Where Memberships and Subscriptions Meet

For mailbox members, your association is simply a niche media outlet. One growing news service shows how to make paid content "essential."

Two weeks ago, politics and policy news outlet Politico announced an expansion of its subscription-based news service, Politico Pro. The premium news service has worked so well since its launch in 2011 that it will add three new “verticals”—trade, agriculture, and education—to its list of topics, which already included technology, energy, tax, defense, transportation, health, and financial services.

What percent of your association’s members do nothing more than read your magazine and newsletters? Those people are subscribers.

In a memo to Politico staff, the company’s executives spelled out the mission of the Pro service, and the clarity of their words should put most association mission statements to shame:

“We have a proven formula for quickly dominating these specific policy areas and getting the most powerful people in Washington and around the country to subscribe and rely on them to do their jobs. … Our ambitions in this space are clear: dominate every pocket of Washington politics and governance possible and make sure readers feel that paying for our content is essential, wise and very much worth the investment.” [emphasis added]

I am not a Politico reader, as I’m neither a policy professional nor a politial junkie, but from an association publishing perspective I envy Politico‘s model, and it’s heartening to see that, when done right, niche media can be highly successful.

It’s not just about media anymore, though. Politico also hosted 90 events in 2012, mostly of the sponsored, free-for-attendees variety that aim to “convene thought leadership.” And it’s not just Politico that’s diversifying. Its competitor National Journal hosts (and webcasts) live events, too. Elsewhere, Dwell magazine and GigaOm are building their brands around events (one of which my colleague Ernie Smith attended last month). The Texas Tribune  does the same. Even The New York Times. I could go on.

Politico does not use the word “membership” to describe its subscription package, though National Journal does, which only highlights how fine the line between subscription and membership can be. It may only be semantics. In any case, it’s hard to mistake the parallels between the model these publications are adopting and the one associations have used for years. At a time when associations are worried about the future of their business model, these publications are borrowing pages from the age-old association playbook.

You might argue that membership in an association is different from a subscription to a publication, that a sense of belonging and engagement is what sets associations apart. That’s true, but only insofar as it applies to engaged members. What percent of your association’s members do nothing more with you than read your magazine and newsletters? Those people are subscribers.

You can put a lot of energy into pushing them along the engagement curve, but not all will move. Many will stay right where they are, in the “mailbox member” status, because that’s all they’re interested in. So, the other approach is to keep them satisified with content so good that they rely on it to do their jobs, that they feel that paying for it is essential.

Associations typically have a lot of products, offered in a bundle, but they could learn from Politico‘s approach to niche. Is your magazine alone, for instance, worth the price of membership? Is it that good? Politico Pro shows that this model can work, but it takes a commitment to quality that makes its core product worth the price.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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