Membership Program Case Study: Voice of San Diego’s ‘Raise Your Voice’

By Amy Schmitz Weiss

This story was originally published on the Hub website on May 13, 2012.

The Voice of San Diego recently launched an innovative membership program called Raise Your Voice that aims to bring the community closer and provide a sustainable economic model to the news organization. We take an inside look to find out the program works.

“The more we involve people in what we are trying to achieve, the more clear we are about the struggles we have, the more they will be engaged in helping us solve those struggles,” Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego said.

The program is now entering its fifth week. According to Mary Walter-Brown, vice president of advancement and engagement at Voice of San Diego, as of May 10, they had 1,172 members signed up. They aim to reach 5,000 members by the end of the year.

The membership program provides the opportunity for the community to donate money to the organization based on four different levels: Conversation Starter ($35-$100), Inside Voice ($101- $500), Speaking Up ($501-$1,000) and Loud & Clear ($1,001-$5,000). They also have a $20 level for students or those with financial hardships.

Each level provides a different set of benefits ranging from Member Reports to invitations to events such as Member Coffees or Brews & News. Depending on the level, members can also receive a one-year subscription to their new print on-demand magazine, Voice of San Diego Monthly. The Voice of San Diego Monthly magazine is the first print product created by the news organization with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Q&A with Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego and Mary Walter-Brown, vice president of advancement and engagement tell us more information about how this program was created and where they will take it next.

Amy: When was the official launch of the Raise Your Voice membership program?
Scott: “We have always had something called members but that was ill defined. I wrote a column about a year ago about how we were going to start professionalizing our membership system.”

In October 2011, Lewis hired former NBC-San Diego Producer, Mary Walter-Brown to become the vice president of advancement and engagement at Voice of San Diego.

“She immediately began an investigation into our community, our branding, our messaging, our membership system and our revenue programs with the goal being to bring us into a more sophisticated system that we were doing things right and we were communicating who we were better and doing everything possible to get memberships, donations and to formalize all of our revenue programs,” Lewis said.

The Voice of San Diego had a two-prong research strategy over a four-month timeframe: they examined the national and local media landscape, and conducted online surveys and focus groups with their readers to find out their perceptions of the news organization and their news consumption habits.

“She (Walter-Brown) discovered that people didn’t even know we were a nonprofit, and people didn’t even know that we had a website,” Lewis said. “Our website was unclear about how they (the public) could support us. Our whole system was not clear about vital information about our programs and what we do and how we do it. We went through that process and then started to build a separation statement of why we are valuable, what our service is, and how we are going to go about communicating that to the public.”

The Voice of San Diego launched their Raise Your Voice membership program in April 2012.

Amy: What is your most popular membership level so far?
Scott: “Overwhelmingly people are giving at the $101 level. It’s cool. We are getting a lot of people who are asking us questions – am I member? I thought I was a member. It shows it is working. It shows the program is being well communicated.”

Amy: How does this model differ from other membership programs?
Scott: “It’s a little bit more aggressive than traditional public radio’s definition of members. Except at the higher levels – they (public radio) have rarely outlined the kind of events and benefits that come from being a member other than the producer’s club level. I think our model is similar to a museum or zoo in the sense that it’s a more formal relationship with members. It’s something I have been working on for years where membership is a mission-based curriculum as opposed to benefits being ancillary or not associated to the membership like a tote bag.”

Amy: Do you think more news organizations need to start implementing community engagement models like this?
Scott: “I don’t know if it’s this direction or something like it. It drives me nuts that all of these big organizations are struggling and getting rid of staff and shutting down –they have never given their community a chance to step up and support them and make sure they are strong. If you are a big media company and you are starting to see the precipice closer, if you are as much a value to that community as you say you are – you owe it to the community to ask them in whatever form – to make sure you are strong. It drives me nuts when they say people won’t pay for journalism when they never have even asked.”

Amy: If another news organization wants to implement a similar model/initiative, what advice would you give?
Scott: “You need to start working with consultants and people like Mary – who can analyze their market for them, help them hone their messages for them, help them become more sophisticated with it all. It’s not something where you can just put out emails for money – you have to manage members like businesses manage clients – by keeping track of them, cultivating them. This is not stuff that a journalist can do while they are doing what they want to do with journalism. It needs to be treated like a professional effort.”

According to Walter-Brown, the news organization should start day one with being clear in what they need from the public and what they can provide them. “Condition people from the beginning,” Walter-Brown said. “As the public becomes fans of your work, you need to see how they can become involved. Be very clear who you are and what your expectations are.”

News organizations may need to take a step away from the journalistic mindset to gain new insight to an old problem. “Every museum, theater company all have something similar – if we are going to live along side them, we need to do what they do well – market, brand ourselves well, Lewis said. “Treat our members well. Give them benefits and experiences. Keep track of them and make sure they renew annually.”