So, today let’s talk about velvet ropes and turnstiles.

Membership seems to be one of the newspaper industry’s buzzwords for this year. Nearly every audience-focused conference has at least one session on membership. 

Why, all of a sudden, do we have so much focus on membership?

Most newspapers have launched membership programmes in order to add additional value to their core product offers. Newspapers quite frequently launch a membership programme in conjunction with (or shortly after) starting to charge (or meter) their digital content. 

The word “membership” is used in an effort to change the perception of the relationship between the newspaper and its audience to something that goes beyond transactional exchanges (audience paying to receive access to content).

The velvet rope: As Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics notes in a blog post, the membership model is focused on encouraging readers to see themselves as members of an exclusive club. This club has certain perks or rewards, so it’s a lot more like a velvet rope than a paywall. The outcome is arguably the same as a paywall, but it starts with the benefits instead of the turnstile and a request for money. 

Would you rather have a relationship with an outlet that is always asking you for money, or with one that sees you as a partner and gives you membership benefits that sometimes involve having you pay for things?

Newspapers already have a transactional relationship with thousands of subscribers, but if we are going to start a successful membership programme, we must offer benefits above and beyond our core products.

Most newspaper membership programmes start with content access, including print, Web site, mobile, apps, and digital replica. The next layer of membership usually includes discount programmes, deals, and giveaways. The more integrated approach also involves member-only events.  

How about a membership programme that takes a different approach? Keep the core digital product free, but create a premium niche “membership” experience? We could take a page from the Verden Gang (VG), owned by Schibsted in Norway, and try the concept of nested subscriptions.

According to Kerry Oslund, vice president of digital at Schurz Communications, the VG strategy is “bringing as many people into the broad experience (growing audiences), without a ‘turn-off’ payment gate, and is critical to the overall Schibsted digital strategy.” 

Oslund continues: “Consumer profiling is then used to target premium, subscription-based, niche experiences to customers most likely to buy on impulse with ‘one click’ ease. Schibsted companies make a convincing case in suggesting consumers and advertisers will pay substantially ‘more and more often’ for niche rather than broad.” also offers a premium “all access” experience (VG Plus) that includes longer-form stories that may be designated only for “print & premium digital.” Unlike some counterparts in the United States, Schibsted is not convinced all-access membership should be the primary focus for the subscription model. offers, for instance, a new members-only “Pet” experience, as well as experiences about health and dieting and money-saving. There is also a members-only experience that features the work of “Popular Kommentars” (columnists) working for Schibsted publications.

Looking outside the window: We should look outside of the media for successful membership programmes. A good example of a successful one is the Automobile Association of America (AAA). The association’s core service of roadside assistance is just a piece of its membership offerings. Customers usually start their AAA membership for the roadside service, but stay around for the additional perks, such as hotel and restaurant discounts that help the AAA membership pay for itself.

Getting customers to say their newspaper membership “pays for itself” is a key piece to success. We all did that for years by using the value of coupons, particularly in the Sunday newspaper, as leverage. But discounts aren’t the only way to win the membership battle.

Including items in the membership package that people wouldn’t normally be able to get on their own can also add value. For example, membership could include a chance to meet performers at an event or move people to the front of the line at summertime county fairs. We even can plan events that are for members only.

We need to ask people what type of things they would find of value. It’s easy to sit in our brick building and dream up perks, but we should take the time to really find out what will move people to want to become members.

A sense of belonging: A good membership programme is more than just discounts and events. Good membership programmes create a sense of belonging to something special. Many music groups have a membership programme that gives fans early access to new music or online conversations with the artist, pre-sale concert ticket or VIP concert tickets, special T-shirts, videos, etc.

Lady Gaga has really gone all-out in creating a total fan experience. Check out the article, “7 customer loyalty lessons from Lady Gaga.”

 She created an identity for her fans: “little monsters.” She makes her fans feel like “rock stars” and continually gives them new content that feels exclusive. Lady Gaga knows that treating her “little monsters” well means they will spread her brand.  

What can newspapers do to create a membership that makes people feel like they are part of something bigger, something important, something special? What can we learn from membership programmes outside of our industry?

So, where does this leave us? Creating a successful membership programme takes work. Here are seven keys to launching one:

  1. It’s about the consumer, not about us. We shouldn’t create a membership programme by picking and choosing perks without taking the time to figure out what our audience finds desirable. We need to ask what matters. We need to make sure we are relevant.

  2. Define goals for membership. How will success be measured? How can we track which benefits are used?

  3. Core products are expected. The audience expects access to print and digital versions of the products. Membership is above and beyond. Consider the Verden Gang approach of keeping the core digital products open for broad reach and developing members-only niche products.

  4. Rewards and deals are nice, but the best membership programmes tap into a higher level need of belonging or brotherhood. Remember, it’s not just about stuff but about getting people to feel connected to the brand. Remember Lady Gaga’s fervent little monsters.

  5. Becoming a member must be easy. We need to take the time to invest in the technology that makes this possible. Consumers don’t want to have to remember six different logins just to access their “benefits.” Single sign-on is the goal.

    The goal is to make frictionless transactions. Make it so easy that people don’t think very hard before they click and buy.

  6. Benefits must be clear and easy to understand, and people must be reminded of their benefits regularly. People don’t use what they can’t remember. Make an easy-to-understand (and locate) FAQ page.

  7. Remind people of their membership benefits on a regular basis. Promote. Promote. Promote.

So, membership. Just a buzzword, or an integral part of our sustainability as an industry? I believe it’s the latter, and deserves strategic planning equal to anything else we do in our industry. 

By giving our subscribers a velvet rope experience, we have a better chance at keeping them coming through the turnstiles.