Membership Programs

How Membership Programs Succeed — 5 Takeaways from The Membership Puzzle Project’s Newest Guide

In order for the membership model to work, digital publishers have to be selling more than just a product or a cause. Publishers need to be offering transparency and meaningful opportunities to actually contribute if they want their membership programs to succeed.

That’s just one of the many lessons laid out in The Membership Guide, a guide to building sustainable membership programs from The Membership Puzzle Project.

This isn’t the first time The Membership Puzzle Project has put together this type of resource. The grant-funded public research project has spent years studying how to develop news organizations that are optimized for trust. Along the way, the group has developed a number of practical guides for publishers who are considering launching their own membership programs.

In this latest guide, The Membership Puzzle Project takes it a step further than before. The group argues that journalism is facing a trust crisis and a sustainability crisis, and that membership programs offer a solution to these problems. The Membership Handbook outlines a number of steps and strategies that publishers should take as they work to develop more sustainable models, and it takes a comprehensive look at the challenges that digital publishers are facing when they work to create the kinds of membership programs that have long-term staying power. The recommended strategies are backed up with research and case studies from more than two dozen news organizations.

Check out our five key takeaways from the membership guide.

The Membership Handbook – 5 Key Takeaways

#1 – There is no one-size-fits-all approach to membership models.

Digital publishers who are launching membership programs should keep in mind that the one-size-fits-all formula just doesn’t work in this setting. There are too many variations between publications and audiences for the one-size-fits-all approach to work. Publishers who are considering launching their own membership programs should keep in mind that developing a successful program takes time and requires a fair amount of experimentation. The “right” approach will likely evolve over time, as the publication’s audience size grows. A publisher’s willingness to learn from what’s working (and what’s not) is crucial when it comes to developing a successful membership program.

#2 – The cornerstone of a membership program is the value proposition.

Through research and discussions with publishers who have had success with membership programs, The Membership Puzzle Project’s team found that the cornerstone for a successful program needs to be a strong value proposition.

A value proposition is a statement of the value that a membership creates to address a particular need. Publishers should define a value proposition for anything they create, including any subscription or membership programs.

The Membership Puzzle Project asked 25 newsrooms what membership means to them and found that the best value propositions articulate how the experience of membership provides value to the publication’s members. Defining the value proposition is the first step to making a pitch to readers to join a membership or subscription program.

#3 – Audience research should inform the value proposition.

How do you create a value proposition that readers will respond to? As a best practice, publishers should expect to test multiple value propositions as they work to refine their offerings. With the test and learn strategy, publishers know that they don’t need to be perfect on the first try. Maybe the first incarnation of the membership program is lacking in some ways. That’s OK! As long as publishers feel comfortable learning from their mistakes, they can continue refining their programs until they’ve found a concept that really resonates with readers.

#4 – Everyone struggles with pricing.

Publishers get anxious talking about money. Setting a price for a membership program is one of the toughest parts of the process. Through research and interviews, The Membership Puzzle Project found that these are the best strategies for deciding how much to charge for a membership:

  • Ask readers what they are willing to pay.
  • Look at the range of contributions in previous fundraising efforts.
  • Find out what other membership programs are charging.
  • Start the program with multiple pricing tiers or a pay-what-you-can option.

#5 – Retaining members is just as essential as acquiring members.

Although there are many publications that focus all of their attention on acquiring new members, research shows that isn’t the right approach. Publishers have more success when they focus on retaining the members they have. Member retention is less expensive and yields greater benefits over the long-term.

What’s the secret to keeping member relationships strong? One strategy is to continue finding links between supporters and newsroom staff. Relationship-building also relies on the consistent delivery of the value proposition.

To learn even more about building sustainable membership programs, check out The Membership Puzzle Project’s complete guide.