This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.
Generating enough revenue to sustain or expand our operations at the Henrico Citizen has been a constant challenge during our 22+ years of existence. For much of that time, I’ve been the only full-time employee. Pursuing revenue often has taken a back seat to being a publisher, a journalist, an editor and an office manager.
I started the Citizen in 2001, following three years at a similar local publication in our region. I was 24 and knew how to run a small publication on the editorial side but not on the business side. The right mix of determination and naivete carried us on a shoestring budget through our first 18-and-a-half years as a free, print-first publication on a twice-monthly basis. Advertising was our sole form of revenue.
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 and our selection as a Report for America host newsroom the following year taught us about how to generate some reader revenue. In 2022 and 2023, as a UNC Table Stakes participant, we sought to take the next step and develop a cohesive reader engagement and reader revenue program: We wanted to generate at least $25,000 in reader donations from a total of at least 400 people. Those totals would represent an increase of about $10,000 and 125 donors from our 2022 levels. By Dec. 31, 2023, we generated $34,989 in reader donations during 2023 from a total of 574 donors.
Here are four strategies from our funnel process that you can try at your organization:
Grow your online audience with an email newsletter
What we did and why: We’ve published a free email newsletter for more than a decade, and for nearly four years, it’s been a daily weekday publication. Delivering coverage directly to our readers without relying on social media quickly became more important to us than ever, with social media reach dropping for us as it has for many outlets. We set a goal of expanding our email subscriber list from about 12,500 to 21,000 this year in order to grow readership and community engagement.
What worked well: We implemented a program called OptInMonster in mid-February to prompt readers (through a simple pop-up message) to subscribe to our email newsletter, and it immediately began delivering 40 to 50 new subscribers a day (up from our previous totals of 5 to 10 a week that came from our site’s previous pop-up prompts). To my amazement, the flood of subscribers never relented. The mobile version of the program’s prompts proved particularly effective, and by mid-December, we had added nearly 9,800 new newsletter subscribers.
Accounting for churn, our net gain during the 10-month period was just more than 9,000, helping us reach a total of 21,500 subscribers. Our partnership with the local CBS television affiliate (through which the station publishes a few paragraphs from our articles, then links to the complete versions on our site) has helped drive new visitors, many of whom then signed up for our newsletter. On a few occasions, when articles of ours generated significant local attention, we added more than 200 new newsletter subscribers in a single day.
What didn’t work as expected: Nothing! This effort made it easy for us to lean into one overarching reader goal: to get new readers to our website, however possible. We quickly learned that once we got them there, most would sign up for our email newsletter. And although the pop-up messages were displayed more than 538,000 times on the mobile version of our site and more than 170,000 times on desktop, I can count on one hand the number of complaints we have received about them. In fact, although we’ve added more than 9,800 subscribers, the program actually has collected more than 14,700 email address submissions, meaning that about 5,000 people were willing to provide their email on multiple occasions without complaint.
Try this: Implement a program to prompt readers to sign up for your email newsletter as soon as they enter your site. Perhaps your own site’s built-in pop-up capabilities will suffice, but that wasn’t the case for us. We owe our growth to an external program that delivered beyond our expectations.
Learn where in the funnel your readers are
What we did and why: One of the most important pieces of knowledge I’ve been able to gain in the past few months is a clear sense of what our reader funnel looks like. The concept of the funnel is simple: a bunch of new readers find your publication somehow and enter at the top (in our case, by visiting our site and signing up for our email newsletter). Some percentage of them become regular readers (of the newsletter and/or the site) and work their way down the funnel. A smaller percentage make it to the bottom of the funnel by becoming daily readers/raving fans and – ideally – donors.
To learn more about our email newsletter subscribers’ habits, we sorted them according to their engagement levels (which most email newsletter platforms rate on a scale of 0 to 5 stars) and also flagged each email address that belonged to a donor.
We learned that slightly more than one-quarter of our newsletter subscribers are 4- or 5-star readers (indicating a frequent level of readership), while another 13.5% are relatively consistent 3-star readers. For our purposes, I considered all three groups to be in the middle of the funnel, as consistent or regular readers. Overall, about 2.4% of our subscribers reached the bottom of the funnel and donated to us in 2023.
The data provided me with some clear takeaways: For every 100 new email subscribers we add, I now know that I can expect about 40 to become consistent readers, 26 to become almost-daily readers and about 2 or 3 to donate.
What worked well: Analyzing our newsletter data: We found a remarkable level of consistency in the engagement and donation levels of the email newsletter subscribers who were with us before February 2023 and those who joined between February 2023 (when we implemented our new email collection program) and mid-November 2023. The data also shows that, unsurprisingly, the more engaged a subscriber is, the more likely he or she is to donate. Overall, our 4- and 5-star readers are twice as likely to donate as are typical subscribers.
This data is critical as we work to build a sustainable source of reader revenue. This year, we’ve been adding almost 1,000 new email subscribers each month. I expect that pace will slow a bit in 2024, but supposing that we add 10,000 more subscribers, I can reasonably predict that we’ll gain another 4,000 regular readers and 230 new donors.
What didn’t work as expected: This isn’t a “what didn’t work as expected” conclusion as much as a “I wish we had a better way to collect data” conclusion. But I am not able to easily get a clear sense of which topics are driving readership among our most active email newsletter subscribers. I can look at page views and make some general assumptions, of course, but our email newsletter platform doesn’t make it easy to track by topic (and maybe none do?). This would be useful data to have.
Try this: Review your email newsletter analytics to learn how many 3-, 4- and 5-star readers you have and how active your donors are. See what percentage of older subscribers fit one of those groups and what percentage of newer subscribers do. Are your newer readers more or less engaged than your older ones? If so, why might that be – and how can you position your coverage to maximize engagement?
Make the ask for reader donations and make it fun
What we did and why: Table Stakes taught me that to generate reader revenue, there are no shortcuts – you need to ask for it, repeatedly. So, I did. In 2023, I sent 37 fundraising emails (all but two written by me) to our list of email newsletter subscribers, and I tracked in a spreadsheet how much each one generated in donations. One raised $5. Another generated $1,845. On average, they generated more than $750 apiece.
Some of the emails were stark in their subject lines (“What if we didn’t exist?”). Others were direct (“Help fund our in-depth coverage of education”). Some were aspirational (“Sunshine Week: Help us hire a government reporter”). Others were curious (“Member status: pending”) (I owe a hat tip to Bridge Michigan for that one, and its associated message template!). And some were funny (“The email you’ve been waiting to read”).
As of Dec. 31, 2023, we had generated $34,989 in reader donations during 2023 from a total of 574 donors – far exceeding our Table Stakes goals. I can directly attribute about 77% of the donated dollars to the 37 emails I sent.
What worked well:
- A weeklong campaign centered around our 22nd anniversary in September. I sent six different emails on six consecutive days, spanning a range of topics from recounting our first print edition (nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks); to a play on the “two twos” of our anniversary; to a simple request for donations of at least $22 in honor of our 22 years; to a well-timed and humorous-yet-reflective email that I sent on a Saturday night while the remnants of a tropical storm were passing through our area, which meant most people were home checking their email, apparently. It generated more than $1,500 in donations, making it our most successful email of the year to that point.
- Trying different types of messaging and different days and times of delivery. I sent emails at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, at 8 p.m. on a Saturday and at noon on a Friday, among many other days and times. It’s hard to know when your audience will be most receptive to your donation requests, so try a few different send times. We used data from Google Analytics to see when readers were most active on our website and tested those time slots first.
- Subject lines (and messages) that encourage readers to become part of something. The emails I sent that specifically indicated we were inviting them to join our membership program or our community consistently generated higher donation amounts than most others. People seemed to like feeling that their support would help make our community a better place – and testimonials from other members didn’t hurt, either.
What didn’t work as expected: Tying giveaways to donations did help, but perhaps not to the extent I had thought it might. Through trade arrangements (no out-of-pocket cost to us), we were able to offer gift certificates to local restaurants and tickets to our local minor league baseball team, among other giveaways, to donors who gave at specified levels. While those probably generated some donations we wouldn’t have had otherwise, many donors declined the giveaways, saying that they mostly just wanted to support our work.
- Send consistent emails asking for reader contributions, but do so in a casual, authentic and honest tone.
- Be brief! Get right to the point. Make it fun by letting readers know that you may not love asking for donations but that it’s necessary, and explain why.
- Find 3-4 times each year to conduct mini donation campaigns: your publication’s anniversary week; Sunshine Week (March), end-of-year, etc., or create seasonal “membership drives.”
- Remind your readers of the value you’ve brought during recent weeks or months by reminding them of significant coverage you’ve produced.
- Create a frictionless way for readers to donate (make it a simple, easy and quick process) and pre-select the donation amount and frequency you’d like them to select (we use NewsRevenue Engine and set the default amount to $10 monthly).
Lean into new coverage opportunities as you learn more about your online audiences
What we did and why: Adding new readers and email subscribers to your funnel requires the addition of new types of coverage that will help reach the people who aren’t already reading. In our case, we’ve sought ideas from our 15-member Citizen Advisory Board, people who represent a wide range of communities and interests within Henrico County. The best way to learn what specific communities want or require from a news outlet is to invite input from members of those communities, and our board members are helping make meaningful, direct connections for us. In Henrico, one of our goals is to reach more readers who are Black or of Indian descent, two groups that collectively comprise about 35% of our county’s population. Our Advisory Board members have helped with ideas about events for us to attend within those communities (to help us engage directly with folks) and possible locations at which to hold community listening sessions.
What worked well:
- Feature articles spotlighting positive stories from specific communities, especially those that may not regularly feel they’ve been adequately represented in local media coverage. A piece we ran about father-daughter “sneakerheads” generated more than 10,000 page views, driving a number of new readers to our site, where hundreds signed up for our email newsletter.
- Partnering with journalism students from a local university to produce coverage about topics our small staff couldn’t cover. In our area, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond operate the Capital News Service, which provides coverage of the Virginia General Assembly and statewide issues.
- Carving out funding for freelance writers to cover specific beats. We added a freelancer to compile a weekly high school sports round-up for us and another to cover the Henrico Planning Commission, both of which helped drive readership and new email subscribers.
- Partnering with another media outlet or outlets to share content and drive readership. Through our partnership with WTVR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Richmond, our coverage regularly is cited on air during news broadcasts and also appears on the WTVR website, linking back to our site. This provides us with exposure, name-recognition and news readers. We also regularly run WTVR articles, which provides us with coverage of topics that we couldn’t cover on our own.
- Creating easy ways for readers to help suggest or supply coverage. One concept our advisory board suggested is a feature we intend to launch in 2024: a nomination page for a Veteran of the Month, a landing page where readers can nominate veterans and submit photos of them. This is repeatable with many other groups, as well (students, small businesses, etc.).
What didn’t work as expected: Our advisory board is a volunteer group, and some members’ availability and participation levels have greatly outpaced those of other members. As a result, reaching some of our coverage goals has been a slower process than we would have liked.
- Start an advisory board of citizens who represent a variety of communities and interests and solicit their input on potential coverage topics.
- Host listening sessions in your community (at a local coffee shop, for example) and attend and table at community events.
- Send an open-ended email to readers inviting them to submit article ideas to you.
- Determine which potential coverage topics will help you reach your desired audience most effectively, then budget as needed to start that coverage, even if only in a small way.