On December 4 and 5, 17 news organizations with membership models revisited Austin for the second in-person session of The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Membership Accelerator.

The Membership Accelerator kicked off in Austin with its first meeting in September. Publishers got together over the two days to learn the essentials of a successful membership program and how to build a membership-based news organization. You can find a recap of the kickoff here.

In the two months since the kickoff, participating publishers have been meeting weekly with their coaches Tim Griggs (Accelerator Program Director), Yasmin Namini (Consultant) and David Grant (Associate Publisher, Christian Science Monitor) and participating in trainings and webinars. They’ve also implemented actionable tests to improve their membership businesses.

In session 2, all 17 publishers shared their test insights. “You’ve managed to get so much done in a short amount of time,” Namini said. “You’re finding ways to implement and deliver results in six weeks.” For instance:

  1. VTDigger saw a 137% increase in page visitors who proceeded to donate, after simplifying their donate page.
  2. MinnPost saw a 269% increase in transactions, after streamlining their ask and appeal messaging on their donate page.
  3. Richland Source added a ‘Be A Member’ call-to-action (CTA) button that now accounts for 41% of their traffic to the donate page.
  4. DPTV increased newsletter signups by 200% by adding a pop-up CTA to their schedule page, the site’s most-visited page.

Slate Plus, Scrum Inc, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Griggs all led lessons as well. The lessons dove into the actionable elements of increasing membership in your organization — from adopting agile team processes to retargeting users with off-platform marketing channels.

Read on for a recap.

Increasing Membership: Publishers’ Test Results and Learnings

In Session 1, each of the 17 publishers was asked to test some element of their membership program. In Session 2, each shared what they tested, what they learned, and what they were planning to do next based on the results.

Across the board, publishers discussed two shared learnings: That actionable ideas are almost always worth testing and that to increase membership you need to make an ask. “I’m impressed with your clarity of purpose,” said Griggs. “I’m seeing your progress from having a lot of gut-driven assumptions to having a lot of data-driven knowledge.”

Journalists are put in situations that are way more uncomfortable than making an ask. And making the ask is fueling the capacity for journalism.
John Bebow, President and CEO of Bridge Magazine

Here’s a recap of the tests that helped pave the way for increased memberships.

Simplify the Donate Page

VTDigger, City Limits, MinnPost, WABE, and Richland Source turned to their donate page. They all simplified the page layout and its checkout process. The results:

  • VTDigger streamlined their donate page and saw a 137% increase in page visitors who proceeded to donate.
  • City Limits simplified their checkout flow and saw a 150% increase in November’s donations year-over-year
  • MinnPost simplified their ask and appeal messaging on the donate page. They saw a 269% increase in transactions.
  • WABE used their simplified donate form on a Giving Tuesday campaign’s landing page. They saw a 399% increase in donations from last year’s Giving Tuesday page.
  • Richland Source simplified their checkout process by switching to Memberful and Stripe, reducing the amount of clicks required to convert by 75%.


Tailor Messaging to Super Users

Whereby.Us and KOSU set out to test their membership messaging, with the ultimate goal of crafting more effective appeals to become a member. Both started by conducting in-person interviews with their super users. Here’s how they approached the process:

  • Whereby.Us first identified two questions to answer: What do super users want from a membership program? And what messaging works for them? Then, the team interviewed super users in person and through surveys. Finally, the team tested CTA messaging. Readers responded to the message “as a member, you are essential to our success.”
  • KOSU also interviewed high-priority donors. The goal: Inform KOSU’s newsletter content. The answers will help shape newsletter content down the road — more ‘inside baseball’ content about what KOSU is doing and more spotlights on fellow members.

Tell Readers the Impact of Their Membership

“We came back from the last Accelerator and immediately started thinking about what we can test in a short amount of time,” said Bill Emkow, Growth Strategist at Bridge Magazine. “We decided to try and answer the question: How can we show readers what we’re doing with their donations?” MinnPost conducted a similar test. Here’s how they approached the process:

  • The Bridge Magazine team sent an email that built on a news topic resonating with readers: 2018 midterm election coverage. The email articulated the value of their coverage over the course of the year and asked for donations to fund future coverage.
  • MinnPost sent two post-elections emails with a membership ask. In the second email, MinnPost highlighted that they were two people away from hitting a membership record — and needed help crossing the threshold. Readers quickly helped MinnPost surpass their record.

Experiment With Newsletter Elements

KUER, WisconsinWatch, Berkeleyside, and PublicSource all focused on optimizing elements of their newsletter. Newsletters are a key way to engage readers and make a membership ask. Here’s what they tested:

  • KUER tested newsletter send times, subject lines, and sender names.
  • WisconsinWatch segmented subscribers into three groups: non-donors, donors, and super donors. As a result, WisconsinWatch could target their newsletter appeals and CTAs based on the segment.
  • Berkeleyside tested email frequency, sending four times the number of membership appeal emails sent in prior months. They saw a direct increase in membership revenue as a result and little or no reader pushback.
  • PublicSource also tested email frequency, increasing their welcome emails from one to five. Now, new newsletter subscribers receive a series of five emails over 70 days. The series focuses on deepening relationships with readers and ends with a membership solicitation.

Optimize Website Calls to Action (CTAs)

CTAs include buttons, interstitials, display ads, etc. CTAs are pivotal for directing users where you’d like them to go. As such, many publishers focused on testing their way to a more impactful CTA. Here’s how:

  • Richland Source added a CTA button that said ‘Be A Member’ to every page of its site. That button now accounts for 41% of traffic to the donate page.
  • Whereby.Us, City Limits, and Rivard Report all tested the appeal language of their CTAs.
  • Patch tested which CTA placement works best: banner, pop-up, or email ask.
  • CALmatters now asks for more money per donation, a test that has increased recurring donations from 4% to 20%.

Male Speaker

Optimize Newsletter Sign-Up CTAs

DPTV and KOSU both tested newsletter sign ups on their websites. The goal: secure more subscribers that engage regularly with newsletter content and, therefore, are more likely to become a member. Here’s what DPTV and KOSU tested:

  • DPTV added a pop-up CTA driving to its newsletter on their schedule page — the most visited page on the website. By implementing the pop-up, DPTV has increased newsletter signups by 200%.
  • KOSU tested calls for newsletter signs up on their website’s top banner, right side bar, and at events. “We have a membership program with on-air drives,” said Mairead Todd, Membership Specialist at KOSU. “This program is helping us shift to a digital program too — paying more attention to our newsletter was the next logical step.”

This test has pushed all our departments to think the same way around a shared goal. This test has changed our culture.
Ryan Laurie, VP of Individual Giving at DPTV

Build the Foundation for Data-Driven Decisions

Reporting frameworks are crucial for building a test-and-learn culture. City Limits, CALmatters, and Spirited Media all took a look at their key performance indicators (KPIs) and reporting tools:

  • “After the last Accelerator, we sat down to figure out how to measure the success of our membership efforts during this program,” said Brian Boyer, VP of Product at Spirited Media. The team came up with three indicators to tell them if their membership actions are succeeding. The KPIs that Spirited is measuring seek to answer three questions:
    • Are we reaching new, local people every week?
    • Does our work inspire those people to subscribe to our newsletter?
    • Are we turning those subscribers into donors, quickly?
  • City Limits set its membership KPIs to include, among others, tracking users with 1, 2, 3, and 4 unique pageviews per month and breaking down NYC Facebook audience versus total Facebook audience.
  • CALmatters set membership KPIs that focus on strengthening its funnel. To do so, CALmatters set KPIs to understand user behavior across geographic location, newsletter sign ups, and membership sign ups. To get this data, they implemented Facebook Pixel, Google Optimize and Google Tag Manager.

The Accelerator Program

The final session will be held in January at the Facebook offices. Head here for recaps of the lessons and learnings from the Membership Accelerator.

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.

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