“At the end of the day, journalism is all about helping us stay connected as a community and accountable to one another,” said Anne Galloway, Executive Director of VTDigger. “It’s important that we find a way to make the business model work, so we’re able to continue to keep professional journalists out there in the field protecting the public’s right to know.”
Anne and her team had joined 16 other teams from news organizations in January for the final in-person session of The Facebook Journalism Project: Membership Accelerator. The 12-week program was designed to help news organizations improve their membership programs.
The 17 participating teams convened for three in-person sessions, regular webinars and weekly conversations with coaches Tim Griggs (Consultant and Accelerator Program Director), Yasmin Namini (Consultant) and David Grant (Associate Publisher, Christian Science Monitor).
The publishers shared their tests, learnings, and results throughout the program. VTDigger, for instance, simplified their donate page after the first in-person session. They saw a 137% increase in membership conversion in that time. MinnPost similarly streamlined their ask on their donate page. They saw a 269% increase in conversions.
“We’re still figuring out how to pay for this kind of journalism. Thanks to the things that we’re learning here in the Facebook Accelerator Program, we’re confident we’re going to continue to attain some major [membership] increases in this year and beyond,” said Andy Hall, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
In the final in-person session, publishers took a step back and shared their top-level takeaways. Here are some of them:
“There are communities across the country that are desperate for high-quality coverage,” said Lance Knobel, Co-Founder and Publisher. Berkeleyside believes its readers appreciate the range of its journalism, and spurred by the Accelerator, increased the number of “asks” (direct membership appeals) for engaged readers to support their coverage. The aim, Knobel said, was to “ask, ask again, and then again.” In the process, Berkeleyside implemented a culture of constant testing to see which membership ‘asks’ worked best. This culture also includes using data to drive decisions about those tests.
- A series of 11 emails in Berkeleyside’s 2018 End Of Year campaign earned a 1,391% increase in new members resulting from the campaign year-over-year. In 2017’s End Of Year campaign, Berkeleyside had sent just one email.
- 2018 member revenue increased by 102% year-over-year.
- Total members in 2018 increased by 27% year-over-year.
Bridge Magazine also focused on clearer and more frequent calls-to-action for reader support. Readers had always been able to donate, said Bill Emkow, Growth Strategist. But they may not have known they could donate. “We’d made the option available for people, but we never told them what we were asking for,” said Emkow. “We had to tell our readers what we wanted from them for membership to work. It worked.” To do so, the team honed in on a few data points indicating readers with high membership potential. Engaged readers included, for example, users with 5+ sessions per month and newsletter subscribers with a 60% open rate or higher.
- The Donate Page now opens with “Our stories are free, but we depend on reader donations… help us grow and sustain our in-depth, Michigan-oriented journalism.”
- The default donation on the Donate Page increased to $15 from $10, with monthly contributions as the default.
- 2018 revenue from members or donors paying $1,000 or less increased by 60% year-over-year. And so far in 2019, revenue from the same segment is pacing at double this time in 2018.
- Total members or donors paying $1,000 or less in 2018 increased by 75% year-over-year.
“Don’t get comfortable” was the big learning for City Limits, said Adina Berliant, Development Manager. The team applied this learning by working with agility, using data to inform decisions, setting aggressive growth goals, and testing, testing, testing. “We’ve also learned that stickiness is king,” added Fran Skennion Reilly, Executive Director and Publisher. To apply this learning, the City Limits team has focused on improving the percentage of visitors with 4+ sessions and identifying various content elements that can improve engagement.
- Implemented iterative tests like increasing calls-to-action on the website and streamlining the checkout flow.
- 2018 revenue from members or donors paying $1,000 or less increased by 68% year-over-year.
- The average donation by members or donors paying $1,000 or less in 2018 grew 33% year-over-year.
- City Limits’ 2018 End Of Year fundraising campaign saw a 50% increase in donations year-over-year.
Detroit Public TV (DPTV)
DPTV’s key takeaway from the Accelerator was to monetize the people who care about their mission in ways they had not previously considered. Over the course of the Accelerator, DPTV started supplementing on-air membership drives with more opportunities to activate membership on its digital platforms. Their loyal audience members were already consuming their content both on-air and digitally — why not ask for membership in both places more consistently and strategically? DPTV put a culture of testing into place to measure what works best in their digital membership drives.
- Digital membership acquisitions in 2018 increased by 44% year-over-year.
- DPTV increased newsletter signups by 200% by adding a pop-up Call To Action (CTA) to their schedule page, the site’s most-visited page.
- DPTV’s 2018 Giving Tuesday campaign for membership more than doubled its revenue over 2017’s campaign results.
Richland Source’s biggest learning during the Accelerator was that inclusion matters when trying to build membership. Everyone needs to get on the membership ‘bus’ — including the editorial teams and the business teams — to move towards a shared goal of increasing membership. With everyone on the bus, the team is now focused on increasing their asks to readers, improving their tech stack, evaluating the content experience on their site, and retargeting engaged readers.
- Member revenue increased by 194% over the course of the 12-week Accelerator Program.
- The business and editorial teams worked together to launch a Polar Plunge Campaign, on a reporter’s idea. Richland Source emailed readers that if they got 20 new members by January 1, 2019, they’d jump into a nearby lake (in central Ohio) and donate $20 per member to the American Cancer Society. The campaign worked. And the team jumped into a lake!
- Adding a clear ‘Become A Member’ CTA now accounts for 41% of traffic to the donate page.
Rivard Report learned two very important things from the Membership Accelerator. First, to increase membership, you need to collaborate across editorial and business teams. Rivard Report worked to set a unified membership goal that removed the separation between teams. Second, you need to experiment. Rivard Report is setting goals and conducting iterative tests with the motto “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good.’”
- 2018 member revenue grew by 36% year-over-year.
- Total members in 2018 increased by 32% year-over-year.
- Rivard Report implemented the best practices they’d learned for their 2018 End of Year Campaign, like tailoring messaging based on the level of engagement of a reader and making the ask as clearly as possible. They surpassed their member goal for the campaign by 60%.
The Accelerator Program
Throughout the Accelerator program, publishers have participated in sessions covering everything from the 10 essentials of membership programs to email marketing, messaging, and the Scrum framework. Catch up on all the lessons and learnings here.
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.
Check out more posts about the Facebook Journalism Project program sessions here.
This article originally appeared on the Facebook Journalism Project blog.