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Membership has its privileges: The evolution of Fortune Magazine’s subscription model

When Alan Murray joined Fortune as editor in 2014, the world was a different place. The US had its first Black president. Gay marriage wasn’t yet legal. There was no Paris Climate Accord. And though the internet had already had a huge impact on the magazine industry, no one had figured out exactly how to operate in what’s become the “new normal.”

But Murray had ideas. Lots of them. Because he saw more clearly than anyone that the future was digital. He came by these ideas honestly. He’d been a journalist his entire life (his first job was as a cub reporter at age nine), and over the years, he’s become a digital champion and media visionary who’s as comfortable in a newsroom as he is in a boardroom. During his tenure as deputy managing editor and online executive editor of The Wall Street Journal, he oversaw the paper’s website as well as video and mobile products (oh, and by the way, while he served as Washington bureau chief there, they won three Pulitzers). He also served as president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank,” where he oversaw the massive expansion of the center’s digital footprint, doubling website traffic and heightening its presence on social media.

Steering toward subscriptions

Today, Murray serves as president and CEO at Fortune, and over the last six years, has overseen a complete transformation of the brand—and their business model, from a “pure” traditional magazine publisher to a digital powerhouse built for the Subscription Economy age. “When Fortune was launched 90 years ago, it was a subscription business,” he says. “So subscriptions aren’t new to us. What is new is the role subscriptions play in the bottom line of our business. For most of our 90 years, advertising was way more important to our business model than subscription revenue. When the digital era came around, we—and every other publisher—had to figure out a different way.”

Back in the day, magazines and newspapers were awash in advertising cash. That meant editors could take three-hour martini lunches and writers enjoyed being whisked off to exotic locales for press junkets. Once publishing transitioned to digital, those ad dollars evaporated. “Print advertising was a pretty nice business,” Murray says. “But with online advertising, you’re competing with Facebook and Google, Apple and Amazon, and they take a huge percentage of the incremental increase in dollars every year. There’s very little left over for anybody else.”

Murray saw publishers struggle as they tried to navigate this new world, due in large part to a problematic default mode: giving away their content for free (except, that is, for his former employer, WSJ; they’ve had their content on lock since the get-go). “Giving away content was a horrible mistake,” he says. “And companies have spent decades trying to reverse the negative consequences. Fortune was part of that crowd; until this year, every piece of content created for Fortune was available free online.

“This is a hard slog,” he continues. “People have been getting this content for free for a long time, and now we’re saying, ‘Hey, guess what? You have to pay for it.’ We’re making progress, but it’s tough.”

Relationships matter

But if Murray learned anything from his years as a newsroom journalist, it’s that relationships are critical to your success. Need a last-minute clincher quote on a breaking story? If you’ve put the time in with your sources, you can get it before your competitor does.

And he now believes it’s the relationship you have with your subscribers that determines whether your company will sink or swim. That’s because today, the publishing business isn’t a single, one-way transaction; it’s about creating a community that your subscribers want to be a part of for the long haul. “There is no question that once you have that connection with people, they’re more engaged,” Murray says. “People want to be part of a community.”

For Fortune, “community” means business—and specifically, captains of industry. They’re famous for producing high-profile events that attract the best and the brightest. In fact, they transitioned from a magazine that hosts business events on the side into a business community with a magazine on the side; these events grew to account for a significant part of their gross revenue.

Until a couple of years ago, these events were fairly traditional: want to come? Buy a ticket, and we’ll see you there. But Murray saw a shift in how CEOs wanted to engage with each other—and the world. “Our community of CEOs—we call it The Fortune CEO Initiative—are really focused on having a positive impact on society,” he says. “At our first annual meeting, we had maybe a dozen CEOs who said, ‘My calendar won’t let me come to your event, but I want to pay you anyway because I want to be part of this community.’ That was kind of a wake-up call for us. They don’t want a ticket; they want membership. They want to belong.” So Murray and his team transitioned the model from an events business to a membership business.

To reach the CEOs of tomorrow, they’ve recently launched Fortune Connect, another membership community, this one created for mid-career professionals on the executive and leadership track. “We believe business is changing… for the better,” he says. “Society is making it clear that business has to do better, or risk losing its license to operate. Business leaders are responding—and we’re helping facilitate that change.”

The pandemic pivot

With the pandemic, Murray has only seen the desire for community increase. That’s not to say shifting their renowned events to the virtual world has been a piece of cake. “Not being able to convene our events in person this year has been a real body blow to our business,” he says. “We immediately started to think about ways to find a path through this time. And like so many other businesses, we’ve actually found it pretty exciting to innovate a lot more and a lot faster than we ever would have otherwise. If you would’ve asked me back in March whether we could replicate what we’d been doing in the virtual space, I would have said no way. But we’ve done 40 events since the pandemic, all virtual, and the quality of conversation, engagement, participation, and sponsorship has been way higher than we ever would have imagined.

‘One of the most successful was our Brainstorm Health conference, which normally happens at a resort on the West Coast,” he continues. “This year we did it entirely virtually, and we had the CEO of virtually every big pharmaceutical company participate. We couldn’t have gotten all of those time-pressed CEOs to attend a live event.”

Murray credits the successful transition to virtual to their company’s emphasis on community and membership. “We’re discovering entirely new digital experiences,” he says. “In many ways, we’ve hit the reset button, and while that may feel unsettling at first, it’s also creating an opportunity for us to build something entirely new and to build it for the better.

“We really believe that we can help make business better and that is our driving purpose. I think the reset prompted by this pandemic is going to be a great opportunity to do that.”

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