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Feb. 6, 2019, 11:11 a.m.
Audience & Social

Vox.com tries a membership program, with a twist: It’s focused on video and entirely on YouTube

“I’m sure everybody in the industry would [agree] that YouTube can be a messy, nasty place. The membership is just this delightful two-way conversation, with people who are really there to support Vox.”

Would you pay an extra $5 a month to attend a quarterly meeting over Google Hangouts? Not “$5 a month to skip a meeting.” “$5 to have the privilege of attending a meeting.”

Well, it turns out, plenty of Vox.com video lovers would. When you sign up for a Vox Video Lab membership, you can choose between two different price levels. For $4.99 per month, you get the “DVD extras” of Vox videos: behind-the-scenes content, videos explaining Vox’s process, recommendations for non-Vox videos, and a monthly live Q&A with a producer. For $9.99 a month, you get all that plus…access to a quarterly Google Hangout where they can give Vox more advice about its membership program.

Last week, Vox Video Lab held its first such meeting. It included Vox fans from nine different countries. “I was floored,” said Blair Hickman, Vox.com’s director of audience. The time that worked best for a global digital audience, it turned out, was 5 p.m. eastern. “One guy was like, I’m kind of tired. I’ve had a long day at work in Switzerland,” Hickman recalled. (In Switzerland, it was 11 p.m.) Still, they showed up. “They were asking questions like, ‘Can we have Slack rooms so we can better prepare for these meetings? How can we coordinate in helping you reach your goals outside of these quarterly meetings?'”

These sweet meeting lovers are one sign that, roughly six weeks in, Vox.com’s video membership program might be working. (Of course, Vox would not tell me how many paying members it has, in either the $4.99 or $9.99 tier.) Vox Video Lab launched right before Christmas, with “YouTube innovation funding” from the Google News Initiative. (If “taking money from Google to help us get money from our audience on YouTube” doesn’t sum up the news industry’s conflicted relationship with big platforms, well, I’m not sure what does.) It’s the first time that any Vox Media property has solicited financial support from its audience, and is obviously different from other membership programs that have launched in that it is focused on video and YouTube rather than text. (YouTube first introduced channel memberships broadly last summer; the company takes 30 percent of subscription fees after local sales tax is deducted, so Vox gets 70 percent of the revenue from each membership.)

Before launching the Video Lab, Vox.com surveyed readers on what they wanted from a membership program. They found two buckets of people willing to pay: One group was the “Vox superfans,” the other was a group that loves Vox’s video style and is interested in making videos themselves. They also heard a consistent message, said Vox.com head of video Joe Posner: “‘We just want to support what you do, we don’t really care what we get.’ It was cool to know that a major motivator, at least as far as we can tell from this survey, is that people do just want to support us.” It also meant that the logical step for the premium $9.99 tier was simply more access to Vox video creators (though Vox does also plan to roll out more perks for the $9.99 subscribers over the next few months).

“I’m sure everybody in the industry would [agree] that YouTube can be a messy, nasty place,” Hickman said. “The membership is just this delightful two-way conversation, with people who are really there to support Vox.” Vox.com’s wording around the membership program has stressed the financial support that it needs; for instance:

The foundation of all we’ve done is our free, ad-supported short-form video program. But few of the highest-quality free videos are supported by advertising alone. We all adore the free segments of Last Week Tonight on YouTube — and they probably will stay free as long as people keep paying for HBO. Dozens of our favorite independent creators give their fans the chance to support their work through Patreon. So, today, we’re asking fans of Vox video to help us continue to expand our ambitions by joining the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

YouTube’s membership program itself is in early phases, and Vox has been in touch with YouTube reps to talk about ways of improving it. For instance, YouTube provides Vox with very little information on who its paying members are. It “reflects our audience in general on YouTube, which skews male and young,” Posner said, but the membership analytics are “much less clear than the general analytics.” So Vox plans to run a member survey in the next week or two. For now, it’s pretty much only communicating with members through the YouTube channel, though it has a handful of email addresses of the people who signed up for that first advisory board meeting.

On the editorial front, the production of content for the Video Lab has fit in fairly seamlessly, said Mona Lalwani, executive producer for Vox.com video. The team already generates plenty of extra content in making its main videos, so sharing the extras hasn’t been too much of a lift. But Vox shifted two employees to work full-time on Video Lab member growth and retention. “There is literally nothing harder than launching something new. This is new to Vox, to YouTube, and to the video engagement team,” Hickman said. “That would be my biggest piece of advice [to other companies trying this]: [Audience] is at minimum a one-person full-time job.”

POSTED     Feb. 6, 2019, 11:11 a.m.
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