Lesson At A Glance

One Big Takeaway: The Christian Science Monitor built a successful membership offering by identifying core audiences they’re trying to serve and building a plan to meet their needs.

3 Steps to Take Now:

  1. Determine the “job to be done.” Identify what you can do better than anyone and explain why that would entice audiences to become members.
  2. Create a product vision and business plan. This will help illustrate the ideal state of your products and then allow you to create a roadmap for how you’ll execute it to serve core audiences.
  3. Test constantly. Collect quantitative and qualitative data that will inform your decision-making process and allow you to quickly iterate.

In 2017, The Christian Science Monitor launched a paid digital membership program centered around a paid member-only daily email newsletter. Today, more than a year and a half after debuting the program, the Monitor has more than 10,000 paying members — surpassing its goal.

Speaking at the Membership Accelerator kick off in Austin, David Grant, the Monitor’s associate publisher, built on previous membership lessons about finding your membership audience by explaining how the Monitor grew its membership program. Grant outlined a five-step process for building an effective membership program.

“We need to move beyond the community of people who think journalism itself as a good is valuable,” Grant said, emphasizing that news organizations need to explain why their reporting is worth supporting.

Here are the five steps Grant outlined for creating a stronger membership program:

1. What’s your job to be done?

Publications should think about identifying specific tasks that help their audiences achieve something. To create a successful membership program, outlets can focus on areas where they feel they can complete specific jobs to improve things for their audiences.

“The main question is what is better now that I’m a member?,” Grant said.

2. What’s your vision?

A product vision will help guide publishers toward their ultimate goal of creating a successful membership program and will help frame all other decisions.

Grant highlighted an approach Amazon uses to help its employees define their product vision. To pitch a product, they write an internally focused press release that answers questions such as:

The purpose of the document is to define “what are we trying to create, not what are our limitations and neuroses today,” Grant said.

“You start with your jobs, you add to that some vision about where you want to be and you end up with a document about what you’re trying to achieve,” he said.

3. What’s your vision in business form?

Once a news organization has outlined the job to be done and its product vision, Grant recommended filling out a Lean Canvas to establish business goals.

The Lean Canvas is a one-page sheet that helps organizations distill the core assumptions of their business.

By completing this form, publishers will have a better understanding of whether their plans are connecting with customer segments and whether they’re able to actually solve the problems they’ve set out to conquer.

“Do you have an unfair advantage for the problems you’re trying to solve? If you don’t, you need to think about that problem you’re trying to solve again,” Grant said. “You need to think about: Why are we uniquely situated to solve this problem?”

4. Who are your key readers?

Creating personas for key audience constituencies will help publishers understand the types of people that are key to their membership offerings.

By identifying how different groups use their products, publishers can design specifically for those groups.

“This begins to drive you into the area of features and the area of things people want back from you,” Grant said.

The Monitor’s goal is to “rethink the news” through distinctive coverage that sees journalism as a force for good in the world. It tries to help its readers and members see the world in a more compassionate and understanding way.

By focusing on its core constituencies, the Monitor can stay focused on providing value and building products that serve the needs of those groups.

5. Test!

Publishers must regularly gather quantitative and qualitative data to test their assumptions and to see whether they’re meeting their goals of serving their core audiences via their membership programs.

It’s easy to get distracted by the countless metrics that publishers can now measure using tools such as Google Analytics. But to build a successful membership program, news organizations must pick a few core metrics that align with their business goals.

When it comes to qualitative metrics, publishers can learn a lot from just talking to their most loyal users. Even short surveys and small focus groups can provide insight into how audiences are using products.

(We published a post recently about how to best serve your most loyal audiences. Check it out for more detail.)

Armed with all this information, publishers should test and iterate quickly. The Monitor, Grant said, runs one-week design sprints that allow it to efficiently build new features or products, learn what works and doesn’t work, and then continue to iterate.

It’s also key for publishers to use this data to determine what they should stop doing. Are there things that don’t align with your long-term vision? Can you automate or streamline any of them? These are questions publishers should regularly ask themselves so they can focus on priorities that matter.

For example, at the Monitor, as it redesigned its website and digital presence, it traded the short-term revenue of programmatic display ads for the long-term revenue of a more well-designed, reader-friendly product that more effectively pitched its membership program.

“Most of the time you’re trading off something that’s giving you a little value for a lot of value down the road,” Grant said.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Membership Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their membership revenues. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Membership Accelerator is part of the broader Facebook Journalism Project Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on digital subscriptions and digital video.