What Harley-Davidson can teach us about membership

September 4, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

Last week I attended a Membership Summit at CUNY’s Journalism School. The point of the summit was to think about membership at news organizations well beyond subscriptions and to really expand the idea of what membership programs could look like. As Jeff Jarvis said in his opening remarks, “Membership is not just about revenue — it’s about resetting the relationships we have with our public.”

I think a lot about membership, particularly as it relates to building communities, and I thought I would share some of the most interesting takeaways from the Summit, since my head has been swirling with ideas for the past week — and most of the projects I learned about didn’t come from inside the news business.

1. From Kickstarter, I learned that experiential rewards are just as exciting to people as physical ones. People really like being able to participate in a chat with a project’s founders or have special access to a website — rewards that don’t necessarily cost any money.

When McSweeney’s launched a Kickstarter campaign, for example, high-amount donors could receive a personalized postcard or poem from an McSweeney’s author. How does this translate to news? Organizations could offer members exclusive access to reporters, provide personalized book recommendations from an editor, send video updates on a story’s progress, or even have an exclusive Facebook group or Slack channel where members could communicate with each other. (For an example, see what Slate does.) Particularly at regional or local publications, the paper’s online community could serve as a resource to connect new or existing residents with each other.

2. As I listened to the speaker from Kickstarter, I began to think about how valuable a publication really is for connecting residents together. This was partially for selfish reasons. I just moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina from Washington D.C. and I wish the local public radio station or the local newspaper held monthly events for newcomers because it would be a way for me to meet new people. I work at home. I don’t have kids. And because I’ve recently moved, I don’t yet have ingrained media habits. Thousands of people who move every year are like me. How does your publication cater to them? This doesn’t have to be expensive. WUNC, for example, publishes a list of stories that every newcomer to Chapel Hill should read. It’s smart — and repurposes already existing material for a different audience, one that may not have media habits yet.

3. Speaking of different audiences, I learned that publications think of members in completely different ways. Most public radio stations equate members with people who have given to the station financially. The Guardian thinks of a member as someone who registers for their site and gives a location or responds to a call for action. (The Guardian recently started a more formal membership program.) Time Inc. thinks of everyone who visits their site or reads their content as a member. Brick City Live, a local publication in Newark, New Jersey considers members to be the people who sign up for the site’s newsletter.

I think it’s really important to sit down and think about what would constitute a member in your organization. Is a member every single audience member who stumbles across your content? Is a member someone who contributes in some way — financially or otherwise? Is a membership exclusive?

During the conference, Maris Kreizman, who helps Kickstarter campaigns successfully launch, said that “making people feel a part of something” is key to a successful donor-backed campaign. How do you differentiate members from non-members? And how much time should you devote to your backers as opposed to the general audience? It’s a tough question to answer, particularly at resource-strapped organizations.

We can learn from what other organizations are doing outside of the news business. At Donor’s Choose, a site that helps teachers raise money for classroom projects, the teacher and sometimes the classes themselves write thank you notes to their backers. What would the equivalent feel like in a news organization? One of the best newsletters I receive is a daily update from Michael Caputo, an editor who works at Georgia Public Radio – Macon bureau. Caputo thinks of his newsletter as a way to connect with his audience as well as a way to generate content that can then go on the website. But newsletter subscribers get the information he provides first and feel a more personal connection to the newsroom. Connecting with members doesn’t have to be costly and it doesn’t have to take up time — but it does have to feel personal and connected.

4. Harley-Davidson gets that. The motorcycle manufacturer has a program they call HOG, for Harley Owners Group. You become a member of HOG for a year simply by purchasing a new bike. (Subsequent years require payment.) HOG has a magazine and roadside assistance, but it also has local chapters which then organize local rides. I love this idea. If you buy a Harley, you want to ride it — but you also really want to ride it with other people who think the way you do. HOG facilitates that, and people are more likely to join in year two because they’ve developed personal relationships with other members in year one.

How does this translate to news organizations? I would love to volunteer at a food bank with other members of my local public radio station or be connected to other people who love live music through the local paper. (This isn’t a stretch. Most papers have event sections. They could take it one step further by putting a little banner up in the venue: “Chicago Reader readers: Meet here.”)

Beth Butcher, center, takes part in Harley-Davidson’s Renew the Ride event for The Nature Conservancy on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014 in Suffolk, VA. Riders planted 1,000 tree seedlings at South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve to preserve the land for future generations.  (Rich-Joseph Facun/AP Images for Harley Davidson)

Beth Butcher, center, takes part in Harley-Davidson’s Renew the Ride event for The Nature Conservancy on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014 in Suffolk, VA. Riders planted 1,000 tree seedlings at South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve to preserve the land for future generations. (Rich-Joseph Facun/AP Images for Harley Davidson)

5. I also learned a lot from John Pine, who works with NYU alumni. Universities get membership and affiliation better than most organizations because they rely on alumni for donations. This is why there are meetup groups for large universities in large cities — you’re more likely to donate to your school if you feel a more personal connection with the school.

This makes me think of an idea I’ve had for a while: how could news organizations target ex-pats? By ex-pats, I mean people who used to live in a place that now don’t. For example, I still read the Philadelphia Inquirer and the City Paper and the Weekly online, despite not living in Philadelphia. But I can’t sign up for an ex-pat version of their newsletter or contribute a different amount to their publications as someone who lives outside of their geographic areas.

Imagine if WHYY, the public radio station in Philly, held a Philadelphia ex-pats party in Chicago and invited anyone who used to live in Philly. Not only would it strengthen the audience’s connection with WHYY, it would likely also strengthen their relationship with WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago.

I’m sharing these ideas because I think there’s an opportunity for every news organization here. At the conference, the biggest takeaway for me was that other sectors already get this and have been doing it for years. There’s a reason universities and Harley-Davidson form communities around themselves, and there’s a reason we should be doing it, too.