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 the third in a series of case studies from LMA on selected Accelerator participants, to share ideas and insights with the industry. This case study features Native News Online.
The six-person team at Native News Online once had a “throw everything against the wall” approach to experimentation and innovation. Through the Accelerator, the team adopted an “agile” approach to experimentation that allowed them to work more quickly and achieve better results.
Agile thinking: The Accelerator taught them the concept of agile, which allowed them to test hypotheses and adjust their courses of action based on results of each test. Now, if the team is going to change something, team members set goals and ways to measure the results.
“We realized that gut instinct has a place as long as you frame it with a hypothesis and measure the results when you’re done,” said Brian Edwards, the associate publisher of Native News Online.
Making small changes and measuring the results has also allowed the team to move forward more confidently — without the need for perfection, said Kristi Kortman, audience development director.
“It’s really just framing all of those things, and then not being afraid to try something and not being 100 percent sure of the outcome,” she said.
The team, composed of people from editorial, UX and audience development roles brought this approach to improving its approach to engaging its audience at each stage of their marketing funnel. To move quickly, different members of the team were asked to own different areas of the funnel.
To visualize the funnel lesson, Edwards said he turned to the whiteboard in his office and wrote down people’s names next to the funnel stages they already naturally owned because of their work.
“We talked about it during [the team’s daily scrum meeting] the next day, and it stuck,” he said. “Everyone got the part of the funnel that they wanted and that also made the most sense.”
Reduce friction in the checkout: One place the group decided could use a rapid redesign was its checkout flow — feedback from industry experts during the Accelerator led the group to tear up their checkout process and start over.
Edwards said the checkout flow wasn’t actually even on the radar when the team started the Accelerator, but that changed a few weeks into the program after the audit.
Team members scoped the redesign and sent it to their development team, who finished it in six weeks. Early results on the experience, which launched Sept. 10, showed that the cleaner design was paying off, and they were also receiving more recurring donations through newly added payment options such as Google Pay and PayPal.
The scrum methodology was key in the product launch, as they used that time to talk through the little issues and ask questions about what information they absolutely needed from readers, Edwards said.
The team added checkboxes that allowed donors to make monthly recurring donations and to cover their own processing fees, adding 11 new monthly donors since the launch, and a significant increase in fees being covered by readers.
Asking readers to support the work: The core audience of Native News Online, which spans all 50 states, has always primarily been members of the federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and Canada. Publisher Levi Rickert started Native News Online in 2011 and worked by himself until the start of 2020, when others came on board.
Rickert said asking for money is sometimes a cultural taboo in the Native community.
“To ask for money is sometimes very hard for Native people, and quite frankly, I think I’ve gotten out of that shell. Now I have a little more confidence with being able to ask,” he said.
Cierra Hinton, the team’s Accelerator coach, said the experience of the group reminded her of her experience as an Accelerator participant as the executive director-publisher of Scalawag. When you’re a small team, it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to realize your dreams.
Working in an agile way gives teams an approach that can bridge that gap.
“When you join a program like the Facebook Accelerator and are given tools that allow you to think about your work in a way that makes it more strategic and manageable, it’s a game changer,” she said.
The news organization’s best year for donations in its 10-year history prior to the program was roughly $3,200. It wasn’t until COVID-19 that the team started appealing more directly to readers with a website drop-down that said “Subscribe.” But after talking with their coach, Hinton, team members realized some readers might think it referred to a paid subscription. They updated buttons on the upper right of the home page to give readers a clear call-to-action that says “Donate” and “Get Newsletter.”
Hinton said she was impressed with how willing the team was to change.
“Once we introduced agile methodology and test-and-learn principles as a part of programming, and they were able to connect that framework to what they experienced with the moving their newsletter sign-up button, they immediately understood how they could apply that same framework to other parts of their work,” she said.
The team also added more in-article links and text to encourage people to subscribe to the newsletter and donate. Those changes have resulted in huge growth. In April, they were averaging 13 newsletter signups a day and by June they were averaging 46 newsletter signups a day. By late September, their newsletter subscription list size had grown to more than 10,000 emails in less than five months.
The Accelerator encouraged participants to consider their news organizations to be e-commerce businesses, which Rickert said was an eye-opener for him. With that thinking in mind, team members were able to see value in improving the checkout experience and using different tactics to drive donations.
“Especially me on the editorial side, we don’t think about it as a business per se, which we know it is,” he said.