Launching a membership program: Lessons from the frontline

Launching a membership plan is a difficult task, with landmines placed in the form of challenges and skills gaps that few news organisations are equipped to handle. And once you wade through the marathon of finally launching the plan to your superfans, you then have to growth hack the world out of every marketing resource available to you.

There are plenty of research papers, articles and even funding opportunities to explore experiments in membership (from the likes of Membership Puzzle Project and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism). But as a nascent movement in news media circles, there isn’t yet much in the way of marketing insights for budding membership programme managers.

Here we share some of our learnings, going back to pre-launch days and how important minimum viable products (MVPs) are to today’s publisher’s product design efforts.

(To learn more about why we launched membership and how it’s changed the Daily Maverick, head here.)

Testing appetite for membership with a one-time donations drive

Daily Maverick officially launched its membership programme on 15 Aug. 2018 at a conference attended by some of our most loyal and engaged readers. And while we were blown away by the fact that more than 200-odd people joined our cause on that day (and 9,000 more subsequent to that), we already had more than an inkling that we were on the right track.

That’s because, in the months leading up to the official launch date, we were engaged in a long, arduous process of migrating, well, just about everything. This included all the digital plumbing and face of Daily Maverick: a redesign plus CMS migration and a hosting provider switch (because we are gluttons for punishment). We had to wait until everything had moved and settled before we could launch the membership plan or risk having to transplant a newborn product into another new environment.

This enforced waiting time gave us some time to experiment with a pre-membership minimum viable product that ended up informing much of the launch plan and some of the practices we still use today. While we hadn’t wanted to wait that long to launch membership, this donations-focused MVP ended up helping us launch smarter and more efficiently than we otherwise might have.

Only a few days elapsed between the decision to do the MVP to the launch of it. Like any good MVP, they are not supposed to be perfect works of art, rather good enough to push out into the world, test some hypotheses, and get the data to iterate the first version. This was a VERY different way of approaching things for us — we’ve been known to have strong debates lasting weeks over font types and weightings. Luckily, we embraced the MVP concept and we were able to not only get some extremely useful data but prove our hypotheses with such positive results that speeded up our march to membership. Here are some key elements of the process:

1. The hypotheses we wanted to test

We’d asked for reader support in the past, but only in a sporadic, shy teenager at a high school dance kinda way. We’d never been bold enough to ask prominently, often, and, above all, for recurring support. With the MVP we wanted to test whether our most engaged readers would consider supporting us with a monthly financial contribution with no expectation of anything in return. If we could prove this hypothesis we felt that a membership programme with greater benefits and the power of community would resonate even more with our readers.

The second thing we wanted to test was where to find our most engaged readers. Analytics and dedication to newsletters over the years meant those readers would always be high up on the “ask list,” but we needed to find out (and with the limited tech available to us) where we could find our most engaged readers.

We assumed people who actually read to the end of our long-form features would be our most engaged. We tested that with a call for donations in post-article footers.

We also tested the language we would use in marketing any call for reader support. We bought into the concept of cause-driven marketing and, given Daily Maverick’s role in strong accountability journalism and investigations, it made sense to stick to this theme. Because of the lack of tech investment we weren’t able to test multiple messages on the site but were able to do so on the newsletter.

And finally, we wanted to test if we could influence the amount people would choose to give by mixing up button placements and colour schemes on the signup form.

2. Technology

At the time we were migrating from a bespoke CMS platform to Wordpress, with plans to use a number of WooCommerce plugins to create a voluntary “pay-what-want” membership programme. To run the MVP we scoured the web for software as a service options that would work on our CMS and, most importantly, had local payment gateway connections to handle recurring billing in South African rand. This automatically reduced the available options, thanks to South Africa’s underdeveloped e-commerce environment. We settled on the “Charitable” service that worked with local payment gateway Payfast. (More on why we chose a “pay-what-you-want” model below).

3. Test Results

We were blown away by the support. Within hours of putting the messages out on our website and newsletter, we had readers signing up for recurring contributions. And because we’ve always been in a cash-crunch situation and wanted to provide readers with as many choices as we could, we gave them the option to make one-off donations as well.

We had successfully tested our hypotheses that our most engaged readers would be willing to commit to recurring financial support of Daily Maverick. By the end of the MVP’s four-month run, we had 314 recurring donors (with an average monthly contribution of R100 ($8) and 621 one-time donors giving anything from R15 ($1) to R25,000 ($1,670). We confirmed that our most engaged readers were those who read to the end of our features. While we certainly could have run more specific tests with better controls over the variables, these were enough to let us know that we were on the right course.

4. Informing the next phase

The MVP also gave us a beta group of users with whom we could further develop the membership programme. We had their email addresses, and we contacted them in advance of the membership launch to gauge which of the benefits on the shortlist they most valued. Their responses informed which benefits we launched with.

Survey results from the MVP donor cohort ahead of the membership launch

At the time we were debating whether a high-value prize would entice readers to join, and it ranked so poorly that it emphatically ended the debate for us. We also had some fun moving the buttons around to test if the position affected the value they chose to sign-up with. We found there was a significant shift towards the most left placed button and if we made the background a solid colour and kept the others transparent. We instantly saw an uplift in the value selected with the left-most option becoming the most selected price point.

Just before our official membership launch, we checked back on our north star document, the Tow Centre Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement (authored by Membership Puzzle Project’s Emily Goligoski and the Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen), which helped us design many parts of the program. In there was a note about how members didn’t appreciate tote bags from struggling newsrooms and would prefer the investment going to journalistic efforts instead. By then we had already ordered our tote bags and expensive Daily Maverick-branded hoodies. Worried about how best to use them, we decided to offer them as an incentive to entice membership launch event attendees to sign up on the day. We marketed it on the back of physical flyers with the day’s program and personal appeal announcing the launch of the program, on stage, just before the lunch break.

Luckily, the early adopters who signed up before the event started had been walking around with the boldly designed hoodies and tote bags, emphasising the tribe-vibe we were going. It showed us that in a physical gathering of readers, FOMO and well-designed swag can certainly be useful in gaining new members.

5. MVP Conclusion

We probably would have moved ahead with the membership launch even if the donation MVP wasn’t that successful. We were in financially desperate times and we had to try something. But the success of the MVP and the data that indicated why it was successful helped us iterate on the launch of the Maverick Insider programme so that it would be well-received from day one.

MVP thinking is not something that comes naturally for us. We’re still influenced by our print-first perfectionist tendencies, even though digital gives us the freedom to experiment, test and iterate. We’re continuously having to remind ourselves that we don’t have to take months or years to build what we think is the best mousetrap.

But this was a great example for us to show us how we could launch something good enough, very quickly that could test multiple hypotheses and provide rich data and insights that are currently still being used today. It’s fair to say our membership launch was more successful because of it and we made fewer mistakes along the way. MVPs are a useful way to be more audience-centric because it removes the guesswork and assumptions from decision-making and actual user behaviour is used.

Pay-what-you-want: Access a different part of the brain. And wallet.

South Africa is the most unequal country on earth. Ten percent of the population accounts for the entire country’s personal tax and we have an official unemployment rate of 30%. Huge swathes of the population are still denied an education and economic opportunity so putting up a metered or hard paywall was not an option for us.

We needed to make our content as accessible as we could, given that even free is not really free because of the high costs of data. One of the key “benefits” of Daily Maverick membership is keeping it free for those who can’t afford to pay. We doubled down on that emotional connection with a “pay-what-you-want” model that framed membership as an emotional investment in doing the right thing. We opted to allow prospective members to decide how much to contribute and declined to lock them into a minimum contract period. Membership was available to everyone, whether they gave the equivalent of $5 a month or $20 a month or even ad-hoc contributions.

Besides removing friction from the process, it also taps into a different part of the brain — and budget. Subscription fatigue is a thing, and publishers in South Africa have to compete with the New York Times for a slice of people’s subscription budget. Research shows that the average American household has $30 available for subscriptions and within that space, enough for just one news subscription. And that’s wealthy American households. But people can and do support multiple good causes that resonate with them. We wanted to convey our cause that was worthy of support alongside the Society for the Protection of Animals, National Sea Rescue Institute, or educational development programmes.

Our MVP initially used buttons with values that readers could select or a free-text field to enter a custom amount. For the launch, we went with a slider that allowed members to drag to a price-point of their choice. Of course, we sought to influence choices by setting the default number to the most popular amount chosen (R150), but the choice was still theirs. Again, this brought us success. Our goal, R150 per month (about $10) was the median followed by the lowest possible value R75 per month.

Daily Maverick’s membership landing page with “pay-what-you-want” slider

A few months after launch, after a chance meeting with the head of business development for Uber in Africa, we came up with the idea to add an Uber voucher benefit to the programme. If members signed up for R150 per month, we supplied them with R100 per month in Uber vouchers — every month. The effect was instantaneous. Sign-ups at the R150pm mark jumped to 90% (compared to 50% before the voucher offer) and the total number of daily sign-ups increased by around 30%. We were moving into no-brainer territory.

Until the Uber voucher, all of our benefits related to the Daily Maverick experience, whether on the site or IRL. Given that strategy, we debated this Uber benefit for quite a while, ultimately deciding that because we planned to host so many events and public transport in South Africa in a state of such disarray, we felt we could justify it as an extension of our events offering.

The Uber benefit has helped us acquire new members, nudge member contribution values upward, and then retain our members with the monthly voucher. For Uber, there was a brand perception uplift and increase in riding activity who responded to a survey ahead of our contract renewal.

We have been careful not to be pulled into the discount offer space. We made this single exception and it worked, but we have not offered any other membership benefits that don’t relate to the DM experience in some way. We are not a corporate rewards program, we are a cause, and the membership programme should reflect that.

Read Part 2 here.



Co-founder & CEO of Daily Maverick (news, analysis, and investigative journalism publisher).

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Styli Charalambous

Co-founder & CEO of Daily Maverick (news, analysis, and investigative journalism publisher).