Thirty news organizations from North America are currently participating in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator program, focused on reader revenue. Local Media Association staff joined and participated in the virtual workshops.
The news organizations — half of which are owned or led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, or other people of color — were invited to 12 weeks of group sessions led by Blue Engine Collaborative, a consortium of mission-driven consultants and advisors focused on driving digital audience growth and revenue. As part of the program, participants also received customized coaching from the team at Blue Engine. Together with their coaches, Accelerator teams put together test and project plans to jump-start or grow their digital subscription/membership businesses. Teams also received grant funds to execute on their reader revenue strategies.
This article is one in a series of case studies from LMA on selected Accelerator participants, to share ideas and insights with the industry. This case study features The Sumter Item in South Carolina.
Key takeaways for publishers:
- Focus on the middle of the audience funnel when developing reader engagement tactics.
- Tell your own story as a news organization
- Move your newsroom beyond a pageview-centric approach to measuring success so you can understand what journalism subscribers value most.
Before the Accelerator
The Sumter Item is a 127-year-old family-owned newspaper company covering three counties in central South Carolina totaling roughly 200,000 residents. Sumter is about an hour east of Columbia, and roughly two hours north of Charleston.
“If The Sumter Item wasn’t in this region, Sumter would be a large news desert in the Midlands of South Carolina. Almost everything we do and publish wouldn’t exist without our organization and our journalists,” said Publisher Vince Johnson.
The Item team has sought new ways to engage with readers in the last few years. The team hosts communitywide events with readers and started a community advisory board that meets monthly via web conference. It also added new print and digital features, and moved into podcasting and video using a new studio space.
The fact it is a small, independent news organization, Johnson said, provides an enormous advantage: the ability to be flexible and make changes quickly to benefit the staff and community.
But as a smaller media company, The Item team didn’t always have the knowledge or resources to develop strategies for all revenue opportunities — including reader revenue. The company had grown revenue in video, events, sponsored content and contests, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the team identified reader revenue as a “crucial” aspect of its future, Johnson said.
The team had participated in a past Table Stakes cohort, so it was starting to home in on a strategy; but, Johnson said, The Item did not become “laser-focused” on reader revenue through its participation in the Accelerator.
“Before this, I believed the strength of our local journalism and digital innovation saved our reputation within our community,” Johnson said. “But building for our future, our subscription experience has to match our great local journalism.”
Metrics that matter
Before the Accelerator, the discussion at weekly newsroom meetings focused on page views, other baseline metrics and what was “performing well” based on those metrics. But the conversations about deeper reader engagement lacked data and context.
Now the team uses these gatherings to track the reader journey through to subscriptions and retention.
“Both official and unofficial meetings center around digital subscriptions today, which was never the case a few years ago,” Johnson said.
Involve all areas of the organization
At the start of the Accelerator, Item staff members knew they wanted to involve more people in this program than were involved in Table Stakes. They had five people attend the weekly calls, more than what was required for participation. They also recapped presentations from the Accelerator in staff meetings to share what they had learned.
Since then, more staff members are discussing metrics and reader revenue than ever before, Johnson said.
Dork Alahydoian, the Blue Engine coach working with The Item’s team, said he was impressed with the cross-functional, collaborative approach the team had to executing on ideas.
Take a data-driven approach
One of the core elements of the Accelerator is teaching teams how to take a data- and insights-driven approach to making decisions and that is how the Sumter team now operates.
The Sumter team uses Google Analytics as its primary data analytics platform and has begun using the tool to segment and better understand its audiences. The Item has audience goals configured in GA and is tracking more carefully how readers engage with its journalism on digital platforms.
The team was able to define a “subscribers” segment: users returning to the site more than 15 times a month. Staff members also focused on those who visited three times a month.
Before the Accelerator, they had not looked at their audience in different buckets, Johnson said. They now saw they had different audiences, not just one. With those segmented audiences, they were able to determine what subscribers were reading and what non-subscribers were trying to read, and that helped them make informed decisions on what to write about.
“And so we realize that we do have a lot of people that, you know, they’re top of funnel, and that’s OK. And we’ve got some people that can work their way down the funnel,” he said.
Also as a result of evaluating data, journalists started writing more positive, community-building stories. While arrest reports and breaking news were still often at the top for page views, they found that subscribers were deeply engaging with more feature stories and in-depth crime reporting on the site.
Alahydoian said he saw The Item develop quickly during the Accelerator regarding how the team members used data.
“I was impressed by their willingness to dive into the data to try to understand their funnel, their total openness to testing different hypotheses, their persistence when it came to testing new ideas, and their patience with test results,” he said.
Learning to tell their story
Another lesson Item staff members learned from the Accelerator was how much they hadn’t articulated their own story to their readers.
Inspired by the success of writing more positive, community-driven stories, hey also added a more personal tone to their newsletters, including introductions written by Johnson and other staff members.
They also started responding to readers who would ask questions on Facebook about why a story was behind a paywall. Executive Editor Kayla Green said she started to develop a list of responses to share with readers, which helped explain the value of the journalism.
A lot of readers still had the misconception that The Item was solely supported by advertising.
“You know, we had never taken the time to explain why that’s not true anymore,” she said.
Tactics deployed as a result of the Accelerator
The team focused on three key strategies and saw several key growth areas as a result of lessons learned in the Accelerator:
- Remove friction from the purchase flow: Before the Accelerator, the various journeys users had on the site weren’t always great, Johnson said. Early in the Accelerator, the team set out to improve reader journeys on its website. Team members changed the prompt on their subscriber gateway, which they admitted was a terrible user experience where the “Subscribe” button was far down on the page. As a result, The Item saw a 650% increase in visits to the subscriptions page. The Item also started offering an annual subscription rate, for which more people signed up than they expected.
- Shaking the mid-funnel: The Item only had a couple hundred digital-only subscriptions even though the option was always there, but they had collected 50,000 opt-in email addresses in about three years. However, they had never segmented that list based on former subscribers, non-subscribers, loyal email readers, etc. The team realized they had never engaged those groups with a specific email asking them to subscribe. They A/B tested several offer rates based on the segment and saw about a 3.5x growth in digital-only subscribers over a two-month period. They went from gaining half a new start a day in 2019 to 2 a day in 2020, and now they gain up to 5.5 a day.
- Optimize the tech stack: The Item also saw the value of knowledge sharing in the cohort, particularly around what service providers other news organizations were using and which ones were more supportive of news organizations. Johnson said the team has gone back to its current providers and asked more of them. Staff members took screenshots of subscription pages they liked from other companies and sent them to service providers to give them more specifics on what The Item needed.
Together, these efforts helped the team grow their digital subscriber base by 300, among other benefits, generating over $70,000 in customer lifetime value (CLV).
The team intends to double that performance through the use of it’s Accelerator grant to hire a full-time email newsletter editor and investing in leaner subscription sign-up flows and updating their billing capabilities.