How the National Journal Transitioned Into a Successful Membership Organization

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In 2010, the then 40-year-old National Journal had about 150 journalists, president Kevin Turpin recalls. "We have 25 now," he told a SIPA 2019 audience earlier this month. "But we employ over 60 analysts now plus more in research and consulting." Those employees contribute to what's now a bank of about 50,000 PowerPoint presentations and a lucrative custom PowerPoint business.

The dramatic shift—from publisher to information services organization—resulted from a huge decision National Journal execs made then, one which Turpin eloquently expounded upon in his session, What's Keeping You Up at Night? The Secrets to Success With the Membership Model.

"We took all of our subscribers, went to them and said, 'Good news. Thank you so much for subscribing for these many years—you're a member now. I know that doesn't mean anything to you, but let me explain to you what that means. It means that we're getting rid of our per-user or by-user pricing scheme. Everything we do for you is unlimited.'"

Turpin went on. "That was a decision we made because we thought there would be more loyalty that we'd get from our clients, especially at a time when competitors were coming into our market. They wouldn't feel like they'd be getting nickeled and dimed anytime they added a user. That was a decision for us. I will say, take a look at that decision closely. That's a business decision that will affect your revenue. We made sure we propped up our renewal rates, and that they remained strong [which they have at over 90%]. But it's not for everyone.

"That's what membership meant to us. It also meant that we were going to layer a number of services into our basic subscription. We only added services into the package. We increased our price. This was not an all-around generous transaction. We explained to them what we were adding and why we were raising our price. We were able to retain a lot of our customers, and then all of our new customers came into this membership frame—which was a mix of our journalism [that people] had been subscribing to for years as well as research services that we added in and strategic tools. And we became a membership business."

Here are more takeaways from Turpin's eye-opening session:

Think ahead. As more competitors came in, Turpin and his colleagues started to think about, "Where do we need to take the business? Should we be doing the same thing? We needed to become much more dynamic online." David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media (National Journal's longtime parent), said he was willing to make an investment but wondered if they were still "'offering something I'm not getting from anyone else.' So we decided to pivot the business."

What customer problem are you solving? "One thing we launched was a presentation center," Turpin said, explaining that by talking to their customers they discovered that's what they needed help with. "They were being asked to explain Washington in more detail. They knew the content but needed a workable format. We're actually very good at that. Take what happened in midterm elections and create a 40-page sllde deck out of it. We're still doing that for board meetings of Fortune 500 companies."

Find your niche. "What our chairman pushed us to is, let's just not be in a horse race and hope we have the fastest horse," Turpin said. "There are so many variables. We want to be in a place where we're on our own on that track, and there's not a lot of other competitors—where we're solving problems specific to the customer and are the only ones addressing that."

Take time to listen. "When we faced that decision 7 or 8 years ago, we spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over," Turpin said. "The most important one was, 'What keeps you effective?' When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work. We don't spend enough time going around. How are [our customers'] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions."

Form volunteer committees. Turpin built a strategic advisory group of 60 government affairs executives from large corporations and influential trade associations. This resulted in the launch of National Journal's Leadership Council. "The incentive for the council is that they get to gather with each other," Turpin said. "Remember, we have 40-plus years of equity [built up]. If you're proper about using their time, [members are] actually pretty generous."

Get as much customer involvement as possible. "We knew that the more people we could get using our services the stickier our membership would be," Turpin said. Pricing goes by the number of people in an office, but will be the same if two people use it there or 100. The low end of pricing about doubled when they went from subscription to membership.

Start with the problem before you make the product. "We identified our strongly felt challenges," Turpin said. "Now we try to offer surplus value. We wanted to make the bar higher [so members say,] 'They actually delivered more value that we expected.' We kept the listening arm of our organization open. Your customers have to feel like, 'I pay a premium price point [but] they're always there for me, they solve my problems, they ask to help.'"

Stay in constant touch with members. National Journal has dedicated advisors who have a whole process of staying in touch with members, starting with a welcome call. "There are significant touch points that we know are viable," Turpin said. "Like asking them what presentations they have coming up and then we put that on the calendar. We then reach out to them 3 or 4 weeks before and say, 'we know you have a presentation coming up—how can we help?"

Go with the flow (or what makes money). "Our consulting arm is becoming more the engine of our company," Turpin said. They'll conduct proprietary surveys to help the government affairs people. "Who are the people and issues they care about?" Turpin asked. "What do their networks look like? And what would be the best way to engage those [networks]. We never stop listening. That has led to further expansion. We don't do advertising or events anymore [besides a few included ones]. Our consulting business is over half of our revenue."

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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…