3 questions to ask before starting that membership program

The conversation so far:

We're focusing on memberships this month. Previously, we broke down the difference between subscriptions and memberships and different kinds of membership programs. Want more on how to make money from readers? Check out this conversation on events.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

From the beginning, Tracey Taylor knew a few things about what Berkeleyside was and wasn’t going to be.

“We knew from the outset that we weren’t going to be a nonprofit,” said Taylor, co-founder and managing editor. “We didn’t want to go that route.”

So that meant the independent local site would need several ways to bring in money.

“Membership seemed an obvious one,” Taylor said.

Berkeleyside launched in 2009. It now has 1,200 members. (Berkeley, California, has a population of just over 120,000.) As members, people can give money annually or once a year at any amount they choose. And people can be involved in ways that don’t require cash.

Nine years after launching, the site is getting ready to make an even bigger investment in membership thanks to raising one million dollars in a direct public offering.

Guess how they found out about DPOs?

A member suggested it at an annual member party.

“It was thanks to him, I guess, that we just raised a million dollars,” Taylor said.

Last time we talked, I asked for your questions about membership. I didn’t get any (it’s okay, you’re trying to keep local news alive.) So I asked Taylor what questions she thinks journalists and newsrooms should ask before launching membership programs.

Here are three:

— Have you established yourself with your community yet?

“If their journalism is being well-received and they’re hearing positive feedback ... then I think they’re in a good position to start asking for support through membership,” Taylor said.

As Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt wrote early this month, there are a lot of programs out there working to help newsrooms establish themselves as trusted sources. One thing that many of those programs share is the call for transparency and relationships with the communities they serve.

In 2014, Craig Silverman wrote about how to build credibility through transparency for the American Press Institute. His tips include showing your work, showing your sources and collaborating with your community.

Also, Better News has a guide to accountability journalism that includes ways to make yours better, how to stretch small budgets and examples.

— Are you really ready to commit to a membership program?

“It’s a hard job,” Taylor said. “You have to be consistent.”

People don’t usually come to a news organization and ask to be a member, she said. They need to be reminded that it’s an option and given many ways to participate.

“The ask is really important.”

In our last edition on membership, we spoke with Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project. In a post from January, Goligoski detailed why membership programs don’t work. The first reason: The investment of time and resources isn’t there. Here’s what she wrote:

If your team does not have the time or bandwidth to invest in working with members, or immediate interest in boosting that capacity, reconsider whether this is really the right path for you.

Last fall, Jay Rosen and Gonzalo del Peon wrote for the Membership Puzzle Project about what makes membership programs successful. One key: It’s part of everyone’s job.

We’ve written about how both Slate and Radiotopia approach membership with buy-in from the entire organization; both organizations have built internal cultures where editorial leadership takes initiative with membership efforts. Slate’s entire editorial team takes turns contributing to Slate Plus members-only stories, and Radiotopia’s podcast hosts lead fundraising efforts, using their storytelling skills and audience connection to boost the development team’s work.

— What will you charge? What will you offer?

Right now, people can contribute to Berkeleyside in any amount. The site is in a place that includes a tech community who are willing to support local products. But Taylor has talked to other journalists who’ve told her membership doesn’t work there because the community doesn’t have the extra money.

“Think about demographics and economics,” she said.

If people can’t afford to give money, how else could they contribute?

One of the easiest answers is through helping the newsroom shape its coverage. Check out Hearken’s case studies from partner newsrooms.

Membership currently makes up about 20 percent of Berkeleyside’s annual revenue. With some of the money from the DPO, the site has hired someone just to focus on membership for the first time. Taylor thinks it could easily grow to 3,000 and maybe as high as 5,000.

They already have an annual party for members, but what else can they offer? Access to staff? A closed Facebook group?

They know, from a member focus group with the Membership Puzzle Project, that those things aren't why people join, but they are nice perks, Taylor said.

"None of them say 'Oh I just did it for the T-shirt."

Berkeleyside already has members that contribute more than just money. They send in photos. They share news tips. One member is an unofficial copy editor. And there’s the member who started them thinking about the DPO.

It starts by asking people to get involved, Taylor said.

“It’s now become a cliche to say if you allow people to support you, they will,” she said. “They just don’t necessarily know you need it.”

Next week, we'll talk membership with someone who doesn't work in the news business. In the meantime, read about what's working at a small weekly in Oregon. Remember all that time we spent figuring out how to say no and do less with less? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a cool approach. And check out this intro to Table Stakes from Poynter's News University. If your newsroom wants to apply to be part of Poynter's next group of newsrooms figuring out digital transformation, this course is essential.

See you next week!

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