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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.