Join the club

Lots of publishers are now offering club style membership schemes, looking to generate extra revenue and deeper engagement. Dickon Ross looks at the membership model.

By Dickon Ross

Join the club

I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member, said Groucho Marx. It’s a brilliantly simple joke on exclusivity and aspiration, an emotion on which glossy magazines have built some of their most successful brands. Now media brands of all kinds, from serious newspapers to humorous magazines, are building their own ways of selling closer engagement to their previously non-paying public.

In a time of declining advertising revenues, magazines are rediscovering the paid-for model in premium offerings, supporters’ associations, membership schemes, fan clubs or whatever you want to call them.

Where does this trend leave those magazines that are themselves already part of a membership package? There are an awful lot of them, from hobbyist clubs and campaigning organisations to learned societies and professional associations (like my own employer).

In many cases, the magazine is the most visible product the membership organisation produces. Magazines have developed their own brands with a relationship to, but distinct from, the organisation’s brand. The branding for a whole organisation with all its signage, official reports and corporate website rarely works for a magazine which really needs to look like a magazine or a news site, rather than a brochure. That can be controversial in the corporate marketing world but is well understood by publishers.

More importantly, readers tend to find magazines that are mere mouthpieces for their organisation rather narrow, so magazines have developed their own wider editorial remits as platforms for wider opinion, debate and coverage generally. That makes it clearer who is speaking and when – the organisation or the magazine. And it allows these publications to become substantial, quality magazines in their own right, making it a strong membership benefit, but whose appeal goes beyond the membership it’s primarily produced for.

Good membership magazines can become as famous or more so than the organisation that started them. Think BMJ from the BMA, Geographical from the RGS, Nursing Standard from the RCN or Which? from the Consumers’ Association.

Good membership magazines can become as famous or more so than the organisation that started them.

A lifestyle choice

It’s sometimes said that when a reader picks a magazine off the newsagent’s shelf, they don’t just pick a magazine, they buy into a lifestyle, they join a club they would like to see themselves belonging to. Or that’s how it could feel. And if it’s a club that doesn’t seem to them too easy to join, then all the better. That’s why Marge Simpson reads Better Homes Than Yours.

For newsstand consumer magazines, that experience of joining a club is just a concept, a feeling, a good metaphor. But when you sign up for a membership magazine, you literally join a club. It may be a club, society, institution, association, union or something else but the point is the same – you pay a fee to join up with other like-minded people. From the perspective of magazines trying to deepen reader engagement and commitment to replace declining revenues, the membership magazine would seem to be in an enviable position. Its organisation also may already offer many of the spinoffs and extensions standalone magazines have to build from scratch: conferences, exhibitions, awards, books, t-shirts, ties or whatever.

However, the organisation you’re joining usually came before the magazine you get by joining it. Back then, you joined the club, you got the magazine and when the first copy dropped through your door, that could well be the first time you’d seen it. And that may still be true for print-only membership magazines.

Media digitalisation has changed all that. These membership magazines, previously limited to paying members or libraries by mail, can reach a much larger audience through apps, websites or other digital channels. To do so, they must of course offer something that readers outside the organisation are interested in – it has to be filled with much more than marketing and PR stories for the organisation or its members. The magazine itself may remain the deluxe product with the keenest following but the digital numbers, and therefore revenues from advertising, can be much higher.

But the opportunity goes further. As the magazine started as an exclusive benefit of membership, the jump in the commitment you’re asking readers to make from interested web reader to full membership could be too big a leap for many, but like the newsstand magazines, membership magazines can develop tiers of engagement to introduce newcomers to more of the organisation’s range of great stuff, whatever that is.

At the deepest end of that engagement could be various levels of membership – for both those people who it would have as members but, for more exclusive associations, also involving those it couldn’t have as full members because they aren’t for example, suitably qualified. So, people can join the club that wouldn’t have them as a member. Or that’s how it could feel.

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