Audience DevelopmentSubscriptions

Publishers are pushing membership in a bid to retain pandemic sign ups

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As tough as 2020 was, subscription growth was strong for many magazine publishers. Now audience development departments are working to retain spur-of-the-moment subscription sign ups with long-term membership programs.

In brief
  • Despite lockdowns, or maybe because of them, readers have been signing up in record numbers to access content online or have magazines delivered directly to their front doors.
  • Digital subscriptions have been growing across all media sectors for some time, but throughout 2020 the rate of growth accelerated, exponentially for publishers like slow-news startup Tortoise.
  • Through the earliest days of the pandemic, print subscriptions grew after years of decline.  Sales doubled for many major publishing houses including Conde Nast and Hearst. TI Media and Immediate Media reported increases up to 300%.
Membership as a retention strategy

As we approach the anniversary of the first lockdown and the start of a spike in renewals, the challenge faced by many publishers is how to keep their coronavirus converts on board. The answer from some has been to try to leverage short-term subscriptions into value-added membership programs.

  • Bauer Media’s Empire magazine is offering film fans the opportunity to join the Empire VIP Club. The benefits of the annual £85 membership include the print magazine, access to the pay-to-listen ‘Spoiler Special’ podcast archive, exclusive events and discounts on cinema tickets.
  • Bauer’s subscription director Sam Gallimore said the new membership scheme for Empire gives readers “even more added value and opportunities to engage with the brand”. A similar scheme for the company’s Country Walking magazine gives members merchandise and half-price route maps.
  • Anthem Publishing saw its subscriptions grow more than 30% in 2020, YOY. The company recently launched the “Plus” membership scheme for its three biggest titles. The membership scheme adds exclusive content and retail and gym discounts to standard magazine subscription prices.
  • The company said it had introduced the scheme to ‘reward and retain the readers that embraced the brands in 2020 and turned to the convenience and security of home delivery during the pandemic’.
Memberships vs subscriptions

Most publishers are very familiar with the idea of selling subscriptions where readers pay to receive a regular supply of content. Memberships are less familiar and usually rely on the publisher building out their standard subscription offer.

  • Product development is important in introducing membership schemes; readers must perceive the added value of becoming a member. Access to exclusive content, archives or member-only events are common ways to differentiate membership from subscriptions.
  • Brand trust and community is also key to creating a strong membership offering. Spain’s second largest digital newspaper El Diario added 20,000 new members off the back of a member drive that relied on a ‘personal approach and honesty‘ from the editor asking for support through the pandemic.
  • Conversely, despite strong initial success, The Correspondent closed after losing the trust of its members. The loss of 35,000 members – many unhappy that the Dutch  founders didn’t set up a US office – destroyed the start-up’s plans for member-funded international expansion.

The Membership Puzzle Project aims to guide publishers through the intricacies of adopting a membership model. It regularly publishes research findings from organisations introducing membership programs and has created The Membership Guide as a step introduction for publishers.

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