Members only: Membership strategies from media companies

Whether you’re a small niche YouTube channel or a decades-old media brand, you’ve likely explored membership as a way to generate revenue. But building and maintaining an effective (and profitable) membership program isn’t an easy feat.

Four professionals who have built very different communities and membership programs for their respective businesses spoke on a panel at the New York chapter of the Online News Association (ONA). Here are there top take-aways, challenges, and some inspiration you can take if you’re considering the membership model as well.

Speakers Anika Gupta, Kate Myers, Mazin Sidahmed, Emily Travis from the ONA NYC membership panel.

The three questions every membership strategy should consider

First Look Media’s Kate Myers summed up three key questions that every organization developing a membership strategy has to consider:

  • Do you know what value you’re bringing to your audience? And how you’re serving them?
  • Do you have a strong and clear mission? One that you live every day.
  • Do you have a willingness to ask for money and to have people join you?

Media organizations mentioned by the panelists with successful membership programs, like: the Guardian, the Skimm, or new local news start-up The City can answer these questions clearly.

But answering them is only the first step in developing a successful membership program.

Challenges when trying to launch a membership program

From creating products that didn’t really serve their readers to not knowing how much to charge, each membership program came across unexpected challenges. One even described dealing with over eager donors and community members.

An issue shared across membership programs of all types: success requires more than just strong advocates and buy-in from leadership. It requires that membership become a strong part of the culture in your newsroom.

“Restricting investment in membership, and limiting caring about membership to a small silo of individuals is pretty much a recipe for failure,” Atlantic Media’s Anika Gupta explained.

“It shouldn’t be a side project engaged in by one small part of your organization,” she added.

Myers added that as membership models become more common and mature in media, she could see more journalists and editors feel ownership over it. It’s not unlike the evolution of audience and analytics in digital newsrooms from something seen as specialized and arcane to something that drives daily decision making.

Getting inspiration for membership models

Finally, a reminder that ideas and best practices for membership can come from outside of journalism. Gupta cited the all-encompassing nature of fitness brands and communities — hello, crossfit!. Myers pointed out that there’s a wealth of community-building and donor-building expertise out there in the political world. “Bringing in that different set of experiences from media was very valuable for us,” she added.

Within journalism, panelists made note of the Membership Puzzle Project as a resource for anyone thinking about membership models. And it wouldn’t be a conversation about membership models if we didn’t talk about tote bags. Former NPR online strategist Melody Kramer wrote this extensive report looking at how members can contribute to your mission in non-monetary ways.

Because, let’s get real, we all have too many tote bags.

Ron Nurwisah is a senior editor on HuffPost’s audience development team. You can watch a recording of the full panel on the ONA NYC Facebook page.