Local news can thrive, even during uncertain times.

This is easy to see when reading results from 17 news organizations that participated in the Facebook Local News Membership Accelerator. During the program, each organization received resources like guidance from leading practitioners and expert coaches to learn the best strategies to strengthen their membership programs.  

In total, the 13 publishers who have reported results generated more than $3.5 million in lifetime value for their organizations; seven of them doubled their membership revenue, paying supporters, or both during the grant period. The remaining four publishers will share their results later this year.

In addition, these publishers established a few key benchmarks that we hope can be useful to other membership-driven news organizations:

  • As a whole, multiple participating publishers grew their newsletter lists at an average net gain of about 1,000 new email subscribers per month over the six-month grant period.
  • Publishers saw strong returns from revamping their subscription conversion pages, with one large public broadcaster generating hundreds of new members by streamlining its donation page, increasing the conversion rate from 0.2% to nearly 5%.
  • Newsletter acquisition costs ranged from $1 to $3 per new lead via Facebook lead generation advertising to under a dime for newsletter subscribers acquired using tools that allow for newsletter asks on article pages.

Beyond that, participants built technological infrastructure needed to understand their readers better and streamline their technology. They made other long-term investments that will continue to pay dividends for years to come. 

The Accelerator publishers illustrate the many reasons why we are optimistic about the future of local news.

Over the course of an intensive 12 weeks ending in January 2019, the Accelerator teams — which you can find listed here –– participated in a series of in-person workshops, online learning seminars, and one-on-one coaching sessions to tackle specific membership strategies. This was followed by a six-month grant implementation period from which these results are drawn. 

The diverse cohort of organizations made this program unique, as they ranged from a public radio station in Salt Lake City to an investigative watchdog in Madison to a digital-native start-up in Miami. 

The Accelerator was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism administered the program and reported key learnings. Independent consultant and Accelerator executive director Tim Griggs oversaw the Accelerator. Each outlet received a $100,000 grant to implement lessons they learned from the program. (Importantly, while the program was funded by Facebook, the programming and grant-making wasn’t about Facebook). 

“This grant has given us the bandwidth to experiment, expand, test, and develop a program that is showing immediate financial and engagement returns from our readership,” said one participant, Michigan’s Bridge Magazine CEO John Bebow. 

Here are some major takeaways:

Drive reader revenue to fund specific business expansion.

Crediting their work increasing spring membership donations, Vermont-based VTDigger hired another full-time reporter to cover the Northeast Kingdom region of the state. It has raised more than $370,000 in membership revenue in 2019, exceeding its annual target of $300,000. VTDigger expects that success to continue through the end of the year, which would enable it to hire another reporter.

VTDigger is also planning to launch a new year-round membership program using strategies from the Accelerator including annual donation reminders, newsletters, and pop-up promotions of monthly memberships. 

Additionally, it has launched a new evening newsletter for legislative news, and began sending more personalized, segmented emails. These new implementations have enabled VTDigger to increase their overall new email subscribers by 20% in just four months. 

Focusing on the funnel can pay dividends — even with a small staff. 

Being disciplined with your audience engagement and marketing strategy at every level of the audience engagement funnel pays huge benefits. Bridge Magazine saw tremendous audience and paying supporter growth by being hyper-focused on growth at all stages of the funnel. You can read a full explanation of Bridge Magazine’s strategy here.

Detroit Public Television, similarly, tripled its audience from social media referrers by rethinking and reinvesting in its social strategy with the same number of staff. DPTV installed Facebook Pixel and created boosting campaigns, increased their social media spending, and fine-tuned its targeting across various social media platforms. 

And while you need to fill the top of the funnel with prospects, getting to a first-rate donation page can be the difference in gaining hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime value. 

Atlanta-based public broadcaster WABE saw a huge boom in new members by rebuilding its donation page with industry standard UX, including additional options for payment such as PayPal and premium gift options for donors to choose at check out. These changes brought the conversion rate from 0.2% to .5%.

Additionally, WABE now is actually saving money by avoiding vendor transaction fees now that its online donations can be managed in-house.

Make it clear what you stand for.

Numerous grantees rebranded in some way, including revamping their marketing campaigns, adjusting their websites, revisiting their logos, and more. 

Based on learnings from audience research, Wisconsin Watch, which focuses on investigative reporting in the state, refreshed its branding to emphasize its dedication to its mission in efforts to better appeal to both existing and potential audiences.

During the Accelerator program, it put together a marketing budget for the first time ever.

“We learned that when we’re pitching ourselves to the public, we need to focus more on what we do for people, rather than just positioning ourselves as ‘good medicine,’” said executive director Andy Hall. “We have a lot to offer directly, not just as a benefit to society as a whole.”

The new messaging contributed to a more than 100% increase in both newsletter subscribers and recurring donors. Through June, the site had 5,300 newsletter subscribers, an increase of more than 3,000 in six months. 

Richland Source also rebranded its website to become more member and user-focused. “Your funding allowed for a comprehensive re-work of how a person becomes a member, how we care for them, and how we understand their behavior,” said publisher Jay Allred

Rebranding plus new marketing campaigns helped grow individual membership in the local Ohio site by 175% since it joined the Accelerator. Through the first half of 2019, Richland Source added about 300 new members and grew its email list to 15,000, blowing past its goal of 10,000.

Getting your data in order helps you figure out how to grow. 

There’s no doubt that the challenges for these publishers are significant. Not only do you need to convince people in your community to voluntarily support your mission, but you need to have the infrastructure to solicit, process, and actually maintain their support.

During the Accelerator, California’s Berkeleyside built a comprehensive data dashboard to help it better understand its readers, social media performance, and email list growth in a centralized place. The data in the dashboard, Audience Explorer, is informing all of its membership activity by offering more insights into different types of users and how they interact with the organization.

Berkeleyside has already exceeded its target of growing its membership base to 2,000 members, an increase of 500, by the end of 2019. “Instituting a proper membership strategy and doing regular appeals — and tracking and evaluating performance on each action — is paying clear dividends.”

Email newsletters are a key component of a successful membership program, and Berkeleyside planned to use the dashboard to grow its email audience. However, the site now realizes that the newsletter work was going to take longer than it initially planned. 

“We’ve done well at getting newsletter subscriber numbers up, but our work to really elevate the quality and variety of our newsletters will be the work of next year,” Berkeleyside said in its grant report. 

Another California-based news organization, CalMatters, had a similar realization about their tech infrastructure. The publisher noted that it hadn’t built the capability needed to execute its Accelerator-set goals as quickly as it would have liked. 

Regardless, it has completed significant enhancements to their data display through a Google Data Studio dashboard. CalMatter’s membership numbers are up by the month and on track to double reader revenue this year.

Testing out what works best for your organization is worth it in the long run. 

From advertising methods to membership messaging and email subject lines, an attitude of testing and growing was a major takeaway for many publishers. Even strategies that initially fail eventually point the way to growth.

While getting paid advertising off the ground takes some work, everything from billboards to targeted social media ads saw dividends for Membership Accelerator publishers. 

The San Antonio-based Rivard Report tested direct membership advertising through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. 

“We learned to ask more and get creative with types of call-to-actions,” said Kassie Kelly, membership and audience engagement coordinator at the nonprofit. “Some readers are compelled with different messaging. It’s a no-brainer, but the Accelerator motivated us and helped us think more creatively about asks and the various ways to convey the value of our work.”

It found that it was more successful converting readers to members after they had subscribed to an email newsletter (they nearly doubled their email subscription base during the program) and become more familiar with the Rivard Report’s journalism — but that conversion takes time, often more than a year, before new newsletter prospects become members. 

Bridge Magazine invested in new capabilities to deliver A/B tests on its site, an investment that paid off across several different business categories. 

“The investment in our tech stack was something we hadn’t even considered before the Facebook Membership Accelerator,” Bridge Magazine wrote in its grant submission. “Our learning is constantly evolving, in part because of the Accelerator’s emphasis on A/B testing.”

Refashion your events to drive membership

Minneapolis-based MinnPost had a similar experience. It used the test-and-learn methodology to better leverage its events to generate membership revenue. 

Its biggest event is MinnRoast, an annual variety show featuring local politicians, journalists, and entertainers. For this year’s event, it brought in 327 donations that totaled $52,411, more than a $20,000 increase from the year prior. A key tactic MinnPost learned from the Membership Accelerator was recognizing everyone who pledged at the event. 

At Rivard Report, the organization incorporated a more intentional membership strategy at in-person events and added a donation opportunity on our online ticketing platform so event attendees could donate or become members while purchasing tickets. 

When an audience is captive and witnessing in-person the value of our work, Kelly said, “we are missing an opportunity if we do not strategically incorporate membership.

Results provided by the publishers.

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