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How publishers can build a digital membership proposition

More and more publishers are going down the membership route, because it offers recurring revenues, brings them closer to their readers and helps future-proof their businesses. Carolyn Morgan has some advice for publishers who are thinking about embarking down this path.

By Carolyn Morgan

How publishers can build a digital membership proposition

Almost every publisher I meet wants to talk about developing a membership proposition. It is now seen as more comprehensive, valuable and sticky than a straightforward subscription package. A subscription is principally about the content, the subscriber is more of a passive consumer, and the relationship is more transactional. Members feel they are joining a club or a community, they expect to connect with each other, and importantly, to be able to influence the elements in the package. More like participatory democracy, at least in the eyes of the member.

The reasons for this focus on membership are clear. Online advertising is volatile or even declining. Publishers are keen to develop direct relationships with their readers rather than sell through an intermediary. Plus, there is the obvious appeal of predictable recurring revenue in an uncertain world. In the last eighteen months, the shift to virtual events and the access to an international digital audience has meant more media businesses are developing a digital-first membership proposition.

In this article, I review the key steps in developing a digital membership proposition, illustrated with examples from recent projects and publishers I have spoken to.

More media businesses are developing a digital-first membership proposition.

1. Research your audience and their information needs

First step is to define your audience. If you are in a consumer market, what are their interests and profile, what are their activities and what do they buy? In a B2B market, which organisations, what job roles and what responsibilities do they have?

Run a survey or even conduct interviews to identify their information needs, over and above the content you already provide for free. Ask what form they want their content in – as articles, podcasts, video, databases. How strong is the appetite for connecting with each other and sharing ideas? What other services might they value: mentoring, awards, training, events, a marketplace or even a helpline?

2. Know your competition

Define your competitor set as broadly as possible – it could include associations or events, not just print and digital publishers. Ask your audience what other information sources they use when you do your research. Analyse the most mentioned sources: what do they offer that is valued and how can you differentiate your new membership proposition? Audit the prices charged and what people consider good value.

3. Create new exclusive member content

If up to now, all your digital content has been free to access, you will have to create some new exclusive content. Audiences won’t be prepared to pay for something that was previously free. But you can charge for archive access or a sophisticated search facility for previously free content. You can also repackage existing content into new forms (such as virtual event sessions, special reports) that meet reader needs. For example, TTG Media make recordings of their virtual events available only to paying members.

But be prepared to create some exclusive resources or reports for members only. RCNi and Business of Fashion offer a suite of online courses for members. Gal-Dem paid members receive an annual print magazine, and Business of Fashion members receive exclusive print reports.

The trend recently has been to make metered access tighter, only allowing one or two article views before the registration wall appears.

4. Set your registration and digital paywalls

A paid digital membership proposition means you have to think about online paywalls.

If you already have an email database or user registration, great news. If not, creating a free registration sign-up is your first step on the path to paid digital membership.

Now you need to make some decisions about how many articles you will leave free, how many will be metered access for registered users, and at what point visitors will hit the paywall. The trend recently has been to make metered access tighter, only allowing one or two article views before the registration wall appears, and then maybe only two or three articles a week before you ask for payment. This will of course depend on your market. B2B audiences are more open to registering and paying for useful content, while consumer audiences will need more reassurance that the content is valuable before they provide their credit card details.

One metric to monitor is the ‘stop rate’ – ie. what proportion of your visitors get as far as the paywall. If it is less than 5%, then your meter may be too generous. Be aware that individuals may hit the paywall several times on different occasions before they decide to buy. If the paywall is quite tight, and you have exclusive, member-only content, then you do need to show them a glimpse of what is behind the curtain from time to time, maybe by having a featured member content box on the main home page to show them what they are missing.

Conversion rates are highest for very tightly niched B2B audiences, and lowest for more general consumer audiences.

5. Estimate market size / revenue potential

To decide how much to invest in content creation, tech and marketing, you need a fair idea of the revenue potential. If you already have a registered user database, that provides a clue to the size of the opportunity. Typically, between 1% and 10% of registered users will convert to a paid proposition over time. Conversion rates are highest for very tightly niched B2B audiences, and lowest for more general consumer audiences.

Once your membership proposition is up and running, you can experiment with pricing offers to see if that makes a difference to take-up rates. The general rule, however, is that the lower the introductory price, the lower the conversion rate when members move to the standard rate. Conversion from a free trial can be as low as 20-30%, while conversion from a discounted trial to a standard rate can be more like 50-70%.

Consider whether you are selling individual or group subscriptions. The trend is towards quoting prices on a quarterly, monthly, or annual basis so the lead in price is more affordable. The other appeal of a monthly payment is the option to cancel after one month rather than commit to a year upfront. Most publishers offer a discount for an annual subscription, so that over time the lifetime value of annual and monthly memberships stay in balance.

Group subscriptions are more popular for B2B. Enterprises will expect a good discount, but general practice is not to advertise discounts on the membership page, but instead ask interested customers to get in touch. Arts Professional developed a pricing structure for small organisations that was still affordable for small venues and charities.

Creating a free registration sign-up is your first step on the path to paid digital membership.

6. Choose a tech platform (or build one)

Once you have an idea of the revenue potential of your membership package, you can assess the tech options. These start with simple WordPress plug-ins with payment via Go Cardless or Stripe. Then there are off the shelf platforms, which have a higher price tag and a bit of a learning curve for the team. But an increasing number of publishers are building their membership access in-house. HR Grapevine have built on an existing free registration platform for their paid membership option.

Membership is more than content; it implies joining a club or community.

7. Build a rounded membership proposition

Membership is more than content; it implies joining a club or community. Research your audience to find out if there is an appetite for large scale events (in person or virtual).

Will your members want to meet 1:1 for sharing ideas or mentoring? Are they interested in connecting online? Do they want to transact with each other?

Members of 1854 Media can set up a store as a Mentor in their Academy platform and sell masterclasses and portfolio reviews to other members of the photography community. Gal-Dem paying members can join a WhatsApp group and get early booking privileges for events. The Drum offers a discount on awards and event tickets to corporate members plus exclusive breakfast meetups. Paid members of B2B Marketing can join an exclusive online community, Propolis, to exchange ideas and network with peers.

8. Market to individuals and enterprises

Use your research to understand why people might want to join and what the benefits are for them. Create a clear membership page with all your pricing options. The aim is for individuals to be persuaded to buy memberships directly online. Your job is to drive them to the membership page via email and social media, and then offer a compelling value proposition and a smooth, frictionless purchase journey. Membership is a slow burn – it could take a couple of years to reach a reasonable number of customers, but once you have, the size of the network becomes a selling point in itself.

In B2B markets, profile enterprises who might like a group deal. Target them via email / LinkedIn and follow up with a call. Maybe have two or three membership tiers for enterprises: The Drum have premium and platinum packages.

9. Involve sponsors and advertisers

The preferences of your paid members must always come first, but sometimes they welcome special offers from suppliers. I’d suggest starting with a selected list of partners who are offering something of value / sponsoring awards events and expand it gradually once your member list has built up. Gal-Dem members get discount codes for their partner brands.

10. Have a user feedback loop

Keep in mind that members will feel as if they own a part of you and will tell you what they think. This is a good thing, so encourage a feedback loop. Make it easy to comment via surveys, through online forums or informally at live events. It’s OK to keep tweaking the package, and adding value means you can push the price up for new members, while encouraging existing members to renew.


Designing a membership proposition is a bit more work than a pure content subscription. However, the time invested in researching your audience and developing events, communities or services that closely match their needs will be repaid in higher renewal rates and a far closer relationship that helps you to future-proof your proposition.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.