The future of publishing looks a lot like the past with publishers working on building a direct connection with their readers. For years, publishers have been trying to figure out how to make money in an environment dominated by Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and there is no question that the strategies publishers choose will have a big impact on the future of digital publishing.
So, to make things easier, here are four things digital publishers can learn from their successful counterparts that are already driving change as mentioned in the Membership Puzzle Project Summit that ran for 5 days with over 35+ speakers.
- Build memberships, not just subscriptions
Building membership is connecting with your audience with time, effort, and ideas and not just with money. Membership requires commitment from the publishers and the readers alike with both wanting to grow together. It's easy to get caught up in the race to create a revenue-generating product or service but the truth is you need a vision and a community to build a sustainable business. The best content is really about the member, their interaction with the content, its organization and delivery, and the feedback loop it creates.
While subscriptions are convenient, they come with risks: they're easy to cancel and they're vulnerable to interruption. Today, readers have the autonomy and opportunity to shape the content they receive, so the main things publishers should focus on are building a community of potential members and making it easy for them to get involved.
Like Rosen said, “The key part of the puzzle is the implied contract between the site and its members. What do the members give? What do they get? What do journalists give? And what do journalists get? Refining that contract [and] discovering the contract that works is the real work of membership,”
2. Learn from mistakes in the community
What works for one publisher may not work for the other. But mistakes can guide a lot of others. Learning from mistakes in the community - especially those that aren't challenging you but are valuable for improving your understanding of the potential problems people face - and look for opportunities to improve what's working well.
3. Experiment, measure, learn every day
Digital news publishers are in an incredible bind. Their continued survival depends on innovations in user behavior and platform sustainability. Zetland mentioned having run multiple experiments on the email narrations to personalize their campaigns. Similarly, some publishers used feedback data to learn and continuously change their strategies to reach their audience.
“Instead of just assuming what members want, successful membership organizations have developed ways of listening, fresh thinking about what their members actually want, and strong feedback loops to get it right,” a key takeaway from the MPP report.
Building an audience takes years of consistent effort, taking small steps to learn and measure progress enables creating content that your target audience finds valuable. Content is king, but learning what is valued by the customer and providing them will matter more in the long run.
4. Memberships need not be the only model publishers can adopt
This may come as a surprise from a summit focused on building membership-driven growth for publishers. But, there may be no single solution for all publishers. However, the big challenges for many are growth and retention. Many digital news sites have revealed they are adopting a hybrid revenue generation model. Most sustainable news organizations have several sources of revenue, with memberships serving as just one stream alongside grants, large donors, advertising, and more.
"We don’t see membership as the solution to the business model crisis in journalism," says Jay Rosen, the New York University professor who founded MPP. "It's one of the answers."
That would allow publishers to upgrade their revenue models while scaling more easily to a changing Internet environment in which many patrons and audiences have fragmented relationships with traditional publishing models. Adopting multiple methods of funding would help monetize content even as traditional methods of attracting patrons erode as more audience and revenue move online. Publishers that opt for a combination of these approaches may find that their value proposition grows as subscriptions and other revenue streams become more available, although this strategy will require a deep understanding of how users respond to different promotional offers and ongoing value-added services.
As digital news sites and traditional media outlets struggle to attract an increasingly cost-conscious audience, many have adopted a hybrid model of revenue generation and found success with it. So, publishers need to realize that subscriptions are not just one means to a sustainable revenue model and can either work with a combination to diversify or choose the one that works best for their business goal.
About the Summit: Membership Puzzle Project is a public research project that started as guidance for newsrooms to adopt a membership model by working with multiple newsrooms around the world and documenting their lessons on their platform. The project finally ends in August 2021 after a successful 4-year run.
Find more about them: https://membershippuzzle.org/