How is marketing membership different?

Building a membership marketing strategy starts with internal, collective buy-in around your journalism as a cause and understanding your readers’ motivations for supporting that cause. 

Membership Puzzle Project and News Revenue Hub, where the co-author of this section works, have heard a few recurring themes from organizations with whom they’ve worked.

  • Members are worried about democracy and the current political climate: “It is in the interest of everyone who cares about democracy to support a free press.” 
  • Members think your publication provides quality they can’t get elsewhere: “Competent, really well-selected reporters. Deep knowledge base in their beats.”
  • Members don’t want it to go away: “Yes, if it is a source I depend on and it cannot continue without me.” 
  • Members want it to remain freely accessible to all, even those who can’t pay: “I do believe that news should be free…but also funded by readers and other donors who are able.”

Many people told the Membership Puzzle Project that they join because they feel something fundamental in the world and/or in themselves is broken. In membership they seek a way to feel part of a solution.

The cause-driven nature of membership marketing provides the opportunity to connect to the present zeitgeist in which something crucial is broken or out of balance — and then offer membership as credible grounds for optimism. You can lean into this in your membership appeals, especially those that are connected to current events. You are helping people fight disillusionment, including with The Media.

The cause-driven nature of membership marketing is especially clear when you compare it to subscription marketing: 

Subscription marketingMembership marketing
Transactional relationship: you pay your money and you get a product.Cause-driven relationship: you contribute to join the cause because you believe in the work. (This applies to donations, too.)
Gated journalism + marketing speak

“You have [X] free articles left this month. Subscribe now to get exclusive access to [publication]’s site content.” 

“Exclusive Offer: 1 year for $5. Subscribe today for unlimited access to [publication].com. Plus, get the print and digital editions of the magazine.”
Open journalism + advocacy speak 

“By relying on donations from individuals to cover the costs of journalism, our newsroom is constantly reminded of who it ultimately serves: YOU, the reader. In turn, readers who donate are making a difference in what they know and what their community knows. Will you join the cause?“ 

“Journalism is vital to our democracy. And we believe it should be free and accessible to everyone. That’s why we don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee or clutter our articles with ads that have nothing to do with our community. If you value dependable reporting, will you support it today?” 

One important caveat: For some single-subject or industry-specific publications such as The Plug, which covers the Black innovation economy, members might be more motivated by access to exclusive content than by the call to support a cause that they believe in. For these newsrooms, it’s important to craft appeals that communicate the value of the membership experience.

But for most member-driven news organizations, an invitation to join the cause will resonate. Getting the ratio of individual motivation and higher purpose right is hard, but MPP’s work suggests that this is a secret sauce for many successful member-driven movements. There’s a “me” part (what do I get from this?) and a “we” element (the community I am a part of, the cause we are backing.) Getting these to combine well is crucial to member mission, “social contract,” and pitch. This goes beyond offering plentiful member perks and relies on studying members’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

The value proposition for membership, and therefore the marketing of your membership program, depend on an accurate reading of how much “me” and “we” you need in the mix. When members say something like, “Don’t send me swag, I would rather you use that money to do some good,” they are talking to you about that mix. Jump to “Discovering our value proposition” for advice on how to articulate that strongly.

To illustrate how a newsroom value proposition and membership appeal can be linked, consider how Glenn Burkins at QCityMetro explains the value his newsroom provides to Black residents of Charlotte, N.C.: “We’re not a mouthpiece of the community, we’re not a public relations arm, but at the same time we do advocate for the community, we do give voice to people in the community who may not have had a voice previously. When City Council is talking about something that impacts Black Charlotte, our ears perk up. That is our core audience and that’s our reason for being.” 

He draws on the value his newsroom creates by appealing to potential members to help support telling those stories. Burkins shared with MPP, “Today I quoted an African proverb [in our membership appeal] – ‘Until the lion learns to write, the story will always glorify the hunter. Join us in helping Q City Metro write the next chapter of Charlotte’s history.’ I know how important it is for Black people to tell their own stories. We don’t want to be written about. We want to be written for. We want to tell our own story because we don’t believe anyone will tell our story quite like we do.”

The mix of “me” and “we” will vary based on your cultural context. As some Latin American newsrooms told the research team, a lack of donations culture in the region makes it more challenging to appeal to that sense of higher purpose in membership calls-to-action. In these contexts, you might emphasize more strongly the benefits that come with membership, and will likely have to invest more heavily in educating them about why you have chosen a membership model.