The Guardian Enjoys First Year Success with Exclusive Membership Program

A year in, the Guardian is enjoying success with Guardian Members, an exclusive membership program for readers and supporters to more deeply engage with the U.K.-based news outlet.

membership pageBy becoming members, the media outlet’s most loyal readers have the opportunity to “support open, independent and journalism and experience the Guardian brought to life” and the chance to support and defend the news organization’s ability to publish “fearless, open, independent journalism without a paywall.” The membership model will not replace subscriptions or advertising revenue, but is instead designed to supplement those sources.

In its March 2015, six-month report on its membership experiment, the Guardian revealed it that nearly 20,000 readers had attended 70+ live events like a climate change rally and a show of solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In addition, 35,000 readers had become members from around the globe, enjoying a host of benefits and a version of the Guardian site just for members. Note: Guardian had not indicated how many of those 35,000 members are free versus paid members.

In addition to a free level called “Friend,” the Guardian Members program has three paid levels, including a top level called “Patron” (£540/year or £60/month) not shown in the chart below.

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Jonathan Freedland, executive editor of the Guardian’s Opinion section, explains the concept of membership: “The Guardian’s always been a community of ideas, but now those ideas can be amplified. People who’ve come to a Guardian event can then take that out into the world…If you believe in Guardian journalism, then the best way of expressing that is to become a member.”

In a six-month update on the program, Dale Kirsop wrote the following:

“The launch was an experiment, a journey into the unknown; a chance to redefine the relationship a news organization can have with its readers.”

The GuardianPart of the Guardian membership which makes it unique and unable to be duplicated is its events where readers can meet the people behind the Guardian, watch and join debates, hear directly from newsmakers, and share local culture:

  • Guardian Live: debates and interviews with Guardian journalists and prominent cultural figures
  • Guardian Local: smaller events celebrate local art, food, and culture
  • Guardian Masterclasses: courses and workshops taught by experts in their field

What members get from the Guardian is clear, but how does the Guardian benefit? Here are a few of the advantages that come with its membership program:

  1. The Guardian has an additional revenue stream.
  2. The Guardian has deepened its relationship with its readers, creating more loyalty and a willingness to support the Guardian’s work.
  3. It now has a digital infrastructure to take payments and gather data. As Business Insider points out, this is difficult to do for media outlets operating outside a paywall. The Guardian can study reader behavior from the data gathered and make additional changes.
  4. Through its live events, the Guardian has extended its reach to new prospective subscribers or members.

Is the Guardian’s membership program working? It seems to be. Based on statements in its six-month report, the Guardian is perfecting the program to better suit the needs of its members, including more live-streamed events and expanding events outside of London.

From a financial standpoint, the company’s fiscal year-end results as of March 29, 2015, released July 30, indicate that the Guardian Media Group had increases in full-year sales, significantly higher digital revenues, and reduced operational losses. It’s hard to say how much of that is due to the new program, however.

In a press release about the financials, Neil Berkett, chair of GMG, said, “These full-year financial results show that the Group is on the right track by increasing revenues and narrowing our underlying operating loss. This is a very creditable performance following the transformation of our balance sheet, which was strengthened significantly by the disposal in 2014 of our stake in Trader Media Group.”

“GMG will continue to innovate and expand internationally in the year ahead. This will include growth in our membership scheme and digital presence. Our ambitious program will coincide with continuous cost discipline throughout the current financial year,” said Berkett.

David Pemsel, who replaced Andrew Miller as GMG chief executive on July 1, added, “These results give us the confidence to invest further in the world-class journalism, digital innovation and growing international readership which has made the Guardian such a powerful global brand. That, in turn, will help deliver long-term financial and editorial sustainability.”

Insider Take:

The Guardian’s membership program is one of many changes to the media outlet’s business strategy in the last year or so. Shortly after its launch of Guardian Members, the Guardian launched a revamped version of its website to improve subscriber retention. The Guardian has also made key financial and editorial staff changes, and partnered with Ben & Jerry’s in a campaign against climate change, to name a few.

Our takeaways for your subscription company:

  • Understand what your community and members should be – reflective of your brand and mission in your market. The Guardian does this well with this “Guardian Live, Guardian Local and Guardian Master Class member programs. 
  • Look at what unique ‘assets’ your company can offer your community as part of a membership.  Creating a community and exclusive, insider access is really smart for any company. It helps the brand go beyond a product or service. It creates a community of members and transforms the product or service into an experience.
  • Execute well, not half baked. Companies like the Guardian are creating real value for their members with robust programs that are exciting and differentiated. Other companies like Hearst’s Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle have membership programs with similar elements, but they aren’t as robust as the Guardian’s.
  • Don’t assume this is not a trend, and you can ignore it. Other subscription media and publishing companies are moving to the membership model. Check out our On-demand video “The Membership Economy: Why Everyone is Moving from Ownership to Access” to learn more.

Any one of these changes alone would not have had a significant impact on the Guardian’s work or bottom line, but in concert, the Guardian is positioning itself to improve its profitability, grow reader loyalty, and improve reader and subscriber retention – a trifecta for any subscription company.


Dana Neuts is a Contributor to Subscription Insider.