This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Oct. 28, which explores lessons from three local media innovation projects — #ThisisTucson, VTDigger, and MuckRock — that evolve direct relationships with news consumers into direct contributions
By David Arkin • LMA Contributor
VTDigger.org is developing a tool that will allow them — and news organizations everywhere — to build an email subscriber base and an effective year-round membership program.
The open-source toolkit will allow the statewide news website to create a better user experience for its members and will help newsrooms make data-driven decisions in real-time about what works in converting readers to members and subscribers.
Anne Galloway, the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust, told us more about the project, which received funding from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge.
First, can you tell us a little about your project?
We are building an open-source toolkit for conversion and audience tracking that allows news organizations to quickly build an effective year-round membership program. Our “Audience Tracking and Membership Conversion Toolkit” will recognize and suppress promotions for current members and email subscribers. Instead of readers who are already members getting annoyed by constant appeals messaging, we are building tools to suppress appeals for people who have already donated.
As we continue to develop the tool, we will be able to deliver the messages that our readers, at all levels of our reader funnel, will find most valuable and relevant, for a new intelligent means of engagement and community-building.
We are very excited about receiving Google funding to work on this project because this incredibly simple concept — don’t ask for money from people who have already given to you — is quite complicated to implement, and the technology does not currently exist at a level that small newsrooms can access.
Why do you think the project is so important for the industry?
We have long wondered why no affordable technology like this is available. The ability to fundraise through membership all year round would be an incredible boost for news organizations’ bottom line.
It is our hope that the Audience Tracking and Membership Conversion Toolkit will give small, local news organizations more control over messaging modals, prevent reader fatigue, and significantly increase year-round membership and subscription conversion.
VTDigger, like many nonprofits, is shifting from time-limited membership drives to year-round membership promotions as a way to increase base revenues from monthly members.
Currently, VTDigger cannot run membership appeals messaging on our platforms year-round because readers are discouraged if their news experience is cluttered with too many popups, especially if they’ve already given.
In order to promote monthly membership without annoying readers who have already donated, we need to develop tools that allow us to only solicit membership donations and email subscriptions from readers who have not yet converted.
Ultimately, these tools will be a vehicle for supporting small newsrooms with sustainable sources of revenue from local readers.
What’s going to make the project a success in your mind?
The project will be a success if we are able to seamlessly customize popup appeals to readers on all of our platforms while suppressing that messaging for existing members. For our readers, this will result in an uninterrupted news reading experience for those who already support VTDigger, and for those who haven’t yet become members, popup appeals will be timely and related to the topics they read.
We are making this project open source, so success for us will also mean being able to share a valuable toolkit with our nonprofit newsroom peers, enabling them to raise more sustainable dollars and boosting the overall local news ecosystem.
Are you or have you experienced any of the challenges outlined in your project?
We regularly receive feedback from our most loyal members whose experience on our website is encumbered by our appeals. We have additionally experienced members canceling their donations because of the appeals. We ourselves have been challenged to efficiently use the website without continual donation reminders. With better ushering of our members through the funnel, we can better test messaging as well as targeting, to make fundraising less burdensome for all involved.
How critical do you see email subject line messaging and effective popups to grow a newsletter subscriber business and the tools needed to make the work with your audience?
We have learned over the past five years that popup drip campaigns — especially exit-intent messaging — are effective tools for driving subscriptions and membership. Our current subscription campaign is drawing 1,000 new email subscribers a month, for example.
But we have also found that readers become fatigued by dropdowns and popunders. And readers who have already subscribed or donated are especially annoyed by promotions, sometimes leading them to unsubscribe.
That’s why, in order to pursue effective year-round membership and subscription pushes, we need to build a program that suppresses promotions for readers who have already converted.
How far along is the project?
We are in the preliminary stages of the project right now and we are looking forward to sharing our progress with the Google team as we progress.
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