Credit: Screenshot: Membership Guide

News organisations have a new resource to help them launch and refine their membership models based on success stories from around the world.

The Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) was created three years ago to research best practices around memberships as a sustainable alternative to ad-funded business models. It has now released its findings in the Membership Guide, funded by the Google News Initiative, and co-published with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The need for an alternative to ads has only become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic that has seen the almost-total disappearance of digital advertising revenue.

The guide offers two parts: a complete handbook on the ins and outs of membership strategies and 34 case studies from the likes of UK co-operative The Bristol Cable, German engaged journalism publisher Krautreporter, and Hawaii's non-profit Honolulu Civil Beat. Some media organisations even offer multiple case studies.

"We offered the case studies so that once you've got the basics in place from the handbook, then you can get more creative and experimental in your approach," explains Ariel Zirulnick, fund director, MPP.

She stressed that the handbook is a '101' on membership fundamentals and an essential primer. The case studies are the '201' part, with a more advanced tactic employed by different news organisations.

There is clear data including the percentage of revenue the membership represents, monthly unique visitors and number of members.

It goes on to pull out broader lessons for other news organisations to learn from, examining objectives, results and caveats. It avoids any niche efforts regardless of how compelling they might be. This ensures all the successes can be replicated elsewhere.

The guide offers a creative solution to consistent stumbling blocks that have cropped up in the research phase, like membership retention, for example, and underlines how rigorously the memberships can prove to work over a sustained period.

"The industry is really good at holding up exciting new ideas," says Zirulnick. "But we generally have not been as good at following up and seeing what those ideas look like six months to a year later."

Involved in the initiative too is Elizabeth Hansen who is also the lead researcher of the news sustainability project at the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

As an expert on US local news business models, she said that memberships provide a way to mend broken relationships with the public.

"It's also very clear that local news organisations are struggling to establish credibility and trust with their community. As an editorial tool, memberships are very powerful," Hansen says. "But it requires a real culture change."

This 'culture change' is not that straight-forward though and as the MPP research continues until August 2021, this will be a key area of her focus.

Zirulnick added that memberships address key concerns brought up in the Reuters Digital News Report 2020 around information inequality. The US ranked highest in the study, with 24 per cent of people expressing concern that paywalls meant that people who cannot afford to pay for a subscription will be missing out on high-quality news.

"In its most ideal form, memberships can exist without a paywall," Zirulnick says. "Members can support a cause they believe in. News organisations don't need to put a gate around their journalism to make people pay.

"If you can get people to a mindset of supporting something they believe in rather than paying for access that they otherwise would not get, you begin to address both your sustainability challenge but also the concerns people have around the rise of paywalls and who cannot access critical information."

The example of The Daily Maverick in South Africa show this, as putting up a paywall in a country with such a significant income inequality would be seen as unethical. The publisher shared some examples of how to make voluntary models work and manage the messaging around a membership campaign.

"We were very intentional about highlighting organisations with repeated practices again and again," Zirulnick explains.

"These organisations need to develop the capacity to look at what they are doing, evaluate it, find out what's working, discard what isn’t working and double-down on what is. Rinse and repeat.

"Once they’ve got into a good cycle, think about how they level that up further. It needs to become part of your workflow, it needs to become second nature the same way that six or seven years ago news organisations were trying to figure out their social media workflow.

"Figure out the audience engagement, the outreach, the transparency; that’s [what] people need to be thinking about right now."

More case studies will follow later this autumn on news organisations which were too young into their development cycle, such as co-operative models in the US, and the use of WhatsApp for membership campaigns.

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Correction: a previous version stated in the summary there were 34 media organisations involved in the guide. This has since been corrected to state there are 34 case studies as some media organisations offer multiple case studies.

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