Membership, or relying on voluntary reader donations, is all the buzz in the world of media. But while that sounds great in developed Western economies, many worry that it can’t work in poorer markets. 

The experience of South Africa-based news site the Daily Maverick should put fears to rest. Since launching a membership model in late 2018, the digital native has attracted over 8,000 members, most of whom contribute regularly, covering around 30% of company’s monthly payroll.

Launched in 2009, the Daily Maverick is digital-only and focuses on South African politics, with a big emphasis on investigative reporting.

Styli Charalambous, the company’s publisher and CEO, launched the membership program, Maverick Insider. He says he would never have expected it to be such a success: “I would have jumped to the fucking moon and back [if somebody told me this].”  He believes the model his team has built “has changed not only our financial situation, but it’s changed how we operate as a news organisation”.

The Fix talked to him about their membership model, how they convert new members and if membership would really save the future of journalism.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Styli Charalambous
Source: Outriders Network

ZP: How did you decide on membership?

SC: We were struggling with sustainability. Advertising was getting harder and harder to sell. A digital-only politics publication is the hardest thing you can sell. We had a bit of grant funding, some donations, selling a bit of advertising, doing events and getting sponsorships. But that all takes a lot of time and effort, and much of it is one-off. 

We needed to get our readers to help us but knew we didn’t want to put up a paywall. 

South Africa is a poor country. If we kept our hard-hitting investigations only for the people who can afford them, we wouldn’t have the impact we wanted. The truth shouldn’t be something only for people who can afford it.

That was the start. We quickly realized that if we chose membership to engage with our readers, the primary focus couldn’t be money. It had to be community-building. 

If you build a community, engage with them and serve them, then they’ll stay with you and help you financially.

Daily Maverick logo

ZP: What kind of benefits do members get?

SC: We send a newsletter every two weeks [exclusively for members] where we tell people what’s happening with the company. We tell people what’s coming up, what awards we won and so on. It’s also a great way to keep our staff up to date.

We also use it to ask for feedback. Let’s say we are looking for a new name for our book publishing division – we would ask our readers to vote. We’re always asking for feedback and advice. We show our content as the hook, with calls to action for support or events, or selling a book.

Only members are allowed to comment on the website. We also invite our members to the events we organize. 

Members are always the first people invited to events. Usually we let them choose if they want to pay or attend for free. Non-members pay let’s say $10 for a ticket. We also have a community manager that they can reach out to with suggestions, requirements and so on. 

Those are engagement benefits. Members also get an ad-free version of the website. 

But the main reason we promote to our readers is that they help keep the Daily Maverick’s content free.

ZP: How much do people pay?

SC: The minimum is set by the payment provider – around three or four euros for recurring payments and no limit for one-offs. Instead of having a high minimum, we try to influence what payment option people choose. We use some behavioral marketing techniques and incentives to try and get people to sign up for a higher amount. 

We do pretty well. Our average and median is about $10 a month from about 8,300 members. This includes anyone who’s given a one-off contribution and recurring members.

About 60% make regular monthly contributions. We’ve done really well at incentivizing people to sign up for $10 per month so the majority of our recurring revenues from members is $10 per month.

ZP: How do you sustain membership numbers?

SC: We know high frequency visitors who come from our newsletter on desktop are the most likely to convert. We do a lot of targeting and messaging to those people. 

Our most engaged readers read articles to the end. Our articles are long, each is at least a thousand words. We put a message at the end of the article to sign up and 25% of our sign-ups come from such messages. 

Maverick Insider landing page

ZP: What kind of goals or plans do you have?

SC: Our main goal is 500 new recurring members per month. Some months we get it, some we don’t, but we usually come close. 

Growing your membership is like juggling a lot of balls at the same. We try new ways of marketing, launch new benefits. We have weekly meetings to think about what we can do. It’s not only about getting new members, it’s also not losing the ones we have.

We’ve lost about 7% over a year and a half. That’s a good result in the subscription game. 

ZP: Will membership save journalism?

SC: I think this is how journalism will save itself. Through membership and through engagement with readers. I think it makes for a better organization and helps fund newsrooms. 

Look beyond the New York Times, The Guardians and the Washington Posts, beyond those kinds of  size of organizations – there’s a huge space and it’s barely being used.

I think Europe is a bit further into membership than the US but the movement is starting to pick up, and this is how a lot of newsrooms will be saved.