There is a tricky situation for independent online and print magazines like gal-dem: they need money to survive, but there is a finite list of advertisers they trust to work with as their content often critiques the very brands that are funding them.
"Not every brand is down with the idea of spending a bunch of money with gal-dem one day, and then three months later we've written a huge critique of capitalism and big business that technically could pull them into it," says Mariel Richards, CEO of gal-dem, in a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.
She says that the coronavirus pandemic only made this headache worse, as advertisers pulled out of deals. A £60,000 financial hole formed overnight, which meant the publication had to look for new income streams to keep itself going.
Fortunately it had been planning a membership model for around two years, which Richards describes it as gal-dem 2.0. Memberships were always the end goal for gal-dem because advertising revenue typically means treading a fine line between receiving funding from big brands while maintaining editorial control. That was suddenly no longer a constraint.
"Membership for us means that we can remain independent, it means that we are accountable to our readers and not to big brands," she adds.
In March, it launched the membership early aided by the fact the promotional content was ready to go. The membership sign-up notifications were sent to Richards' phone, and she recalls how they were coming through like a torrent. gal-dem went on to hit its end of year target six months early, and even welcomed 700 new members in one day.
"We were aiming for 2,000 members by the end of the year, and we hit that by the end of May," says Richards. "I think we hit those significantly because we were in the public eye more than we were used to towards the end of May with the increased awareness around Black Lives Matter following some of the murders of black people at the hands of the police in the US."
As a title which focuses on stories of women and non-binary people of colour, these events had a significant impact on both the readers and the editorial team. The success of the membership was "bittersweet" in the context of why the support was being given.
"It was also difficult for our editors and writers to know that this attention was coming only at the most tragic times and only at the most urgent times, when they have been reporting on this work and advocating for change for years and years," she explains.
Managing the membership model
Before the membership launched, the team was wrestling with the compounded effect of having commissioning budgets slashed while its coverage was needed more than ever.
What the membership allowed gal-dem to do was restore commissioning budgets back to normal levels after the summer and bring back furloughed staff. Now, Richards says it now has to focus on building a real connection with their members to retain those who signed up.
"We made sure that not only were they receiving the typical kind of weekly check-in from our membership officer, but that they were also receiving self-care tips, personalised essays."
While Richards and the team monitor gal-dem's churn rates to help entice members back, they also created an easy cancellation process because the publication’s ethos is all about transparency.
"You kind of want people to stay as much as they can, but you can't really put barriers up," says Richards. "We need to make sure that they're staying for the right reason, not just because they can't find the exit."
Looking to the future
gal-dem is now focusing on creating more bespoke content for its members; ranging from merchandise to their recently launched podcast. Looking to the future, Richards says, "What we now need to do is make sure that people are aware of gal-dem as a publication that supports these voices and these causes all year round, not just in moments of tragedy or urgency."
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