How a Small Nonprofit News Site Generated Triple-Digit Growth in One Year

“How They Did It” is a series of practical guides about how leading publishers around the world improved in a specific area. Here, the nonprofit news organization Bridge Magazine shares how they achieved triple-digit growth in one year, with inspiration from their participation in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator program.

Bridge Magazine is a nonprofit news outlet proving that free, public service journalism could be sustained by local readers. “Truly making a market for nonprofit news means ultimately getting off the umbilical cord of foundation grants,” says Bridge Magazine CEO John Bebow. “This is a key moment to prove just how impactful nonprofit news can be in this country.”

New data confirms nonprofit newsrooms are relying less on foundation support, even as journalism philanthropy has quadrupled in the past decade. The numbers show there’s powerful potential to grow reader donations while diversifying revenue streams. Bridge Magazine has achieved this success  with a few insights from their participation in the Facebook Accelerator program.

This year, Bridge Magazine expects to make $350,000 in reader donations, up 66% from last year. They’re also on pace to increase their number of monthly donors by 129%, net email growth by 114%, and membership by 54%. The staff mainly focuses their reporting on Michigan’s state capitol and the state’s largest city, Detroit.

Here’s how Bridge Magazine built their audience and membership, step by step:

Identify an Opportunity for Growth

As many in the field know, a great challenge for nonprofit news sites is generating sufficient reader donations.

For years, Bridge Magazine struggled to increase their reader donations. With about 10,000 to 30,000 individual contributions in recent years, the magazine was determined to boost donations. “We theorized that our ability to capture reader donations was related to our ability to grow audience,” Bebow says. “And this was before we knew anything about [marketing] funnel theory or practice.”

Build Your Paying Members

During the Accelerator, they were inspired to work on their readership at every level of the marketing funnel, tracking their performance at each step, so they could recognize where they were succeeding and where they were falling behind. Here’s an in-depth look at how the magazine grew their readership and donations:

Bridge Magazine Funnel

“Each level can’t happen without the level above it,” Emkow says. He and Bridge Magazine’s membership director, Amber DeLind, shared advice for improving each section:

  • Unique visitors.This comes down to the number of posts you publish, delivering social- and SEO-friendly headlines and page titles, and consistently delivering a high-quality story that leaves the reader more informed and enlightened than when they arrived.
  • Repeat visitors.Pay attention to themes and topics that your audience responds to. If they come to you in large numbers for a specific topic, publish more about it when there’s a new development. If you don’t, readers will seek their news elsewhere.For example, when the term “michigan marijuana laws” was trending, Bridge Magazine published a lot of stories about it. Following SEO best practices, they linked every new marijuana story to old marijuana stories and wrote keyword-rich page titles and headlines. In the article below, notice how (circled in red) there’s a list of previously published stories before you start reading the article itself. The story’s first sentence includes the term “marijuana in Michigan.” The entire story is optimized for SEO.
Bridge Magazine SEO example
  • Growing your email list.Use scroll-in calls-to-action on every article page encouraging readers to sign up. Don’t take over the page with an intrusive pop-up. Set your pop-ups to show up once they scroll down the page a bit, or if they’re on the page five seconds or longer. Every viral story will become a reminder to become a newsletter subscriber.Here are some examples of Bridge Magazine’s pop-up messaging, which they tailored to the source of the visitor. You’ll notice they actively encouraged visitors to not rely on the source that referred them, encouraging them to build a direct relationship with the magazine.
Bridge Magazine Email Sign Up
  • Donors. Become conversion-oriented. Ask for reader donations in a way that doesn’t interfere with user experience. When someone comes to your site, make it known that you need reader support. The solicitation for donations should be big and bold at the top of every page.Here’s what Bridge Magazine’s site header looked like before they started working with the Accelerator — the red “Donate” button blends in with the rest of the page:

Now the site header has a prominently featured, boldly designed donation ask with an emotional plea: “If you care about Michigan, please support our work. Donate today.”

  • Sustaining members. By simply setting the default amount on your membership or donation page to a monthly amount, you’ll see an immediate increase in the number of sustaining members. Alter marketing messages to stress the importance of monthly sustaining membership.“Our Accelerator coach, Tim Griggs, suggested we set our default at $15 per month, even though we really wanted $10 per month,” Emkow says. Citing behavioral economics studies — which show people are most likely to choose the default price, followed the cheapest option — Griggs suggested Bridge Magazine make their default $15 per month, $10 as a second option, and any amount as a third.“It worked,” Emkow says. “We saw an immediate increase in overall monthly donations, but specifically $10 and $15 per month.”Another key lesson from the Accelerator is to re-send fundraising emails to people who didn’t open them. So Bridge Magazine tried it: Two days after their first email membership request, they resent it to readers who hadn’t opened the first edition — and made almost the same amount as they did on the first email send. Bridge Magazine had about 2,400 members before joining the Accelerator and launching its full membership Bridge Club program. Now they’re up to more than 3,700 members and have filled capacity at membership events.

Evaluate Your Success

Bridge Magazine is on track to have $350,000 in reader donations in 2019, up 66% from last year and nearly tripling in two years. Just as impressively, look at their email newsletter growth — they had a net gain of 125 subscribers for the entire year of 2017 and then an expected boom of 18,000 in 2019. That growth in engagement across the board shows Bridge Magazine has recruited thousands of readers who could become paying members in years to come.

Bridge Magazine Growth Numbers

Look Ahead

The magazine’s goal is to raise $1 million every year in reader donations. “The math is very simple,” CEO Bebow says. “To get to $1 million a year in reader revenue, that’s 10,000 readers paying $2 a week.” To continue their growth, Bridge Magazine is leaning on membership drives surrounding Michigan news events.

“The acquisition experiments at Bridge truly represent what FJP is: an Accelerator,” said Simon Audet, another Accelerator participant and vice president of digital development at Le Soleil, a French-language daily newspaper in Quebec. “By sharing the different tests they did, the results they measured, and the learning they made, our team saved months of time and fast-tracked our own acquisition pace. We started our own experiments using his proven tactics.”

“Our mission is the ecosystem of public service in-depth journalism as a civic good,” Bebow added. “We’re trying to sustain and grow in-depth public service journalism in our state not for today, not for tomorrow, but for the next generation. That is our mission. That is our goal.”

Results provided by the publisher.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Membership Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their membership revenues. 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 Membership Accelerator is part of the broader Facebook Journalism Project Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on digital subscriptions and digital video.

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