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Home » How Daily Maverick retains 24,000 paid members | What’s New in Publishing

How Daily Maverick retains 24,000 paid members | What’s New in Publishing

Benefits are not the answer you seek to build a successful membership program. What is?

Daily Maverick, a South African independent online news publication, has gained a reputation for its investigative journalism and commitment to holding those in power accountable since 2009. The newsroom launched a membership program over four years ago to help sustain its journalism and build a loyal community of readers. Today they have 24,000 active members. 

The membership program has allowed Daily Maverick to diversify its revenue streams and build a closer relationship with its readers. They are funded by advertising, grant funding, and membership. Membership accounts for just over 30% and has helped drive a 300% increase in the number of employees across the whole organisation from when they launched to today.

Fran Beighton, General Manager of Reader Revenue at Daily Maverick, talks about the publisher’s retention tactics.

Do you need benefits?

While Daily Maverick’s e-commerce division offers members benefits, such as flash sales and discounts, Beighton noted that only some members use them. The most popular benefit is a 10% discount in their shop. “We are bringing those who are already contributing further in the funnel so they continue to spend with us rather than go to the local bookshop”, Beighton highlights. 

“I think benefits are not so popular because our members pay to keep us free for everyone,” she explained.

Source: DM Support Page

Beighton would go for the Behind the Scenes newsletter if she needed to choose only one benefit and get rid of others. “That’s the newsletter where we get a different journalist to write to our members every second week,” Beighton explained.

Have at least one responsible person to engage with members 

To keep members engaged, you need someone who can interact with them. Beighton points out this person should be interested in business, creating value, and the psychology of people. It’s also helpful if they have writing skills, though they don’t need to be the best writer in the world. “You don’t need the whole team to launch membership. Someone dedicated to engaging with members with that combination of skills is enough to drive reader revenue”, says Beighton.

Daily Maverick membership also started from one person responsible for growth. Now they have three people in the reader revenue team and others from a newsroom who are involved occasionally. The team plans activities for reader engagement each week, including a newsletter to members, upcoming open webinars and events, and they also discuss the focus of the week’s marketing campaign.

Communicate the impact of your journalism

“My day-to-day job includes analysing articles and catching if there is a big story. If there is, I will start thinking about how we will turn that story and the impact into an appeal to our members,” says Beighton. It could be a direct mail to members or a message in a post-article footer.

For example, one email to members in early 2023 highlighted the investigation that uncovered and put a stop to the South African government’s plans to sponsor a UK football club amidst a severe economic crisis in South Africa itself.

Build an emotional connection that is hard to break

According to Beighton, building an emotional connection with your audience is crucial for retention. By that, she means using conversational language and relatable content to make readers feel like they’re talking to a friend. “We try to keep our communication alive, make our audience smile or giggle”, she explains. This approach is used only for membership messaging, not journalism.

Beighton also stresses how important it is to grow a newsletter as a top-of-the-funnel acquisition strategy. She believes that the emotional connection with readers forms before they become members and that this connection boosts their retention.

Beighton suggests using every opportunity to thank members for their support. She believes that benefits should not be the sole focus of retention tactics. “People support us because they have this emotional connection, and that’s very hard to break”, says Beighton.

Your churn rate is the most essential metric

Beighton highlights that “Your churn rate is the most essential metric. It is always much more difficult to acquire a new member than retain one. So if retention isn’t part of your strategy from the very beginning, then you will be in a situation where it doesn’t matter how many people you get to sign up. If they’re falling out of the bottom of the membership because you haven’t put good enough retention tactics in place, then you’re fighting a losing battle.”

Gaining 10,000 active members in two years 

One of Daily Maverick’s biggest challenges in reader revenue is credit cards going on hold due to card loss, expiring, and other issues, which causes lost revenue and declines in membership numbers. The publisher’s retention manager emails members with credit card issues three times a week, asking them to update their card details. Short and straight-to-the-point messages have been most effective in getting a response.

This strategy has brought back 10,000 members whose financial support would have been lost otherwise from 2020 to the end of 2022. By taking proactive steps, such as regular reminders to update payment details, newsrooms can continue to grow their membership.

“We have to ask members to do some admin work, which is a very different emotional perspective [compared to other communication with members]. But still, we didn’t wait around for a tech solution to come, and that’s why now we have these numbers”, says Beighton. 

Look for inspiration in other subscription businesses 

Beighton believes that inspiration for strategies to grow reader revenue can come from various sources, not just within journalism. She explores other news sites and subscription services like MasterClass and online learning platforms. Ideas can come from unexpected places. For example, Beighton recently came across a clever Q&A email from a learning platform, and she immediately adopted it for Daily Maverick.

“We could see that people clicked to sign up but didn’t convert so we created an automated Q&A email to explain the membership more. Some readers are motivated to become a member but have further questions. By sending this mail out quickly we are able to grab the opportunity to convert them”, says Beighton. 

Example of Maverick Insider Q&A (image courtesy of Daily Maverick)

Talk to your members and ask their opinion

The team at Daily Maverick regularly asks members for opinions on various topics, such as new merch designs or desired benefits. “People usually say they don’t need benefits, instead [they] ask us to focus on the journalism”, says Beighton. 

The publisher’s customer support manager, personally responds to every email and resolves members’ issues. “Last year, she got through 40,000 emails. Her personal approach and excellent customer service have even resulted in bringing those who want[ed] to cancel back over the line [and even in getting them to increase] their contribution”, adds Beighton. People value personal approach. At the same time, the Daily Maverick team is also looking into automating some of its customer support duties with a chatbot due to their growth.

Test, track, and scale

Daily Maverick’s mantra is to test, track, alter, improve, and scale. Beighton highlights how important it is to track everything, from headlines and subject lines to the colour of buttons and ribbons.

The team’s Maverick Insider manager plays a crucial role in analysing the data and providing insights for better decision-making. Beighton values her approach, saying, “She has a brilliant analytical approach to data. Something that takes time and nuance to derive insight. It’s what our membership team has been missing.”

The team constantly tests new ideas and tracks the results in real time to see what works best. For example, by using colour psychology and changing the colour of ribbons from yellow to blue, they saw a spike in sign-ups. They then experimented with different colours in different sections and found that using Financial Times pink in the business section resulted in bringing three times as much money compared to other sections.

Daily Maverick’s appeal for readers which the team calls “pink coffee ribbon” (image courtesy of Daily Maverick)

Beighton emphasises the importance of scaling successful tactics and stepping out of the “newsroom mentality”. It means stepping out of whatever one’s role is in the newsroom and mentally behaving like a consumer. “People get wrapped up in what they’re doing and forget to look at the news from a readers’ perspective – what is onsite messaging showing? Are there competing ads? Is it annoying or is it hitting the right mark?”, Beighton says. She also suggests staying curious about the life people live outside of the news. “In order to connect with the audience, you need to know what they’re experiencing in the world beyond your news site”, continues Beighton.

Step in your readers’ shoes

Beighton suggests remembering to be a customer and experiencing the sign-up and membership process firsthand. She advises ensuring that the process is easy and that customers can access articles without being bombarded with registration messages. “?reating frustration for readers will ruin the emotional bond that you are trying to cultivate and can lead to angry and frustrated members”, she explains. 

To avoid this, Daily Maverick makes it easy for members to cancel their membership if they choose to do so without aggressively trying to persuade them otherwise. They also have an automated service that asks why members cancel, and most people say it’s due to financial reasons. 

Beighton explains that Daily Maverick keeps its content free for readers because most of them cannot afford to pay. If a member cancels for financial reasons, Daily Maverick sends a thank-you message, expressing gratitude for their support and stating that they will always have access to the journalism they need. 

What should we ask ourselves?

“Do you believe in the product? Do you believe that your journalism is worth being thankful for?”

Beighton is convinced that if you are proud of your journalism and consume it yourself, you can explain why people should pay for it. “If you are conscious of how your journalism makes you feel, whether angry, proud, frustrated… all of those emotions are valuable tools for connecting with your audience”, suggests Beighton.

Iryna Hoiuk

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.

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