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Membership drives in the coronvirus era

“Anyone claiming to have solid expectations in this environment is playing someone for a fool,” said Bikram Chatterji, the managing director of Maximum Fun.

We were talking about the veteran podcast company’s annual membership drive, the MaxFunDrive, which wrapped up its latest campaign last week. Membership revenue is a crucial part of Maximum Fun’s business, but this drive, of course, has the distinction of taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, economic turmoil, and a breakthrough moment in the fight for racial justice.

“We wondered about doing a Drive at all,” Chatterji told me. A good deal of that uncertainty was rooted in how the nature of Maximum Fun’s programming — as a shorthand, its watchwords are “Comedy and Culture” — would come across in this particularly sensitive moment. There are ways in which Maximum Fun shows are tailor-made for the needs of its community in this time, when most are socially isolated and deeply anxious over the state of the world, yet there are still ways in which the tone of such programming can clash with the gravity of what’s going on.

The reality, though, is that the Drive had to go on. Maximum Fun is a small business, all things considered, and its hosts are predominantly independent creators who have seen their livelihoods diminished by production stoppages, lost touring revenue, and so on. Add to that the baseline volatility associated with advertising revenue, and you have a situation where moving forward with a MaxFunDrive is not a question of If, but How.

“We knew that the Drive, when we had it, would be different,” said Chatterji. “For one thing, we wouldn’t do the all-out, blanket-promotion that normally characterizes the two weeks of MaxFunDrive. We didn’t think it would be appropriate to the times, and honestly, we’re not sure we could marshall the emotional resources for that effort ourselves.”

Key adjustments were made to the approach. First and foremost, the membership drive was extended from two weeks to four, allowing the pitch energy to be more relaxed and less frenetic. They also made membership purchases more flexible — one new offering allowed supporters to “boost” an existing membership between membership levels by adding just a few bucks a month  — and implemented options that engendered a larger feel of community support. For example, they added gift memberships, which gave more financially secure supporters the opportunity to help less financially secure friends access membership benefits. They also created an option to buy memberships for anonymous recipients, chosen from a pool of members who have recently had to cancel due to the impacts of COVID-19.

They also sharpened the MaxFunDrive’s community-orientation goals. Its fundamental pursuit remains the necessary work of growing revenue for the company’s show network and operations, but the campaign was further rooted in a spirit of serving as a focal point for Maximum Fun’s community. That attention was also driven towards select causes: over the course of the Drive, the company organized weekly livestreams benefitting the Equal Justice Initiative, Meals on Wheels, Trans Lifeline, and Give Directly’s COVID-19 fund.

By many measures, the Drive ultimately turned out to be a success. As of the weekend, the campaign drove 31,882 new, upgrading, and “boosting” memberships. It’s their highest tally ever, beating last year’s haul of 28,500. The charity livestreams raised over $10,000, and they stand to raise more off a pin sale they’re currently running for members. Finally, they ran out of recipients for the anonymous-purchased gift memberships, and have begun recruiting for more possible recipients.

Worth noting, though: like previous years, Maximum Fun does not disclose the total number of members currently providing direct revenue to the operation, only the number associated with the achievements of the specific Drive. Furthermore, Chatterji was reticent to discuss the Drive’s performance relative to their expectations going into the campaign, hence the quote that kicked off this write-up. He’s even reluctant to think about this year’s campaign relative to previous ones. It’s an understandable impulse, given the anomaly of the situation and the structural changes made to the MaxFunDrive execution.

Nevertheless, there are somewhat universal learnings to pull from this experience. Chatterji highlighted tone management as the biggest concern going into the campaign, given the fact that asking for money is hard even in ideal conditions. “I think the reason our staff and hosts were able to thread that needle is the reason that MaxFun as a whole works: because of the way we create a sense of community and shared purpose between and amongst our shows and our audience, based on mutual respect and support,” he said. “There are things that you can’t fake.”

He went on to situate the power of that sense of community within the current context. “We are all struggling to deal with systems and structures that seem huge, anonymous, and unresponsive to individual or community-based needs & actions,” he said. “The flight to scale in media is clearly not the most important example of this, but it’s the thing I think about a lot professionally. The Drive feels like an antidote to that. Every one of the 30,000+ people who chose to increase their support for MaxFun shows represents an individual making a choice that has a direct impact on a thing that they love. I’m just very grateful for that.”