For the Daily Maverick, “active” refers to people whose money is actually coming in today, Fran Beighton, General Manager of Reader Revenue and Grant Funding, Daily Maverick, South Africa told participants at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Copenhagen.

“Something that has been surprising is that in the past two-and-a-half years we’ve had a 75 percent growth in our membership,” Beighton added.

After all, this growth is coming several years after the Maverick Insider initiative launched and at a time when conventional business wisdom would have suggested it should have been plateauing, she said.

Furthermore, Beighton said there is a “direct correlation between their growth with our readership growth.”

That means by keeping their news free for everyone, Daily Maverick readers “have been able to engage with it, make it habitual to register and to ultimately become members,” Beighton said. “But perhaps the magic number that I’m most proud of is the 4.65 percent churn rate after five years.”

What’s more, she noted that despite Daily Maverick growing its newsroom staff by 200 percent during the past two-and-a-half years, 40 percent of its revenue figure has been achieved.

“This 40 percent is really just the membership,” Beighton said. “We also have one-off donations.”

These one-off donations are about 3 percent of Daily Maverick’s reader revenue.

“Commitment takes time. Not everybody wants to donate on a monthly basis,” Beighton said.

Those donations range from 25 rand to 250,000 rand (approximately 1.25 euros to about 12,500 euros), she said.

Crowdfunding Rugby World Cup coverage

Last year, Daily Maverick also experimented with crowdfunding for a specific project for the first time, Beighton said.

“The Rugby World Cup is a very big thing in South Africa,” she said. “It’s more than just a sport.”

However, due to the radical economic inequalities in the country, Daily Maverick faced some serious challenges in covering an event that was taking place in France.

“We found ourselves in a very difficult predicament. We needed to get our sports editor, Craig Ray, to France to cover the World Cup, but it was going to cost us 250,000 rand (about 12,550 euros),” Beighton noted.

In our very unequal society, it’s very difficult to go out to our readers and ask, when some of them are struggling to pay for essentials such as water and food, she added.

So they turned to their Maverick Insiders who were already with them, who would understand the impact this would have, Beighton said.

720 members stepped up to cover costs within 10 days

“We added a few benefits, some live webinars from France with Craig, a Slack channel where there’s a lot of rugby banter going on,” she said.

Within 10 days, 720 members had contributed, and Daily Maverick reached the 250,000 rand mark (approximately 12,550 euros).

What was incredible is those readers really felt that Craig had brought them on the journey with him, she said.

“They really felt like this was theirs and they belonged to it,” Beighton said.

Emotion + engagement = success

“The reason it worked and that our membership works generally is that combination of emotion and engagement,” she added.

“Paywalls for traditional publishers are transactional. There’s very little engagement necessary,” Beighton said.

Membership, on the other hand, is for readers.

“It’s emotional. It takes a lot of engagement,” she said.

And that engagement requires an entire team to do it.

The big question, then, becomes why would someone who can access everything for free, ever pay for it?

For Beighton, the answer is the emotional connection.

“Readers are paying for a free service, so the emotional connection that they have is very, very hard to break,” she said. “Before they put in their credit card details, they’ve already decided in their hearts and in their minds that they are going to support journalism. And what that does for us is allow us to retain them for so much longer.”

This way, when financial elements come into play, Daily Maverick has a very substantial membership who are going to stay with them, she said.

Beighton then offered a couple of pieces of advice for other news publishers.

“Personally, I think there are two things the newsroom needs to change,” she said. “The first is we need to get our heads out of the newsroom. And what I mean by that is information is available everywhere, so why would I, as a news consumer who has access to social media, come to your news site?”

Obviously, this hopefully has to do with facts and truth, she said, “but generally most news consumers have not made that correlation between news media and social media. So there is a lot of media literacy work that we as an industry need to do.”

The second thing publishers need to do, she said, is to change from thinking about journalism as a product to thinking about it as a service.

“If we look at how most paywalls have treated their readers, they treat them as consumers or customers, and not very valued customers at that,” Beighton said.

Instead, publishers could learn something from some of the biggest companies in the world, such as Apple, Porsche, and Patagonia.

“These companies have something very much in common: they communicate their values and principles constantly with their customers. This is what I believe we need to do. When you become an Apple or Patagonia user, you feel like you belong to that brand, you want to belong to that brand. It becomes something that’s a little bit more meaningful,” she said.

“Whether it’s through paywalls, or membership, or any other call to action, the ultimate goal we have is for our readers to actually feel like they are part of what you’re doing and to be proud to be associated with your journalism. That’s what makes you stand out,” Beighton said.

“Your readers need to understand your purpose, they need to engage with it often, and ultimately, if that is successful, they will feel like they belong to you,” she added.

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