On September 25 and 26, 17 news organizations with membership models came to Austin, TX to kick off The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Membership Accelerator.

The three-month Membership Accelerator focuses on helping local news organizations serve their communities and build compelling membership programs. Participating organizations are: MinnPost, PublicSource, RichlandSource, Whereby.us, Spirited Media, Bridge Magazine, Wisconsin Watch, VT Digger, KOSU, Berkeleyside, DPTV, WABE, City Limits, Patch, CALmatters, KUER, and Rivard Report.

The two-day kickoff — the first of three in-person sessions — dove into:

  • The 10 essentials of a successful membership program
  • Ensuring that your enterprise is worth supporting
  • Connecting with your audience and using audience funnel discipline
  • Prioritizing data-driven decision making
  • Building a robust test-and-learn capability
  • Finding and understanding your most likely prospective members
  • Shaping your membership messaging
  • Using your site and email to engage with potential members

Publishers will collaborate twice more in-person over the next three months. They’ll also work 1-on-1 with coaches, take part in regular webinars, and receive grant funding. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism organizes and oversees the grant funding and helps produce regular reports on best practices.

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.

Publishers Share Their Experience

Publishers came from around the country for the first session. We talked to a few of them to see why they’re participating, how they hope it influences their organization, and what they took from their first session.

John Bebow, President and CEO of Bridge Magazine in Michigan might’ve summed it up best when he said “This is like a 6 day MBA program.” He added “I was fortunate enough to get an MBA about a decade ago, and this is the most intensive business side training I’ve had since. We’re learning through examples and the expertise of the best in the business who’ve been doing it at Facebook and in the nonprofit news industry.”

Tracey Taylor, managing editor of Berkeleyside, said of the first session, “I’ve already come away with several things. I’m seeing some really great best practices and really great ideas to help both our journalism and our business. Having this community is really supportive and it’s been great to meet so many people that are doing such good work. ”

The value of having this community of like-minded publishers was echoed by several publishers. Tanner Curl, development director at MinnPost said, “In our work at nonprofits, we have limited staff capacity and limited resources. The Accelerator allows us to join this community, step away from our day-to-day to really get a high-level picture, and learn how we can grow our business and better serve our readers.”

Brittany Schock, a reporter at Richland Source, joined so that she can be more aligned with her business colleagues of her publication. “I found my tribe,” she said after 2 days in Austin. “We’ve talked about making some visits and doing some collaborations with other publishers. I’m really excited to bring this experience back to my team and help motivate them to feel the way I’m feeling right now.”

Meanwhile, Andy Hall, executive director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, sees a greater mission beyond his own business: “We think that by learning and drawing upon a lot of great advice here through our peers, coaches and presenters, we’ll figure out ways to carry out our plans for expansion, and that will help preserve and protect our democracy which as we all know is fragile and can’t be taken for granted.”

Membership Accelerator Kick Off

Participating teams cited multiple areas of growth membership they wanted to learn more about, including:

  • Building an organization optimized for membership
  • Retaining and maximizing the value of current members
  • Shaping marketing language and brand position
  • Using theirs site and email newsletters to drive membership

Project Director Tim Griggs — an independent media consultant, former New York Times executive, and former publisher at the Texas Tribune — developed the program curriculum and dove right in. Coaches Yasmin Namini (consultant) and David Grant (Associate Publisher, Christian Science Monitor) joined, alongside industry experts Rob Ristagno (Sterling Woods Group), Brian Hiatt (Mother Jones), and Pete Doucette (FTI Consulting).

Grant says of his role, “My job is to make all these publishers a little better than they were when they walked through the door. Personally, I’m very interested in helping publishers with their processes, and help their teams while they’re back at work organize in a much more efficient way.”

Here’s a recap of the lessons covered.

10 essential ingredients of a membership program

The concept that “information wants to be free” is eroding — and digital-service-as-membership is booming. Griggs overviewed three membership types: purchasers, givers, and joiners. He also shared 10 ingredients for building an elite membership-driven organization — such as getting the whole organization involved, treating members like gold, obsessing over user experience, and truly listening to community wants and needs. Each publisher then took a self assessment “gap” quiz to help determine which ingredients they were accomplishing and which they weren’t yet.

Is your enterprise worth supporting?

As the Christian Science Monitor’s (CSM) Associate Publisher, Grant has helped CSM grow its paying audience. The CSM team began by taking a step back and asking: If we were to vanish, what would the world lose? As Grant explained, they answered this question in a five-step process outlined below. The result was a clearer membership value proposition and stronger membership program.

  1. What’s the job to be done?
  2. What’s your vision?
  3. What’s your vision in business form?
  4. Who are your key readers?
  5. How do we test these assumptions?

Audience Funnel Discipline

Griggs recommended an approach to more deliberately track and encourage user journeys that leads from discovery to membership.

  • Top of the Funnel: Identifying and finding your community of shared interest, and making it easy for audiences to discover you.
  • Middle of the Funnel: Deepening the connection with audiences, and making it easy to be loyal.
  • Bottom of the Funnel: Converting loyalists into paying supporters — and keeping them.

Data-Driven Decision Making

Namini honed her distinctive ability to create and develop new revenue growth strategies at the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She shared her 10 steps towards making data-driven decisions, starting with “Don’t boil the ocean.” Or rather, don’t measure everything. With each metric, Namini recommended asking yourself: “What can I do with this info?” If the answer is clear, then collect, analyze, distribute, and act on the insights. If the answer isn’t clear, then move on.

Testing 101

In this session, Namini overviewed building a test-and-learn capability that “tests fast, fails fast, and learns fast.” Namini walked through the team members to include, an agile meeting cadence to follow, recommendations on what to test first, and 20 A/B testing best practices.

Finding Your Whales

Ristagno has built an agency and consulting business called Sterling Woods Group that focuses primarily on digital membership programs. He shared a core component of their approach to unlocking profitable digital memberships: Identify your most engaged audience members and prove your value proposition to them. Or, as Ristagno called it: Find your whales.

Shaping Your Membership Message

Hiatt, the Director of Marketing and Membership at Mother Jones, shared how the nonprofit publisher shifted their “membership ask” to readers. Making the change started with identifying Mother Jones’ whales (see above). As Hiatt said, “Our whales come to us for in-depth journalism. Why should our membership marketing be any different?”

Hiatt walked through how Mother Jones tested its way to a change in its membership marketing and messaging, towards including members more fully in the Mother Jones mission.

On-Site Acquisition

Optimizing your website to better convert visitors is a core component in increasing membership. Doucette, from FTI Consulting and formerly the Boston Globe, covered how to get started. He overviewed types of online visitors and visitor journeys, CTA optimization best practices, and site conversion best practices.

Email in Two Parts: Lead Generation and Acquisition

Doucette also reviewed how to use email to get new leads and new membership. He walked through the frequency, personalization, and deployment best practices to keep in mind.

What’s Next?

Participants will build on the first in-person session with coaching calls and regular webinars. The next in-person session will cover membership tiering, external marketing channels, and making joining easy. The third in-person session will cover year-end results, retention and stewardship, and technology solutions to get started.

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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