How should we onboard our new members?

Your onboarding series, also known as a drip campaign, is basically a welcome package to your new members. The welcome email – which is different from the payment confirmation email – is your opportunity to say an enthusiastic “Thank you!” to your new member. The series of emails that follows is an opportunity to orient them to your publication and their new relationship to it. MPP strongly encourages newsrooms not to overlook the chance to onboard new members. They’ve started a relationship with you – and now it’s on you to take them by the hand and lead them through the membership journey.

For those newsrooms with a large number of non-digital audience members, you’ll need to also plan an analog onboarding experience. At WURD Radio in Philadelphia, many of their members pay by putting a check in the mail. You can’t tie an automated email series to that. Their membership coordinator calls the member when WURD receives their check, and lets the member know they’ll be getting their membership package in two to four weeks. This process is labor intensive, but necessary for serving a crucial segment of WURD’s audience.

Onboarding is the first step to retaining your new members, which is why this appears both in the launching stage – because you shouldn’t launch your membership program without it – and the retention stage.

There is no magic number of onboarding emails. We recommend starting with between two and four, and studying the open rate on the whole series to figure out the right number for your readers. There will be some dropoff, but you should aim to keep the open rate above 50 percent. 

Member-driven newsrooms use onboarding emails to: 

  • Say thank you (again).
  • Explain the benefits of membership
  • Introduce members to key members of the staff, including the editor/publisher and their primary point of contact (the person who is most directly managing the membership program)
  • Gather additional information about members via onboarding surveys 
  • Share some of the ways members can contribute beyond becoming a paying member
  • Share work that members have made possible
  • Encourage members to recruit other members 
  • Collect physical addresses for swag fulfillment 
  • Tell them how to get in touch with you

Here are some best practices for onboarding emails:

Send your onboarding emails from a personable email address. This is not the place to use noreply@[domain]. Many organizations use hello@[domain] or members@[domain].

Send your onboarding emails from and to a real person. Your onboarding emails should be written by and signed by recognizable individuals in your organization, such as the founder or a well-known reporter, or the person members will hear from the most often, such as your membership editor. Consider including a photo of the writer. And since you have their first name from their registration, use a merge tag to address the email to them specifically.  

Give only one “job” to each onboarding email. Limit the number of “jobs” each onboarding email does to one or two. If you’re introducing new members to your team and how you work, don’t also enumerate their benefits in that email. Make the onboarding emails simple to digest and act on, if there’s an action needed (such as filling out an onboarding survey). 

For example, when in Poland created an onboarding series for their flagship newsletter, The Brief, they originally had just two emails. The first, written by the editor-in-chief, welcomed them, reiterated value proposition, and explained what to expect from the Brief. The second one explained how made editorial decisions and its financial model, but after several emails from confused readers, they realized that they had packed too much into that second email and split it into two separate emails. When they launch their membership program in fall 2020, they will add a fourth email inviting newsletter subscribers to become a member. 

Giving each newsletter in the series just one job doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep them short, though. For example, inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Zetland in Denmark welcomes its new members with a long email about their mission and their journey. In 2020, amid concerns about losing members due to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis, Zetland (which has a paywall) began offering new members the opportunity to share articles with their contacts as part of the onboarding process.


How Zetland retained its members through coronavirus and a recession

Offering discounts for membership is a delicate balance. If you discount it too much, you risk devaluing membership.

Use onboarding emails as an opportunity to get to know your new members. What else do you want to know about your members in order to make your journalism and your membership program more desirable? Ask questions that can give you data about that. Krauteporter in Germany, Maldita in Spain, and the Daily Maverick in South Africa (and likely many others) all use their onboarding series to ask members about their area of expertise so they can leverage that in their journalism. In its onboarding survey, Black Ballad in the UK asks members what three topics they’re most interested in and how they want to have an impact on the world, which informs the team’s decision about what topics to focus on in their editorial campaigns.  


How Black Ballad turns member surveys into new revenue streams

Their goal is to be the one who knows the Black British professional woman better than anyone else – and to monetize that knowledge.

Some organizations continue to “onboard” new members for an entire year. Because onboarding series are set up to send automatically at preset time increments (hence the term “drip campaign”), this is easy to set up. Consider sending an email at the three-month or six-month mark that includes a Net Promoter Score survey or more detailed survey to see how you’re doing. If members are happy, you can ask them to encourage others to join. 

For example, De Correspondent in the Netherlands surveys new members about how their member experience compares to their expectations within 30 days of joining, and then surveys them on a quarterly basis about their experience and what they would like to see on the platform. They send their last onboarding email as the member’s one-year anniversary/annual renewal date approaches. 

Find more tips on sending great welcome emails from Cory Brown at The Byline, published by Pico. For an onboarding campaign template, see The News Revenue Hub’s suggestions here.