Publishers hunting for membership revenue need to test, develop and distribute new kinds of content for a specific pocket of their audience. That’s given rise to new kind of role, the membership editor, which a growing number of publishers are trying to fill — and figure out where to stash — within their organizations.
Publishers including Quartz, The Guardian and The Atlantic already have people in the role — The Guardian’s has been there for years — but over the past six months, publishers ranging from HuffPost and BuzzFeed News to more specialized sites such as The Intercept and Texas Tribune have all put up job listings for membership editors.
The responsibilities for these roles differ significantly. The HuffPost listing, for a “deputy managing editor of membership and innovation,” calls for someone who can create new engagement and messaging strategies, while Quartz’s deputy membership editor listing focuses on identifying “creative and compelling editorial approaches for paying readers”; listings posted by BuzzFeed and the Intercept list driving membership growth as a key priority.
Those roles, both those that are filled and those that are open, have a lot of the same responsibilities: Connect with product, marketing and editorial colleagues; develop messaging and distribution strategies for content; develop ways to market membership products. But the balance between those tasks varies widely, illustrating how nascent membership operations are at most media companies.
“I actually think it’s exciting that organizations are approaching this in different ways,” said Emily Goligoski, the research director at the Membership Puzzle Project, which studies these efforts at news organizations. “We see a wider range than I think you’d see in jobs like ‘editor’ or ‘chief revenue officer,’ where there’s a clear code of what the expectation is. My hope is that this suggests there are skills from across industries that journalism needs to be benefitting from.”
Publishers may have turned to membership programs to diversify their revenues, but many have different ideas about how important memberships will be to their futures, as well as what their memberships will consist of. This affects where they are stashed within organizations. For example, The New York Post, which is planning to launch a membership program later this year, sees services, rather than content, as key ingredients in a membership. Just a small segment of the Post’s digital audience — around 500,000 people — are engaged enough that they might become members, said Remy Stern, The Post’s former chief digital officer. This suggests the membership program would only contribute a small chunk of revenue to The Post.
By contrast, a publisher like Quartz, which sees content as a major component of its membership, put Sam Grobart, the head of its membership effort, on the editorial side of its business. Grobart, who worked at media companies including CNN and Bloomberg Businessweek before joining Quartz last year, said that he leans heavily on the expertise and resources in the editorial team in figuring out what kinds of exclusive content to produce for members. However, the metrics he looks at, such as time spent with Quartz’s member guides, are different from the ones editors watch closely at ad-supported media companies.
BuzzFeed News’s membership program, which began as a one-time call for donations before becoming a permanent product in Nov. 2018, sits within the audience and distribution arm of BuzzFeed News’s newsroom. This group is known as the News Curation team. The team is currently hunting for a growth manager who can help design marketing campaigns, experiment with content formats that attract members, and communicate with members, said Sara Yasin, BuzzFeed News’s director of curation. BuzzFeed News has gotten applicants from marketing, editorial and product backgrounds.
“The challenge is finding someone who is interested in the business side but also really believes in the kind of work we’re doing at BuzzFeed News,” Yasin said.
Though membership editors have to work closely with product and marketing, among other departments, some think their responsibility for the voice and sensibility of the membership requires that job to live on the editorial side of the house.
“It’s important that the voice you have as a website carries into membership,” said Jim Brady, the founder of Spirited Media, which bet big on membership for the websites it sold earlier this year. “When we asked for money, we asked for money the same way we talked to them editorially. You want to make sure there’s a straight line there.”
Ultimately, as these products continue to grow, the thing that separates the winners from the losers may not be what department membership sits in, but how quickly it becomes a key piece of what every department does.
“Membership is going to be so important to media organizations going forward, that pieces are going to sit in multiple departments,” Brady added. “I think when you put an entire function in one part of an organization, it becomes easier to ignore.”