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 fourth 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 Southeast Missourian.
Though the Southeast Missourian has focused on growing digital subscriptions for several years, a more refined approach to testing and learning in 2021 yielded a 32 percent improvement in new subscription starts from the same time period in 2019, and brought in nearly four times as many new email signups with company’s annual best-of contest, compared to 2020.
The Facebook Accelerator program introduced the Missourian to the scrum framework, which helped the team work faster — and more efficiently — to improve its digital subscriptions and offers. Team members learned to do product development and experimentation in short sprints, which helped them move faster and learn lessons more quickly.
“The sprint and scrum meetings have been transformative for us,” said Jon K. Rust, Southeast Missourian publisher and co-president of Rust Communications.
Sprint and scrum meetings: Before the accelerator, assistant publisher Lucas Presson said, a few staff members focused on subscriptions would meet once a week at most. After the program kicked off, they realized they needed to do more to focus on high priority projects and to keep them moving.
Based on guidance from Blue Engine Collaborative, the team switched to a short daily scrum meeting (where team members would discuss what everyone was doing and how others could help) and a weekly sprint meeting (where they would decide on their next experiment/product iteration and brainstorm on a backlog of items to come next). Sometimes the daily meetings are five minutes if the updates are quick, and sometimes they are longer if staff members really need to work through a problem. Either way, they started to practice what Blue Engine calls the discipline of operating in an agile format — no matter what.
“We are still quick to test theories, but now we’re better about documenting what we’re doing and the results,” Presson said. “Doing so has helped shape future tests and made for better outcomes.”
Keeping score, which is a fundamental principle of the accelerator, and having sustained reader revenue success are things many publishers overlook or don’t do consistently, said Ryan Tuck, the team’s dedicated coach and partner at Blue Engine.
“The Southeast Missourian team did the work that may not be sexy, but that has the biggest impact long term,” Tuck said. “They keep track of everything they do. Good, bad, ugly. What worked. What didn’t. And most importantly: what did we learn and how does that inform what comes next.
“There’s no magic pathway to growth, but staying committed to agile-centered testing and keeping score … that will get any team close. And the Southeast Missourian team is living proof of that.”
Better planning for subscription discounts: The team took a new approach to planning for subscription sales and discounts, which was a persistent focus of their sprints and experiments. Instead of doing a standard back-to-school sale this year, team members came up with a series of campaigns — and a discount offer — around the launch of football season and their premium football product.
The results were a 32 percent improvement in new subscription starts from the same time period in 2019, the year before COVID. They also received 124 total conversions from the sale, which was their most successful discount campaign ever.
Through this and other sales they ran during the accelerator (which are a primary driver for subscriptions in their market), the team has tested different messaging, pricing, and types of content to spotlight. Blue Engine emphasizes that teams need to have a persistent test-and-learn mindset, meaning: they need to conduct persistent small tests based on a hypothesis and learning from the data — regardless of the results. And all of it should use that agile framework.
Presson said the Missourian is probably running the same number of sales as before, but there is more effort put into the execution of these sales and into how they do them.
“We’re mixing them up a little bit better. So we’re not just going back to ‘hey, it’s time for another sale. Here’s 40 percent off,’” he said.
Tuck said: “The team is a great example about how an organization can do something they know really well, in this case discount campaigns, and do it so much better. They just made
small tweaks through several different tests, but they stacked all they learned on top of each other, and their record-setting results speak for themselves.”
Blue Engine emphasizes that testing doesn’t require sophisticated technology or anything other than curiosity and discipline. “Go with readiness” is a mantra of the accelerator. And Tuck said the Southeast Missourian team is a great example of that. Some of team members’ tests were just trying something new and then comparing to a prior campaign. They segmented their emails. They did some A/B testing. “But most importantly, they did what they could when they could,” he said. “That’s the magic.”
Grow email lists through contests: The team applied the same test-and-learn approach to its annual People’s Choice contest. After a record year of engagement in 2020 because readers wanted to support local businesses during COVID’s peak, team members were concerned it would be difficult to replicate that success.
So the team spent a lot of time in sprint and scrum meetings building out new aspects of how it wanted to do this year’s contest. Team members added promotional packages for businesses to share with their audience, persistently tested house ads to see which were the most effective, and invested in engaging social copy that shared the number of votes cast and other updates.
The results were 6,520 new users, 1,444 new contest and sale opt-ins, and 2,104 daily headlines opt-ins. In 2020, the team had 5,600 new users and 532 new emails.
“We think of digital subscriptions as one of the core pillars of our current and future business model,” Presson said.
More case studies from the Facebook Reader Revenue Accelerators
- Native News Online adopted agile framework and got better results
- The Sumter Item used reader data to gain subscribers
- The Bulletin created a ‘data-driven environment’ to guide strategy