When’s the last time that you checked off something on your bucket list? If you live in the Dallas area, chances are that it just became a lot easier to do so, thanks to The Dallas Morning News. Want to discuss the NFL Draft with a three-time Super Bowl-winning running back? No problem.
A select group of Dallas Morning News subscribers got to meet Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys’ hall-of-fame running back, last year at an exclusive NFL Draft party hosted by the publisher as part of Plugged In, its subscriber loyalty program.
The News uses Plugged In to drive interest and establish relationships with its most engaged consumers, its subscribers.
Plugged In is centered around biweekly newsletters, through which subscribers are rewarded with various perks like ticket giveaways, unique experiences, and the opportunity to attend member-exclusive events. New Dallas Morning News subscribers are automatically added to the newsletter list. Subscribers are also invited to join a subscriber-only Facebook group where they can chat with The News staffers and also learn more about events and rewards.
Leslie Lauhon, The News’ director of loyalty and retention, spoke about Plugged In during a recent webinar for participants of the Facebook Digital Subscription Retention Accelerator. Over the course of the program, participants meet for in-person sessions and webinars, share lessons and tackle projects aimed at improving subscriber retention.
Members who have won tickets or attended events are 48% more likely to retain their membership compared to those who only receive the newsletter, according to an internal analysis conducted by The News.
Member-exclusive events are among the most-engaging aspect of the publisher’s Plugged In program. The News put on 50 events last year, with an 80% successful RSVP rate. It expects to expand that number to more than 75 events this year.
The News thinks of events in three different categories: low-effort, medium-effort, and high-effort:
Not every event needs to be a flashy or expensive affair. These smaller-scale events are important because they’re intimate and relatively easy to execute.
Some examples of smaller events that The News has presented include:
- Printing Press / Newsroom Tours
- Subscribers love these behind-the-scenes tours. “It’s fascinating to the people who subscribe to your publication and that support you. They want to see the people that work there,” Lauhon said.
- Editors and journalists can even come out to engage with tour groups, depending on who is in the office at the time.
- City Architecture Tours
- Led by the publisher’s architecture critic, tour groups venture through downtown Dallas examining the city’s buildings and design.
- Documentary Screenings
- The News’ video staff created a documentary about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 2013, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his killing in Dallas.
The marketing team saw an opportunity to create an event around an already-existing asset, turning it into a movie screening and Q&A. Coupled with theater-esque refreshments and giveaways, there’s a lot of room for creativity here.
These lower-level events allow members a more intimate look at the newsroom they support and allows them to feel more connected to it. These typically entertain 20 to 100 people.
The newsroom expressed some initial concerns about the program related to the ethics of the barter and advertising agreements and the level of effort behind these initiatives. But the marketing and newsroom teams addressed these concerns together in partnership over time. They began to share connections through collective brainstorming and were inspired by positive feedback from subscribers. While the newsroom collaborates on the projects, all business dealings were handled by the marketing team.
“We did this by building relationships. We got to know the journalists. We would go out of our way to walk through the newsroom on our way to our floor, which is a different floor from theirs,” Lauhon said.
Now, the newsroom comes to the marketing team with many ideas. In fact, many of the ideas presented above were newsroom-generated and the newsroom covers some of the events, which helps to build excitement and awareness.
These events require a little bit more planning between logistics, venues, and in-house partnerships.
Some examples of medium-level events that The News has presented include:
- Beer Documentary Screening
- In partnership with local breweries and a local movie theater, The News was able to screen a beer documentary, which included free beer to drink, a comfortable movie experience, and an interesting discussion with the paper’s beer writer.
- EatDrinkInsider forum with a resident beer journalist
- Also a discussion with the staff’s beer writer, this meet and greet was located at a local brewery and offered attendees a free first round of drinks and free koozies for the first 50 guests.
- Photowalk Masterclass
- Through an unconventional marketing strategy for one of the paper’s partners, Competitive Cameras, a local camera shop, it invited a small group of subscribers to walk around town with The News photographers for on-the-job tips and advice.
Medium-level events offer the opportunity to partner with other organizations and give members extra value that the newsroom itself can’t fully provide. While these sponsorships often add more complexity to the event, they can become more interactive and unique experiences.
It can still be a challenge though to attract sponsors.
“Don’t be fooled, event sponsorships are hard to get,” Lauhon said. “We prepare one-sheet documents and descriptions talking about the kind of exposure advertisers can get. We share that early and often with our sales team, but we still struggle to find the right partners because it’s usually a small, targeted audience. So, we’re actively trying to figure out the formula.”
The highest-level events are the most complex to present, with many different parts and variables surrounding them. Between working with sponsors, managing sign-up logistics, and directing your team, these events will keep you pretty busy. But the payoff can be worth it.
The News often charges people to attend these larger high-effort events. Tickets can cost up to $50 each. But it will also have different member and non-member prices, which highlights the value of subscribing.
Most of the premium perks and sponsorships are obtained through bartering. In exchange for benefits and unique services, advertisers are given visibility throughout The News’ newsletters, which have a 26% open rate.
“This wasn’t always the case for us. When I started here almost four years ago, subscribers didn’t have a seat at the table for barter. Our sales and advertising teams would use most of the assets to entertain their clients, or in some cases, themselves. So we set out to change that”, stated Lauhon.
Member rewards have become a priority at The News and Lauhon advises that other newsrooms follow suit. It’s about analyzing where best these perks could be used, and for many, “exclusive experiences” for members is the answer.
This pitch can take time to digest within the team, so it’s important to stay patient and focused on the overall mission in these dealings.
Some examples of larger events that The News has put on include:
- Science in the City
- Various big-name academic and science centers in Dallas partnered with The News to create a series of public-engaging events over the course of five Saturdays this spring, for the second year in a row. Sponsored by institutions like UT Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Texas at Dallas, The News was able to fill all 500 subscriber spots for these events.
- Duets Conversations
- The News created a quarterly conversation series, Duets, with relevant discussions between two experts or critics. A reception is offered beforehand and conversations are guided by topics ranging from classical music to the intersection of food, justice, and urban design.
- SportsDay NFL Draft Party
- The publisher held an NFL Draft watch party last spring, featuring a roundtable discussion with former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and writers from the News’ sports section. It even included an appearance by the Cowboys Cheerleaders, as per The News’ barter agreement with the team. (The News can have an appearance with the cheerleaders once a year). With discounted food and drinks offered from the local sports bar and liquor sponsors, 175 subscribers filled the space.
These kinds of functions can expect upwards of 500 attendees, depending on your specific capacity, with sell-out potential being pretty reachable. Such events are the kind of bucket list programs that keep member interest constant.
Ultimately it’s about loyalty, and members will sometimes share their appreciation with The News. As one thankful subscriber put it, “Because of the generosity of the DMN & Plugged In, I am able to put a big check mark beside ‘attend the Jimmy Buffet concert’ on my Bucket List. Yes, I have subscribed to the DMN for 43 years.”
In response to the subscriber, Lauhon said that “it gets to the core of the mission and objective of the Plugged In program, which is to create an emotional connection with our members and access to opportunities that they can’t get anywhere else.”
The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. This program is specifically focused on increasing subscriber retention. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Subscriptions Accelerator is part of the broader Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on acquiring digital subscriptions and membership.