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What makes people avoid the news? Trust, age, political leanings — but also whether their country’s press is free
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March 11, 2020, 11 a.m.

At Slate Plus, behind-the-scenes content wasn’t a big draw for members — but bonus podcast episodes are

“The other thing that surprised us in the beginning was the extent to which people would sign up just to support our journalism,” not for a specific member benefit.

Editor’s note: Atlantic Media publishes a weekly newsletter called The Idea about “everything new and innovative in the media industry.” This week’s edition featured a Q&A with Heidi Strom Moon, a product manager at Slate, where she oversees its membership program Slate Plus, which was one of the earlier attempts to build a membership model at a digital-native site. (It’s also one of the most successful, with more than 60,000 paying members.) Here’s an expanded version of that Q&A.

Saanya Jain: Tell me a bit about your path to Slate and your current role.

Heidi Strom Moon: I got a degree in communication with the original idea of being a journalist. My first job out of college was as a copy editor on a feature desk for the Newport News Daily Press. I was there when newspapers and media companies were looking for people from within the newsroom to work on their websites.

When we moved from Newport News up to D.C., I wound up staying on the digital side and worked at a few different agencies and at a nonprofit. I did all the different parts of managing and building and maintaining a website before CMS came along. This position at Slate was a cool way to bring all those threads together.

I’m a product manager on what we call the PIE team, which is our cross functional team that brings together product, research, engineering, UX and design. I primarily own the roadmap for our membership program, Slate Plus, as well as newsletters and commenting. That includes drawing out requirements in collaboration with people around the organization, documentation, writing ticket, sprint planning, and quality assurance.

A big part of my job also is prioritizing requests and tickets that I’ve written against others and the overall roadmap for the PIE team as a whole. In my previous agency life, I did a lot of marketing work, so I play the role of a product marketer for Slate Plus, writing copy for house ads and email blasts. I also coordinate with an outside consultant on paid acquisition campaigns on Facebook and Google.

Jain: Can you provide a general overview of Slate Plus?

Moon: Slate Plus will turn six this year. It’s been very successful for us, and we’ve learned a lot about what our readers and listeners come to us for.

Probably our biggest group of members join because of our podcast benefit. Members get ad-free feeds and bonus content, including entire bonus episodes, like a special episode of Political Gabfest looking at South Carolina and Super Tuesday that we dropped over the weekend for members only. For all three seasons of Slow Burn, between six and eight primary episodes in the series were ad-supported, so anybody could listen to them; but for each one of those episodes, there was an entire bonus episode that was for members only.

Another big group is readers of our advice columns and, in particular, Dear Prudence, who join to get more bonus content like extra questions and answers. We have a column called Dear Prudence Uncensored, which is a behind-the-scenes of a letter each week, and we have the Dear Prudence podcast.

We have a third bucket of members, which to some degree crossover with both of the previous two. These are people who just want to support our journalism.

Jain: Slate Plus has a variety of other perks, including discounts and early access to events. Where do ideas for these benefits come from, and how do you think about prioritizing which ones to include?

Moon: When we launched, we did a lot of competitor research to see what other membership and subscription plans out there were offering to try to give the broadest package of benefits to appeal to the most people. Over time, we’ve started to regularly conduct surveys.

In fact, we just launched one yesterday for readers and members, and we ask: Why did you join? What was the benefit that made you sign up? If we took away a certain benefit, would you cancel? This way, we’re able to estimate the value of a benefit, which has helped us refine the offering over time.

We’ve found that the benefits that are most important for most of our members are podcast-related perks and bonus content.

Jain: Have there been any interesting or surprising insights over the course of that research?

Moon: At the beginning, we thought that there would be more of an appetite for behind-the-scenes type content. It just didn’t have as big of an impact as say, the additional bonus advice content, so we phased it out over time to focus editorial efforts in the places that are most fruitful.

The other thing that surprised us in the beginning was the extent to which people would sign up just to support our journalism. In one of our first surveys, we didn’t even ask that as a reason for why people signed up, since we were thinking so much about the specific package of benefits. A lot of people wrote in that it was just to support Slate, and in subsequent surveys, it’s always been one of the biggest reasons people have said they’ve joined. We’ve really started leaning into that messaging.

Jain: Can you speak to the community-oriented features, like the private Facebook group? How successful are those?

Moon: Community hasn’t really been one of the main things that members have been looking for. We found that it waxes and wanes a little bit in usage, and when people do seek each other out, it’s in the comment threads. Those aren’t limited to Plus members, although a lot of members participate there.

Having said that, members get early access to tickets for our live shows, and we often find Plus members meeting each other at those events.

Jain: What’s a recent initiative you’ve been working on related to Slate Plus?

Moon: One thing we’ve been working on is an initiative called Who Counts, which we launched in the fall. It pursues election coverage on the battles around voting rights and immigration. We’ve framed it as a reader-supported initiative to help us bring this additional journalism beyond what we normally cover in those areas, so we asked readers to support it by joining Slate Plus and asked Slate Plus members to support it by donating directly.

Jain: How are you thinking about newsletters and commenting?

Moon: We recently merged two of our daily newsletters into one, because we found that it was a stronger play to just make one daily newsletter instead of having a couple compete against each other. We’ve launched a new newsletter for How to Do It, our sex-advice column, and that’s been successful. We launched a parenting newsletter last year that’s also been really successful.

As for commenting, a lot of places have gotten out of it, but we still see value in it. We have a few people who spend a lot of time commenting, so they’re super loyal and they spend a lot of time on the site. We have a dedicated moderating community manager resource who make sure that people are respectful. We have a team of volunteer moderators to help us with that to make sure that it remains a place where people are willing to participate and feel like there’s value in spending time.

Jain: What’s something interesting you’ve found in media recently from an organization other than your own?

Moon: The issue that is most important to me is the climate crisis. It’s been encouraging to see so much great journalism on it. I’ve noticed a couple of projects in the last 6 to 12 months. One is an ongoing series from The Washington Post called 2°C: Beyond the Limit, which shows climate change’s impact around the country with photo and data journalism. You can look up your specific county to see how much the temperature has risen and where you are within that 2°C budget that we’re trying not to exceed.

Another one that’s similar, but across the globe, is Norway’s NRK, which did one called Chasing Climate Change. Finally, the Audubon Society did a really cool Climate Action Guide with these beautiful, animated illustrations. It tells you what you can do, so it’s helpful, not just informative.

Saanya Jain is a strategy research fellow at Atlantic Media. An abbreviated version of this Q&A was originally published in the March 9 edition of The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.

Photo of a live Slate Culture Gabfest taping in 2010 by Steve McFarlane used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 11, 2020, 11 a.m.
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