Monday, November 11, 2019

Don't Subscribe to The Member Fallacy

Content owners are fascinated with memberships. Faced with eroding subscription revenue, many legacy publishers plan membership programs in a well-intentioned attempt to turn around their revenue declines, but do no more than confuse their core customers. “Membership” programs - offering more frequent content such as topic-specific newsletters, earlier access to the magazine, database content and a branded mug are nothing more than a tiered subscription offer. But when memberships are differentiated from subscriptions, they offer “members” reciprocity in the purpose and function of the publication and deeper engagement for the mutual benefit of both the member and the publication.

After conducting some market research for an enthusiast publisher recently, I found that an important component of their subscriber base was the large number of long-time subscribers who kept physical copies of the title going back many years. While these subscribers exhibited a propensity for deep engagement with the content, packaging a ‘membership’ program to sell them more stuff was not going to result in more engaged and connected partners. Past management teams had attempted to leverage this ‘loyalty’ to create a vendor “marketplace” which only exacerbated the company’s financial problems as subscriber numbers continued to decline and no one bought the knick knacks.

Subscriptions represent a financial transaction; well-designed membership programs facilitate a two-way conversation between the publication and its members to produce something unique – such as fresh content, new products, ideas and engagement. What makes a membership program different is that it may not have a well-defined objective whereas a subscription is always defined by its payment status and is, by nature, a short-term proposition – renewals notwithstanding. Once membership conversations start, they should yield a wealth of new ideas and initiatives, bringing a vitality to the business that may not have existed before. And that can help split new content and business models. But it is the openness of the members give and take which is the primary objective, not revenue growth per se.

Building effective subscription plans and models is not straightforward - it requires careful planning and a lot of experimentation. Without that, subscription programs become stale and routine particularly when supporting a predominately print-based audience. The development of a membership program will be more complex, multi-dimensional and evolutionary, and will require new staff capabilities, experience and thinking. But base subscription programs should not be ignored and should work in tandem with the new membership program.

Below I’ve framed some ideas for expanding your existing subscription program and building a new membership program:

Subscription Program
Membership Benefit
Purpose is to raise average subscription revenue per subscriber. The following benefits could be an up-sell to the existing subscription or new (higher) tier
Build a two-way connection between the magazine and members that results in deeper engagement and mutual benefits
·   Early digital access to the print publication
·   Free digital subscriptions
·   Archive and legacy content access – via website
·   Discounted gift subscription rates
·   Early and preferential access to webinars and events
·   Multi-year subscription options and, if available, cross-sell subscriptions with other magazines
·   Advertiser and partner discounts
·   Don’t promise to engage but then fail to do so. Build a program of active engagement first before launching the program
·   Invite existing subscribers into the organization to help plan the membership program
·   Build exclusivity with limited member invites to events each year
·   Launch a “badging” for members to use via interaction with the community – suggests exclusivity
·   Establish dedicated staff and special member events designed for close interaction and exchange
·   Consider topic-based focus groups: Potentially live and broadcast to members
·   Allow members to report on events such as conferences and shows for publication
·   Enable members to build interest groups around specific topic and subject areas

One of the biggest objectives the publisher may seek through the development of a membership program is to improve the positioning and viability of the magazine thereby improving long-term financial success. That’s not immodest if the membership program is designed to truly engage key constituents in a conversation. A more engaged member will help guide the publication and this will, in turn, help maintain and even expand your core subscription base. With this objective, the publisher may decide to charge only a modest fee for the membership program.

The high level and directional ideas above will help you differentiate between subscription models and memberships programs - each represents different value propositions to the organization. Confusing the two will confound your subscribers and infuriate your more loyal customers. A membership program can be a powerful strategic tactic leading to a range of new ideas and option ...   just don’t forget to diligently maintain your subscriber base. 


Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at

Read more articles on my Flipboard magazine:


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PND: Questioning my Education
PND: The New McGraw-Hill: Where is Education Textbook Publishing Headed?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Get Caught Learning

The approach to education in prisons is improving and expanding Pell Grant eligibility will accelerate change but industry groups should do more.

For fifteen years, my mother-in-law taught inmates at the Hudson Correctional Facility how to read. There were never enough resources provided, but she took it upon herself to write pleading letters to publishers to ask for free books to use for teaching. Occasionally, she would get a book box of whatever the publisher had at hand – cookbooks, how-to manuals or romance fiction – and she made the best of it. Small though her effort was, she believed what many enlightened prison administrators now understand: That delivering education to inmates improves outcomes.

Ask any prison-enlightened pol what metric is most important in determining the success or failure of incarceration and they are most likely to cite recidivism – how many released prisoners return to the system. It’s also the one they would most like to improve. America has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world (IHEP) and also one of the worst recidivism rates. More focused on warehousing inmates than on rehabilitation, the US prison system still takes no collective responsibility for a revolving door system which keeps hosting the same participants like a warped frequent-flyer program.

The now infamous mid 1990s crime bill has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for the impact it has had on the growth of the US prison population and its disproportionate impact on minority communities. An amendment to the bill added by Kay Bailey Hutchison pulled Pell Grant eligibility from incarcerated individuals and effectively shut down an important avenue to self-improvement for prisoners (CHed). Recently, prison education programs have begun to improve but reestablishing Pell grant eligibility would significantly accelerate the growth and innovation of education programs tailored to the inmate population.

While the average annual cost of holding an inmate is around $35K (FedRegister), some calculate the annual cost over $100K (NYTimes) and current re-offending rates in this country are as high as 70%, with more than 50% returning to the prison system.  There is an abundance of research proving that the implementation of prisoner educational programs decreases the chance the individual will return. Education programs don’t just reduce these rates marginally they do so materially – investment in education programs can yield hard benefits four or five times their cost (Rand). Society benefits as well with improved community and family benefits tied directly to reduced incarceration rates.

Significant student and infrastructure issues impede delivery of prison education at the point of need including wide variation in student capabilities, mobility and facilities as well as a lack of materials and staffing. But curiously, the bars and cuffs aside, these problems are similar to those overcome by students and institutions in the ‘outside world’. For example, prisoners can be moved from facility to facility (often with little or no notice) and have trouble transferring credit. Similarly, traditional students move from institution to institution, but here the education system is rapidly delivering solutions to make this more seamless.

Even on a traditional campus, students sometimes learn outside a conventional classroom due in part to infrastructure issues. Challenges affecting students on the inside and the outside may be different only in the way solutions are presented to overcome them. In prison, we prioritize punishment (and the system) over rehabilitation and educational learning. But, as the justice system begins to embrace education and priorities change, solving these impediments may be simpler than it may appear.   It is possible given sufficient motivation and the freedom to act, that technical and delivery challenges could be solved by businesses applying solutions designed to solve issues in the traditional education market.

Earlier this year, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced a bill (HR2168) to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated, freeing up additional funds for prison education. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a chance the legislation will be brought to a vote in this Congress even though prison reform is one subject that enjoys cross-party support.  The Obama administration created a unified district out of the entire federal prison system, in part to enable the development of universal solutions. And, while this was rescinded by the current administration, it will eventually return, expanding opportunities for business to have a broad impact in the delivery of prison education solutions.

In terms of educational content (textbooks and online content), I would like to see industry associations like the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and American Library Association (ALA) advocate strongly and press their members to engage in active support of prison education programs. Advocacy and positive societal change can be affected by these industry groups and publishers have little to lose (in terms of revenue) providing free or highly discounted content to the prison community. The cost decreases further with digital resources. Both AAP and ALA have the opportunity to create a public good by reducing recidivism through education while also having a meaningful impact on the lives of inmates, their families and their communities. As a past board member of the AAP, I can confidently say this is not the type of initiative they have historically backed but, in my view, it should be something they should get behind. I’d like to see that happen as the benefits are so significant.

Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at

Read more articles on my Flipboard magazine:


Are you considering an investment in new technology?  Check out my report on software and services providers.  (PubTech Report)