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Feb. 8, 2018, 9 a.m.
LINK: www.cjr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Ricardo Bilton   |   February 8, 2018

News organizations across the board have largely embraced the notion that the future of digital news will be lighter on advertising and heavier on subscriptions and other forms of reader support. Less clear, though, is what that ideal audience revenue model will look like, and, for the organizations that currently lack one, the best route to make the business shift happen.

A new report from from Elizabeth Hansen at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Emily Goligoski at the Membership Puzzle Project offers more clarity. A product of hundreds of conversations with newsroom managers, reporters, and even members themselves, the 121-page report offers a lot of insight into what makes an effective reader revenue model work, and a framework for how news organizations can implement their own.

The report was written to give news organizations a clearer picture of “the limitations and sheer amount of effort that goes into developing reader revenue models,” said Goligoski. “We obviously want to shine a light for people new to the space, but we also want to give them a realistic picture of what the whole process takes.”

Here are a few of the takeaways from the report, which you can find in full here.

Members don’t really care about tote bags or other swag. Talking to dozens of members of news sites’ membership programs, Hansen and Goligoski found that few people said that they were enticed to sign up by physical perks like tote bags or t-shirts. Instead, many said that they were mostly interested in supporting the cause of the organization itself. This is an appeal that many news organizations have leaned into. The Guardian, for example, said that its shift to an “emotional, service-based request” helped boost its membership efforts to 800,000 supporters in the 18 months after launch.

There’s still no perfect community management system designed for news organizations. Running a membership- or donation-based business involves a lot of complexities when it comes to customer data. Not only must sites collect basic data about their users (email addresses, payment information, etc), but they also have to match that data with specific messaging campaigns and even specific stories to determine what is most effective at driving subscriptions.

While the lackluster state of news-focused customer resource management products is what helped birth the News Revenue Hub (which we covered last year), there are still some gaps in the market, said Goligoski. “I was surprised and disappointed to see how ill-served people are with the current set of CRM, which to me suggest a major market need. The amount of hacked-together solutions that we’ve seen people come up with has been a little shocking.”

Membership programs without content-engagement strategies aren’t really memberships. One of the core arguments made in the report is that membership models require some degree of back-and-forth engagement with members. Some of these models can be “light touch” or “thin,” with features such as reader forms and member-only newsletters, while others are more “high touch,” with more pronounced interactions. Some publications’ membership programs, on the other hand, “are membership in name only and operate much more like subscription strategies, with little or no audience engagement,” Hansen and Goligoski write.

The report also stresses repeatedly that deep engagement with readers needs be a core part of membership products if they’re going to be successful. In concrete terms: “Sites such as De Correspondent in the Netherlands anticipate that its reporting staff will spend approximately one third to half of its working time in communication with readers.”

Embracing membership models often requires a real culture shift. Despite the Internet’s ability to facilitate direct communication with readers, many reporters still cling to the pre-web ethos of speaking to readers rather than hearing from them. That’s slowly changing, especially at places like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, but there’s still often an overall discomfort among reporters newly encouraged to break down the wall between them and their readers.

But one of the most challenging cultural shifts on this front isn’t how reporters talk to readers but how news organizations talk about themselves. “For most publications, this is a new muscle they have to build,” said Hansen. “They have to excel at telling their own story as a publication and as an organization. That’s been one of the things we’ve heard most that people have been wrestling with.”

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