Publishers See Promise in Turning Readers Into Members

Will consumers bite, and is the price right?

As publishers try to cope with a feeble ad market by wringing more money out of readers, the membership model is gaining interest.

Companies like Atlantic Media, National Geographic, and Condé Nast are exploring models that would offer a combination of their print titles and other perks or services like research or special access to events or product sales. “We are all looking to raise [average revenue per user], or in our instance, [average revenue per member],” says Declan Moore, president of National Geographic Publishing.

Many have gone down this road and failed, though. To work, a company has to identify a perk that’s exclusive or specialized enough that readers will pay for it, target the right people, and price it right. That’s why the ability to target people digitally offers new promise for membership models.

There are a few successful examples, including ESPN Insider and Garden & Gun, a bimonthly Southern lifestyle magazine. Its club now has more than 3,000 members paying $35 to $500 for perks like discounts on branded products and members-only events.

Jessica Hundhausen, G&G’s associate publisher, said its club works because it has passionate fans, but it wouldn’t easily translate to a mass-circulation magazine audience. “You can’t be lots of things to lots of people,” she says.