How publishers are moving forward from readers to members

PUBLISHED: 13:17 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 13:18 04 October 2017

Entertainment services like Netflix offer access to exclusive, differentiated content. By contrast, digital news is widely known to be available 'for free', limiting the value the public places on subscriptions. Photo: Matthew Keys / Flickr Creative Commons

Entertainment services like Netflix offer access to exclusive, differentiated content. By contrast, digital news is widely known to be available 'for free', limiting the value the public places on subscriptions. Photo: Matthew Keys / Flickr Creative Commons

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There's good news and bad news for online news publishers: The good is that people are increasingly willing to pay for digital news subscriptions. The bad is that news often takes a back seat to entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify.

This comes out of the latest study by Kantar Media on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which found that, despite the widespread availability of free news sources online, a growing subset of the population is willing to pay for a subscription to a trusted news brand.

That's encouraging news for publishers who are realising that the economics of digital advertising tend to favour the ad platforms rather than content creators, and who would much rather have regular income from a core group of hardcore fans.

Despite that, however, the study’s survey respondents also attributed higher value to entertainment services like Netflix, which were perceived to offer access to exclusive, differentiated content. By contrast, digital news is widely known to be available 'for free', limiting the value the public places on subscriptions.

So what can publishers learn from those entertainment services about how to monetise their digital audiences? The answer lies in the creation of perceived exclusivity.

The report found that audiences, particularly in the UK and United States, were more amenable than other territories to the concept of 'memberships', paid-for access to extra services built around the brand. The Guardian's membership scheme, for instance, offers early access to events in addition to a look at the soup-to-nuts production of its journalism.

Natalie Hanman, executive editor for Guardian membership, says that the membership scheme has been about "developing a participatory membership approach rather than one which is predominantly based on transactional benefits".

The scheme now has more than 400,000 paying members, and Hanman says it’s "ahead of the tough targets we’ve set ourselves" - last year Guardian chief executive David Pemsel said he wanted a third of the Guardian's overall revenue to come from memberships within three years.

Similarly, the US-based brand the Atlantic has launched an extra membership scheme - called The Masthead - designed to be supplementary to its existing products. The benefits of the scheme, including access to exclusive stories and insights in addition to direct conversation with journalists, are designed to appeal to superfans of the Atlantic brand. It is essentially a step beyond the simple subscription model, offering access to the secret machinery at the heart of a newsroom.

While the idea of membership built around goodies and extras is nothing new, prising back the lid on production is at the heart of the new model of membership advanced by both the Guardian and the Atlantic. It is a model designed with the express purpose of deepening the affinity between a news brand and its most die-hard fans through exclusive access.

That has the obvious benefit of contributing to the brand's bottom line through extra subscription revenue, but beyond that it provides information about which stories and issues its most loyal readers care most about, a bellwether for where it should be focusing its resources.

As publishers look to forgo fickle advertising revenue in favour of direct monetisation from an audience, membership schemes provide both extra cash and a roadmap to what audiences care about.

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