Biscuit, a brown dog with white paws and a white belly, lays on a navy dog bed on the floor. On Biscuit's left, there is a print copy of the Daily Maverick

Biscuit, the dog of Daily Maverick's sport editor, poses with a copy of the print edition. After a photo of Biscuit received a lot of engagement on social media, Daily Mavericks' membership team began including photos of the dog in their callouts

They said it wouldn’t work. They had said the same thing when we started Daily Maverick, a fiercely independent, long-form news publisher, in 2009. At least they were consistent.

Most people couldn’t get their heads wrapped around a voluntary membership program with no paywall allowing people to choose their monthly contribution amount. But that’s what we announced we’d create at an in-person gathering of almost 1,000 readers in Cape Town four years ago.

At the time, we were an organization of around 50 people, reporting on fat cat politicians who had compromised state resources to benefit themselves and connected families. But we were constantly running out of runway. Things needed to change, and so we did. Starting from zero in 2018, our membership program now contributes 35 percent of our revenue mix and helped us more than double our newsroom staff. These are some lessons we learned.

Valuable journalism is the foundation

Journalism that creates value for our audience is our bedrock. We believe journalism should help protect our fragile democracy, like our collaborative series of more than 70 exposés. The #GuptaLeaks uncovered the deep roots of corruption, spearheaded by the president of the country. And we believe journalism should help people navigate this thing called life, helping people to know more and know better by providing journalism that inspires better debates and choices. Sometimes a watchdog, often a guide dog.

Newsletters are golden

Our membership strategy is built on a newsletter strategy. Two-thirds of our members started as newsletter subscribers, and it quickly became evident where to find our most active and committed readers. We were lucky enough to invest in newsletters since 2009 before they were sexy. We chose to invest in newsletters over social media and were repaid with a direct relationship with the people moved enough to sign up with their email addresses. Since its launch, around eight percent of newsletter subscribers have joined our membership cause, and we focus much of our efforts on growing our newsletter audience and offerings.

Membership ≠ Subscription

Membership is about more than a financial transaction. It’s about offering people the opportunity to join a cause that aligns with their values. Philosophically, membership sits alongside our vision for society to “know more, know better” and our mission to “Defend Truth.” This model allows everyone access to our journalism — even those who can’t afford to pay in a country with 35 percent unemployment.

Don’t be boring!

Direct appeals are the most effective items in our conversion toolbox, driving home why relationships with audiences are paramount. There are many ways to position these calls to action, and we’ve learned (the hard way) to avoid being dry as toast. Because we work in a traumatic environment with such high stakes — where political attacks, death threats, and strategic lawsuits are commonplace — it’s easy to be drawn into the serious when asking for support.

Following a team walk up Table Mountain in Cape Town, our razor-sharp membership team noticed that a photo of Biscuit, our sports editor’s dog, had garnered more likes on our Instagram account than on our other posts. Biscuit was quickly recruited as the unofficial Daily Maverick mascot and used in on-site messaging and a direct appeal, becoming an instant hit. Now every time the team needs to hit acquisition targets, Biscuit the big gun is rolled out! Journalism is part of life, and life shouldn’t be boring — neither should our appeals for support where people crave human (and canine) connections.

Even small newsrooms can build a culture of experimentation

You’re never too small to build a culture of testing and experimentation. We monitor where our membership signups come from (Source/Medium), which direct appeals work best, which day of the week and what time of day converts best. Within our appeals, we test the optimal word count, where to place the ask button, which color and text label combination to use, and which behavioral bias — what motivates people to choose one thing over another — resonates most with different segments. We track this manually in a spreadsheet and try to iterate continuously, reporting on any standout performances — good or bad — so we might improve on them. 

Membership is more than just revenue

Membership was the Trojan horse we used to get engaged journalism into our newsroom. Audience feedback and participation in how we created our journalism was foreign to us. As a new division within Daily Maverick, we could sculpt our membership community efforts to include other ways for supporters to help beyond opening their wallets.

We keep a list of members with “superpowers” — expertise that they possess and are willing to share with us — in a database and share this with our journalists. This came in handy many times, especially during Covid-19 when some of our members were the top epidemiologists in the country. Members have submitted op-eds and opinion pieces and pitched and hosted panels at our events within their areas of expertise.

These successful interactions were done in a way that doesn’t impact newsroom independence and eventually led to more engaged journalism projects, where we canvass input from our audience on specific topics and use that information to commission articles.

Plateaus, peaks, and valleys

Growth isn’t linear. Once your most ardent fans and loyalists have joined the ranks of your financial army, the hard work of iterating and testing begins to guide the next batch of supporters across the line. This takes time, analysis, and generally greater investment in data and technology. When we hit a plateau in our membership growth efforts, we realized that we needed to improve our marketing by investing in automation software that would allow for better A/B testing and targeting.

The problem was the large, annual dollar-based price tag that would have normally scared us off. We used the lifetime value of membership to work out the number of new members we had to acquire to break even on the system. That made the investment a no-brainer, and we hit that break-even mark in the first two months, which set us up for a new period of growth.

Despite the attraction of paywall models which are easier to implement, widely used, and have better technology services to support them, we’ve shown membership can be a viable model for public interest journalism. Beyond the financial benefits, the success of this model depends on moving past journalism as a broadcast effort where audiences were expected to be passive receivers of our work. Membership serves as a rigorous, daily check on remaining true to one’s mission and who we serve with our journalism.

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