In this episode of the Media Voices podcast Mathew Ingram, media writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, explains why publishers need to take a more human approach to their memberships, the role of platforms in disrupting those relationships, and whether ‘trust’ is a meaningful metric.

In the news round-up the team try to spy a way that regulation of the tech platforms could ever work. We also discuss the closure of yet another celebrity gossip magazine, and what Immediate Media’s purchase of BBC Good Food says about both companies’ priorities. One Media Voices team member records the episode from Frankfurt, one from a car park, and the other from a dressing gown.

We’re reading:

  • Chris: This week I haven’t been able to choose a single item to recommend, because the value of the coverage of the NYT’s anonymous op-ed from inside the White House has been in its diversity. The responses have ranged from asking whether the NYT was right to publish anonymously to both praising and vilifying the author. At a time when consolidation is rampant and there are concerns over media plurality, this multiplicity of voices is a welcome reminder that there is still dissent and debate in the press.
  • Esther: Mine is a bit off the wall this week as I’m reading ‘What do 90-somethings regret most?’ on Medium. The responses contradict what we’re often told about aeging and happiness, and I’ll just leave you with this quote to tantalise you: “Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.””
  • Peter: This week I read Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project writing in the Guardian. She’s looking at how the needs of “extreme users” – an organisation’s most loyal 1-10% – can help develop insights into serving the needs of the other 90-99% of prospective users. In the piece she reports on the efforts of a group of volunteers at the Burning Man Festival who took a Jumbo Jet into the desert and refurbished it so they could hold a disco. The lesson – membership is different from subscription: Subscribers buy content, members ‘join the cause and participate because they believe in it and want to help effect change.’

In our own words: Chris Sutcliffe

Publishers have chosen to make ‘trust’ the central pillar of their subscription marketing messages. It is a phrase chosen to indicate that audiences can believe in the veracity of the publishers’ output, that it will cut through the noise and misinformation that abounds on the free internet.

But on anything more than a cursory inspection the term loses coherence. Is it, for instance, describing audience affinity with a brand? How can you square the term with the fact that audiences ‘trust’ news outlets that publish demonstrably false information?

How do you actually measure trust? Is it measured by propensity to pay, and who should be responsible for actually measuring and implementing ‘trust’ when it comes to surfacing publishers in search results and in social feeds?

As direct reader revenue becomes publishers’ great hope over the next few years, it’s vital that the industry understands what we’re actually talking about when we talk about ‘trust’. To my mind there was nobody better to speak to about the topic than Mathew Ingram – he’s been at the forefront of media analysis for years, and at his latest post at Columbia Journalism Review has written on best practice for memberships and subscriptions affect publisher strategies.

What struck me most about our discussion was the fundamental disconnect between how publishers talk about their relationships with an audience and how they actually behave. Mathew points out that the incredibly direct relationship that successful subs-based sites like Ben Thompson’s Stratechery and perennial Media Voices favourite De Correspondent have with their members has a positive impact on all aspects of establishing and maintaining a membership mentality. Meanwhile many larger publishers are struggling to make that genuine human interaction a core part of their subscriptions – especially after so many abandoned membership to chase indiscrimate scale.

As Mathew says in the interview, for many publishers it might be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. But for those with a clear idea of what ‘trust’ means as an ideal and a metric, there might still be ways to reignite that relationship with their audiences.


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