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Dear reader,

Launching a membership program can sometimes feel like jumping off a cliff. 

From choosing a CRM to deciding what to offer your new members, there are endless complicated decisions that need to be made from the very start. And because the social contract between a news organization and its members is different for every organization, you can’t apply a carbon copy of someone else’s membership program to your own audience. 

Sometimes the mere stakes of launching can feel alarmingly high. What if your launch flops? What if no one shows up to your party?

But there are ways to test some of your assumptions before going all in. Today we’re sharing how South Africa’s Daily Maverick did just that with a recurring donations pilot that would test their readers’ interest in a membership program, how much they’d be willing to pay, and more.

As CEO Styli Charalambous tells it in this Medium post, the Daily Maverick is more used to spending weeks debating a font choice than conceptualizing and launching a minimum viable product in just a few days. This changed in summer 2018, when an overhaul of their tech stack forced them to postpone the launch of their membership program, “Maverick Insiders.” 

While they waited to be technologically ready for membership, the team decided to test some of their most basic assumptions, like “Are Daily Maverick readers even willing to financially support us on an ongoing basis?”  They launched a four-month call for recurring, pay-what-you-can donations with no benefits attached, and used the results of that test to design Maverick Insiders. 18 months later, they are now a global leader in the digital membership space, with more than 9,000 active members.

Read on for more on how they designed and evaluated that membership test run, as well as:

We supported Daily Maverick through our Membership in News Fund, which greenlights promising experiments with membership and audience engagement around the world. That means we gave them funding, access to a learning community, and venture support for this project. 

We’re eager to share successes from beyond our Membership in News Fund network as well. If you’ve tried something out that you think could work well for others, too, we want to hear about it at ideas@membershippuzzle.org

WHY WE'RE HIGHLIGHTING IT
There is no silver bullet for designing a membership program. As our former research director Emily Goligoski wrote, “We wish we could say ‘charge x, hire y membership-responsible staff, partner with these types of publishers for z stories annually, then watch the money and audience collaboration opportunities come in.” 

It doesn’t work like that. There are too many forces at play to offer a single equation, and it’s going to take time, experimentation, and iteration to get it right and keep it right. 

A test like the Daily Maverick’s recurring donations MVP is a low-investment way to assess some of your assumptions before committing to a high-stakes launch. We especially appreciate that it doesn't require any skills or tech beyond what most newsrooms already have. 

What’s more, the “pay-what-you-can” model shows the value of tapping into member motivations and behaviors when designing a program.
WHAT THEY LEARNED
From the recurring donors test: At the end of the four-month test, they had 314 recurring donors giving an average of 100 rand a month (about $8) and 621 one-time donors. It was a strong confirmation of their assumption that their most engaged readers were willing to support the Daily Maverick on an ongoing basis.

They treated those early supporters as a group of beta members who could inform the design of Maverick Insiders (see one of the surveys below) and help ensure that it landed with a flourish when they launched in August 2018. (Spoiler: That happened.) 
About the “pay-what-you-want” model: The Daily Maverick was emphatic about not putting up a paywall – in a society as unequal as South Africa, a paywall would mean walling off access to the majority of the country. They implemented a “pay-what-you-want” model for membership for the same reason – they wanted members giving the equivalent of $1 a month to have the same experience as those giving $50 a month. This ethos resonated strongly with their members, and revealed something important about their motivations. The fact that the average contribution in the beginning was the equivalent of $8 a month also showed the Daily Maverick that readers wouldn’t automatically go for the minimum required in order to get something in return. 

CEO Styli Charlambous hypothesizes that this model taps into a different part of news consumers’ brains and budgets than subscription does.

“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… But people can and do support multiple good causes that resonate with them. We wanted to be a cause that was worthy of their support alongside the Society for the Protection of Animals, National Sea Rescue Institute, or educational development programmes.”
The Daily Maverick uses a slider to allow members to choose their monthly contribution amount
From creating a “tier” for an Uber benefit: Daily Maverick has always focused on providing benefits aligned to the Daily Maverick experience, but a few months in, they began wondering what they could do to nudge the average contribution just a little higher. They began offering all members giving R150 (about $10) or more a month a monthly R100 Uber voucher (they framed it as a way to defray transportation costs of attending Daily Maverick events, although the voucher can be used for any ride). The percentage of members giving R150 or more quickly jumped from 50 percent to 90 percent. However, this remains their only members-only discount offer. The Maverick Insiders team is emphatic that it won’t go the way of a corporate rewards program.

From 18 months of marketing the program: Marketing messages can generally be divided into one of two camps: cause-driven or benefits-driven. The Daily Maverick leaned heavily into cause-driven marketing of Maverick Insiders, based on feedback from their members. And they paid close attention to spending habits when setting a schedule for their direct mailers. One goes out on the 1st of the month, and one goes out on the 25th, the day after pay day for most South Africans. 

The bottom line from all of this? For membership to stick, your organization will need to be willing and able to research, test, and iterate on a regular basis, and it will need to pay close attention to the habits and motivations of prospective members.
DIG IN
Daily Maverick detailed every step of this process over on Medium (Part 1, Part 2). We’re grateful to them for being so open to documenting and sharing what has worked for them, including some of their best practices for marketing, which we didn’t delve into in this newsletter.

Here are five other pieces detailing the decisions different organizations have made as they crafted and launched their own membership programs. 
 
If you know of other resources and research into membership design, we’d love to see them. Feel free to send them our way at ideas@membershippuzzle.org.

All the best,


Ariel Zirulnick
Fund Director
 
P.S. Are you wondering whether your organization is ready for membership? We shared 12 questions to ask yourself before launching membership over at Splice earlier this month. Give it a read, and consider signing up for their newsletters, which are full of insights and tips from Asian digital media organizations. 
The Membership Puzzle Project runs from May 2017 until May 2020. We will regularly publish our findings on our site

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