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Premium Features

Offer More Premium Features in 2019

What sort of premium features would entice you to pay for an online publication?

It’s a question digital publishers are grappling with, and one that they must find an answer to in 2019 if they wish to survive—and thrive—in the competitive media landscape.

The business model for digital journalism is changing, with more and more publications adopting a paid model. According to the American Press Institute, 78% of newspapers with circulations of at least 50,000 have “some form of paid model,” the most common of which is a metered model. With the metered model, readers can access a certain number of articles for free (usually five or 10 per month), after which they must subscribe for full access.

Even publications that are not for-profit are trying out this model. A number of non-profit news publishers have started membership programs, where readers join for access to content. Funding from memberships makes up the bulk of these publishers’ budgets, as they do not have programmatic advertising or display advertising revenue to fall back on.

Non-profit and for-profit publishers must make sure their membership and subscription programs are on point if they expect to drive enough volume to succeed. Research has found that the most engaged 5% to 10% of a publisher’s audience will convert into paying subscribers. For these readers, being cut off from access after five or 10 articles each month is enough to spur action and drive conversions. For many others, however, there needs to be something more.

In 2019, we expect to see a greater number of digital publishers offering premium features as part of their membership and subscription programs.

What Types of Premium Features Do Readers Want?

The No. 1 thing engaged news consumers want is original content. That’s right. Readers don’t need all the bells and whistles, videos, or social media campaigns. They want premium, original reporting. This reporting should inform, educate, benefit, and entertain the readers of a publication. When those marks are all being hit, publishers can expect to see a high level of subscription or membership renewals.

Of course, all content is not created equal. While most digital news websites traffic in written content, there is a great demand among readers for video content, as well. Video on-demand is one of the most requested premium features among online news readers. Some publishers are beginning to meet this demand by launching their own branded video on-demand services or exclusive video channels that are available only to paid subscribers.

One publisher that has found particular success using premium features to encourage readers to become paying members is Slate. Slate Magazine’s Slate Plus membership costs $35 for the first year, and comes with premium features like ad-free versions of the publisher’s podcasts, extended versions of the publisher’s podcasts, access to a library of Slate Academies, early access and ticket discounts to Slate events, and access to a private Facebook group where fellow Slate fans can talk about the publication and the news of the day.

One thing you might notice is that most of Slate’s premium features are free for the publisher. For example, creating a private Facebook group for members of Slate Plus is free, and so is offering ad-free versions of the publisher’s existing podcasts. Bonus content, like extended interviews or behind-the-scenes clips from videos, provide extra value for readers without costing the publication much financially, as well.

This is a valuable lesson for publishers. Premium features don’t have to cost a fortune to be valuable to members. Most of Slate Plus’ premium features are designed to save members time or to enrich their lives in some way. For example, getting through podcasts without ads saves listeners time, and having access to a library of Slate Academies is enriching for readers.

Slate got some help determining which premium features to offer members of its Slate Plus program. The company surveyed its members to find out what they wanted and what sort of categories of content they would be most willing to support.

Publishers who take the time to survey their readers in this same way can be sure that the premium features they are offering are actually valuable, upping the chances of success with their new membership programs.

Have you thought about offering premium features to your site’s members? We’d love to hear more about which features and benefits are driving conversions for your publication.

Membership Programs for Directory Publishers

Membership Programs for Directory Publishers

Consumers are finally warming to the idea of paying for premium content, and directory publishers are capitalizing on the sea change. Like news organizations, a growing number of directory publishers are launching membership programs for their most frequent visitors.

Similar to subscription packages, premium memberships offer incremental revenue for directory publishers who’ve grown tired of the month-to-month fluctuations in display advertising.

What’s most important for directory publishers to understand is that membership programs are a beneficial tool for leveraging an existing platform. The strategy itself also fosters better relationships between publishers, readers, and business advertisers. When digital publishers launch directory membership programs, they decrease their reliance on online advertising and business sponsors.

How Do Directory Memberships Work?

One of the most successful revenue models for directory publishers is the paid membership. Paid memberships are driven by readers, which means publishers that go this route can dedicate themselves to meeting the needs of readers without having to spend time catering to the needs of advertisers.

Website visitors who’ve found value in the directory can purchase premium memberships for special access to content and other exclusive benefits. This works similarly to a subscription, where premium content is reserved for visitors who pay a regular fee.

Membership packages are generally paid for through self-service portals on the directory website, with new members being encouraged to pay on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. Some programs offer reduced prices for members who pay annually. From that point, memberships are billed automatically through the publisher’s chosen payment gateway. Memberships may be considered tax deductible, depending on the publisher’s tax status.

Once readers have become paying members, they are given login credentials to enter each time they arrive at the directory. Entering these credentials unlocks content that other visitors don’t have access to, such as enhanced listings and reviews. Directory members may also receive special benefits, including things like:

  • Access to private Facebook groups
  • Free admission to members-only events
  • Members-only emails
  • Branded tote bags, t-shirts, and other swag

Publishers who have created membership programs for their online directories will often introduce tiers or levels. Readers who purchase lower tier memberships get fewer benefits, while those at the highest levels get special “benefactor” status, in addition to more discounts and swag.

Which Directories Have Successful Membership Programs?

While it is true from a technical sense that any online directory can create a membership or subscription program, the reality is that this strategy works better for some publishers than others. The greater the competition in the publisher’s niche, the less likely a membership program is going to be successful. You’re less likely to see a paid membership program for a local business directory (which has competition from the Yellow Pages, Yelp, and many other websites) than you would for a directory that’s focused on a niche topic.

Publishers with online directories focused on certain hobbies tend to have the greatest success in cultivating the type of dedicated fan base that’s required to have a successful membership program. For example, trade groups will often create membership programs to go along with their online directories. People who become members of the trade group can access premium listings in the directory, or they themselves can be listed, depending on the types of services they offer.

Backstage.com offers us another example of a site with a popular membership program. For $99 per year, performers can become Backstage members and add their own talent profiles to Backstage’s online directory. They can also sign up to receive instant notifications when new job listings go live, and they have access to listings that other readers can’t see on the website.

Why Do Directory Publishers Create Membership Programs?

Membership programs help loosen the reliance that directory publishers have on digital advertising and business sponsorships. But unlike subscriptions, which simply involve website visitors paying a fee for access to premium content, membership programs offer a greater sense of belonging.

Website visitors who sign on to become members of their favorite online directories feel like they are in an exclusive club, and they are more likely to promote the directory to their friends and to support the directory publicly in other ways. Some membership programs allow only a certain percentage of website visitors to become members, creating greater demand for the membership, while others use private Facebook groups and Slack channels to bring their members together under one roof.

What’s most important here is that creating a membership program makes readers feel like they belong to something valuable. It’s more than just a financial transaction. That’s the real reason why publishers decide to setup membership programs instead of traditional subscription packages.

membership program

Local Lessons From The Daily Beast’s New Membership Program

Membership programs are all the rage among digital publishers right now, with The Daily Beast becoming the latest outlet to enter the fray. Daily Beast readers who want early access and exclusive content can pay $100 to join Beast Inside, a membership program that positions readers as team members and decreases the publication’s reliance on outside advertising dollars and sponsorships.

The Daily Beast is the latest in a long line of online publishers exploring this type of membership model. Unlike subscriptions, which turn readers into consumers buying a product, and donations, which turn readers into saviors of local journalism, membership programs turn readers into partners.

Over at The Daily Beast, CEO Heather Dietrick says her membership model is about building deeper, more intimate relationships with the website’s most loyal readers. Although Dietrick believes that The Daily Beast is in a better position to pivot to the membership model than publications that have relied heavily on Facebook as a source of traffic generation, there are certainly lessons that local publishers can learn from the launch of Beast Inside. Here are a few things that stand out.

Membership programs should be designed for a publication’s readers.

The Daily Beast did its due diligence before introducing a membership program. The publication knows that its readers tend to be urban, affluent, news junkies, and as a result, its membership program delivers on the content that those readers are likely to prefer.

This isn’t a strategy that’s exclusive to The Daily Beast or other large digital publishers. Small hyperlocal publications can take advantage of web analytics and reader surveys to find out who their regular readers are and what types of coverage they enjoy. This information can then be used to design a membership program that readers can’t help but want to join.

Readers will pay for a quality product.

One of the biggest hesitations local publishers have about launching a membership program has to do with pricing. Many community-focused publishers are worried about alienating their readership with a membership program that costs too much. At the same time, setting too low of a price doesn’t give local publishers the revenue they need to support the very initiatives that are most likely to make people want to become members.

At $100 per year for a membership, Beast Inside gives the publication enough leeway to create some really interesting content, like a members-only mysteries series, exclusive podcasts, and a customizable email newsletter.

Newsletters are a valuable commodity.

With the news cycle moving at warp speed, people are searching for ways to distill the top headlines of the day. One of the exclusives that The Daily Beast gives to readers who join its membership programs is access to The Cheat Sheet, an email newsletter that’s designed to keep people updated on the most important stories.

The Daily Beast is allowing members of its Beast Inside program to customize their email newsletters. For example, readers who can’t get enough political coverage can switch to an all-politics edition. This is a step that local publishers could easily replicate, offering special versions of email newsletters dedicated to certain topics or areas of news coverage for people who join their membership programs.

Free content still has a place in online publishing.

When publications launch paywalls and subscription programs, there’s a tendency to want to lock down free content as a way to encourage people to pay for access. The Daily Beast has moved in the opposite direction. CEO Heather Dietrick says the company plans to keep its core product widely available. Doing so, she believes, will allow more readers to discover the content and consider becoming paid members.

A publisher’s free content serves as a form of advertising. And since industry research suggests that just 2% of a publisher’s audience will pay for access to content, keeping the majority of articles open allows publishers to still generate revenue from online advertising.

Instead of forcing people to pay for access to content they’ve previously enjoyed for free, the membership model rewards readers for their support with access to new forms of exclusive content. In that way, the membership model appears to be a much more sustainable source of recurring revenue for local publishers looking to reach long-term goals.

Membership Program

What Local Publishers Can Learn from The Guardian’s Revamped Membership Program

In a time when journalism is struggling, The Guardian seems to have cracked the code.

The London-based news organization struggled in recent years as the cost of doing business rose and advertising rates dwindled. Despite an ambitious plan to expand its international coverage, the paper saw just $15.5 million in revenue from April 2015 to 2016, at the same time it had more than $15 million in operating losses.

All that to say, it was time to shake things up.

Although The Guardian’s membership program isn’t new—the organization started the program to encourage grassroots support back in 2014—it’s gotten new life in the past few years. The Guardian is hoping to reach one million subscribers by April 2019.

Originally setup as a paywall alternative—then-CEO Andrew Miller said at the time that paywalls are “an inverse loyalty scheme,” where the more people consume the more they pay—The Guardian’s membership program was meant to add more value for people who wanted to get involved in the organization.

Two years later, The Guardian was re-emphasizing the potential for the program with an “enhanced membership offer” that was supposed to double the revenue from readers. The Guardian’s enhanced membership offer was created by a team of editorial, commercial, engineers, and UX experts. Twelve thousand readers had joined at that point, and the program mainly consisted of in-person events that members were invited to attend. Because most of these events happened in or around London, interest in the membership program from readers outside of the area was low.

So what’s changed? For one thing, The Guardian created a new incentive-based program, where readers are encouraged to contribute because they value the news, not because they might win free swag.

Back when The Guardian’s membership program was first introduced in 2014, readers could join for free at the “friend” tier, or they could become “partners” for £15 a month and get discounted tickets to events. Few members signed up to become “patrons” at the time, which would have given them discounts and access to newsroom events for around £60 per month.

With the new membership program in place, The Guardian is asking readers to join at the “supporter” tier for £5. Membership at the partner and patron tiers still costs the same, but it includes tickets to more live events and premium extras online.

While The Guardian has found that live events are still an effective incentive to encourage memberships, they leave out readers who live outside of London. Digital extras have proven to be a more effective way to promote memberships around the globe. For example, The Guardian now sends supporters a weekly newsletter, along with a “behind the scenes” story production series, and exclusive Q&As with columnists. The Guardian has developed a podcast based on calls and questions from supporters, as well.

The Guardian is also placing a request for contributions at the foot of articles, encouraging readers to support quality journalism for as little as $1 a month. The request includes a clear call-to-action, with a link to pay immediately via PayPal or credit card. Coming up with the perfect messaging for these requests took time and patience. The Guardian tested 30 messages, each with a different length and pitch, before finding the right tone. The pitch that The Guardian came up with highlights the company’s independence, ownership structure, and the cost of producing high-quality journalism.

That strategy seems to be working. Reader revenue, which includes memberships, along with more traditional subscriptions, newsstand sales, and one-time contributions, surpassed advertising dollars by the end of 2016. The number of readers who support The Guardian regularly doubled in the last year, with 500,000 individuals now contributing monthly as members or subscribers, and 300,000 having made one-time donations.

5 Takeaways from The Guardian’s Successful Membership Program:

  1. Make sure readers understand why it’s important to support local journalism.
  2. Focus on giving members more content, rather than putting up paywalls.
  3. Find ways to make members feel valued.
  4. Use live events as a way to encourage readers to become members.
  5. Include a request for contributions at the foot of any investigative articles.
Membership Programs for Publishers

How 5 Publishers Use Membership Programs to Maximize Revenue

Membership programs have become a source of sustenance for independent local publishers struggling to make up for decreasing ad revenue. While there’s no firm count on exactly how many local publishers are selling memberships to readers, the number is clearly growing. Forward-thinking publishers are finding new ways to maximize revenue through their membership programs, as they adjust the pricing and benefits to suit unique reader demographics.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve already learned what membership programs are and how the membership model works for local publishers. Now lets look at some real world examples of how digital news organizations are structuring their membership programs.

1. The Ferret
Over in Scotland, The Ferret relies on news tips from its members to support its editorial efforts. The investigative journalism platform—which is technically a co-op, with both journalists and readers on its board—is completely ad free. Instead of generating revenue through advertising, The Ferret uses a membership model with five pricing levels, ranging from £3 per month to £500 for a lifetime membership. The Ferret also offers a free community membership, which allows readers to take part in online forum discussions, while still limiting the number of premium stories they can read each month. The Ferret’s reporters discuss story ideas with members before starting new investigative work. The site’s director, Peter Geoghegan, credits that transparency among members with promoting social sharing on sites like Facebook and Twitter, since members are more inclined to share links to articles when they feel like they’ve made a contribution to the website.

2. azcentral
Part of the USA Today Network, azcentral is a local news source for Arizona. The company’s “Insider” membership program is designed to promote its subscription sales, as memberships are only available to people who’ve subscribed to either the print or digital editions. As with many similar membership programs, azcentral’s membership program gives subscribers the feeling of being on the “inside” of the newsroom. Members can get premium access to special events, local discounts, and other perks, like the ability to read certain stories and participate in games that non-members cannot. Members also get first dibs on purchasing tickets to local shows and events.

3. Berkeleyside
Berkeley’s independent news website is entirely reader-supported. Unlike many of its industry peers, Berkeleyside doesn’t charge readers for access to stories. Instead, the site suggests a number of ways that readers can help out, including sending in tips and sharing articles on social media. Certainly one of the most effective ways Berkeleyside has been able to generate revenue is through a paid membership program. Members have the option to contribute once a month, and in exchange they receive tickets to an annual members-only party, a free t-shirt, discounted tickets to local events, and advance notice of all other special events.

4. Charlotte Agenda
Positioning itself as the user’s guide to Charlotte, the Charlotte Agenda publishes five to 10 stories on its website each day and sends a popular email newsletter each morning. The Agenda’s membership program was developed as a way to build deeper relationships with the site’s most loyal readers. A list of members is posted publicly on The Agenda’s website. Members get early access to events, invites to member meet ups, discounts at local businesses, an exclusive “insider” newsletter, and free swag when they pay in advance. Members are also asked to weigh in on hot local topics, and The Agenda publishes those thoughts on a regular basis as op-eds on its website.

5. Honolulu Civil Beat
Launched in 2010, the Honolulu Civil Beat is a tax-exempt news organization. That means that donations to the Civil Beat’s membership program are tax deductible. Memberships start at $5 per month. For that price, members get access to a monthly members-only newsletter and invitations to coffee meet ups with the Civil Beat’s staff. The Civil Beat has developed a tiered pricing structure, where members who pay more receive more benefits. For example, members who pay $120 per year get advance notice and reserved seating at monthly Civil Beat events, and members who pay $1,000 or more a year get invitations to VIP donor experiences.

To find even more publishers utilizing a membership model, check out this database from The Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project focusing on the future of sustainable journalism.

Hyperlocal Publishers

The A-to-Z Guide to Membership Programs

As they look at declining ad rates, independent publishers are searching for new paths to financial sustainability. While there is no single solution that works for everyone, membership programs are growing in popularity among online news publishers.

Premium memberships aren’t the same thing as subscriptions or paywalls. Paywalls block access to content for visitors who haven’t paid to subscribe to a website. There was a time when people questioned whether paywalls could actually save journalism. The answer, however, appears to be no, as more local publishers have transitioned away from traditional paywalls in favor of the more enticing membership model.

Restricting access to content lowers page views and drives down advertising revenue. Paid memberships generate incremental revenue without limiting reach, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving away everything for free. The most successful membership programs emphasize value added extras for readers who are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee.

Independent publisher memberships provide readers with extra benefits, sort of like a VIP room for loyal readers. The extra benefits publishers offer to their members might include things like premium video content, discounts at participating businesses, in-person access to reporters at meet-ups, or branded swag.

In order to develop membership programs that readers will actually want to join, publishers need to really get know their readers. What do readers want? What do they need? What types of rewards will motivate them to consider paying for a membership? Some publishers are conducting focus groups to find out this information, while others are having success posting queries to readers on their social media channels.

Here are more details about how publishers are structuring their membership programs.

Offering discounts for loyalty.

A publication’s longtime readers will usually become its first paying subscribers. Reward them for that loyalty. When The Atlantic launched its paid membership program, the Masthead, last September, the company offered a discounted bundle to early adopters that included both print and digital subscriptions to The Atlantic, in addition to exclusive content, discounts to events, and access to private social media pages.

Integrate calls-to-action to subscribe.

Calls-to-action encouraging readers to sign up to become members should be integrated throughout a publisher’s website. It’s not enough to promote the program with a banner ad or within a website footer. According to Mary Walter-Brown, CEO of News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that helps journalism organizations with member recruitment, publishers should take advantage of fundraising software and include numerous calls-to-action to subscribe. That means giving readers multiple opportunities to donate on the website homepage, within each article, and in any email newsletters.

Walter-Brown also says it’s also important to “personalize the ask” by letting readers know what the publication stands for and how the publication’s journalism is impacting the lives of locals.

Finding new ways to utilize audience data.

A paywall requires visitors to pay for access to content, but data walls put an emphasis on personal information that’s not necessarily tied to a fee. Publishers who are utilizing data walls as part of their membership models are asking site visitors to provide information about themselves—such as email addresses, phone numbers, or demographic information—in exchange for access to premium content. With the right marketing and advertising strategies in place, publishers generate revenue from this data, either by using the information to re-target visitors or by selling it to brands and other outside vendors.

Maxing out the membership rewards.

Most readers won’t pay for something they were previously getting for free, so the benefits that publishers offer as part of their memberships need to be enticing. A few examples of the creative rewards that publishers are offering:

  • Discounts on bundled subscription packages that combine digital and print editions
  • Exclusive access to podcasts and articles available only to members
  • Conference call access to reporters and editors
  • Discounts to local events or businesses
  • Members-only Facebook groups
  • Behinds-the-scenes access to the newsroom
  • Free e-book downloads

Emphasizing audience participation.

A membership model positions readers as partners in the organization. In the words of Jay Rosen, NYU professor and director of the Membership Puzzle Project, which is researching sustainable solutions for the journalism industry, that means publishers with membership programs are “reporting with, not for,” their audiences.

When they adopt membership programs, publishers open the door for readers to engage with reporters and editors in integrated ways. Reader participation should be requested, and then based on that feedback publishers can make the necessary adjustments or changes to their membership programs. Participation can also lead to news scoops, since readers typically have their boots on the ground in local communities in a way that reporters and editors do not.

If you’re interested in launching a membership program, we’d be happy to help. Please reach out for more information about the solutions we offer at Web Publisher PRO.