Membership Numbers

So how is the membership drive going? The answer is, well, so-so. I’ve never published numbers about how many members have signed up, but having given it some thought this week, I don’t see any reasons why I shouldn’t.

Last June when I started the membership initiative, my guess was that I’d wind up with either about 100 members (which I would have considered a failure), or about 1,000 (which I would have considered a success). The question was whether the appeal would work or not, and that there wasn’t much chance of the final tally falling anywhere between those estimates.

Ends up my guess was somewhat close: by the end of the final day of the 2004 membership drive, there were 798 members. Last autumn I did another mini-promotion for t-shirts and memberships, and the number climbed to 910. That’s how many memberships were set to expire last week.

Another 100 or so rolled in during the first half of 2005, a steady trickle that wasn’t precipitated by any significant pimping on my part. So by the time June 2005 rolled around, there were just over 1,000 members, almost exactly what I’d hoped for as a first-year tally.

I didn’t know what to expect this year. On the one hand, daily readership at Daring Fireball has more than doubled since last year, so in an ideal case, perhaps membership would double as well. On the other hand, my gut feeling is that most of the new readers at Daring Fireball are less devoted than those who’ve been reading for more than a year.

And in fact, it ends up that the membership numbers for the current drive, at this moment, are only a little more than half the number from last year: 540 sign-ups and renewals since October 3.

I can think of a few reasons for this drop-off. One is that I’m still selling the same t-shirt design as from last year; I think it’s quite likely that I’d have gotten a lot more renewals from last year’s shirt-buyers if I had a new shirt to offer this year. I held off on new shirt designs partly because I’m fairly busy, and partly because I wanted to see how many people were interested in the membership system in and of itself.

The second reason I can think of to explain the drop is that some readers might have been happy to cough up a few bucks to support Daring Fireball once, but that they don’t see it as something worth paying for every year.

Lastly, there’s the chance that many of you are in fact on the fence, thinking that perhaps you should join — the shirt looks cool, the members-only RSS feeds would be nice to have, $19 a year is a measly 37 cents per week, you’d like to support my writing, etc. — but that enough other people are joining that your contribution wouldn’t make a difference, or isn’t needed.

If that’s what you’re thinking, well, so far it hasn’t been the case.

The basic idea here is that I’m hoping to grow the income I generate from Daring Fireball to a level where I could consider doing it full-time, and all things considered, I’d prefer to have the foundation based on direct contributions from readers, rather than advertising. But perhaps there’s a reason why Kottke is the one only person I’m aware of who’s making a go of it, full-time, based solely on the support of his readers.

I’m fairly certain that there are way more than 540 of you who are hoping I’ll succeed. But what’s weird about this is that while for any single one of you, the $20 I’d profit from your donation or shirt purchase isn’t going to make much of a difference, in the aggregate, as a community, it can really add up. You (singular) aren’t going to make or break this experiment, but youse (plural, and perfectly acceptable grammar here in Philadelphia) can make it work.

I have a full-time job and I’m not quitting any time soon, so the point here isn’t that I need this to pay bills — or, as our ever-eloquent President might say, to put food on my family — but rather to determine whether direct reader support can work as a sustainable business model for this site.

I’ve added a live counter to the top of the pages on the site to track the count for the remaining few days of the drive. Let’s see how it goes.