MEMBERSHIP MODELS – THE WAY I SEE IT

Membership article - WNIPA while ago I was asked to write an article on membership models for What’s New In Publishing. The brief was to include a case study and focus on how this business strategy might work for magazine publishers. Having written about this in my latest book, Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing, and advised a few of my clients to take this route, I had plenty of material to draw on.

While my article, When should a publisher adopt a membership model, mostly focuses on successful examples, this post will outline why the membership model is unlikely to work in the lifestyle sector.

Primarily this is because such models are about creating interactive communities whose participants not only engage but actively seek value from both the content and their membership.

Membership vs micro-communities

If a membership strategy were applied to lifestyle titles, then it is likely to result in failure at worst or a poor take up at best. The fundamental flaw being that lifestyle is such a broad term, therefore to create one core community is practically impossible.

While a few lifestyle titles have tried to focus on building micro-type communities through events which focus on readers’ interests to widen participation, they haven’t yet embarked on the change from the traditional subscription model to memberships.

Why? Because an articulate due diligence study identifies key issues – in many cases demonstrating how such a move is more likely to result in losses rather than a significant ROI.

Thus, it is advisable for many lifestyle publishers to avoid adopting a membership model. Because to most, the idea of membership equals value – getting a package deal with identifiable core benefits. This is where the other sectors such as B2B or specialist win.

Often titles in these sectors can offer intrinsic value in terms of content, data and peer-to-peer interaction and engagement. While the lifestyle sector is somewhat transient and although articles no doubt engage readers, few features merit being collected as valuable data. Therefore, my advice to lifestyle publishers is to focus on what they do well and build communities to widening audience participation while also further enhancing their brand value proposition

Country Living magazine, published by Hearst is a good example of building strong communities.

To widen their audience participation and extend brand reach, the publishing team created a range of brand extensions from Country Living Fairs to the TV Franchise, Farmer Wants a Wife, as well as its Kitchen Table Talent with events such as Build A Business Day.

Developing a clear strategy based on readers’ needs and interests – gleaned by careful audience analysis – clearly works. Not only has it achieved sustainability for Country Living in a somewhat saturated market, the latest ABC figures (June-December 2017) reveal that the magazine has achieved a healthy combined circulation of 190,593 – showing a slight increase when other titles are in decline.

However, there are of course exceptions to the rule and Country Living’s Kitchen Table Business might just be it, should the brand extension evolve.

My conclusion

For me, the key to determining which titles will benefit from adopting a membership model and those that won’t is to first recognise that one size does not fit all in these situations.

Across some sectors, the traditional subscription model is in decline as I discussed during an interview with Vernon Harwood on his morning show at Radio Berkshire. Therefore, it is crucial publishers look for a realist solution to this problem. And the answer is not to blindly follow the competition.  Instead, the best course of action is to continue to evolve in a way that is unique and true to your magazine’s brand identity which brings Einstein’s quote to mind.

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

Albert Einstein

So, if a client is thinking about setting up a membership model my advice is always “undertake in-depth research” which can start with these five questions:

  1. Does the brand have an existing core community?
  2. Who among their readers would benefit from membership as opposed to taking out a subscription?
  3. How would a membership model work for that specific title?
  4. What is the value of their archived content?
  5. What would be the minimum ROI for this strategy to be feasible?

Remember, acting in haste rarely results in success, so don’t take shortcuts or skip due diligence. Listen to my thoughts on magazine subscriptions during the BBC Radio Berkshire interview, talking to Vernon Harwood on his breakfast show.

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