Carried by the community: Media startups turn to membership campaigns | In focus | DW | 15.10.2020
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In focus

Carried by the community: Media startups turn to membership campaigns

Media startups are increasingly using membership campaigns to fund independent, quality journalism. We hear how three startups from Argentina, Egypt and Moldova have implemented their campaigns.

After the authorities blocked Mada Masr’s website in Egypt in 2017, the independent digital media outlet decided it was time to start a membership campaign. “At that point it was clear, ads and other revenues from the corporate world were not an option anymore. So we needed to evolve our business model towards being more reader-funded,” Mada Masr co-director Alexandre Goudineau said. The government had made it illegal for Mada Masr to receive donations and a paywall was out of the question. “Not only was it a good in-between, but it was also an opportunity to build a program that would make our institution stronger, more complete.”

Today Mada Masr has around 400 members but it took some time before the campaign was officially launched. The process involved a research phase, building up the offer, a pilot phase with 100 pioneer members, the first expansion through personal connections, and finally the public launch in December 2019. Due to COVID-19, the number of members was not declining – on the contrary, the member base has been steadily growing since the launch. Given the limited resources and the complexity of the offer to its members – this includes training, events, additional content and merchandise – for Goudineau and his team, going step by step is more important than starting too   strong and then later failing to deliver.

Membership campaigns are becoming a key part of media startups funding. Among the 16 startups that participated in DW Akademie's Digital Media Pioneers program, seven of them either have or are developing a membership campaign.

Membership means community support

At Argentinian fact-checking organization Chequeado, editor-in-chief Laura Zommer started a membership campaign one year ago. “We are standing for quality and that’s why we wanted to be independent from funders and philanthropists since the beginning – we are a project based on the support of the community,” said Zommer. For Zommer it is not only about money but about involving the community in the process and workflow of the organization.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, around 50% of Chequeado’s created content has been based on suggestions by the community. To report on fake news, they use platforms such as WhatsApp or Collectivo, where they can easily upload photos, videos or explanations to accompany unclear statements from politicians or other authoritative voices. “This is important because we think that support is part of our core mission to increase the cost of lying. It gives us more legitimacy and helps us to make influential people who create lies accountable.”

In terms of numbers, Chequeado now has 340 members who pay on average US$5 per month. Many people discovered the website as a result of COVID-19 and their reach doubled within the past six months. But the number of members did not increase significantly, even Zommer and her team now wants to focus on new target groups.  To achieve this, Chequaedo soon plans to hire a person dedicated solely to the membership campaign. Zommer is convinced that her organization can benefit from actively inviting people to share their criticism and ideas with the team.

Steady growth: membership platforms

If a media outlet is not willing or able to launch their own membership platform, there are other sophisticated solutions out there. One popular provider for membership programs is San Francisco-based Patreon. Another is Steady, which was founded in Germany in 2017 and now has more than 1,000 publishers, bloggers and podcasters. Since 2020, the platform has reached an increasing number of international publishers. Meanwhile, 15% of its clients are non-German – and the number is growing steadily.

RISE Moldova, a community of investigative journalists, programmers and activists from the Republic of Moldova and Romania, use Paterson. They regularly publish investigative stories about organized crime, money laundering and corruption. In February 2020, they started a campaign. Fundraising manager Natalia Sanduta said that the timing was not the best as people had other concerns you focus on during the coronavirus pandemic. Originally the idea was to explore how much support RISE Moldova could get from their readers. In September 2020, there were nine patrons in total who were willing to pay on a regular basis. Sanduta knows that the potential is at least five times higher, especially among the millions of Moldovans who live abroad and have a steady financial situation. For the next few months the video team is planning to heavily promote the campaign on social media. Launching a membership campaign that offers paying members unique privileges is only one part of the job. The other part is to roll-out the membership model professionally.

Invest in your membership campaign

“We see the new membership manager as a long-term investment,” says Chequeado’s Laura Zommer. She says that in the past, she did not put enough focus or resources into the campaign, but she is willing to change this. Her media outlet is the only one in Argentina that is transparent about where their funding comes from, but average users are not aware of this transparency. That’s why they have decided to promote their key messages much more heavily. Zommer said that journalists are often taught to be neutral, “but in the end nobody will support a shy medium, but one which is successful – and even more – which is good in promoting its success.” It is also important that allies like other fact-checking organizations from Latin America mention the organization in a positive way, for example via video testimonials or written statements.

For Mada Masr in Egypt, the main learning is that you should be very precise in terms of your offerings. According to Alexandre Godineau, there is a balance between short-term work and long-term goals like developing different products, building up a reliable relationship with the members or improving the internal organization. Otherwise it is possible that a medium might under-deliver the perks it has promised. “You can do surveys and research but it is quite impossible to know in advance how things will go, especially in such a volatile context as ours. This doesn't mean research is useless, far from it, but there needs to be a limit to it and room for on-the-fly adjustments,” Godineau said.

Happy members the key to success

The goal of Mada Masr was originally to gain around 650 members by the end of the year. But Goudineau and his team realized that member satisfaction might be a more critical goal than reaching their membership target number. “Having happy members, likely to commit long-term to the program, is the key to long-term success,” he said.

Talking about the general membership campaign trend, Goudineau said that “being reader-funded is a very natural direction for small startups that wish to retain their editorial independence and are wary of running after corporate money”. It was the early success of some membership programs across the globe that encouraged Mada Masr to take that route. At the same time, it is especially difficult to have a successful membership campaign in low- and middle-income countries, as  economies tend to be less stable and lower incomes mean not everyone has the means to pay for high-quality journalism. 

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