The Membership Puzzle Webinar Recap

Presented by Emily Goligoski with The Membership Puzzle, courtesy of The Association of Magazine Media

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I encourage you to look at ways that journalism can optimize trust. Sites (both big and small) contain trust indicators that can fuel a brand’s audience revenue generation and audience development goals. Recently, The Membership Puzzle’s Emily Goligoski sat down to discuss the organization’s recent work on studying the keys to building sustainable membership programs. Here are some of the major questions Goligoski helped us answer-- and a peek at our team’s notes:

How do you distinguish between subscription, membership, and donation?

These are terms that are often used interchangeably, but carry different definitions within a brand’s audience reader ecosystem.

Donors expect a charitable exchange.
Subscribers pay for access to a product.
Members join a cause and participate because they believe in it.

Questions to ask as you explore building a membership model:

  • At the heart of this work is the contract between the site and its members. What do you give? What do you get?
  • How do I foster belonging to my most loyal readers?

  • What are our current revenue streams?

    • Most have an average of 5. Events, memberships, advertisers, etc.

What is the role of a paywall in subscription and membership?

We think of membership as an option to pay to participate, but the most engaging model often looks like a soft paywall that unlocks some kind of extra (early access to event tickets, podcasts, etc.) but keeps the bulk of the news product free.

  • Like a public radio model in which people opt in to pay, but anyone can benefit from the coverage whether they pay or not.

Why should you establish a social contract between your brand and its supporters?

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“Supporters are hungry for the type of transparency and the type of signaling that suggests you’re worth their time, their money, and their trust.” - Goligoski

Readers want media outlets to be transparent with their mission, values, and processes. To know that you value transparency about what you stand for. What you cover. What you don’t.

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Supporters want more of what they’re looking for. Doubling down on content that your audience wants vs. offering smaller doses of everything fosters a more loyal membership-minded audience.

Example: Two years ago, there were bombings in a Belgian train station. Not very far from the De Corespondent’s amsterdam offices. On that day, they ran nothing on their site. They sent one email stating something like, “We are heartbroken and have nothing to add today as this news is breaking, we encourage you to look to these sites whom we trust for your breaking news and  we will come back to you in 100 days if we have something to add to this story.”

This date ended up being De Corespondent’s single largest day of new member growth. By demonstrating that their place in the media was not in breaking news, but in-depth analysis and long form storytelling, they established a social contract with their readers, and converted them to members organically.

Why should you be transparent about how your organization’s money is spent and how your company works?

Breaking down how a subscription/member fee is spent visually reinforces how their money is spent on worthwhile journalism. Providing a reader covenant written, usually by a leader of the organization, reminds readers of the humanity behind the content. “The story behind the story can be just as interesting and can be really illustrative about why we’re asking for supporters in the first place.” - Goligoski

Example:  Mother Jones’ on-site financial statement.

Why should I let my readers participate?

Offering opportunities for readers to actively participate in the editorial development process provides buy-in or an additional sense of inclusion to your most engaged audience, fostering a deeply personal connection that reinforces your mission to keep their best interests at the heart of your brand.


  • Establish a reader panel

  • Assign each editor a reoccuring newsletter that’s more conversational and not just an opportunity to publish their latest work, but a space for them to share and  

    • What I’m thinking
    • What I’m reading

    • What else should I be writing about?

    • What should I be reading?

    • Who should I be talking to?

    • Where should I be eating?

Why should your user’s experience come first?

Your site design should be as well thought through as any of you content or marketing pieces. When a visitor is met with a busy page filled with intrusive advertising, they feel that their trust has been violated. The social contract telling them that they’re of the utmost importance to your brand has been broken. Readers should be able to visit your site, find what they need/ want/enjoy easily and with minimal friction--and move on.

In summary, all signs point to integrity and clear, considerate communication when it comes to acquiring and maintaining a robust ecosystem of subscribers, members, and readers.

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