“Member” and “Subscriber” would seem to be different words for the same thing. They both imply a continuity relationship between a brand and a consumer of that brand. They are both (generally) voluntary actions taken by an individual or company to access something the brand will provide over a period of time.

So what difference does it make what you call a consumer of your product? After all, it’s a “yes” and that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Maybe. Or maybe not. Nothing is ever that simple where consumer behavior is concerned.

What marketers need to understand when weighing subscription vs. membership

Content is a common element in many continuity programs. That’s the primary reason brands think the terms “member” and “subscriber” may be interchangeable.

Let’s start at the very beginning. You’ve identified a qualified prospect, and now you want to persuade them to say yes. Which phrase is more powerful?

Option A: “Become a member of a community of like-minded people and receive a member-only publication.”

Option B: “Subscribe to our publication with information of interest to you.”

The short answer is: They are probably equal, at the moment of acquisition. Prospects can wrap their heads around getting something tangible—like a publication—pretty easily, and at this point being called a “member” or a “subscriber” isn’t all that material to the decision.

Content publishers have trained the public well. “Subscribe and receive XX issues of our publication.” It’s an exchange of currency for a product. I give you money, you give me information/entertainment. Easy to understand, and the commitment is clearly stated in numbers of issues fulfilled or months of service. Software has embraced the subscription model very effectively. Consumers have become comfortable paying by month for access to something they want or need.

Subscribers are “Transactional”

A subscriber culture is great when you have a well-defined product or service, and the consumer continues to want or need it. It’s easy to explain and usually straightforward to fulfill.

But what if you have other things to offer that they might find valuable or interesting? What if you could connect them with other like-minded people to share their experiences, or tap into their expertise to make the whole community more interesting or valuable? Do they need other related programs and services that they are buying elsewhere? And if they are truly aligned, why limit yourself to XX issues for YY term?

Cross marketing to subscribers is certainly possible. Because someone has transacted with you (subscribed to content, software or a service), they may be very qualified prospects for another “transaction” for related products or services. Outcomes will be higher than prospects with whom you have NO relationships, but don’t assume they will flock to the new offering because you invited them. Other products and services are “out of your lane” because their expectation of you was built on a transaction.

Subscribers know their job. They consume what you give them, until they no longer need it. There’s the occasional “subscriber advisory panel” but in general, subscribers don’t feel any responsibility for the brand or other subscribers. They will renew for another term if your product meets their expectations and they still need or want it.

Now step across the aisle to the membership side.

That member you acquired up in Option A? Yes, you’re going to send them the publication you promised as a part of the benefits of joining. But you’re also on the hook for an onboarding journey, access and privilege they can’t easily get elsewhere, and making them feel welcome and connected as a part of the community.

Members are “Relational”

A member culture is ideal when you see opportunity broadly. And when you are willing to put in a little more work in the beginning for (potentially) a lot more return downstream.

Members can be demanding and have high expectations of a community. They want the community to provide insights, filter the noise, and do what they don’t have time or access to do on their own. They want the content to be about what members need and want, not about what the editor thinks will show well on a newsstand or in social media clips. They want authenticity.

Members are rarely passive. They will consume what the community offers and ask for more. They will complain when the organization falls short. If you have a member culture, you have to have thick skin and long view. They will renew because you delivered on the promise and because they recognize they belong.

Side note: It’s rarely just the publication that influences renewal. Members renew because of something the community delivers that transcends a transaction.

Membership sounds like a big, messy family

Where are consumers likely to go when they want objective advice or inspiration?

Think about it: Where do you go when you need support, information, and a sense of identity? When you are looking for advice on what to buy, where to go, and who to talk to?

Your first thought might be to go to your family. Sure, but it’s possible you’ll hear the same answers you’ve heard for years (not really the “inspiration” you’re looking for).

Maybe you said Yelp or Google. Good idea because platforms like that understand that the common denominator is like-minded, user-generated content.

But if Yelp suggested you sign up for Yelp-endorsed roadside assistance or invited you to attend a professional conference of other Yelp members, it would be implausible. Yelp is a one-dimensional, low commitment “membership” culture. If you’re not in need of advice, you don’t need Yelp. Even active users wouldn’t declare themselves “life-long Yelp members.”

So where do you turn for advice that feels like it’s peer-driven? Facebook groups? Again, good instincts but only partly there. Facebook has done a masterful job of tapping into the need for connections. If you want a “forum-like” experience where you can follow along or even jump into the fray now and then, it’s great. But when you close Facebook, you sever the connection. Facebook isn’t on your stack of reading materials, or in your calendar for a webinar. And let’s hope people don’t describe themselves as a “life-long Facebook member” or you know they are spending too much time in front of a screen. Facebook is a facilitator of community, not the community itself.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp – they all use the term “member” when referring to their audience. They know they wouldn’t be successful without a culture of meeting member expectations.

But what about membership communities? Sure, they can be a little messy (like family) and they are certainly full of opinions, but the opinions are generally based on experiences from people who do what you do and like what you like.

Subscriptions can be authority sources as well, although in a subscription environment you’re expecting the editor to be the one sharing the advice, not your fellow subscribers. There’s rarely an opportunity to connect with your peers in a subscription-based program.

If you have a community of like-minded people who want validation for their passions, interests, or profession, who are eager for peer interaction, and who want inspiration that doesn’t come from a relative, a membership community will far out-perform a subscription environment in terms of renewal, ancillary product purchases and brand loyalty.

So why doesn’t every brand just switch to using “member?”

If you’ve done your job building a great member journey and members are engaged, they will renew at a higher rate than a subscriber (in our testing, at least 30% better).

If you’ve established your community as a trusted source of information, members will participate in ancillary (non-dues) revenue programs at a rate many times higher than a subscriber platform (equal to or greater than the amount they pay in dues).

They will embrace different levels of affiliation, from basic, year-at-a-time membership to multi-year, auto-pay, and life membership. They will donate, refer, and wear the colors (check the back windows of the cars and trucks around you at the gas station for decals proclaiming membership affiliation). They will define themselves as “a life-long member of…”

But if a membership culture delivers so much more lifetime value than a subscriber culture, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why not just start calling all subscribers “members” like Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp and others are doing?

A theory: The work required removes “member” from consideration

A member culture is a servant culture. Members define the community, and establish future opportunity. Not because they sit in the boardroom, but because they demand authenticity, relevance and member-focused priorities. Get the tone wrong and they are gone. Ignore the trends and needs, and you’ll lose them. Recognize them, respect them, and serve up benefits and services that are plausible and deliver value, and you’ve got yourself a member culture, with all the big, messy, rewarding results.

A member culture isn’t about isolating members from offers. It’s about presenting the right offers. You can’t be afraid of bringing potential products and services to your members (as long as you’ve done your homework and they are member-worthy). Your members are consumers, and they expect you do the work of comparing and filtering.

It’s not about avoiding controversy or over-simplifying explanations. It’s about earning trust and nurturing the relationship over time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen unless you and your team are all-in, from top to bottom.

If your brand is successful staying in a lane, don’t be tempted by a shift to membership. 

There is ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with subscription-based continuity. We’ve even learned how to use some of the more powerful member tactics to improve subscription metrics and increase subscriber satisfaction. It’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.

Bottom line: The right answer is do what works for you. If you want to think more broadly and you’re willing to move to a “servant” culture, membership is a great way to engage with consumers.

However, if you are an authority source that is more successful as the “master,” then don’t try to change your stripes. Stick to your area of expertise and don’t try to sell additional products and services that aren’t logical or plausible based on your core continuity rationale.

The real bottom line? Listen to your audience. Respond to their needs and their willingness to engage. You’ll find your ultimate answer there.