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How Scalawag is using events to diversify audience and grow membership

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Rethink how you’re delivering content. Scalawag is discovering new audiences and building new relationships through its virtual events.

This is a series on Better News a) to showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Cierra Hinton, executive director-publisher of Scalawag, and Alysia Harris, Scalawag’s engagement lead and editor. Scalawag participated in the 2017-18 cohort of the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, and Hinton will be a coach for the 2020-21 cohort.

You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Scalawag, a nonprofit media organization launched in 2015 and based in Durham, N.C., is moving from being a small project to a scalable, sustainable business while transitioning to a digital-first, membership-driven organization. We have grown from one full-time employee and several volunteers to a staff of one full-time employee, four part-time employees and five contractors.

A major part of that transition is the diversification of our audience, which we talk more about in this article from Nieman Lab

We’ve been focusing a lot on better understanding the communities and audiences we want to engage with our content. We’ve been asking: How do we make our content more accessible for the communities we are centering and serving, namely Black, brown, queer and poor Southern communities? 

Secondly, how do we open a conversation about how our target audience can work with us and how our grassroots organizational partners and other like-minded Southerners can take actionable steps toward equity and justice in the South?

Scalawag has successfully shifted from live events at locations like Mother Bar in Atlanta during the summer of 2019 (above) to virtual gatherings during the pandemic. (Erin Fender/Scalawag)

We’ve found an answer to both in events: virtual and in-person.

We know change takes place within an ecosystem, and we think media and journalism can play a crucial role in that system. Our challenge pushes us not only to contribute to transformational change in our region but also to present a model that others can adopt — a model for how to do journalism with communities, particularly those that traditional media has historically overlooked and harmed.

Solving the problem during the COVID-19 pandemic — when there are breakdowns in disseminating information and whole communities are being underserved — further highlights the necessity of both this shift in journalism and for the existence of outlets like Scalawag to lead the way in that transformation in our industry.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This effort relates to Table Stake No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs), Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build), and Table Stake No. 6 (Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We identified who we serve with our content versus who our target audience is. We understand that there is a great deal of overlap between the two. 

At Scalawag, we serve Southerners, both in and outside of the South, especially folks with oppressed identities whose voices and experiences have traditionally been underrepresented in mainstream media. We amplify, center and stand in solidarity with BlPOC, queer, poor and working-class folks. 

However, we understand that as oppressed people, the folks that we serve with our content have been systematically kept away from wealth and equitable income and may not be in a position to support our work financially. 

That is where we look to our target audience to support us in keeping our work free. 

Our target audience overlaps greatly with the communities we serve because of who is leading the fight for justice and equity in our nation. This audience includes any and all Southerners who are interested in joining a community of like-minded individuals committed to a more just South. 

By using a community-first, audience-centric approach, we are developing new tools, products and ways of delivering our content that expand reach, deepen engagement and help us get news and information to folks who need it. 

Scalawag has a two-tier membership model. General membership starts at $5 a month; general members receive free access to all events, special content, merchandise and access to all of our content. Our second tier, “Hometown” membership, is geared toward folks living in Durham, Birmingham and Atlanta. These are the cities where we host in-person events and meet-ups. Hometown members get all of the perks of general membership, plus free admission to in-person events and a local membership newsletter. 

Our events complement and deliver the content we provide online in a different way, allowing us to reach more diverse audiences. We think of events and our other products as a different delivery method for our content — and that has been crucial for getting our work to more people. 

Our goal is to have 747 members by January 31, 2021. We have 420 members right now — 168 of those members, or 40%, have come from events, and 80 of those 168 have come from our virtual events. Events have been a great way for us to start, and we’re excited to launch more products that allow us to meet the moment. 

Q: What worked? 

A: During COVID-19, virtual events and partnerships with grassroots organizations have given us the opportunity to deepen Scalawag’s engagement with individual communities while simultaneously making connections across the South. 

This spring, “Solidarity Over Distance,” a three-part virtual event series, provided immediately useful news and information. 

Our first event in the series focused on workers’ rights and protections during COVID-19. It featured a panel discussion with legal experts and community organizers. Folks learned not only about their rights as individual workers but also the larger efforts they could join to demand justice and protections. 

The second event focused on housing and the rights of tenants and the housing insecure. For both of these events, we turned the content into toolkits that we then shared with our community partners and others. 

Responding to the needs of our community, we shifted the scope of our third event to focus on community, togetherness and Southern joy. 

Last year, we had begun to host in-person parties featuring local artists and businesses, called Jubilees, in our hometowns (Durham, Atlanta and Birmingham). 

For instance, in Atlanta, we had a tattoo artist give free tattoos, a local painter create a piece during the event, and poets perform spoken word. We also created space for our community partners to raise awareness about their work by speaking and tabling during the event. 

During the pandemic, we could not recreate those activities in an online space, but we did want to bring as much of the joy and collective energy of our Jubilees as possible to our community via a virtual Jubilee. We felt the space was especially important during a time of mourning and uncertainty for so many. 

In April, our virtual Jubilee was a Black, queer poetry reading and dance party and featured readings by Taylor Johnson, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Jericho Brown. It was our most well-attended virtual Jubilee with more than 120 attendees. Just days later, Brown received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. 

More recently, we held a screening of the environmental justice documentary Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. We partnered with environmental justice organizations from across the South and made space for folks to reflect on the challenges in their communities, our collective fight for environmental justice across the South, and the similarities and opportunities for connection between different Southern communities. 

Partnerships support us in bringing in more diverse attendees. We partner with social justice and movement organizations such as the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Down Home NC, Southerners on New Ground, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution and Durham Beyond Policing

We’ve also partnered with libraries such as the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta. More than 400 people attended our last four virtual events. At least a third of attendees at each of our events who responded to our survey identified as people of color. Two events saw more than 50% identify as people of color. 

Event attendees are also more likely to convert to membership. We saw 53 new members (monthly recurring donors) come from our first three virtual events. Not only are event attendees more likely to convert to membership, but the customer lifetime value for these members is higher than a member who joins via another channel, like reading our newsletter. 

What we’ve seen work well — and what increases the customer lifetime value for a member coming to us from an event versus from another channel — is asking for a suggested donation. 

We ask for a suggested donation to help keep our events sustainable and accessible; the majority of folks give that suggested donation, and we are often able to recoup the costs of the event. Once someone has registered for an event, we begin making the “ask” for them to become a member. We make membership asks before, during and after the event. All of that means there is no cost to acquire members from events. 

At the documentary screening, we raised $1,100 in revenue via suggested donations — making this event the first that not only broke even but was profitable in addition to acquiring new members.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: At first, we did not have a clear way to track our event attendees as they moved through the “funnel” — based on the Table Stakes principle that news organizations must funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists. We could only clearly track membership conversion. 

Since we had to pivot our events strategy quickly from in-person to virtual, we decided to approach our first virtual event series as a sprint. We held a “retrospective,” a meeting where we typically review the sprint that just concluded and create a plan for improvements for the next sprint. We devised a strategy that helped us see how folks were converting at every level of the funnel. 

The same was true for asking for folks to become a member or make a donation to Scalawag. In our first event, we were only making the ask at the end of the event. By the third event, we had a strategy that had us asking before, during and after the event. The last event in the series yielded 33 of our 53 new members from events. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Every time that we did not expressly center Black, brown or queer people in our outreach and in who was speaking during the event (panelist, performers, etc.), we saw a downtick in the number of Black, brown and queer folks in attendance. 

For example, during the Mossville documentary screening, we saw a decrease in the number of Black folks — despite the fact that all of the panelists and organizers except one were Black. 

In addition to naming the event as an inclusive space, we could have reached out to more Black- and brown-led environmental justice organizations. That further speaks to the importance of building a coalition prior to events to ensure they are seen by diverse groups of people who are connected to movement partners.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We learned that our events strategy is a top- to mid-funnel membership strategy. During our virtual events series, we held a members-only space to test whether that would drive event participation from existing members (members for more than two weeks). What we found is that the members-only event attracted more new members than existing members. 

Armed with this new information, we now think of events as a way to introduce folks to Scalawag or form a deeper relationship with people who may be aware of Scalawag but have not yet become a member. We are also rethinking our engagement strategy for existing members as we work to move them deeper down the funnel to advocacy. 

A Scalawag advocate donates yearly outside of their monthly recurring membership gift; actively participates in the membership community; consistently talks back to Scalawag, helping to drive our content; and participates in Southern social movements by taking action with one of our community partners.

When we launched our membership program with the support of the Membership Puzzle Project, we prioritized our events strategy because we believed it would lead to increased engagement with BIPOC, queer and other directly affected communities. 

Another strategy that we brainstormed, but have not yet developed, was the creation of an online platform. Like a Facebook group or Nextdoor, this platform would support community engagement. That would include group discussions, further engagement with our content through guided conversations, and other tactics that make it easier for Southerners to connect and deeply engage with the news and issues affecting both their individual communities and our region. 

In 2021, we will begin the development of this platform as a strategy for engaging existing members. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: People come to events because they want to join a community, which is why events are such an effective membership conversion strategy. In a digital space like virtual events, you have to work overtime and think creatively in order to foster the intimacy and connection that make folks want to be a part of your community. 

Related content: Read how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle forged relationships with communities of color