Thursday, July 08, 2021

Please, Won't You Be My Member?

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. 
(Article originally published Nov, 2019)


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

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