Solving for subscriptions: How the Membership Puzzle Project addresses the paid vs non-paid divide

As revenue models shift from advertising to users, digital publishers today need to know more than ever what draws—and keeps—readers. Zeroing in on the 10% who are already the most loyal and engaged is one good way to get smarter about that.

“There’s a virtuous effect on everyone else once you understand how to design for the needs of that group,” explained Emily Goligoski, research director of the Membership Puzzle Project (MPP), at a recent presentation for Chartbeat’s Subscriptions Accelerator. The MPP studies the best practices of independent publications with membership-focused revenue models. Goligoski noted that the organization aims to distinguish the terms “subscriber,” which is more transactional in nature, from “member,” described as those in which a community of supporters contributes time, money, ideas, connections, and skills.

Here are five key considerations for publishers determining whether subscriber- or member-based revenue models are the best approach for their business:

Members desire news discourse over deluge

“We’ve heard significant complaints about news sites that pile on to the ‘story of the day’ with details of little consequence, offer distracting ads and user experiences, or wrap up a story in a tidy way that doesn’t do justice to its weight,” said Goligoski. Members don’t want drummed-up drama or bantering sound bites. Rather, they want the publications they back to stand apart with smarter takes and disciplined coverage.

Emily Goligoski Membership Puzzle Project
Pictured above: Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project at Chartbeat

Many member-backed publications are harnessing that desire for depth to fund specific reporting, like The Guardian, which raised nearly $115,000 earmarked specifically for a series on the fight over America’s public lands.

Participation improves your product

Publishers that offer multiple ways for people outside of traditional news organizations to contribute what they know resonate the most with readers, Goligoski said. For example, leveraging a member’s relevant legal expertise or rallying their most engaged members to help with an investigation of domestic hate crimes, as the team at the Center for Investigative Reporting showed. This membership structure requires transparency—tell contributors exactly how their input informed coverage, Goligoski noted.

Seeing readers as more than revenue

“Often, even longtime members and donors can’t name more than one person responsible for producing the site,” Goligoski said. “That suggests we need to make our team more visible, and ourselves less institutional.” This is especially important in this era of fake-news accusations and an overall lack of trust in institutions.

The South African investigative site Daily Maverick’s Reader Covenant tells readers what to expect from the site (journalism that doesn’t waste their time) and what the site expects from readers (real names attached to comments). Outside Magazine publishes a “By the Numbers” feature that showcases the human hours and talent that goes into producing a single issue.

Show them the money

“When we keep our processes closed, it makes it seem like we have something to hide,” Goligoski said. “That understandably leads to distrust and dismissal.” One, albeit extreme, example is Global Ground Media’s list of operational expenses for investigations, which is down to the Euro cent.

A content experience that matches the user

Publishers should offer a reasonable experience from their newsletters, sites and apps, Goligoski said. “We’re all sick of seeing sponsored-content links that have little to do with the coverage we’re trying to access.” That applies to the reader journey whether or not there is a request for support along the way.

If publishers truly believe that their readers are contributing to something that matters, it should be reflected throughout the entire user experience.

(For further reading: Channels, conversions, and churn: Why better mobile UX is key for subscriber revenue)

The give and get of building revenue models around readership

Goligoski reminded attendees that there’s a step one to the process that often gets overlooked by publishers want to skip much further ahead—understanding what their readers want and designing their revenue structures to nurture, rather than polarize, those relationships.

This begins with your approach to the subscriber versus member decision—one that prioritizes the business transaction versus one that sees engagement between publisher and reader as a business partnership. Success can be found in each model, she noted, but building a business on either requires significantly different means to justify the end goal of sustaining revenue.

Goligoski encouraged publishers to use these insights to experiment with what matters most to your supporters and audience. “There is no playbook and it’s not a one-size-fits all approach,” she said.

Want to learn more about the Chartbeat Subscriptions Accelerator community? Sign up here.



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