When it comes to membership models, as opposed to subscriptions only, there is a wide spectrum of organisations that news producers can learn from. The Membership Puzzle Project (MPP), founded in 2017, is a public research outfit designed to disseminate this knowledge and offer support to newsrooms around the world as they seek to shift towards membership models.
In week two of the FIPP D2C Summit, MPP’s Fund Director, Ariel Zirulnick, explained more about how it works to Robbie Baxter, bestselling author of The Forever Transaction and co-organiser of the Summit.
Beyond hunches and hierarchy: equipping teams with the right skills
MPP was launched in May 2017 to support organisations transitioning to a membership model beyond US public radio, which has a more established relationship with membership as a revenue source, explained Zirulnick. “MPP was looking to help organisations go a step beyond audiences offering ongoing financial support,” she said. “MPP sees membership not only as a revenue source but an editorial opportunity.”
MPP published research on early successes with the aim of helping other news organisations follow best practice across different contexts, studying needs of members of specific newsrooms and other types of organisations to document what they do well.
With a strong global outlook, in 2019 the Membership in News Fund supported 23 newsrooms in 13 countries. In 2021, that number is 16 newsrooms in 13 countries. Partners have included Skalawag Magazine (based in the US south) and DoR (Decat o Revista) in Romania, a narrative storytelling organisation that produces a magazine and live journalism events.
“What MPP does is to help these publications create a truly digital membership programme,” said Zirulnick. “Part of that is developing specific skillsets among staff, like relationship-building skills, since membership is not just a monetary ask but a social contract between reader and newsroom. There’s a whole new skillset that journalists need to equip themselves with to nurture these relationships.”
Subscriptions can usually scale much more quickly than membership. However, membership is more relationship-based and therefore has less churn. People stick with it.Ariel Zirulnick
DoR, for example, came to MPP with a proposed “curriculum” for learning these new skills. Together they developed a list of priorities, even enlisting neuroscientists to help understand human behaviour and learn how to foster a sense of connection.
As well as community engagement and management skills, digital marketing skills are critical. “That’s because essentially, a membership is a tiny e-commerce business,” explained Zirulnick.
“You also need skills in editorial, and product management – because this is an iterative project that needs to be responsive to audience needs. Then there’s analytics – you need the ability to store and act on data. Editors traditionally made decisions based on hunches and newsroom hierarchy, but now we have data to inform us. Finally, you need technical skills for processing payments and maintaining members’ data.”
Cultivating a membership mindset
It must be remembered that an audience-centric approach is the baseline of all successful membership programmes. While it is hard to say which of these skills are paramount, since all are important, what is noteworthy is that the skills are secondary to the mindset, as Zirulnick said. That often means a necessary change of attitude among staff at all levels.
“The best are not just broadcasting to their audience, but are curious about them, their views, and incorporating that feedback into their work. If the respect and listening capabilities aren’t there, you’ll struggle to get beyond a membership plateau,” she added. “If you’re not sending surveys, doing research etc. then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and make contact with your audiences.”
Memberships vs subscriptions?
Baxter pointed out that there is a difference between memberships and subscriptions, in particular for news and media organisations.
“This distinction was one of the first things MPP sought to tackle,” explained Zirulnick. “For MPP, membership is redefined as a social contract in which members give their money, expertise, time, etc. to news organisations, which in turn offer transparency, ways to meaningfully shape the organisation and chances to expand the impact of the work and the cause.”
Subscriptions, meanwhile, are more straightforwardly about paying for access to a service. “This access is what you’re monetising,” she said. “Crucially, subscriptions can usually scale much more quickly than membership. However, membership is more relationship-based and therefore has less churn. People stick with it.”
Devising a successful membership model
On that note, Zirulnick identified some of the pillars of successful memberships created by news and media organisations. “Mobilising the feeling of community and cause around your journalism is so important,” she said. “Telling a compelling story is also a cornerstone of a membership organisation. Essentially, you need to be able to put the cause at the centre of the work – and this is what membership enables. Lastly, clearly defining your value proposition.”
On that last point, Zirulnick advises not “copying and pasting” a value proposition from another organisation, but tailoring it to your own. “Every newsroom’s audience is different, so the value proposition will change according to whether you’re local, international, small, large, single issue, and so on,” she said. “You’re pitching a cause, and it needs to resonate with audience members accordingly.”
She added: “Outside of the media space, one of the things MPP has seen over and over again in churches, open software communities, environmental cooperatives, even Burning Man Festival, is memberships which make a pitch that worked by offering to restore something that seems broken in the world. This allows people to feel like they are acting and doing something to help – and your job is to provide multiple ways to help your members do the fixing.”
Baxter agreed that creating this space and ability to connect with others under an organisational umbrella, which goes well beyond just good content, is key – even if audience members have quite different motivations.
“That layering on of different benefits – it allows you to be flexible and appealing to different types of people within your audience. People want different things out of a membership, for example some will want an opportunity to contribute to fact-checking while others are happy just to have access to events.”
Zirulnick sees a kind of hybrid beginning to form. “There’s a lot of learning by journalists from community organisers now,” she said. A good example is The Bureau Local, in the UK, which has lots of community organisers on its team. “They make sure that at every stage of the journalistic process, there’s an opportunity for members to contribute.”
The urgency of having to ask for support during the pandemic has meant that newsrooms became convinced to make the leap to memberships or paid content more quickly.Ariel Zirulnick
The impact of Covid-19
Asked about how the pandemic has affected MPP’s work, Zirulnick said it has been a mixed bag, with some negatives but many more positives for the membership space more generally.
“Zoom meetings obviously don’t provide the same casual opportunities to pick up on ideas or news, and we can’t do the same level of embedding or answering questions after a conference,” she said. However, partnering with international organisations like MDIF, with deep knowledge of the global south and other regions, allowed them to fill in the gaps and gain regional insight, once travel became impossible with Covid.
The bright spot is that audience revenues and memberships in general have accelerated. “The urgency of having to ask for support during the pandemic has meant that newsrooms became convinced to make the leap to memberships or paid content more quickly,” said Zirulnick. “The pandemic proved to people working in media that if you ask for money in a transparent way, clearly explaining the reasons, you’ll be surprised that audiences respond positively and are willing to donate and provide support.”
Zirulnick spoke about newsletters specifically with regard to Covid. “More broadly, they’re a good engagement strategy and provide an excellent opportunity for creating a feedback loop rather than bombarding audiences with information,” she explained. “One of the things I’m watching though is all the Covid newsletters which have popped up, and how news organisations will wind them down. What are they doing now to off-board people from a newsletter and into a subscription or membership programme?”
One downside to newsletters is that they become a little bit generic, said Zirulnick. “It’s the same thing as before – we’re back to hunches and hierarchy. Once they reach a certain level of success with a newsletter, people begin to slip and make decisions without listening to audience members. But audiences should be asked on an ongoing basis: what do you want to know more about? What are you missing? What should we highlight? What questions do you have that you’d like to see in the newsletter?”
On that same point, memberships should not be static. “Some of the early benefits you offer might not be scalable or might change as a competitor comes along,” said Zirulnick. Media organisations should therefore be tracking satisfaction levels among members from the get-go.
Free resources from MPP
Finally, MPP is offering some exciting free resources as it winds up its operation in August this year. Its membership guide offers a tactical, practical guide to making the shift to membership, and is available in English and Spanish now, with Portuguese and French set to be translated by the end of summer. “This is MPP’s ultimate research project, that pertains to more than just the newsroom,” said Zirulnick.
Secondly, in the first week of August they are hosting a big online celebration, with case studies, of all the progress made in memberships in the past few years. “This is where MPP takes a step back to showcase those who’ve made membership work for them in the past three years,” she said. This global gathering will also work on some of the remaining challenges. Learn more here.