What makes membership-based communities work?

Community post-it note

What makes membership work? What makes people do more than consume your product or service but also contribute back to it?

The Membership Puzzle Project is a nearly five-year-old project whose goal was to dig deeply into the membership model as a way to restore trust in journalism and sustain it financially. Of course, this topic applies to many other fields and industries as well. What makes membership work? What makes people do more than consume your product or service but also contribute back to it?

To investigate these questions, researchers for the MPP looked at “churches, Burning Man camps, citizen science projects, and other member-driven movements.” Everything they learned as a result of their research has been shared in the updated Membership Guide. (I mentioned this guide here when it was first published and later for how it connected with WordPress and open source. The MPP has been supported by the Lenfest Institute, which has a partnership with WordPress.com.)

Unlike Subscribers, Members are Contributors

Maybe you run a subscription or patronage-based service. Maybe you would like to build an online community. Maybe you've realized your subscribers want more and have more to offer to your business. If so, getting your head around the membership model — at its best — is a really good idea. The MPP is the best place to start. (They have some good case studies too.)

Membership is not like product or subscription-based business models

A key takeaway from our research over the past 12 months is that membership models are fundamentally different from subscription or product models–and that they require whole new methods and mindsets to be successful.

Membership is a relationship where you listen and learn

  • A social contract: “Members give their time, money, and ideas to support a cause they believe in.”
  • A strategy to find your strongest supporters: Your members include your biggest fans, evangelists, advocates, and potential contributors.
  • A means of diversification: When you treat all your members as equally valuable, you will discover a diversity of perspectives, interests, and potential revenue streams.

How to do membership and be a “memberful” organization:

  • Involve members like you mean it. Give your members ways to be involved in your organization and its work. This isn't about glad-handing and giving out freebies. It's about asking and listening for what your members uniquely know and can contribute.
  • Be real with them. This is about showing up for your community and being transparent as well as a good communicator.
  • Be humble. You'll get a lot of corrections. It's important to be able to admit you don't have all the answers and make mistakes.
  • Stand out. This is about living by values your members share and admire. It means visibly not doing what everyone else is doing when there's a conflict with your core values.
  • Don't waste your members' attention. Make everything lean and efficient in your interactions with your members. Don't waste their time or harass them.
  • Work in their interest. This idea is tied to the journalistic mission of serving the public interest. A lot of for-profit and not-for-profit businesses with membership communities have a public interest mission too.

Emily Goligoski led research for the MPP and has worked at Mozilla and The New York Times. She did a great podcast that sums up a lot of the important MPP findings. I highly recommend it if you want to move from subscribers to members and understand your audience.