time to build on the basics, then. This strategy is well-suited for a team with at least one staff member dedicated to marketing. 

At this stage, you can:

  • Promote membership on other owned assets that can’t be automated, such as podcasts, events, and articles 
  • Run one or two membership campaigns a year 
  • Schedule social media posts to go out on institutional accounts weekly or bimonthly throughout the year.

Generally, newsrooms have seen few member conversions from social media promotion. But since it’s difficult to quantify how many times a prospective member needs to see your message and where before they actually convert, we recommend use of this owned asset if capacity allows. If your organization has a highly engaged audience on a social media platform, it might convert better for you.

You can develop an evergreen(ish) script that allows an editor, reporter or emcee to promote membership on your newsroom’s podcast or at its next event. Event registrants are also a good target for membership appeals via email after registering but before the event, as well as after an event.

You can publish articles about membership to coincide with a major news moment or a specific time of year, like during a year-end campaign. These should adhere to the best practices we outline below for crafting a good membership appeal. See these examples from VT Digger, The Tyee, Mother Jones, and Daily Maverick

For American newsrooms, your audience members might be public media consumers, too, which means they’re familiar with time-limited membership drives. Consider developing timely membership copy and assets and conducting a membership drive twice a year. The core of your campaign should be email appeals (or whichever channel yields the highest conversions for you usually), but if you have a bit of additional time, consider rounding out your efforts with site ads, social media posts, and campaign callouts in newsletters to increase the number of people the campaign reaches. 

At Chalkbeat, their biggest effort is their end of year campaign, which runs through November and December, coinciding with NewsMatch and state-specific initiatives such as ColoradoGives. Senior Marketing Manager Kary Perez told us people are primed for giving at this time. They also run an “almost-Summer” campaign the week before school finishes. Perez said this timing took into account that many of their members are teachers who join with their school email address, and so they ask them to donate as one of the last things they do before they finish for the summer. 

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

As for campaign duration, MPP recommends experimenting with a sprint-style timeline as well as a weeks-long one to determine whether your organization is better positioned to support the intensity of the sprint-style campaign or the length of the weeks-long campaign, as well as which results in better returns from your audience. 

Here are example marketing plans for sprint-style and weekly-long membership campaigns:

Sprint-style campaignWeeks-long campaignMessage typeSegmentationExample
2- 3 weeks “pre-launch”2- 3 weeks “pre-launch”Stewardship messageVersion 1: To Current members
Version 2: To full email list
Example of version 1 from Voice of San Diego

Example of version 2 from The Hechinger Report
1 week out “pre-launch”1 week out “pre-launch”Renewal messageMembers who have lapsed or  will lapse in the near future  Example from InsideClimate News
Thursday (launch)Week 1Standalone appealVersion 1: To non-members
Version 2: To current members (current members are some of your most engaged audience members and many step up to give more than once throughout a given year. It’s best to include them in campaigns, at least for one message)
Example of v1 from Bridge Magazine

Example of v2 from Honolulu Civil Beat
SaturdayWeek 2Standalone appealTo non-members (exclude anyone who has donated since the campaign started)Example from Montana Free Press
TuesdayWeek 3Standalone appealTo non-members (exclude anyone who has donated since the campaign started)Example from YR Media
ThursdayWeek 4Standalone appealTo non-members (exclude anyone who has donated since the campaign started)Example from the Center for Public Integrity
FridayWeek 5Final pleaTo non-members (exclude anyone who has donated since the campaign started)Example from the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists
TuesdayWeek 6Thank you messageTo entire listExample from NJ Spotlight

You can also bring this sample campaign calendar back to your newsroom.

Membership Campaign Calendar
Download

Third stage

You’re doing all of the above, your member community is still growing and now you’re ready to try new things and see what sticks. You’re likely a newsroom with at least one staff member dedicated to membership and you have copywriting and editing support from people like your CEO, editor-in-chief, head of development, etc. The Texas Tribune and the Daily Maverick are examples of this. 

At this stage, you can add on: 

  • Timely topical appeals tied to your latest, most impactful work 
  • Crowdfunding campaigns
  • Donate-to-win campaigns
  • Breaking news appeals 
  • Asking other people in your newsroom to write membership appeals

When your organization publishes work that has strong, obvious impact, that is a good time to send a membership appeal. The appeal should be centered on the impact the work has, and how membership makes that work possible. Examples of good tie-ins are investigative stories that resulted in a policy change, high-impact service journalism and journalism that helps audience members navigate a crisis.You could also send an appeal tied to the release of an annual transparency or impact report, as El Diario in Spain did in 2019

Crowdfunds are particularly effective when you can tie them to a goal that you know readers are bought into as well, as The Tyee did when it asked readers to help make “people-driven” election reporting possible or VT Digger did when they asked readers to help them fund a Report for America position covering southern Vermont. Crowdfunding should be used sparingly, and only for initiatives that are high impact and high visibility. It’s important to report back to the crowdfund contributors on how you use that money. 

 

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.

Donate-to-win membership drives should be used sparingly, but can be highly effective. The Texas Tribune (where Rebecca Quarls, co-author of this section, served as Membership and Marketing Manager from 2016 to 2018) tried this for the first time in 2016 to see if an incentive could help them 1) sign up more members on the ground at The Texas Tribune festival and 2) tap outside of their typical sphere of prospective members online — the “on-the-fencers,” if you will. The answer was yes on both counts. The Tribune has continued running this campaign yearly to coincide with its annual festival. Even if your organization doesn’t host events, it’s worth experimenting with incentive-based campaigns. 

Ask others in the newsroom to make membership appeals. Social media is probably the easiest place to start. Provide newsroom staffers with sample language so they can promote membership on their accounts. But email is a much more effective channel for member conversion than social media, so if you can work with reporters to send email appeals to your entire list, that’s likely to be more gratifying for them. Check out this one from Mississippi Today’s political reporter and this one from their editor-in-chief, as well as this one from The Tyee. 

Experiment with channels where you have strong communities. While email is the most well-developed channel for marketing membership programs, if you have a more loyal audience somewhere else, you should focus on marketing your membership program there instead of or in addition to email.

Radio Ambulante, a narrative storytelling podcast with a global Spanish-speaking audience, uses email as its primary marketing channel right now. But Growth Editor Jorge Caraballo can see the quality of the community around Radio Ambulante (90,000 people listened a week during the last season, and the average listener listens to 80 percent of an episode) and believes they are reaching only a fraction of the listeners they could reach by focusing on email, rather than the podcast and their WhatsApp groups.

Their newsletter open rate is 27 percent – low for such a loyal listenership. But they have more than 3,000 contacts on WhatsApp, and when they shared new episodes via WhatsApp last season, Caraballo sometimes got more than 200 responses.

“In Latin America, email is for work. WhatsApp is for everything else,” Caraballo says. 

Radio Ambulante publishes in seasons, so when the fall season begins, Caraballo will experiment with marketing the membership program on the podcast and via WhatsApp, as well as continuing email appeals. 

For the podcast, Caraballo plans to ask Radio Ambulante’s existing members to record voice messages about why they support Radio Ambulante and where they’re listening from. At least one of these 20-second membership appeals will appear in each episode. 

WhatsApp has been an essential component of Radio Ambulante’s community building strategy. The reason WhatsApp is so strong as a channel is similar to that of newsletters: people have to opt in to be reached there. For Radio Ambulante to reach an audience member on WhatsApp, that person has to add the podcast’s phone number to their contacts. Getting there requires a major investment in engagement, but it’s a very sticky relationship.

Last season host Daniel Alarcon sent voice messages to the WhatsApp list encouraging listeners to sign up for their newsletter. That tactic converted well, so this season, they’ll experiment with calls-to-action that go directly to membership, rather than the newsletter. But they’ll have to be careful about how often they do that, Caraballo says. Because it’s a more intimate channel than email, something like that can quickly feel spammy. 

MPP plans to publish a case study on the results of this strategy after their fall 2020 season concludes. For more on their community building strategies, check out the case study on the ways they build community across continents. For more on calls-to-action on podcasts, check out this primer from Glow.fm, which helps podcasts implement membership programs. 

 

How Radio Ambulante has made community building routine

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