After a presentation, an executive approached me with an internal argument her staff was having. She said that they were going back and forth over whether they should make all of the content on their website freely available or whether they should put it behind a membership "wall" so that only members could access it? She wanted to know which option I advocated?

I gave her that hated answer, “It depends.” However, I love to help execs out and so I didn’t leave it there and spent a couple minutes questioning her before giving her a recommendation.

While I can’t go through that same questioning with you, I can give you a general rule.

The Rule

So, should you put your association’s digital content behind a member wall?

Some of it. Not all of it. Not none of it. Some of it.

The argument for putting your content out for everyone to read is that it’s essentially valueless. If they don’t read it on your website, they’ll read it somewhere else. Your audience expects content to be free, because it’s free on almost 99% of the web.

This perspective doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. If you’re doing a good job leveraging your authority and your community to create insightful, relevant, and interesting content it should be valuable. Potential members shouldn’t be able to find it somewhere else. If you’re generating content that they can find facsimiles of elsewhere, you’re not providing value and you’re doing it wrong.

People will pay for valuable content. I get to read a limited number of New York Times or Wall Street Journal articles before they hit me up for a subscription. I could get the same news from a thousand other sources for free, but the NYT and the WSJ create content that consumers recognize as valuable and that means we pay for it.

Acquisition is Not Monetization

However, both the NYT and the WSJ do provide *some* articles for free.

“Free” is what is known as an acquisition strategy. Free is essentially marketing. You’re getting people to take the first step in potentially becoming a member by giving you their attention.

Free is the person standing in front of the bakery offering samples of their cookies.

But free is not a monetization strategy. You can’t make money off of free.

If the baker gives away everything they make, there’s no reason for people to give the baker money and they won’t.

Your content is a portion of the value you provide as an association. You need to know how valuable the content you provide is and what content items are valuable enough that you could sell them as stand alone products.

Then take a portion of your content and give it away for free as marketing (acquisition) and put the rest behind your membership wall to give members something to gain by signing up (monetization.)

An Example

As an example, let's say you have:

  • Legislative updates.
  • Industry news.
  • A content guide, like, “Best Practices for PRS-10 System Audits.”
  • A cheatsheet of PRS-10 machine codes.

If you recognize the third and fourth PRS-10 items as being highly valuable, you might put industry news and cheatsheets as freely available in order to get attention while making legislative updates and the content guide a member only benefit.

Give Away a Taste of the Good Stuff

Note that you should put some highly valuable content pieces outside of your membership wall.

If you’re a baker, you don’t give away samples of white bread, you give away samples of your special white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. You want to provide enough value to make people think about your bakery the next time their stomach growls.

John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.