We recently gathered 17 news organizations with membership models at the kick off of our Membership Accelerator Program, so they could jointly learn how to improve their membership programs. We’ll be sharing lessons from each in-person session here so others can take advantage of the Membership Accelerator’s lessons.

Lesson at a Glance

One Big Takeaway: Your most engaged, invested readers will bring in the bulk of your membership revenue. Find them, learn as much as you can about them, and clearly communicate the value behind your membership program.

2 Steps to Take Now:

  1. Understand your most loyal audiences: Who are they? What are their problems? How can you solve them?
  2. Illustrate your value proposition: Why are the problems you’re solving meaningful? How can you solve them better than anyone else?

“Where is the money in online publishing?”

“It’s with your ‘whales.’”

This is how Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of Sterling Woods Group, opened his session in our kickoff of the Facebook Journalism Project: Membership Accelerator. (Follow all our lesson recaps here).

Who are your whales? “Your whales are your most engaged and passionate audience members,” Ristagno explained. Historically, he said, revenue for publishers had been in advertising based on your audience traffic. Now, of course, audience revenue membership and subscriptions have become a significant source of opportunity for local news organizations of all types. Your “whales” are key; they’ll drive the bulk of membership revenue and help you tap into other prospective members.

Ristagno’s session focused on one of five core components in Sterling Woods’ approach to unlocking profitable digital membership: Understanding those engaged audience members and demonstrating your value proposition to them.

Whales are your best path to digital revenue growth. Why?

Read on for Ristagno’s step-by-step process for identifying your publishing group’s whales.

Understand Your Whales

Your whales are a subset of your audience. To find out why these audience members are valuable, Rigastino offered the following exercise. Follow Ristagno’s guidelines to walk through the exercise with your own team.

Sketch Your Whales

Start by encouraging everyone in the room to draw a rudimentary sketch of your most enthusiastic audience members.

In the Accelerator, drawing the sketch forced teams to think more deeply about the qualities of their most enthusiastic members. The exercise also helped make whales less an abstract idea and more of a real person.

Develop Your Whale’s Persona

Next, teams reviewed each sketch and added detail to the persona. Ristagno prompted the audience with the following questions:

Some snippets of participants’ whales:

Ristagno’s Pro Tip: Your team should test its assumptions to make sure your persona matches your actual whales. He offered the following suggestions: Connect with your target whales in person and through surveys. Set up in-person interviews with a few whales — 5 to 7 is a good start. Send a survey to secure at least 30-100 responses to further validate your assumptions.

Identify Your Value Prop

Now that you’ve identified your whales, focus on clearly demonstrating value proposition for becoming a member.

“For example, a newsletter signup page is more successful when you explain what the reader will get and why it’s an awesome thing — rather than just showing a button that says submit.” — Brian Boyer, VP of People and Product of Spirited Media

Ristagno broke a value proposition into who, what, why, and how.

Ristagno then walked Accelerator participants through building their membership value props using the following suggestions:

Define How You Help

Think back to your whale’s aspirations and problems. How do you help your whales achieve an aspiration? How do you help them solve their problem?

Think of as many as possible. For example, your news publication’s membership program could help:

Participants’ answers included:

“Our whale misses newspapers and is frustrated that the biggest newspapers are smaller and slimmer than they used to be. We help them stay informed.” — Bill Emkow, Growth Strategist of Bridge Magazine

“We’re accessible to the community.” — Brittany Schock, Reporter at Richland Source

Define the Emotional Benefits You Offer

Brainstorm the emotional benefits you can provide your whales. For example, whales that participate in your membership program could feel:

Then, draft how to help whales experience each. For example, does your news organization help your whales feel:

Define the Problems You Solve

Participants then took the time to narrow their whales’ problems and emotional benefits.

“What is nobody else doing in the community right now that you can really deliver on?” — Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of Sterling Woods Group

Here’s how Ristagno guided publishers through the process.

  1. Look at the problems you brainstormed. Narrow your list to one or two tangible problems that your membership is best at solving.
  2. Answer the question: Why are you the best at solving this problem?
  3. Look at the emotional benefits you brainstormed. Narrow your list to the one or two most compelling emotional benefits.
  4. Answer the question: How does your membership trigger these emotions?

Draft Your Value Proposition

You now have the building blocks of your value proposition. It’s time to put them together.

Here’s Ristagno’s formula:

Examples of publishers’ value props included:

“The revenues from Berkeleyside membership enables us to do the journalism to hold our members’ city accountable. Our members can feel confident they are well informed. No one covers the city better than Berkeleyside.” — Lance Knobel, Publisher of Berkeleyside

“VTDigger helps Vermont leaders stay ahead of business and political trends. Our reporting helps you keep tabs on the most important state news.” — Anne Galloway, Executive Director of VTDigger

Ristagno’s Pro Tip: Once your team has drafted its value proposition, validate it internally. Circulate it across your publication for feedback. Building a membership value proposition is not a one-and-done process. Your value proposition should regularly update as your membership does — soliciting dialogue across your company is a great way to do this.

Read more lessons from the Membership Accelerator here.



The Accelerator Program

The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.

For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the FJP newsletter.