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April 11, 2019, 12:25 p.m.
Business Models

Experience experiments: What Whereby.Us’s membership model looks like after adding a Spirited Media site

“I would love to be in 25 cities and I wish we could’ve lived up to that. The financial reality and the operational reality of it was not quite ready for that.”

After Spirited Media announced it was throwing in the towel on content and pivoting to consulting, some eyes shifted to the other startup network of lit-to-be-local sites. But instead of sticking to its plan, Whereby.Us, founded around the same time as Spirited and existing in four cities, ended up taking in one of Spirited’s almost-orphaned sites. (Okay, my eyes shifted.)

Pittsburgh’s The Incline joins the roster of Pulptown in Orlando, The New Tropic in Miami, Bridgeliner in Portland, and The Evergrey in Seattle. Part of Spirited Media’s trouble, executives said, was that they didn’t start building memberships among readers soon enough. Whereby.Us is four months into experiential-focused memberships: helicopter ride giveaways, discounted event tickets, behind-the-scenes tours of the science museum, tacos-and-tattoos meetups, indie bookstore gift cards, and other ways to help hipsters lessen their gentrifying and build community online and in person.

“For us, it’s about being able to provide an extra layer of community to our members, to the people who are really engaged with us, support the work that we do, and want to get engaged in the city,” CEO Chris Sopher said. One percent of the sites’ newsletter subscribers have converted to members so far, at $10 a month. (The starter price was $8 for the first two months as the initiative launched.) Examples of the offerings:

Love Miami as much as we do? Join The New Tropic’s growing community and become a member today. Your generous support enhances our work so we can help deepen your connection to Miami while investing in the future of local journalism.
Membership perks include:

  1. Supporting community-centric storytelling, like our series on affordable housing, where we answered your questions to help you make sense of the issue
  2. Discounted tickets to all of The New Tropic’s events, like this menu tasting at Lil Greenhouse Grill
  3. Exclusive access to special giveaways and content, like the chance to win New World Symphony tickets or play trivia for prizes
  4. A special welcome kit to proudly showcase your support for The New Tropic

Love Seattle as much as we do? Join The Evergrey’s growing community and become a member today. Your generous support enhances our work so we can help deepen your connection to Seattle while investing in the future of local journalism.
Membership perks include:

  1. Supporting community-centric storytelling, like this series exploring the Central District
  2. Discounted tickets to all of The Evergrey’s events, like this speed friending gathering
  3. Exclusive access to special giveaways and content, like the chance to win Children’s Film Festival tickets or play trivia for prizes
  4. A special welcome kit to proudly showcase your support for The Evergrey

“People who are clear supporters of our brand look for ways to support us and tell us they got their friends and colleagues to sign up and it seemed like a natural ask for them to support us financially,” Alexandra Smith, Whereby.Us’s growth editor (and a recent Knight-Nieman Visiting Fellow), said.

So what made Whereby.Us go for it? Its tech, financial, and audience houses were finally in order enough to start building the relationship of membership — plus the company participated in Facebook’s recent membership accelerator, a coaching program with 17 outlets (nonprofit and for-profit) that move baby membership strategies along.

“The difference for us is that we’re not an investigative shop, we’re the not The Wall Street Journal, we’re not producing loads of content like metro dailies. The things we looked for first was experiential, to help you live like you live here with membership,” Rebekah Monson, Whereby.Us’ COO, said.

Membership comes in many forms, including volunteerism, networking (In Whereby.Us’s newsletters “we spotlight a member with a short Q&A and one question we always ask is what’s something you’re working on you could use help with,” Smith said, adding that Whereby.Us then facilitates those connections), and straight-up money.

In a previous fundraising round, Whereby.Us asked its subscribers to chip in as crowd investors with a $500 minimum. They brought in $250,000 from individual followers. $10 a month seems a bit more attainable than that.

Sopher is currently seeking investors again, saying “there’s a lot of energy out there about the future of local media” — though Spirited’s leaders said part of why that company fell through was that they couldn’t persuade investors to commit.

Whereby.Us relies on a mix of revenue through its creative agency and advertising products. Last year, we noted 30 percent came from advertising in the newsletters and half from the creative agency; half of revenue still comes from the creative agency, with the other half coming from the combo of advertising, membership, events, and other projects, Sopher said.

The team is going deeper as the company grows, not just wider. They’d previously pegged expansion at 25 cities by 2019, and, erm, they’re not close. Monson said that was an intentional pivot and that they’re in exploration mode to sprout elsewhere in the second half of this year.

“I would love to be in 25 cities and I wish we could’ve lived up to that. The financial reality and the operational reality of it was not quite ready for that. I’d rather be making money, growing audience, having the right team, all of those things have to be in concert to grow in that networked way,” she said. “Sometimes it means hitting some hurdles, but you’re able to tackle them because you’re not overextending yourself.”

But they got The Incline. Since Whereby.Us was already gearing up to expand, taking an established site under their hood was doable, Monson and Sopher said. “We’ve launched new products, a membership program, we’ve deployed a bunch of things to help us support the work — as we checked all the boxes, now we know we’re ready,” he said.

The Incline is still swapping out its News Revenue Hub and Spirited Media systems for Whereby.Us’s custom setup, but the team hopes they can learn from the February 2018 launch of membership in Pittsburgh. “All props to the Spirited crew. They built meaningful, engaged communities in their city,” Monson said. “If we can help centrally support them as we work through these tech hurdles, some of the membership stuff in our cities will be a good boon to their program as well.”

Image of some of The Evergrey’s members courtesy Whereby.Us

POSTED     April 11, 2019, 12:25 p.m.
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