Since 2009, South Africa’s Daily Maverick has grown from five employees working in a single room to becoming a highly trusted publication with more than 100 workers. And its reputation has grown as quickly as its ranks; in 2019 it was the co-recipient of the Global Shining Light Award for investigative journalism.
“Our investigations team is notorious for taking down some nefarious people and their misdeeds,” said Daily Maverick CEO Styli Charalambous. “And so our business model reflects that through strong philanthropic support, as well as a commercial unit and a reader revenue unit in our membership programme.”
It turned to a membership model as part of its mission: “Our vision is for people to know more and to know better,” he said. “We wanted to keep our journalism free for those who can’t afford to pay. And in a country like South Africa, with 25% unemployment and 70% youth unemployment, that’s a lot of people.”
Subscribers vs. members
There are differences in attracting paywall customers vs. members, Charalambous said: Paywall subscribers are paying for access to content, while members are there to join a cause that they believe in. Because of that, the marketing for the Daily Maverick memberships was more emotive and appealed to the idea of joining a cause. But to attract members, it was important to make sure the journalism was worth supporting.
“That’s foundational to any subscription or any membership programme. You’ve got to be producing a quality product that is incentive for people to want to support in some way, shape, or form.”
It’s also important for members to get something out of their donation. Before creating an offer, The Daily Maverick asked readers to vote on which benefits they would most value in a membership programme. Then, it used those responses to prioritise its offerings.
It also created a slider at the launch of the programme that illustrated the freedom of choice in terms of choosing a price; then it offered incentives to encourage higher contributions.
Because South Africa’s public transport system is problematic, Uber is often the transportation of choice there. So the Daily Maverick worked with Uber to create an offer that would allow anyone donating 200 Rand (about US$13) to get 200 Rand in Uber vouchers when they signed up — and that would continue every month they were signed up.
“So that not only helped with acquisition, but it helped with retention down the line.”
Other benefits developed based on reader responses were the chance to participate in panels and events, helping choose book covers for books it was publishing, exclusive Webinars and screenings of documentaries, and more.
“One of the behavioural biases that has tested quite well for us is what we call the IKEA effect,” Charalambous said. “And that is where people want to feel like they’re part of building something or alongside the bandwagon with 17,000 other people. That they’re part of this movement and they’re helping to build something. And we use that in our marketing messaging as well.”
The results have been remarkable:
- In 2019, one year after launching, Daily Maverick had 4,000 members and the staff had grown to 45.
- The following year, the number of members doubled and the team had grown to 80.
- Last year, they grew to 17,000 members, and they are now at more than 100 people [on staff].
While a pay-what-you-want model can take longer to gain traction, Charalambous said it is stickier; only 15% of its membership base has churned since the programme’s inception.
“It’s about engagement. It’s about participation. It’s about people wanting to feel that they’re part of something,” he said. “It’s an emotional investment rather than just a transactional part of their wallet that is being made.”