How to Convert Readers to Members

(This article covers advice Mary Walter-Brown, CEO of News Revenue Hub and former publisher of the Voice of San Diego, and others gave in 2013 at INN’s Community Journalism Executive Training on building a membership program.)

“At the bare minimum, I encourage you to do reader surveys – we did them through SurveyMonkey and it was very easy to administrate,” Walter-Brown said. “But break the target audience for your survey into segments.” Walter-Brown said Voice of San Diego broke survey respondents into groups – people who had given the site money and those who hadn’t; people who were subscribers to the organization’s email list, and then for readers who engaged with specific beats, like the arts.

“We asked what devices they used. Were they reading us on an iPad or their phone? We asked what they valued most about us, what would motivate them to support us?” Two-thirds of the respondents said they could be motivated to transition from being a reader to being a member.

In addition, Voice of San Diego collected the basics everyone expects from a readership survey and which underwriters or advertisers want to see: demographics like ethnicity, age, education, employment, income, and location.

“I can’t believe we put it off for so long,” said Anne Galloway, founder of VTDigger, about doing a reader survey. “It wasn’t that hard.” VTDigger got amazing response – 500 surveys in only 35 hours. “Ninety percent of our readers want to get their news from VTDigger, and 30% of our readers make more than 100,000 a year, and 30% have a masters degree.”

“We have this well-heeled, well-educated audience,” said Galloway. “I don’t even feel qualified to represent them!” she joked. “But I can say to advertisers: ‘These are people you want to connect with.'”

When Voice of San Diego did surveys and focus groups, they found “people didn’t understand our model, and didn’t know how they could help.  We’d tell them we were a nonprofit, and they’d say, ‘Well, what can I do about it?'” says Walter-Brown.  “They didn’t understand the difference between a subscriber and a member — we have over 7,000 subscribers but only  a percentage of those are members who donate money to Voice of San Diego.”

“We also discovered that we weren’t very good at explaining ourselves,” says Walter-Brown.  Voice of San Diego sharpened its pitch to readers with a campaign called “I Am The Voice of San Diego,” along with the “Raise Your Voice” membership plan.

After developing a brand and a theme, it’s time to itemize your inventory, said Walter-Brown.  Voice of San Diego was doing web content, newsletters, email blasts, magazine, events, and “access experiences.”

Voice of San Diego developed a “member report” that’s exclusive to members. “We decided it was going to be a day in the life of Scott Lewis [VOSD’s editor],” said Walter-Brown. “It’s a very honest account, talking about how we covered a story, what kind of flak we took for a story, or why we didn’t cover a story. It’s our most popular product – it has a 50% open rate, as opposed to a 34% open rate for our morning news email.”

Events are a big driver of engagement for Voice of San Diego, said Walter-Brown. The organization’s “One Voice at a Time” conversation series and “Brews & News” panel discussions are popular and major drivers of new memberships.

How much do people give to Voice of San Diego? “That $101 to $500 level is really the sweet spot for us,” said Walter-Brown. “But we really believe that everyone who gives to us is a member, and we treat each one as a member.”

Memberships start as small as $35, for the “Conversation Starter” membership. Members get the Morning Report, Culture Report, Inside Scoop, and Member Report, as well as invitation to member events including member-only coffees. Each member gets a special recognition on VOSD’s website.

“Choose benefits you can easily fulfill,” said Walter-Brown, “and assign fulfillment to someone and hold them accountable for delivering those benefits to members. The whole point of all of this is to cultivate relationships with members, so you need to make sure you’re taking it seriously.”

Voice of San Diego maintains a member database, and uses that to categorize a “pipeline” of donors – including current donors, lapsed donors, existing readers, newsletter subscribers, web commenters, and social media followers. “Make sure you’re collecting as much information as possible about potential members – we want to know their first and last name, email address, zip codes, and where they work.”

Developing methods for capturing this data is crucial, said Walter-Brown. “We require subscription for email newsletters, registration to comment on the website, and pre-registration for events.” Each of those is an opportunity to capture information about VOSD’s readers.

Setting goals is also important. “Determine a membership revenue goal – ours is $268,000 a year.  We need 60 new members a month, and we also have to retain our existing members.”

Many members are “bumping up” their donations, largely through recurring donations.  “It’s only $10 a month to get to our Inside Voice level, and a lot of people are choosing that.”

Voice of San Diego developed a launch plan, talking points, and a goal for its member drive, creating member pages on the website, developing graphics that show visitors how much money has been raised toward the fundraising goal, and developing a “touch point schedule” to spread the ask across web, email, social media, print, and radio & TV partners. “It’s all hands on deck – it can’t just be your development partners. Reporters have to understand that if we don’t make that goal, they won’t have a job. They don’t have to go out and ask for money, but they should be proud that they are a member-sponsored organization with a mission.”

Members get three emails a month from VOSD – one has an emotional approach – “a member telling them how much VOSD means to them” – an intellectual approach selling the value of the organization, and one with a competitive approach.

VOSD follows up with existing members to renew them, contacting them at 90, 60, and 30 days to their renewal date, and sending “We miss you” emails to lapsed members.

Events are an important part of Voice of San Diego’s strategy. “We encourage members to bring a guest, but we’ve also been driving toward more member-only events.”