For Memberships, a Publisher Must Find What Readers Will Pay More for

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"We wanted to avoid a situation where we're creating content that could just as easily go on the website because we don't want to penalize our regular digital audience. We're trying to create something new and different for our members. There's a core audience that are just Atlantic die-hards. They want more connection with The Atlantic."
Bob Cohn, president of The Atlantic, speaking to Digiday about today's launch of their $100 membership program, called The Masthead

The above quote brings up the question: What would your subscribers pay more for? For The Atlantic, they believe it's:

  • an exclusive daily newsletter;
  • extended reporting from a popular story;
  • access to a members-only Facebook group;
  • weekly conference calls with Atlantic editorial staffers;
  • discounted tickets to Atlantic events.

All of these are not out of the realm for a majority of niche publishers these days, big and small. And by pricing it relatively low, The Atlantic must believe that volume will lead to significant revenue.

At our Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS), Nov. 13-15 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Kelly Parsons, CEO of OpsCat, and Victoria Mellor, CEO of Novatum Group—both formerly of Melcrum—will deliver one of the big general keynotes, telling how they transformed Melcrum into a high value membership-based advisory and training business from a newsletter publisher.

Parsons agrees with The Atlantic that one of the benefits an audience will pay more for is deeper access.

"We defined membership by the depth of the relationship and our ability to solve our customers' problems," Parsons told me in May. "...By the end of my time at Melcrum, we weren't even using the word member—we were partners with our customers in the truest sense of the word. That privileged and unbreakable position helped us constantly improve our product and service mix and cross-sell large in-house training engagements."

Melcrum's membership ask was much, much more than The Atlantic. But still at the core was the need to establish more problem-solving relationships with their audience.

"The biggest question is: Can you connect your strategy with customer needs that will allow for a richer relationship cycle?" Parsons asked. "The benefit of establishing those deeper relationships can be smarter and better products, with customers helping you develop them."

Similar to The Atlantic, Slate started a membership program in 2014 called Slate Plus. Members get direct contact with editorial staff, ad-free podcasts and event discounts. They now have 35,000 members but dropped the introductory price from $50 to $35.

It will be interesting to see how The Atlantic uses those new Facebook discussions and conference calls. Will they be able to create new products? Will they find that readers are looking for more guidance? Earlier this year The New York Times put out a guide titled Journalism That Stands Apart, The Report of the 2020 Group. In that they wrote, "We know from research and anecdotes that readers value the limited opportunities we provide to engage in discussion... We expect that the bigger opportunities are in providing guidance rather than traditional features."

There are, of course, other changes that come with offering memberships. "There has to be an emphasis on understanding and delivering value in every interaction," Parsons said. "Your goal is to overwhelm them with value. You have to earn it every day in a million ways, and that requires the whole team to be customer-centric."

Author Robbie Kellman Baxter has talked about the "better access and deeper experience" that customers expect when they become members. "It is a double-edged sword," Baxter said. "All good things have corresponding risk. There will be changing expectations on both sides. Members will expect better access and a deeper experience." Publishers may expect more loyalty. But some members may become advocates and evangelists for you and bring in new members.

"Membership is a mindset," Baxter added.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…