Developing a Successful Membership Program: Where to Start
Memberships are hot. And not just in publishing. According to an analysis of Google Trends data, memberships are 33% more popular today than they were just two years ago. From Burger King to CVS, from Charles Schwab to the Minnesota Twins, brands across industries are launching memberships.
As publishers, we want to diversify our revenues by adding this new profit center. We’ve seen the success stories behind The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Barstool Sports, to name just a few.
But getting started is hard. Maybe you’ve tried launching a membership program in the past and it failed. Maybe you’re concerned no one will pay for your content. Maybe you don’t have time to step out of the day-to-day to develop your program.
In this article, we’ll arm you with what you need to get started confidently. Specifically, we’ll explore the biggest mistake most publishers make before they even get going, how to avoid it, and how to create a successful membership program with a full set of features instead.
The Number One Mistake Publishers Make
Let’s get this one out of the way first. The biggest and most common mistake is to take a pile of your existing products and throw them together into a membership program, then sit back and expect an enthusiastic response. Too many publishers have tried to bundle their print product, tablet edition, and web archives, then slap the membership label on it. This lackluster approach yields lackluster results.
The goal should not be to take what you already have and trick people into paying for it. Memberships work because they create a direct and meaningful relationship between you and your best audience members. That bond can only be formed if you put your members’ needs ahead of your own. Yes, it will take more effort to create a thoughtful membership program, but the effort will be worth it.
How to Develop Your Value Proposition
We all focus on a myriad of tactics to get our website visitors to convert, but research and experience shows the most effective driver of conversion is demonstrating that you live up to a promise – or value proposition – that resonates well with your target market.
Your value proposition should be a statement that communicates all of the essentials about your business: who your target customer is, what needs you meet for them, and how your membership meets those needs better than anyone else’s.
Once you have a value proposition, you need to put it front and center on your homepage. Ideally, this will be followed closely by a call to action (e.g., “Sign up for a free trial,” or “Contact us”).
To develop your own value proposition, start by identifying your “whales,” your most enthusiastic and engaged readers. Once you find them, go out and speak with them. Figure out why your publication is so important to them, what they care about, and how well your brand satisfies their needs. Really listen for what gets them emotionally charged. Next, validate what you heard in those interviews with a quantitative survey of your broader email list.
Based on that feedback, determine what tangible problems you can promise to solve, plus which emotional benefits you can promise to provide (e.g., our publication will make you feel more confident, more recognized, more connected, more developed personally or professionally, or more entertained). From there, you can put together a value proposition that addresses your readers’ needs and wants.
To help guide you, here are some value propositions from successful publisher programs:
- POLITICO Pro: "POLITICO Pro has evolved from a subscription-based news service into a policy intelligence platform. The Pro platform is intuitive, smart, and data-driven, delivering personalized content, recommendations, and intel tailored to our Pros when they need it."
- Healthcare Business International: "Private health and care services are transforming and growing globally. To win, you need the right personal connections, strategic insights and critical market information. Healthcare Business International provides everything you need to grow your business and avoid costly mistakes."
- Fine Woodworking: "Expert advice on woodworking and furniture making. Access over 40 years of articles, how-to videos, and project plans designed to take your craft to the next level."
How to Establish the Framework for Your Content
Once you’ve defined your value proposition, it’s time to figure out how you take all the content, data, access to experts, and access to communities you have and turn it into something that lives up to the promise of your value proposition.
Again, it’s not about throwing all of your content together and calling it a membership program, it’s about strategically selecting the content that is of greatest value to your whales and crafting a membership program with additional features around it.
There are a few patterns we’ve noticed over the years when it comes to the kind of content users are willing to pay for. Typically, people are more willing to spend on intermediate to advanced content. Beginner content is generally available for free on YouTube.
How-to, evergreen content is the easiest to get paid for, while news is the toughest. If you’re a news organization, think hard about the REAL problem you are solving, beyond just “keeping people up to date.” Perhaps you’re helping build the community, or speaking up for an under-promoted cause. Or maybe there’s some value in turning your archives into a database (e.g., a news source on real estate might be able to turn their archives of news stories into a database of transactions).
And speaking of getting paid, we’ve found that those whales who are willing to shell out for content rarely care about discount programs. If you survey your audience at large, you might see an interest in discounts, but cross-reference that with willingness to pay before making any decisions.
How to Define Your Feature Set
The final step of developing a comprehensive membership program is thinking beyond content to develop a feature set. These are additional offerings that add greater value to your program and are the cherry on the sundae of your subscription service.
We’ve found you don’t need a boatload of features to be successful. Rather, just two or three things on top of a subscription to your content is usually enough to drive conversions. Just make sure these offerings solve the tangible and emotional needs of your whales.
Looking for some inspiration? Here are some features you might consider:
- Access to experts or editors in a monthly live, interactive webinar.
- Tools that make it easier for subscribers to do their jobs: templates, diagrams, graphs, charts, etc. National Journal, for example, provides members with useful PowerPoint presentations that can help streamline report creation.
- Tools that make it easier for subscribers to pursue their hobby: calculators, charts, maps, or indexes, depending on your niche.
- Charitable contributions to a bigger cause.
- Educational resources, like videos and ebooks.
What else have you seen work or not work when it comes to membership programs for publishers? I’d love to hear from you – please drop me a line.
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Ristagno is passionate about helping others grow near-term revenues by applying data science to uncover and test low-risk, high-reward sales and marketing strategies. Committed to spreading this message, Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and the developer of the Growth Mindset Assessment.