A Publisher Decides to Go All in on Membership - and Listening

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I've written before about publishers offering membership options to their subscribers. The Atlantic made headlines recently by offering $120 memberships, saying thousands joined. LinkedIn first added "insights" to their Premium membership and then peer benchmarking. For $33 a month, Digiday+ offers "premium content, original research and intimate events."

Medium charges just $5 a month for its membership, but with a twist. "You get unlimited access to in-depth, expert stories from amazing writers, thinkers, and storytellers... and every time you engage with any story for members, a portion of your membership fee will go to that author."

But most of these publishers still maintain subscribers. Crain's Detroit Business has gone a different route—they've converted every subscriber to membership "because the old model is too transactional," wrote publisher/editor Ron Fournier. The process really started back in March of 2017 when they created an Inner Circle, "a community of readers who valued Crain's enough to advise us on how to make it better."

"We're looking at Crain's Detroit Business with fresh eyes: Your eyes," the invite said. "...tell us how we can help solve your business problems. Do you need a better pipeline of talent? Do you want to tell your story better? Do you crave marketing advice?"

More than 600 subscribers joined, many more than they expected. "...readers told us they want a deeper relationship with Crain's and shared with us the programs and products that would bring them more value," Fournier wrote Sunday, answering questions about the new membership program. Here's what it entails:

1. Every Crain's subscriber becomes a member.

2. Three membership tiers have been created:

  • Classic. Access to all print and digital editions, members-only webinars, and discounts on events.
  • Enhanced. Everything Classic plus free data services, discounts on other Crain's publications, and newsletters written by their top reporters.
  • Premier. Everything in the first two plus VIP treatment at events (including premier seating and lead-generation lists) and exclusive access to Crain's reporters and editors.

3. Site licenses for corporate members.

4. "Concierge marketing services including native advertising, business reports and brochures, research, and other custom content"

Fournier describes Enhanced membership as their "best" deal and Premier membership "for our most elite members." It reminds me of a recent experience where a local arts group posted discounted $30 tickets to a popular show while seats just a couple rows further up remained $119. Two people I know bought the $119 tickets which astounded me. It pays to offer a high-priced option.

"Reporters and editors will remain ruthlessly independent," Fournier urged. The access that Premier members will receive may resemble a certain type of schmoozing that many of us enjoy—the way theaters are using cast parties to lure higher paying members.

Some publisher events charge a premium for a meet-and-greet with a speaker after a talk. Benny DiCecca, former CEO of Wellesley Information Services, once described the profitable sessions that he arranged this way: "We'll get an expert on a particular topic and just let people ask questions. Our partners will pay to do a webcast, free roadshow, one-day breakfast and lunch—just to ask questions and learn."

Similarly, Fournier wrote, "What we're doing via Membership for our most loyal readers is to organize and normalize access."

"If publishers want readers to identify with and support their brand so much that they'd voluntarily contribute, they will have to genuinely, intentionally, actively and consistently listen to them," wrote Matt DeRienzo, a journalism professor and formerly with Digital First Media, last year.

Crain's Detroit Business is listening.

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…