Membership: Design Do’s and Don’ts

At the Niche CEO Summit last December, there was a roundtable discussion dedicated exclusively to membership models for publishers. One question several publishers had was: “I know I should have a membership, but I’m not sure or confident about exactly what should be included.” 

The concern is valid.

But here’s the good news: it’s possible to overcome this roadblock!

We know because we’ve worked with 30+ publishers and learned what works and what doesn’t. Many publishers – including the biggest national publishers – have fallen into the same traps. Let’s discuss these pitfalls to make sure we stay out of them. Then let’s take a look at some good membership design practices.

Don’t just slap on a paywall

The most common mistake is just adding a paywall to a website and calling it a membership. Folks, this is not a membership. If you do this, you’ll alienate your audience. “Hey, why is this article that was free yesterday not free today?”

You can’t fool good people. Don’t insult them by restricting access and calling it a membership. Your best content can be a component of your membership, but content alone is not sufficient.

Instead: you can supplement your best content with value-added services, insights/data, tools/software, events (online or in person), or even physical products to solve real problems – tangible and emotional – for your audience.

Don’t build your membership around discounts

One of the largest publishers in the country (who shall remain anonymous to protect the guilty) launched a “perks” membership program for one of their most popular brands.  Apparently the idea came from one of the top three management consulting firms in the country (again… anonymous… guilty) who charged several hundred thousands of dollars for the recommendation. The program has been a complete flop.

I hate to break it to you, but discount-focused “memberships” aren’t really memberships. They’re magnets for people who are, well, cheap. And guess what: cheap people don’t want to pay you either. They’ll game the system as much as possible and erode the margins of your membership program.

Instead: think about how to provide so much value that members are dying to enroll in your program at a price that is fair and works for you.

Do find your most engaged segment (your “whales”)

When we’re looking to drive eyeballs and clicks, traffic is king. But marketers are getting smarter and want quality not quantity. Figure out what your most engaged and enthusiastic audience segment is, and focus, focus, focus on their wants and needs. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Slice off a portion of your audience and build something for them. You can always launch multiple memberships over time to accommodate a diverse audience if you have multiple key segments.

Do analyze what has worked for others… and make the ideas your own

It’s not the best idea to blindly copy what worked for others… but if you put a critical eye on what has been effective for others, you will discover the best ideas for you. Here are some ideas for membership features that have worked well for many of the dozens of publishers we work with.

  • Access to the experts. For example, through monthly webinars or online chats
  • Annual research reports or fact books. You’re collecting a ton of first party data – summarize trends and members will anxiously await your annual report
  • Community building. How can you make people feel like they are part of an exclusive club because they get access to members-only in-person or online events? People have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Tap into that emotion. What makes your brand a must have, not just a nice to have?

I’m confident that us niche publishers out there can think about the best membership model for our audience. How can we focus on the top 10-20% of our audience that already loves us? Create a membership model that tangibly and emotionally helps this group be happier, more successful, and/or more profitable.


More about Rob: Rob Ristagno drives dramatic digital revenue growth for media companies. He is an award-winning speaker, author, and the CEO of The Sterling Woods Group, a firm that partners with publishers to refocus digital marketing efforts and to launch “start ups” from within.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors, which details the five forces proven to drive successful digital membership programs.
Prior to starting Sterling Woods, Rob was a senior executive at several niche media and e-commerce businesses, including America’s Test Kitchen, where he was COO. He started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. He lives outside Boston with his wife, Kate, daughter, Leni, and black lab, Royce.


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