How to Reinvent Your Organization as a Member-Driven Movement with Ariel Zirulnick of The Membership Puzzle Project
Since the Membership Puzzle Project’s launch in May of 2017, they have studied, advised and supported more than 100 newsrooms around the world from Akron, Ohio to New Delhi, India as they make the transition to a member-driven newsroom. In this conversation, I’m talking with Ariel Zirulnick who runs MPPs membership in news fund, which supports these exceptional experiments with membership. I interviewed Ariel for the inaugural D2C Summit, a new conference I co-created with the global media association, FIPP ,and I want to share that conversation with you here. We discussed the original goals of the project as this public research project nears its end, explore how the project has fared since launching years ago, and share some key lessons from the project that can help any membership organization to thrive.
The following interview is adapted from my podcast, Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches.
Robbie Baxter: Why don’t we start with the mission of the Membership Puzzle Project for those who may not be familiar with it yet?
Ariel Zirulnick: MPP was launched in May 2017 specifically to support the emergence of membership models and news beyond the US public radio space, which has been working with membership for decades. We’d seen a few digital outlets taking membership steps beyond offering ongoing financial support and building this two-way relationship with our members that we were intrigued by. The way that they were making membership not just a revenue source but also an editorial orientation that recognized the value of reader knowledge, they were tackling not just the sustainability challenges that we spend so much time talking about, but also the trust deficit that newsrooms are struggling with because of the long-standing opaque newsroom processes. MPP was launched to study some of those early successes in order to help other news organizations head down that same path.
We started by studying the needs of those newsrooms, the needs of the members of those newsrooms, and then building communities of practice among those newsrooms so they could learn from each other. We then moved into the second phase of the project, which was documenting their best practices and their early successes in order to help other newsrooms do the same. In the final steps of the work, we’ve been funding further efforts with membership around the world and also synthesizing those best practices into publicly available research that other newsrooms can read and access.
Robbie Baxter: You’ve worked with a wide range of newsrooms, big and small, and in different regions. Can you give an example or two of some of the projects that you tackled, or some of the communities of practice that you learned the most from to give us a flavor for what you were doing?
Ariel Zirulnick: We have funded 39 projects in newsrooms around the world. What’s been interesting is how different those projects are, but a couple that we’ve done that have broad learnings is one of the earliest projects that we funded in Romania with a newsroom named Decât o Revistă. We gave them financial and venture support as they transitioned from a print quarterly magazine to a truly digital membership program. Specifically, what we funded for them was this membership curriculum that they developed to give their whole team the relationship-building skills that a member-driven newsroom needs. If you are going to make membership, it’s not just that monetary app, but that two-way relationship that I spoke about, that social contract. There are memberships that require skills that traditional journalists might not have. We funded Decât o Revistă training program for their newsroom, which they then shared publicly.
They brought in people like neuroscientists to help them understand how people foster connection online and how people understand information. They learned from conveners how to facilitate better discussions between individuals and their newsroom. Another project we funded here in the United States that is worth watching comes from Scalawag, a news organization that covers the American South, particularly communities that are usually left out of the mainstream conversation in the American South. They came to us with a request for support to help them explore whether events could be a successful membership growth strategy. In the media space, we’ve become obsessed with newsletters as the path to membership growth. That makes a lot of sense because it has been proven to work. It could be templated in such a way that you can build a routine around it and reduce the daily decision-making that you have to have.
Scalawag’s argument was that if you are pitching membership to communities who have been mistreated by mainstream media outlets, you need to do more trust-building work before you ask them for support. You can’t build trust through a newsletter in which they never see your face and they never meet you. We funded their work to build out a membership growth strategy based on events. They learn that they can significantly shorten the time between awareness to conversion if a person encountered Scalawag in person at an event early on in that journey. That was our first point of awareness. They learned that they could template that process up quite to the degree that you can with the newsletter, but they were able to make events a much easier thing to handle on a small team than many expected. Those are two of the early experiments that we funded MPP back in 2019.
‘If you want to build a membership, you need to foster a connection with your readers.’ — Ariel Zirulnick
Robbie Baxter: You were talking about skills and I want to ask you, what are skills that membership organizations need? Let’s put a pin in that, and then you went right into neuroscientists to come in and talk about what drives connection. I’m guessing you don’t think that every newsroom needs a neuroscientist, but I would love to hear what those neuroscientists were able to teach.
Ariel Zirulnick: As journalists, we traditionally think about our responsibility as disseminating information. What Decât o Revistă was exploring as a curriculum that they built out is that if you want to build membership, you need to foster a connection with your readers. That comes down to understanding human behavior a little bit more and thinking about the people that we’re asking to become members. It’s not just this audience that we broadcast to, but the people we’re truly in conversation with and with that specific expert they brought in. The training was in Romanian, so I was not able to join myself. The questions and the things that they explored with their team through that training and others is to understand what drives connection, what triggers anger, how do you get past difficult moments, how do you get people into a mindset where they are open to hearing from others, and open to communicating with your team.
Robbie Baxter: That sounds like a lesson we could all benefit from. Let’s go back to that other question, which is when you helped them to come up with a curriculum, what were some of the skills that you saw? It doesn’t have to be from that particular experiment, but what were some of the skills you saw lacking in the newsroom as they build a membership?
Ariel Zirulnick: In this case with Decât o Revistă’, they pitched us the curriculum that they wanted. This was an early experiment because we were wondering what should be in that membership curriculum. They focus more on the soft skills and the convening skills because there wasn’t a lot of training at that point in the journalism industry for those kinds of things. On top of that community engagement and community management skills that are so essential to a strong membership program, there are also things that probably won’t surprise you. You need to have a certain level of digital marketing skills because when you launch a membership program, you are watching this tiny little eCommerce business even though we often don’t think about that. You need to have product management skills because membership is this cross-discipline function.
If you’re doing membership well, your newsroom needs to be engaged in it because they’re the ones in conversation with readers. There’s an editorial component to membership. There’s a product management component to membership because it is this iterative project that needs to be very responsive to audience needs, and requires long-term planning that newsrooms are not necessarily accustomed to doing because they’re on this daily publication grind. There are technical skills that you need to have because you’re going to be processing payments and maintaining members’ data securely and efficiently. There are culture change skills associated with this. There are also analytics skills because you need to have this data-informed mindset.
Newsrooms have traditionally made decisions about their audience members based on hunches and newsroom hierarchy. The editor believes this to be true about the audience members so we’re doing this, but now we have access to data and now we know what audience members are paying attention to and how often they’re reading us. Newsrooms need to be building out their ability to listen and act on that data, which is something that a lot of newsrooms are beginning to staff upon. These are all the different components that feed into membership work.
Robbie Baxter: “Beyond hunches and hierarchy,” that could be the opening of a book. I like it. I don’t want to put you on the spot but of all of these skills, do you think it’s possible to say, “This is the one that is most important or that I would advise organizations to invest in first.” Would you say rather, “I’ve worked with dozens of organizations and it depends on the organization?”
Ariel Zirulnick: From a skills perspective, it does depend on what you need a membership to do for you. For some organizations, membership is primarily a revenue strategy. For others, they integrate it deeply into their editorial work as a way to diversify their sources and the voices represented in their reporting. It’s hard to say which skills are most important without knowing the particular organization’s goals. In the membership guide, our final public research project, we have a whole section on staffing. We have in there must have and nice to have membership skills based on how it’s oriented within your newsroom. There is a mindset that every single newsroom needs to have. If you don’t make sure that mindset is in place among your team, the skills are secondary.
It doesn’t matter if you have digital marketing and product management skills. That mindset is a real curiosity and respect for your audience members. Those who we see succeed at membership are those that recognize that their journalism is stronger and their community is stronger if they have a truly two-way relationship with their audience members. They’re not just broadcasting to them, but they are truly listening to them, hearing them, ingesting that feedback that is useful, and incorporating that into the work. If you don’t have that curiosity and respect for your audience members, you’re going to struggle to get past a certain plateau with your membership program. No matter how many good product managers you have in place, no matter how good your analytics team and your marketing team are, if that respect and listening capability aren’t there, you’ll be challenged to get past a certain point with your membership program.
Robbie Baxter: It’s so important to underscore the value of a membership mindset across the organization. Not just the person that has the official responsibility for memberships, but that membership mindset or ethos is so critical. I’m glad you pulled that out from the skills. We’re using the word membership and I know that people have a lot of different definitions in their heads. There are memberships that you buy. There’s the spirit of membership that we’re talking about, this membership mindset. In particular, how do you define membership in contrast to subscriptions?
Ariel Zirulnick: One of the first things that MPP sought to tackle is to draw a sharper distinction between membership and subscription so that newsrooms could get clear about which one they were offering their audience members. We defined membership as a social contract between a news organization and its members, in which members give their time, money, energy, expertise and connections to support a cause that they believe in.
In exchange, the news organization offers transparency and opportunities to meaningfully shape the organization, both from the perspective of sustainability and giving money to support its existence, but also to potentially expand the impact of the work by offering connections, by broadcasting work, by participating, and in other ways. In contrast with subscription, with MPP, we see audience members paying for access to a product or a service. It’s a transactional relationship in which what you’re monetizing is access to the content. It typically requires a paywall of some kind.
‘Every single newsroom needs to have real curiosity and respect for their audience members.’ — Ariel Zirulnick
That works very well for many news organizations like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Athletic. In Asia, we’re interested in the success of The Ken. One positive of subscription potentially is it can scale much more quickly than membership because it’s about making sure that everybody who pays gets access to the thing that they pay for. Membership, as this relationship-based thing, sometimes scales a little bit more slowly, but it’s also often a much stickier relationship. We see the churn in membership typically much lower than the churn in subscription because there is that deeper connection there.
Robbie Baxter: What makes for a powerful membership? What would be the elements that go into a powerful membership?
Ariel Zirulnick: It comes down to very crisply articulating that cause that you’re inviting people to join. People are not just paying for access to content. In many cases, a member-driven newsroom is keeping its content free for everybody to access instead of monetizing the feeling of community that develops around their journalism. The ability to very clearly define your value proposition, articulate how their membership helps you deliver on that value proposition, and telling a compelling story about how you make the world around them a better place, and how they’re joining your organization contributes to that is the cornerstone of a strong membership program. You need to be able to make the case that their support for your organization makes the world that they are living in a stronger and better place that causes the center of the work.
Robbie Baxter: Are those missions that the membership is built around vary by newsroom or are they the same everywhere?
Ariel Zirulnick: No. That’s an area where membership also differs strongly from subscription. Membership is built on this relationship with your audience members, and every newsroom’s audience is different. The value proposition is very different whether you’re a single subject newsroom that’s covering things nationally, a global newsroom, or you’re a small local newsroom in a town of 50,000 people. Your value proposition is going to be different based on who your audience members are. If you are copying and pasting your value proposition from other newsrooms, you’re going to struggle to connect with audience members and see growth because it’s going to feel canned.
The subscription messaging is very similar from newsroom to newsroom much at the time. You’ll get exclusive access to X or try out our journalism for $0.99 a month. With membership, you were pitching this cost. If that cost is not resonant with your audience members, if it doesn’t come out of listening to your audience members, that’s going to show up in the conversion that you see. People are going to feel that it is something that was taken from somewhere else and grafted onto your organization.
Robbie Baxter: Can you give me a couple of examples of value propositions or these missions that the organizations are rallying their members around?
Ariel Zirulnick: It would be hard for me to accurately say one off the top of my head, but what we see with membership value propositions that resonate is something that we saw in spaces outside of news. One of the things that the Membership Puzzle Project has spent a lot of time doing is studying membership movements outside of the media space because membership has been around for so much longer outside of the journalism space. One of the things that we saw over and over again as we studied churches, environmental cooperatives, open-source software communities, all these other member-driven movements, we even spent a little bit of time at Burning Man, is that those organizations who were able to frame membership to their organization as one of the ways to restore something that feels broken in the world were the ones who were successful at making a pitch that worked.
Many of the people that our research team interviewed for that project, that research into member-driven movements outside news, said that one of the reasons they join places as members is because something fundamental in the world or themselves felt broken and they didn’t know how to act on that themselves. They trusted that the organization they joined knew how to address that. By becoming members, that became one small way that they could begin to be a part of the solution even if they lacked the skills or expertise to act on it themselves. We’ve seen news organizations increasingly pick up that messaging of this thing in the area that we cover is broken and it’s off. Here’s what we’re trying to do to make that better. Your support allows us to do that even more so than we already are.
Robbie Baxter: Did you have to go to Burning Man?
Ariel Zirulnick: I was not the one lucky enough to go to Burning Man. I would have to look and see which researcher it was, but you will see in the report called What Media Can Learn From Other Member-Driven Movements. That shows up there and we also wrote about it for The Guardian. I was not the lucky one who got to go to Burning Man, but there were fascinating lessons from it because Burning Man happens. It is what it is because hundreds or thousands of people show up. They’re not compelled to but they show up and they build these massive art installations in the desert. They join these groups and they contribute blood, sweat and tears to making this thing for the collective. There are a lot of lessons for that. The media could take from the lengths to which these super fans go to make sure that this happens every year.
Robbie Baxter: Something that I’ve noticed is some of these best membership organizations layer in different kinds of benefits. They might have content but they might also have commerce or things that you can buy. They have an element of community, the ability to connect with other people that believe in this cause under the organization’s umbrella. Was this something that you found with the newsrooms that they needed to go beyond just content?
Ariel Zirulnick: They need to go beyond content and swag. What you bring up about the layering on different benefits is accurate because your members are not a monolith. Within your membership, there are different types of people who have different motivations for supporting your work. One of the other things that we learned from studying places beyond news is how critical to success it was that you invested a lot of time and energy into listening, testing, and be fascinated with what your members value about you. That’s a real mindset shift for newsrooms.
I like to think of it as taking even a fraction of that curiosity that we have about politicians and other power players that we cover obsessively in our coverage. If we were a little bit curious about our members, if we took a little bit of that from our coverage and put that into our audience’s members, the dividends of that would be so huge. Those newsrooms that were fascinated and did build in feedback loops and processes for internalizing what they heard, and making sure that what they then put back out into the world reflected what they heard. Those are the ones that we saw take off with membership. That gets into designing a membership program that is flexible and appealing to different types of people. Understanding that one benefit you offer might be for the person who loves digging into your journalism and wants to play a role in the reporting or fact-checking process.
That’s one type of person, but another person might be looking for community. The thing that they might be most excited about is the opportunity to attend events. It’s important to have that ability to hear what your audience members are telling you that they want out of your work, and offerings for flexible ways of participating. There isn’t just one way that all of your members are going to want to support your work. If you only offer that one way, you’re losing a whole bunch of other people that would like to contribute to the cause.
Robbie Baxter: You brought up that point about how they’ve brought in the first place because they’re trying to fix something that’s broken. One way that they can support that certainly is by writing a check. By joining something and saying, “I trust that you’re doing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do but I feel better because I’m giving you some money so you can do what you know we need to do.” Some of them might say either, “I don’t have money that I want to contribute, but I want to contribute my energy,” or that’s what they came for in the first place where they want to expand their knowledge, or they want to connect with other people in their local areas.
What follows naturally from a membership to help people fix something that they agree is broken is having multiple ways to do the fixing. If I said, “I’m going to start an organization to fix what’s broken in politics,” and I told you that, you might not jump to the conclusion that it was going to be a media organization.
Ariel Zirulnick: We’re seeing a bit of a hybrid begin to form. Journalism organizations are increasingly learning from the community organizing space. For example, we see a lot more learning from community organizing that are showing up in the work. One of the organizations that do this best in the UK is the Bureau Local who has community organizers on their team. They think about how they make sure that at every stage of the journalistic process, there is an opportunity for audience members to play a role in that work. It doesn’t necessarily for the traditional media organization when you are incorporating audience members in this way.
Robbie Baxter: The last fourteen months or so have been quite a different time for the whole world, but certainly for the world of journalism. How did COVID change, accelerate and hinder the work you were doing?
Ariel Zirulnick: There are some elements of the work that got more challenging, and some elements of the work that got easier, which was interesting to see. Internally, the part of our work that got the hardest was learning what parts of membership were the same from region to region and what parts of membership were very different from region to region. There’s a lot that you learn about a newsroom or about a country that you’re working in from being there in person. Picking up on all the little things that happen in casual conversation or by being in a newsroom and overhearing conversations. That was certainly harder because that’s lost when you have a series of Zoom meetings with a newsroom.
We also potentially slowed down the spread of our work in places where membership is newer because we couldn’t do that same level of embedding or being at a conference and answering questions for hours or days after a presentation. That’s one of the reasons that we joined the Media Development Investment Fund for our final year. They’re an international organization that works very deeply in the global South. By partnering our subject matter expertise with MDIF’s deep bench of regional experts in Latin America, Central Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, we are able to overcome that challenge that we experienced with the first few months of the pandemic because MDIF could give us a lot of the regional insight that we were not getting when we couldn’t get on a plane and meet people in the country firsthand. That was one area that we were able to, fortunately, had enough of a runway left when the pandemic happened that we could make changes to. As we realized that was becoming a challenge, we could make that change.
On the positive side, audience revenue, in general, has accelerated during the pandemic. The urgency or necessity of asking for support overcame resistance that otherwise, you might have spent a year convincing a newsroom to take the leap. With advertising revenue evaporating, and sponsored events, becoming much more difficult or the price point for those dropping, it sped up the shift to audience revenue. Newsrooms didn’t have the choice of saying, “I’m afraid that people are not going to say yes when we ask them for money. Therefore, I’m not going to do it yet because I don’t feel confident enough.” They should have had to take the leap. Over and over again, they saw that if they were doing good work and they had that feedback loop and they were good at listening, that people responded so much more positively than they expected.
‘We define membership as a social contract between a news organization and its members.’ — Ariel Zirulnick
We’ve all seen the headlines about record-breaking subscription and membership numbers and donation numbers during the pandemic. That part of the work wiped out tons of resistance that we were otherwise trying to encounter. We hear over and over again, “People in my country don’t pay for news.” We joke that we would like to have a poster that says that in every single language that we’ve ever heard it from. The pandemic proved to them, that if they asked and were transparent about why they were asking, that is key. It’s explaining why you need the money, and what it’s going to be spent on. People will surprise you with their generosity and how much they are willing to do to make sure that your work continues to exist.
Robbie Baxter: Did you find that there was anywhere in the world where it is true that people don’t pay for membership for news?
Ariel Zirulnick: There are a lot of places still where it hasn’t been tried yet, that are still at the earliest stages of the work. I’m sure that there are still countries where people say that and feel quite certain that that is true. There are scenarios where the majority of the country is not in a financial situation, which they can afford to pay for news. A couple of newsrooms that we’re working with had experience venting with, which is interesting. As a solution to that, how do you harness the diaspora from that country? A lot of these countries where people in the country don’t necessarily have the financial ability to pay for news are often the countries that have a huge out-migration. They have moved to places like the US and Western Europe in order to make a better financial life for their families.
They have disposable income, and they still care very deeply about their home country. You can appeal to them to invest in that media in order to ensure that that media is there to cover what their family members most need to be covered. An organization we worked with in India called The News Minute covers South India specifically. They have two member categories. They have people in India and then a membership category called non-resident Indians, which is an actual government designation. They have different pricing schemes and benefits for each of those communities. They have developed those benefits in response to what they heard from each of those different categories of members supporting their work. That is interesting and something that we should all be watching for more opportunities.
Robbie Baxter: There’s so much fear both around going digital and around moving towards membership. Sometimes organizations are so focused on what could be worse about that change that they don’t always consider what new flexibility, new reach or new possibilities does it open up for us. I don’t know if you remember this, but if you wanted a newspaper from a different part of the world, you either had to go to a newsstand that specialized in it and get it a week later or get it sent to you probably three weeks later.
Ariel Zirulnick: Many of these newsrooms in those countries might not be in a position to ship them overseas. You lose access to that completely. Now, you have the ability to follow them on Facebook to sign up for a newsletter if they have that, an instate plugged-in in that way.
Robbie Baxter: I want to ask you about newsletters. You had alluded to it when you were talking about Scalawag and how they’re experimenting with in-person events to serve a similar function. I wanted to go deep also on newsletters because I know they’re very popular right now. Sometimes, organizations call it a newsletter strategy rather than breaking apart the different jobs that a newsletter can do in terms of communicating marketing messages and practical messages about the company, and being part of the product, the membership. What did you learn about newsletters in terms of best and worst practices?
Ariel Zirulnick: We haven’t spent that much time studying newsletters because, at MPP, we are laser-focused on membership. One of the reasons we’ve been successful is we have stayed in the membership lane and there are so many other people doing great work around newsletters. We have spent a lot of time talking to those people to make sure that we are giving good advice. We have not focused particular energy on studying the newsletter space, but you are right when you say that it’s important to understand the job to be done. That gets back to listening to audience members. When newsletters were first taking off, we saw a lot of early success with them because they were new, so we were all doing a lot of user research before we created a new newsletter.
We were designing that newsletter in response to what we heard from user research. I say that because I was working in the newsletter-first local media company back in 2016 when newsletters were becoming an engagement strategy for local media. Now, with there being so many playbooks, templates and best practices out there, one of the downsides of that is they become a little bit generic. A lot of newsrooms say, “We need to increase our loyal readers so we’re going to launch a newsletter.” They don’t ever ask audience members, “What’s missing from your daily information diet? What are the pain points that you have in trying to navigate life on a daily basis? What work of ours do you want to make sure that you don’t miss and therefore we should highlight it in our newsletter?”
People just spin up a newsletter based on hunches and hierarchy. When you get to this level where everybody feels they know what works, people start making decisions without listening to audience members. That’s the thing that we see at MPP. Those organizations who have made newsletters a successful part of their strategy, and then been able to convert members out of their newsletters typically have quite high open rates. Those high open rates come out of having feedback loops with audience members and regularly asking readers questions of the newsletter, “What do you want to know more about this topic? What would you like to see from our reporters? What questions do you have about the pandemic in our country?” Making sure that those audience members see the answers to those questions are reflected back in the work.
Newsletters are an excellent way to maintain a tight feedback loop. We see them contribute meaningfully to membership conversion and to those places that do treat the newsletters as an opportunity for feedback loop rather than yet another way to broadcast their work to people or bombard them with information, which newsletters were designed to solve in the first place.
Robbie Baxter: There’s supposed to be a short, concise, clear communication of the most important stories to that person.
Ariel Zirulnick: Now, there’s a source of anxiety in our inboxes. We have so many newsletters that we don’t get to on a regular basis.
Robbie Baxter: It’s funny. I signed up for a subscription that gives me access to all of this local news in a lot of different areas that are important to me. The automatic sign up, I ended up with the fact of 30 newsletters a day. There’s morning breaking news, afternoon and evening news, and every local, plus the national. It was interesting because it is supposed to be simpler and has an easier way. For somebody who said, “We didn’t spend a lot of time studying newsletters,” you had several valuable points that you brought up.
One of them is about the distinction between newsletters that go to everybody, and newsletters that go to a certain group to solve a certain problem. The importance of market research being integrated into the newsletter loop so that you’re creating a newsletter to solve a specific problem whether that’s breaking news. I want to know what’s happening right when it happens. If it’s time-sensitive versus I want to have a summary of these areas that are important to me, but I would rather wait until the end of the day and get it all at once.
That’s also important that you just don’t spin up the newsletter, you start by saying, “What is the job that the newsletter is going to do?” You’re right, they’re cluttering our inbox. For the sake of people everywhere, scale back and focus on using your newsletters to fill the gaps and solve the problems, understanding the world around them, make better decisions to fix what’s broken, and making that easier, not harder.
Ariel Zirulnick: I’m very interested that almost every news organization that created a Coronavirus newsletter. One of the things I’m watching with a lot of interest is when are you going to end that newsletter? When does that end up incorporated into your general newsletter? How are you off-boarding people from that newsletter and bringing them into your community in other ways? If news organizations aren’t thinking about how to move those people who far started following them specifically and move them into the broader community, they need to start having those conversations.
Robbie Baxter: It’s the whole issue around sunsetting tactics in membership or benefits. If membership is about, “We’re going to give you everything we can to help you solve this problem or to work together to fix this problem,” there are going to be different taxes for like, “That one ran its course.” A lot of longstanding organizations struggle with that.
‘We have increasingly thought about a membership program as a product that requires product management skills. It’s because you need to be attuned to the changing needs.’ — Ariel Zirulnick
That is one of the reasons that we have increasingly thought about a membership program as a product that requires product management skills. It’s because you need to be attuned to the changing needs. As your member base grows, some of the benefits you offered early on might not scale. As it gets to this larger size, you might not be able to offer some of the very intimate benefits that your early adopters enjoyed. What the community needs or wants changes because somebody else comes onto the scene that fills that void, and they’re in a better position to do that.
A membership program is not a “set it and forget it” product. We encourage people to use net promoter score surveys. Have those always done in the background to track if the satisfaction with their membership program is declining, to survey members regularly to find out how happy are you at this, and what have you enjoyed most about this, to regularly ask what benefits have you most and least enjoyed?
Think about when should phase something out, or we should devote more resources to this particular benefit because everybody loves this and we’re not just staffing it enough considering how critical it is to the success of our membership program. You need to always have that curiosity. What’s working, what’s not, what tweaks can we make? That’s why our public research publication has an entire section on how to adopt a product mindset for your membership program.
Robbie Baxter: This membership guide that you have is available for free in multiple languages on your website. Is that right?
Ariel Zirulnick: If you go to MembershipGuide.org, this is our penultimate research project. We spent a lot of time on the concepts and foundations of membership in the first two and a half years or so, and then we shifted into creating a tactical practical guide that got deep into the operations. What is the actual work that’s getting done day in and day out to make this work? It’s published in English and Spanish now, and it will be out in Portuguese and French. It’s got 37 case studies in addition to all the practical general advice that’s in there.
Robbie Baxter: If you’re working on a membership and you haven’t looked at it, you should go and take a look. There’s tremendous data and insights. In my opinion, it pertains to more than just the newsroom, whatever membership you’re trying to create, you’re going to get some great nuggets there. I love to do a little speed round to close things out. One piece of advice for people who want to build a better relationship with their audience members.
Ariel Zirulnick: Start with listening to your audience members. If you have not done audience research before, if you have not sent a survey, if you have not spent time on interviews with your audience members, you need to spend a little bit of time doing that in thinking about how to tell your story. Once you hear from them what resonates, you need to tell your story in that way. We spent so much time thinking about how to optimize our payment process or eke out 1% more conversion on our newsletter. These are all important tactics, but if you don’t have that foundation right and you are not listening to your audience members regularly and developing things in response to the feedback that you get, no amount of payment process optimization or digital marketing expertise is going to make up for not having that connection. Go back to the basics if you’re struggling.
Robbie Baxter: What’s the first subscription you ever had?
Ariel Zirulnick: The New York Times, right after I graduated college. I was lucky that my job gave us a subscription for a while, but I reactivated it when I left that job.
Robbie Baxter: What’s the subscription you used most recently?
Ariel Zirulnick: My Axios. It’s the newsletter that I consistently open every morning. It’s what I look at.
Robbie Baxter: What’s a time you felt like you belonged or were part of a membership movement?
Ariel Zirulnick: That’s been hard during the pandemic. Those organizations that managed to make people still feel a part of something despite being locked up in our homes are strong. It’s this newsletter that I’ve been receiving pre-pandemic, but continue to receive now called My Sweet Dumb Brain. It’s a newsletter by a woman named Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s like reflections on the ups and downs of daily life and how to get through struggling with work-life balance and family. It’s all given with this very kind understanding voice. Katie does a phenomenal job of involving the community in the writing of that newsletter. I don’t feel like I’m just getting reflections from Katie. I feel like I’m getting reflections from hundreds of women in similar life phases to me who replied to the newsletter.
The thing that I was reflecting on with regards to this interview is that despite my job, I am ironically one of those people who almost never respond to call-outs. I am one of those lurkers for the most part even though I spend my job trying to figure out how to activate people to not be that. Katie’s newsletter is one of the only things that I respond to on a regular basis, and then look to see if that ended up in the newsletter or if other people responded in similar ways. That’s the community that I feel the most a part of in this pandemic when we feel so acutely the absence of community in so many ways.