Successes, failures and lessons learned with our membership program

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Just over two years ago we launched our VeloClub membership program. It was one of the biggest and most frightening plays we’ve made, and is now one of our greatest initiatives that continues to occupy our thinking into the future.

The reason we launched VeloClub was to give us better structural incentives to produce great content for you. You remember magazines, right? They had a wonderful model.  A mix between advertising, subscriptions and newsstand sales gave them a reason to create great content for you, because they were working for you. Jump ahead to present day, there couldn’t be a worse model than giving away content for free. ‘If it’s free, then you’re the product being sold‘ is a phrase we’re now all too familiar with. The motivations and rewards are now broken.

Transforming our business to one that depends on working for our members, success relies on producing content that you love. Not just stuff you click on. We all know the formula to get more traffic, and it’s not one that benefits you nor the sport we cover.

Just as importantly, we also needed to diversify our revenue streams with social media and Google taking up much of the advertiser’s budget these days. Advertising is still incredibly important to us and always will be, but these budgets are shrinking rather than growing. Nearly every day I find myself trying to convince advertisers that Google, Facebook or Instagram aren’t going to review your products, report on your athletes and teams, etc. after they’ve put us out of business. Some brands understand this, and if you see their ads on this site I urge you to support them.

In order to adapt we’ve done our share of sponsored/branded content. Many thought this was a silver bullet, but then everyone realised this isn’t a scalable solution. We try to do this to the highest standard possible and we’re quite proud of that. In fact some of the sponsored content we’ve done is some of our best performing content that you’ve enjoyed. Our roadtrips to Mount Everest, the Silk Road, Cape Epic, etc have all included brand integration. But the story has always come first.

Lessons learned
First off, I’m happy to report that our membership program is working. We have thousands of members who make up a vibrant and active community on our member forums, riding together, contributing to our content (this is the most amazing part), and they are all here for the right reasons.

It didn’t start out with fireworks however. It’s been far from easy and we’ve made some blunders.

At first we offered a $100 gift certificate to sign people on as members for $99. That attracted many of the wrong people who weren’t here for the right reasons (one gentleman who we won’t name and shame signed up and cancelled 7 times to steal $700 from us). Things that people advised us not to do with our membership program, we got sucked into. Giving benefits that didn’t align to what we do, such as free training plans was a mistake. Offering special access to our events actually drove people away. We’ve underestimated many challenges such as our backend IT systems (and we continue to struggle with this, but we’re working on it). We were told this would be a significant investment, and it was a hundred times more than we anticipated.

In hindsight, perhaps our biggest mistake was lacking the confidence to ask people to become a member simply to support what we do. After our first thousand members, we surveyed them and found that almost all of them were here because they believed in what we do and want to see it continue.

We’ve changed our approach many times, but I have no hesitation to say that with each lesson learned we continue to see even more success.

We have many benefits that convert people to joining. An annual print publication, member summits, industry discounts, exclusive content/newsletters, etc. Most of all however, our mechanism for new sign-ups is simply our content. Since we’ve launched VeloClub we’ve invested heavily in solid journalism, longform reporting, video, guides and essays.

Interestingly, here are the top 10 story-types that have gained us the most new members:

  1. Investigative journalism such as Finding Mr X and What happened to SpeedX?
  2. Excellent reporting with a bit personality behind it.
  3. Good news stories
  4. Well told, in-depth human stories: What happened to Rolland Green and The Natural: Matthieu van der Poel
  5. Emotive storytelling: Road to Nairo’s house, Who is Thorfinn-Sassquatch?
  6. The Secret Pro
  7. Product reviews and tech coverage
  8. Product recommendations directly from our editors
  9. Photo galleries
  10. Engaging mediums such as our weekly podcast

Many of the stories above actually don’t get much traffic. These incredible photo galleries for example often perform dismally (if traffic is the measure).  Same thing with good news stories – very few people read these. But if our members love them and they attract new members, we’ll keep publishing them.

We find that we get very few sign-ups on referrals from Facebook, some from Instagram, more from Twitter. Most referrals come from desktop, and few come from mobile (which is probably due to where people consume content on mobile: i.e. on the go). Unsurprisingly, most of our new members come from newsletters, podcasts, and the articles above.

There’s an expression that was said by a writer named Stewart Brand: “Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.”

You and I both simply want the content to be good, and that is only limited by our imagination and passion for this amazing sport.

What’s next? 

We still have a long way to go. We want to change the the media landscape we operate in. We want to raise the level of our overall readership, not lower our standard. You deserve coverage akin to the New York Times, not Buzzfeed. As important as our advertisers are to us, unfortunately we will never get there on an advertising model alone. However, we will inch towards this goal with a membership model because of the simple reason that the right incentives are there.

Thank you to our members for your ongoing support, and I hope to welcome more of you in the future.

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