Last Updated on
June 22, 2023

Emily Goligoski - How to Build and Run a Thriving Membership Program

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I wanted to know how the best in the business approach building and growing membership programs, so naturally I spoke with Emily Goligoski on the Digital Media Growth podcast.

Who Is Emily Goligoski?

Emily previously worked as a reporter and UX researcher at The New York Times, before becoming the research director for the Membership Puzzle Project.

Recently, Emily has embarked on a new role leading audience research at The Atlantic, but in our interview we focused on her research at Membership Puzzle Project.

What is the Membership Puzzle Project?

The project is a collaboration between the news platform De Correspondent and New York University, seeking to understand the new frontier of publishing and dissect what makes successful membership programs tick.

“There has to be a social contract between journalists and members. Working out what that contract should say is the core challenge of the Membership Puzzle Project” - Membership Puzzle Project

In Emily’s words:

“We study how to optimize news for trust. We study news organisations of all sizes and we think a lot about audience revenue and engagement with the idea that you can’t have one without the other: you can’t ask people for their money before you’ve gained their trust”

Emily has long been fascinated by how an independent press can be sustained going into the future - and the project gave her the ideal opportunity to explore this.

By looking at successful membership-driven organizations around the world, what they choose to cover, how they interact with their audience, and importantly what they choose not to do - Emily and her team can start to glimpse the winning formula going forward.

Why are membership programs important?

Traditional revenue models for publishers have been in severe decline for over a decade. As the news went digital, many assumed that the ad dollars would simply follow.

This didn’t account for the rise of platform giants, with their ownership of huge amounts of data and ruthlessly efficient ad operations - capturing most of those dollars.

As the search for alternative revenue models continues in earnest, membership is taking the limelight as a sustainable way forward for publishers.

A thriving membership program can transform your business, grow your audience, and financially support your work – but launching and growing one comes with challenges and takes time.

What are the first steps? What are the key factors that lead to success? What are the key challenges and how can we overcome them?

These are questions we're going to answer in this article, so read on.

What kind of research can you do on membership programs?

“We primarily conduct qualitative research with both supporters of independent news organizations (subscribers, members, donors) - as well as staff and freelancers at the organizations themselves. The reason we look at both sides of the table is that membership can represent two way knowledge exchange that looks more like participating in a cause because you believe in it”

This is a key point - the essence of membership looks more like participation rather than a purely value based transaction. It can include individuals giving their time, money and ideas.

Emily has seen individual members of news organizations helping with translation, transcription, accounting, staffing live events and serving as sources where they have relevant expertise.

“We look to understand - what is broken in the social contract right now? People are frustrated with mainstream news. They feel like it doesn’t serve their needs, doesn’t treat them as adults, makes poor use of their attention with slow to load pages and sponsored content that has nothing to do with the coverage. They’re looking for something with higher value where more care and consideration has been put in. We study how individuals want to be involved, staff and resource constraints, how organizations can create calming user experiences - and we do this mostly through in-person and remote interviews as well as surveys”
Their research really focuses on the relationship between members and news organizations.

The Difference Between Subscribers and Members

Subscription and membership may look synonymous at first glance - but they’re not the same and are often conflated.
Subscription is a transactional exchange.

For example you might subscribe to The New Yorker magazine. You’d expect a copy of the magazine each week and access to their digital archives.

It’s a straightforward exchange of clearly defined value.

Membership is deeper.

It looks more like participating in a larger cause because you believe in it - and includes a wider and deeper value exchange than a straight up transaction.

Members are motivated by believing in a cause whereas subscribers are motivated purely by the access to a product.

[caption id="attachment_7243" align="aligncenter" width="619"]

Why supporters pay for journalism[/caption]

The above image shows frequently noted values from Emily’s research with members. We can see that it goes much deeper than the merely transactional. Read more about their motivations here.

Obviously, membership programs can and often do involve subscription - but the point is that it goes beyond that. Members often contribute closely to the organizations they belong to.

If you have a brand that is perceived as delivering unique value and a strong audience base, subscription models can be viable. Fostering this is often difficult in a crowded media environment where audiences are accustomed to ‘free’ commodified coverage that is funded in ways they can’t see.

If you’re looking at subscription models though, learn about the three types of news subscribers and how to convert them.
Emily noted that membership is not necessarily ‘better’ than subscription.

“They’re different ways of operating, with different resource requirements. Membership is quite demanding. It’s not a brand campaign that can be turned on and off. It very often means someone needs to be available to members who have questions and gets back to them in a prompt and thoughtful manner. That’s more than a lot of organizations - especially small teams - can sustain. So for some subscription and donation can be a better fit”

Members don’t necessarily have special access to push through an agenda. But having input from a wider group of people actually creates a more distributed process with the potential for greater accountability.

Understanding Your Audience is Crucial when Building a Membership Program

Emily has previously created and delivered courses on user research, and I asked her about how the best publishers approach understanding their audience.

She noted that in the last five years or so, a lot of major publishers - like The New York Times, BBC, Quartz, and Bloomberg - have developed standalone teams working closely with qualitative insights to really act as advocates for the audience within their newsrooms.

[caption id="attachment_7244" align="aligncenter" width="800"]

Human centered design - Image credit: Leon Postma, De Correspondent [/caption]

The Membership Puzzle Project recommend a human-centered approach to product design.

User research is what helps us to understand the ‘desirability’ dimension - key to fostering a strong relationship with potential members.

“We’re seeing a professionalization and specialization of this type of work. Organizations who previously relied on their instincts now involve people as product testers and research subjects early and often in their processes. That gives me great hope that what will follow is coverage, products and services that better represent the needs and habits of those we serve”

These organizations have created organized and methodical ways of reaching the right people for research. They think a lot about the type of people they want to reach - whether that’s users, prospective users or ex-users.

“My recommendation if you want to be in better touch with individuals outside the organization to improve what you do - come up with a set of hypotheses and a really rigorous approach to how you’ll find the right individuals. There’s no one size fits all approach. Surveys can work really well when you want to speak to a wide range of geographically diverse people and understand their sentiments. Surveys are not great for getting detail and nuance and identifying product opportunities - actually going to people where they’re at can be a much better fit”

Firstly, we need to be crystal clear about the people we want to reach. Are you going to focus on current, former or potential supporters?

How are you going to reach them? Informal feedback sessions inviting members of the groups you’ve chosen to focus on work well, but there are several other methods too.

It could be diary studies, data analytics, surveys, interviews, or focus groups.

Then after the research is conducted time needs to be spent synthesizing. What are the key themes and trends? What actionable steps can be taken based on them?

However you choose to set up your research - starting with clear conceptions of what, who, and why is a strategy that can’t be beaten.

Being “Real” With your Audience is key for membership program success

Trust in the news media is falling - this was confirmed by the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report.

Less than 50% of people trust the news they themselves consume.

There is a complicated web or reasons for why trust has become so low. Perceived bias, lack of transparency, self-interest - and more recently fake news and disinformation are all factors.

The issue of trust is key to understanding membership - as people obviously will not support an organisation with their time, energy and money if they don’t trust it.

I asked Emily what successful publishers are doing to foster trust.

“The key trend we see is that they aren’t just designing their programs in a vacuum…. This idea that they’re finding ways to co-create with their communities, they’re bringing them in regularly, they’re in close conversation whether it’s online or offline, they’re making themselves open to a new set of stakeholders and their needs. This represents a pretty big departure from the ways news organisations have traditionally operated. This idea of making their work less opaque, of being more open, being more inclusive and participatory - i think is tremendously exciting”

This transparency and idea of two-way communication is key.

“Instead of just trying to sell them, they’re showing that there’s something they too can learn. This goes back to the idea of two way knowledge exchange. The concept that there’s something to be gained by being in touch with your audience members - it’s not just their money that’s the primary thing individuals can give. I think it’s a much more human way of operating, it represents what we see a lot of tech companies doing regularly - they’re doing a lot more quality assurance testing, they have a lot of regular user panels that they’re going to for feedback. We don’t have all the answers internally and we’d be well-served to complement what we know with regular conversations with our audience”

Multiple Revenue Streams are Crucial for Publishers

I asked Emily how often she sees publishers who are 100% funded by their audience through their membership program.

“We very rarely see organizations that generate revenue purely through their audience members. Here I follow the News Revenue Hub’s rule of thumb - organizations are well served to have 4-6 revenue streams. It represents a diversification but not too many directions - like they’re trying to hold a film screening, a wine club etc. In the organizations that we study we see usually 1-10% of revenue directly from audience member - especially in the first 1-3 years of membership"

Commitment over time yields steady gains though.

"Then we see an increase around 35-45% that represents organizations like The Guardian, where for several years member support has superseded ad revenue. We see a few publishers with audience revenue from 75-80%, and it really trails off from there”

Emily noted that going into this work with a clear vision is crucial, as well as being smart and realistic about what you’re getting yourself into. Building a membership program from the ground up is no mean feat!

Ask yourself:

  • What kind of staffing requirements will there be?
  • What will the technical challenges be?
  • What KPIs will track success?

Membership is not a brand campaign that can be turned on and off at will. And even though the benefits can be huge, it isn’t a great fit for everyone.

The Publisher Membership Funnel

As publishing moves from an ad-based, scale-above-all model to a focus on deeper engagement and membership, the concept of an audience funnel is gaining traction in the industry.

“We default to the funnel, this common visual metaphor for attempting to reach a wide group of lightly engaged people at the top and then deepening the relationship as you go. I would say it’s as good a metaphor as we’ve got. If you’re talking to someone from the ‘editorial’ or ‘business’ side, there’s very high recognition, so it’s a concept we’re very comfortable using”

The Membership funnel:

  1. Expose and attract
  2. Engage and deepen
  3. Convert

For more on this, Andrew Haeg from GroundSource has done some great writing about how the concept of a funnel applies to membership.

What Can Publishers Learn From Other Membership-Driven Organizations?

Membership isn’t just for news.

Emily’s work has taken her beyond news - to successful member-driven models in other industries.

“What I’ve been pleased to see in studying organizations outside of news - whether it’s faith based groups or cryptocurrency communities - is how much they think about the different ways that audience members can participate. It’s not just one size fits all. They offer very clear ways that individuals can contribute what they know - from their lived experience to their professional expertise"

They also put their members first, growth is secondary.

"One thing I’ve been really inspired by studying these organisations is that they generally don’t grow beyond their ability to serve their members. In a cultural moment where scale is seen as the only good, many of them decide to cap their growth at their ability to deliver well for all their members”

Cultural Shifts In Organizations

Change is always hard, and it might take some sustained effort to shift in a more member-orientated direction.

“Some publishers may say that they really want this, then they’re surprised to see how much of their staff’s time is involved”

It’s critically important to study organizations who’ve blazed a successful membership path. Talk to them and look into how they do things to get a realistic idea of what it’ll take.

“We’re often asked if digitally-native organizations have an advantage here compared to legacy publishers"

Emily has found that it’s more about the individuals within the company.

"What is their mandate for the program? How are they going to monitor success and change as they need to? What internal/external resources are they able to call upon? I see that as well as leadership that really understands the required investment as the most important component”

Things might feel initially uncomfortable. Editors, journalists, and designers from legacy organizations are often used to a clear boundary between the news team and the audience.

With the right attitude and leadership though anything is possible, and becoming membership driven can give a deep sense of purpose to your work as well as being financially rewarding.

I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of our discussion and that it got you thinking about how membership could put your business on an exciting new path.

Check out Emily's site for more information about her and her work.

If you want to see an example of a news publisher that really gets membership, have a look at De Correspondent.
As well as that, I encourage you to read and re-read this amazing in depth guide, co-authored by Emily, to dive much deeper into what we covered in this interview.

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