Think’s Jackie Scully and John Innes on the changing membership game

Publishing’s quest to get audiences to put their hands in their pockets has reached fever pitch recently. As digital advertising dreams collapse into disappointment, the reader is all the rage.

The real dream then must be to work on titles where paid membership is central to the brand, maybe the National Trust for Scotland or The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Somewhere that stately homes, tearooms and swanky annual dinners add unique value to the publishing offer.

Hear Jackie Scully talk about the way memberships are changing:

That was Think Publishing, at least until a global pandemic came along and shut down just about every real-world benefit of membership. And it was against that (Zoom) backdrop that I spoke with Jackie Scully and John Innes, Executive Directors at the membership publishing agency.

Think has been putting together commercially sustainable publishing programmes for membership organisations for over 20 years. Jackie and John’s boss Ian McAulliffe told me earlier this year that the sector was slow to change and he saw that reticence as an advantage in a world of unprofitable pivots. But how did it work in a year when business as usual just wasn’t an option?

I’m speaking to Jackie and John soon after the release of Think’s latest Member survey results, conducted late in 2020. This iteration replaced an earlier research project, abandoned in February 2020 as the UK’s first lockdown kicked. But not before 30 membership organisations had responded.

Accelerating the positive

“Those 30 organisations said to us, ‘It’s business as usual. It’s just another year’”, said Jackie. “And you know what, if anything, COVID has done a fantastic thing. It was good for one thing. It catalysed change in a healthy way.” 

More than anything, she thinks the pandemic has put a spotlight on the value of agility. She explains that the best performing pieces of content Think created last year were not planned into a long-term schedule.

“They were the ones that were responding to an immediate need. Something happened the day before and somebody woke up and thought, you know what, I know the answer to this better than anyone else out there.”

Jackie also came to see that that relevance and timing were more important than getting presentation-perfect.

“As an agency, the thinking was ‘it’s got to be perfect’,” she said. “But actually showing a human side, even vulnerability, has cut through. We’ve learned more by CEOs just rocking up to a webinar to say how they feel, what they think about where the world is going and what that means for the particular community that they’re talking to.”

Allied to that is the importance of having a point of view, especially in relation to galvanising a membership community. “I think a lot of organisations point people in a direction, but they sort of sit on the fence. Do they really, genuinely stand for something?” she asked. “We’ve seen in the last year, people have realised, when they have a point of view, they can make a powerful difference.”

Channel strategy

John said the biggest change he’s seen is around channel diversification: “People have moved beyond magazines into online, email and virtual events, to try and build a deeper relationship between them and the members.”

But to Jackie’s point, he  sees a risk of over-scheduling with a channel-led strategy – where you have a magazine, a website, email newsletters and a podcast, there is a danger that the focus becomes filling the schedule.

“If you take a step back from that, define your segments, work out what you want them to do, it’s much easier to go back to those content channels,” he explained. “You say, ‘Well, actually, what is the right mix for what I want to achieve?’ rather than ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Monday, we need to get another email out.”

It’s not about doing what we always have done, but doing things that are right.

Jackie Scully

Think’s focus now is to get clients thinking about who they are really trying to talk to? But, surprisingly,  a lot of membership organisations are not that clear on who their community is. 

“What we’re now getting is a lot of people coming to us going, ‘Oh, God, I don’t really know who my community is and now I realise I need to be more targeted and relevant and say more interesting things’,” Jackie said.

John agreed: “More and more of what we’re doing is building content for different segments within the audience. It’s not a one size fits all approach anymore. It’s all about segmentation. And automating that segmentation as much as possible to gain those little sort of percentage increases in engagement.”

Joining the club

John joked that every publisher wants to start a membership club these days, but Jackie was quick to point out the difference between the subscriber and membership models.

To her a subscriber is someone who says, ‘I see you and I think what you are doing is interesting’ compared with a member who says, ‘I feel like I belong and everything you’re doing reminds me I’m part of something’. 

And for John that difference is at the heart of the membership opportunity – to go beyond the channels you’re currently producing content for.

“If you think of (your audience) as members, then I think start to shift your thinking into a different place. You consider events, virtual talks, different sorts of streams of content, and things that are more targeted at the individual member, rather than being product driven.”

John gave the example of the virtual walks series Think launched for the National Trust of Scotland. There had been talk of doing these in the past, but it wasn’t clear if they would work. With properties closed and an imperative to deliver a different kind of member benefit, lockdowns gave the team the perfect excuse to give them a go.

“We thought if we got about 250 people that was probably enough to make the work that we’d done justifiable,” said John. “For our first talk, we got 750 people for the next week, it was 1,200. For the last one we’ve done, it was 1600 people live at the event, and then about another 1000 watching on catch up.”

What did we learn?

Jackie thinks it’s important now to think about what we learned through the upheaval of 2020. 

She said innovation has been a ‘scary word’ because people were focused on doing the new thing, or the next thing or the shiny thing? “Actually, I think it’s that people looked at their business-as-usual activity and thought, ‘Not fit’.”

She gave the example of that swanky annual dinner where 150 of the great and the good would turn up in their black ties. The fact that professional bodies couldn’t hold these events in 2020 has helped engage younger members who may previously have felt excluded ‘from the top table’.

“It’s not about doing what we always have done,” she said. “But doing things that are right, whether that’s innovation, or whether that’s actually just listening and responding in a relevant way.”

For John, it’s been about finding connections and creating content that works for the audience.

“We don’t really know if we’re still going to get 2,000 people coming to virtual talk in the middle of summer 2021. When people can go outdoors, we probably won’t get so many, but that’s okay, we’re not creating products that are going to have a 20 year lifespan.”

It’s not a one size fits all approach anymore. It’s all about segmentation. And automating that segmentation as much as possible to gain those little sort of percentage increases in engagement.

John Innes

And John said that if publishers think they are going to turn subscribers into members just by re-badging, it’s never going to work. “You’ve got to go back to square one and think, well, what’s going to be good for my audience? How am I going to engage with people, and then build a new business model.”

“It’s not about sticking a new label on top of an old business model,” he explained. “It’s about saying, let’s go back to first principles. Let’s look at the audience. Let’s look at our potential acquisitions and our prospects and build it in that direction.”

For Jackie that means listening: “If you design at the whiteboard, you won’t get a hell of a lot done. It’s crucial to listen to what the community is saying, what they’re worried about. Never ask someone ‘What do you want to put in our magazine, what do you want to put in our next webinar?’ Ask them what’s keeping them awake at night.”

She gives the example of Gardeners World, which has seen subscription growth of more than 50% since the first lockdown. 

“They noticed that there was a massive seed shortage. So they started becoming a seed sender. People were subscribing because they wanted the seeds. I think we were needed last year,” she said. “We now need to be needed again.”

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