On Saturday, January 14, the streets.mn board of directors met and the main topic on the agenda was how to grow a better membership program. For the board, the first goal of a membership program is to develop a stronger relationship with readers, writers, and other users of streets.mn. The second goal is the fiscal strength of the organization and having a consistent source of income. To inform that discussion, I undertook three tasks: first, reviewed the membership programs of similar organizations; talked to people at streets.mn events and others I know who are involved with streets.mn in some way; and finally, conducted a survey of site users. This post is my findings and a summary of what was shared with the board on Saturday. We are meeting February 25 and will review a list of recommendations regarding a membership program. Please let us know how we can build a better streets.mn, with membership as one avenue for involvement.
Making a clear statement of need
While only 41 people responded to the survey, the results had a few clear messages that were aligned with the comments from people I spoke to. Nearly everyone responding to the survey knew that streets.mn is a non-profit, only half knew we have memberships (Figure 1). Clearly, we are not making membership visible on the site and in our communications. When asked why respondents had not financially contributed to streets.mn, 43 percent said they were unclear of the financial need or how funds would be used. About a third had other priorities for their charitable donations and about a quarter did not have the means to do so (Figure 2). Seven of the 41 had donated time (other than writing). Others commented concerns about streets.mn being an “echo chamber,” not representing diverse viewpoints in Minnesota, and concern that the comment sections were not welcoming or friendly.
Member benefits and costs
The survey also asked about how much people would be willing to pay for a membership. Forty-two percent of respondents said between $25 and $50, with 24 percent saying less than $25 and 20 percent saying $51 to $100 (Figure 3). Currently membership starts at $25 per year, so it seems that is the right amount.
I used the review of similar organizations’ membership programs to generate ideas about membership benefits. Half of respondents liked premiums such as a streets.mn branded hat, t-shirt, spoke card, or mugs. About a third of respondents liked discounts at events of partnering organizations and another third liked member-only events (Figure 4). The comments provided fodder for a great discussion on the role of streets.mn, how the organization is perceived, and how to maintain great content. We see ourselves as a place to provide a discussion of land use, planning, and transportation that is (hopefully) balanced and does not take a stand. Users, however, viewed streets.mn as having definite values. Some saw this as positive and felt personally connected to that perceived mission. Others saw it as unwelcoming. The challenge for us as an organization is to connect with people while maintaining our mission and balance.
We also discussed the important role of writers and how to recognize them. There would be no streets.mn without the writers. How can we best support them, such as through last spring’s writers’ workshop and editorial support? How can we bring in new writers and, in particular, voices not heard as much on streets.mn like people outside of the Twin Cities, people of color, and people not employed in the planning field?
Survey respondents also told us that membership needs to be simple. No pay walls. No headaches clearing up credit card problems. Fees need to be transparent and no surprises.
The survey asked an open-ended question about the types of events people were interested in. The most common response was education-related events. Respondents wanted advocacy workshops and opportunities to talk with policy makers, both elected officials and the people making decisions behind the scenes. They wanted to know how to best advocate ways to build a better community and access to people making decisions. They also wanted forums, panels, and education events on topics other than advocacy. One commenter said it would be great to have these events available for viewing online for those that cannot attend.
Respondents also were interested in tours, both history tours and reviews of new projects, particularly with designers or people involved present to answer questions. Finally, a few people wanted happy hour events to connect in person.
Just so you know, we have two great events coming up. The first is Sunday, January 22 and is a how-to on creating your own backyard skating rink with a discussion of building community in winter months. The second, in partnership with Nexus Community Partners, is titled “Bus or Rail: How are you going to get there?” and is a panel discussion the benefits and challenges of options along the Bottineau Blue Line and Gateway BRT Corridor. It is on Thursday, February 9 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the East Side Enterprise Center in Saint Paul. Register here.
Our Development committee, which also does event planning, is meeting soon to plan for the coming year, and will include this feedback in its planning.
Our take-aways and next steps
This information led to a discussion about how to better connect with users, how to support writers, and the need for transparency. In the coming year the board is looking at:
- How to make a much clearer statement of need. Supporters need to understand where their money and time is going, how this relates to our long-term goals as an organization, and how they will benefit.
- Building a membership program that recognizes the support streets.mn receives not just financially, but through volunteering and writing. streets.mn relies on volunteers to help plan events, moderate discussions and forums, provide editorial support, and many other important tasks. This work needs to be recognized.
- How to create intentional ways to get input and engage users. Having an annual meeting before the summer picnic was popular with the board. Posting board meetings on our events calendar and making them accessible online, as well as posting board agendas. All board meetings are open to anyone, although only board members can vote. We discussed how to use events and the site to make the conversation two-way.
- Creating a forum comment policy and guidelines document, as well as be more inclusive and welcoming in our comments sections and forum.
At our meeting on February 25, 2017, the board will review a list of recommendations for the membership program. Please let us know what you think!
Here are two things I’m hoping the board is looking at, related to above:
1. There’s been a significant drop in volume of posts, even averaged by week or month. What can be done to encourage writers to volunteer their time and post?
2. This is more subjective than #1, though I’ve heard a number of people share the same sentiment. It feels like Streets.MN has lost its “bite.” A couple years ago, there were numerous Streets.MN posts each week or month that were provocative policy ideas or thinkpieces. These were getting traction in local media and national urbanism media, helping to grow the Streets.MN brand and reputation. But more importantly, posts with “bite” got results in the policy arena and the facts on the ground.
My personal take is that #1 and #2 have are interrelated, and that Streets.MN has a strong platform for thought leadership on policy issues and on driving dialog. When this happens, people have a sense of ownership of that platform and identity, and they will work hard to further what they see as a positive force for change. This seems like more of a motivator than traditional perks like swag. People will work for free and donate lots of money for movements they see as having an impact. It’s a virtuous feedback cycle, and I’m hoping Streets.MN can further leverage that energy.
Related to Matt’s comment above, and also to feelings about the site generally, there are certainly fewer posts. And out of the posts that have gone up, they are less substantive overall than what was going up regularly two or three years ago. The forum certainly has much, much more regular new information and conversation than the main site.
Any discussion about something this abstract will be not great. That being said, my sense of things is that there was a real push a few years ago to ask people what they wanted out of the site, and what they wanted to be different about the site. That in itself isn’t a bad thing.
Speaking only for myself, though many people do appear to have stopped posting as well, the never ending meta conversation about having a discussion about having a conversation about the site got frustrating and pretty mindless, and I kind of lost interest gradually. That played out in comment sections and email threads and meetings over some period of time. There was definitely a long stretch a while back where writing for streets.mn was like my favorite thing I was doing at all, and I enjoyed spending lots of time on it, and did spend a great deal of my time on it. I’m just one person, though.
I think the meta conversation/discussion/conversation would have been less frustrating and mindless if those who wanted different types of posts and things on the site had themselves stepped up a bit more. I’ve tried to write a number of posts in the past year or so and get a few hundred words into it and just quit. Meanwhile, not much has been filling the void.
What kind of help do you need to turn those abandoned posts into published posts? What can streets editors or board do to help?
It’s not about needing help as much it’s about wanting to do it all–why spend five or ten hours doing a good post if the organization doesn’t appreciate it? Which isn’t exactly how I feel, personally, but it’s something like that. Maybe other former frequent posters feel the same, maybe not.
I more or less agree with Matt and Nick, but want to say a bit more explicitly that I think a problem in generating more posts is the editorial process. This is a blog. It shouldn’t take several days for posts to be edited and posted. If there isn’t enough person-power to do better than that, we should think about whether the delay is worth it. But writing something and then not seeing it appear for awhile is not particularly rewarding, especially if there isn’t other new content showing up.
I also think the process could be a lot less burdensome for the editors if they’d take a lighter hand. I’d say proof read and post, but the editors seem to regularly make stylistic changes to my posts.
But I also recognize that it’s difficult when you have a lot of different contributors with differing levels of comfort. My sentence fragments, single sentence paragraphs and occasional unconventional usages are intentional while other’s may not be.
This is good feedback, Adam. Supporting our writers is kinda…the whole point of the site, which is something we’ve talked about at length on the board.
There’s a lot of smart commentary and blog posts on streets.mn, but as a citizen interested in many of these issues, I’d love to see a Streetspedia section with some of the primer information people who aren’t professionals in the field might need in order to better engage: understanding how various budget processes works and the timing, where are the points the public can provide input, introductions to the individuals and organizations that are influencers on the various levels of government in the topics Streets readers care about.
I like the idea of a “Streetspedia”! Thanks for the suggestion.