How can digital publishers encourage new subscriptions and build loyalty with current subscribers?
The starting point, of course, is high-quality content: if audiences don't value your stories, then everything else will be ineffective.
However, good content isn't always enough in itself to get readers to subscribe and to maintain their commitments. Often publishers need to offer something more in order to entice newcomers and keep existing audiences engaged.
What is this something more? One increasingly popular approach is membership communities. These can take a range of different forms — from providing occasional online access to staff members to putting on large in-person festivals — but the overall goal is the same: to enable select audiences to go beyond passive consumption and to participate on some deeper level.
The key to the effectiveness of membership communities is that they serve an important need: People want to share their opinions on stories, interact with journalists and editors, and actively engage with ideas in a way that is ordered and controlled (i.e., that's not the messy free-for-all of social media and unmonitored comment sections).
So, what do membership communities look like in action? How are they being utilized by organizations to encourage subscriptions, increase revenue, and build loyalty? Here are four examples that digital publishers can learn from:
- Conference calls: Access to Quartz journalists for discussions on various topics
- Field guides: Pieces that go in-depth into an industry, company, or phenomenon that’s important to Quartz's readership, with expert analysis and predictions
- Profiles and Q&As: Interviews with leaders who are shaping the future of business. Members can submit questions and ideas ahead of time
- Events: Invitations to interact in-person with other Quartz members
What publishers can learn from the program: The Quartz approach is a good example of a modern membership community: it mixes a range of different offerings — including content, access to staff, and in-person events — to keep audiences engaged (and paying).
- Texas Tribune
- Access: Behind-the-scenes insights to the Texas Tribune newsroom, including Q&As with reporters and sneak peeks at special projects
- The Festival: Discounted passes and priority seating at the Texas Tribune Festival, an annual, three-day event that covers politics and policy
Members who commit to higher donation tiers receive additional benefits, including:
- Invites to exclusive experiences with political insiders, Tribune community members, and industry colleagues
- Quarterly members-only stakeholder reports
- Discounted access to the Tribune's event space
What publishers can learn from the program: The Texas Tribune model is interesting because it doesn't treat its membership community as a separate product. Rather, it is a reward for all those who consistently support the publication. The approach also shows how a membership community can be comprised of various tiers with different levels of benefits.
- The Tyee
What it is: In a similar fashion to The Texas Tribune, The Tyee, an independent Canadian publisher, rewards all those who donate with membership perks. This community — who it calls Tyee Builders — receive:
- Editorial reports
- Discounts from partners
- Random swag giveaways
- Discounts on special events
- Tyee Master Classes (workshops led by staff members)
In addition to all that, members get input into what the organization covers. As the publisher puts it: "We want to know which issues matter most to you. Energy and environment? Inequality? Electoral reform? When you sign up, you’ll complete a news priority survey that will help inform our reporting."
What publishers can learn from the program: The Tyee's news priority survey highlights an important fact about membership communities: individuals who subscribe to/support content publications tend to care deeply about the coverage. Given that, engaging audiences in the creation process can be just as, or even more, rewarding than benefits such as discounts, events, and classes.
- De Correspondent
What it is: De Correspondent, a Dutch outlet, takes The Tyee's approach one step further: community members aren't just surveyed about their interests, they become active participants in the publisher's journalism.
As De Correspondent's founder put it in a public mission statement:
"[We make] the journalistic process transparent [so it is] it possible for readers to take part in that process. They can share their own questions, knowledge, and experiences with the correspondent. That partnership with readers is crucial to achieving De Correspondent’s mission. For we believe that a hundred readers always know more than a single journalist. We don’t view our 'audience' as passive consumers of information whose attention needs to be 'grabbed' by sensational headlines, but as the greatest untapped source of knowledge and experience that journalism has at its disposal."
What publishers can learn from the program: De Correspondent's approach is likely further than most publishers want to go. Still, it raises a key idea: the 'community' element in a 'membership community' shouldn't be a buzzword, it should be vital; the more that audiences feel that an organization is trying to solicit and interact — the more they truly believe a vibrant community is being built — the more likely they are to commit ongoing support.