Slate’s avid supporters are used to schmoozing with each other at happy hours before live podcast tapings or while in line waiting for seats near the stage. Because listeners so vastly outnumber podcasters at these events, face time with the hosts can be fleeting – a quick introduction made over drinks, a brief question posed during the show.
But late-summer cocktail parties held simultaneously in New York and Washington offered a more favorable ratio – a roughly even mix of Slate staffers and backers. This celebration of Slate Plus, the burgeoning membership program that had just surpassed the 10,000-member milestone, was designed to allow writers, editors and podcast personalities to mingle with their fans and financial supporters.
At the New York event, half of the attending Slate Plus members self-identified as devoted podcast listeners – the kind who rely on Slate’s extensive roster of shows (now part of the wide-ranging Panoply podcast network) about politics, culture, sports, business and parenting to get them through commutes, workouts and weekend errands.
Gabriel Roth, editorial director of Slate Plus, helped facilitate interactions between members and the colleagues he calls “niche, mini-celebrities.” Roth waited for moments when the guests of honor put a face to a familiar podcast voice.
“I’d like you to meet Julia [Turner],” Roth told a Slate Plus member who looked “star-struck” upon meeting Slate’s editor in chief and Culture Gabfest regular.
“These were meaningful interactions for a lot of people,” Roth said. “I hear all the time [from listeners] that they feel like they have intimate relationships with a Slate podcast host. It’s their means of connection to Slate.”
Turning parasocial – or one-sided media – relationships into actual interactions at members-only gatherings is one of Slate’s strategies for rewarding its most loyal and magnanimous supporters.
As news outlets turn to paid memberships as a significant source of revenue and as a way to identify their strongest supporters, they face decisions about what benefits to offer in return. Along with free merchandise and exclusive content, longstanding parts of membership programs at public media organizations and some for-profit companies, several media outlets have recently begun experimenting with ways to personally engage paying members.
Sometimes it’s a simple thank-you gesture like a personalized letter or a public acknowledgement. Other benefits include invitations to socialize with journalists at live events, ask questions in online forums, pitch freelance story ideas or provide feedback on new programming.
Exactly how these personal interactions take shape often depend on a news outlet’s business model, what type of audience it serves and what kind of feedback its members provide. These deliberations have prompted some newsrooms to grapple with how to reward members without compromising their editorial missions or appearing overly cozy with financial backers.
Personal Touches Are Part Of The Package
Gimlet Media, a startup founded last year that produces narrative podcasts (the first of which was aptly called “StartUp”), recently announced its membership program ($5 monthly or $60 a year) with videos that trumpeted perks such as bonus content and a free T-shirt.
Also part of the membership bundle: personal attention. Along with the T-shirt, annual members get a letter written by a Gimlet show host thanking them for their contribution. During a recent podcast, the hosts of “Reply All,” Gimlet’s self-described “show about the internet,” publicly acknowledged a new member who had just ordered the shirt.
Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, said live chats and in-person events where members can interact with hosts are part of its personal engagement strategy.
“One of the things that people like [about podcasting] is that it’s very intimate,” Giliberti said. “You develop companion relationships with the host. If you are excited about the medium, and if you purchase a membership and are that loyal to us, we figure that a natural part of that value proposition is bringing you closer to our hosts.”
Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor at Northwestern University who studies audience understanding, said media companies are capitalizing on opportunities to put journalists who have become recognizable brands in direct contact with audiences that have shown their loyalty.
Efforts to personally interact with members tend to be effective with so-called “elite” audiences who are intellectually curious, civically engaged and have the financial means to support the programming they ravenously consume, Mersey said.
That describes the core audience at Slate, an up-market publication that has now passed 11,000 members (full disclosure: I am a member) who pay $5 a month or $50 a year. Slate describes its program as an “all-access pass” meant to “build a closer relationship with you, our most loyal fans.”
Personal engagement is “definitely part of the [Slate Plus] model,” Roth said.
“The concept of Slate Plus is let’s put together this package and we’ll ask people to subscribe and we will do a whole bunch of stuff,” Roth said. “We’ll try connecting people with Slate staffers, show what it’s like behind the scenes working at Slate and launch big-content initiatives.”
That package includes exclusive content, curated reading suggestions from editors, early access to columns, advertisement-free podcasts with bonus segments and discounts on merchandise. As another benefit, members are invited to live chats with Slate’s writers and editors.
Toasts And Roasts At Live Events
Live podcast tapings held in Slate’s Washington and New York hubs – as well as the regular mix of live events held elsewhere – are often major draws. Slate Plus members get early access to tickets for shows open to the public and are occasionally invited to members-only tapings like a recent Washington event for Slate Academy’s History of American Slavery.
Much like Slate, the majority of Politico’s in-person events are open to the public, with priority access going to the membership of Politico Pro, its paid program for audiences wanting exclusive inside-the-Beltway content. Politico plans smaller free gatherings with Pro members in which journalists have on-the-record conversations with newsmakers.
“It’s a live extension of our journalism,” said Bobby Moran, Politico’s vice president of strategy and business development. “Our audience is very engaged around an issue and it’s beneficial for them to meet people from the industry and to get to know journalists better.”
Journalists speak with newsmakers at many of the free events hosted by the Texas Tribune, an Austin-based nonprofit news outlet. Members get name-tag acknowledgement at events and get discounts for events that are not free, like a Texas-centric trivia night hosted by editor-in-chief Evan Smith. The Tribune has hosted happy hours for its members and staffers and is considering future member-specific events, according to Mary Pharris, the Tribune’s assistant director of marketing.
Events are considered a core component of the member benefits program at MinnPost, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit news outlet. Readers indicated sufficient interest in events and experiences in a survey last fall to prompt MinnPost to offer benefits involving events at every giving level in its recently relaunched program.
While MinnPost doesn’t promote events as providing special access to its journalists, events naturally allow readers to meet staffers. A study I co-authored about engagement with non-profit news outlets found that nearly one-third of participants, the vast majority of whom were MinnPost readers, said having a personal connection or relationship with editors and staff factored into their decision to donate.
“Our events strategy is focused on increasing engagement,” said Andrew Wallmeyer, publisher of MinnPost. “When people are there they have the chance to interact with MinnPost journalists. That face-to-face interaction is a major component [of what we do].”
Members paying at least $5 per month, a group that represents the vast majority of MinnPost’s roughly 2,500 member households, get early registration and ticket discounts to events. One of the most prominent is MinnRoast, the popular variety show that asks politicians and media personalities to “shed their serious personas to sing, dance and poke fun at each other and the state of the state we all love.” In some cases the member discount amounts to a free ticket, for example for happy-hour events at which editors interview MinnPost journalists about their coverage areas. A few times a year, MinnPost hosts members-only fundraising events.
Mersey, the Northwestern audience researcher, said she considers in-person events as secondary opportunities that require a high level of member commitment. The most successful components of membership programs tend to be bonus content that people can consume on their own time – the benefit of most interest to MinnPost survey respondents.
Exclusive content is the main draw of Politico Pro, to which roughly 2,500 subscribing organizations pay between $10,000 and $300,000 annually for membership. Moran said he has not heard a groundswell of interest among Pro members for more chances to connect with journalists online. Likewise, the MinnPost survey showed only moderate interest among members for online chats with newsmakers.
Concerns Over Access
MinnPost members get access to curated recommendations from editors and reports about the state of the publication. But MinnPost has decided not to wall off daily content to non-paying readers.
“We see journalism as a public good, and we want our work to be available to everyone out there,” Wallmeyer said.
The same philosophy guided Texas Tribune’s decision not to include bonus content other than monthly recaps from the editor in its membership packages (the most popular of which is $9 monthly or $60 annually). Pharris, the Tribune’s assistant director of marketing, said that while personal engagement is a way to “create a deeper personal connection with the publication…our mission is to not have exclusivity in terms of the content or granting access.”
It’s a delicate balance for regional publications that adopt a community journalism approach, Mersey said. Devoting too much time to creating content or experiences for paying members can seem counter to an outlet’s public-service mission.
“It’s a natural concern and a real concern,” Mersey said. “Publications that serve a particular region face different decisions than publications than serve a niche audience.”
And it’s not just a concern for non-profit news outlets. Politico, a publication geared toward political insiders that has lobbyists among its paying Pro members, is understandably careful about the kind of access it provides.
“We are always cognizant of appearing like we are giving special access to people,” Moran said. “We definitely don’t allow any sort of blurring of the lines to influence our editorial integrity in any way. Our reporters don’t know who subscribers are.”
A Feedback Channel For News Outlets
Mersey said she advises news organizations to think about how to package content in different ways — such as different delivery models that enhance storytelling — for members rather than promoting special access.
One such model is allowing members to hear pilots for new shows that are in development, as Gimlet Media has offered to its loyal listeners. Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, said while the sneak preview is mostly considered a member benefit, it is also a chance for Gimlet to get formative feedback.
“Testing these concepts among our most loyal fans is valuable for us and brings them into our development arm,” Giliberti said.
Letting members behind the scenes is one way that outlets are attempting to push existing users up the scale of use – a goal that is typically easier to achieve than getting non-users to become occasional users, Mersey said.
Roth, the Slate Plus editorial director, said he views Slate Plus as a channel of communication between members and staff.
“We get a lot out of [interactions],” Roth said. “When you are putting out a magazine you want to be in contact with your readers. But it’s hard to filter out the noise of incoming data. The comments section is a difficult place to find gems. Having a particular group of readers who know and care about what we are doing is a useful way for us to get valuable feedback.”
Slate invites its members to help shape coverage in a number of ways – from a “talk to us” link that is a direct channel to the Slate Plus editors to a call for reader input on Slate’s style guide. The late-summer, members-only parties were billed as “your chance to tell us what you think of Slate and get your questions answered by Slate writers and editors.” Most notably, Slate recently held a “pitch slam” for members in which they could make freelance pitches on a public forum. One piece from a Slate Plus member has already run and several more are in the works.
“We wouldn’t put the call for pitches on the main site because we’d get drowned by requests,” Roth said. “With Slate Plus it’s more manageable.”
That concept applies to other Slate attempts at audience outreach.
Said Roth: “If we can get good suggestions from this self-selected group, it’s good for us and good for them.”
Correction: This post has been altered to correct typos and to clarify what annual Gimlet members get for their contributions.
Elia Powers, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Towson University. He writes regularly about news literacy, audience engagement and non-profit journalism.