Digital startup Word In Black has a lofty goal to reach 500,000 newsletter subscribers in the next two years. With support from the Google News Initiative and Local Media Association, founding members recently agreed to fund three low-cost initiatives to boost newsletter subscriptions. They gained an added benefit from these audience growth initiatives: they generated hundreds of donations and thousands of dollars of reader revenue support for Word In Black.

Word In Black

Here are some of the tactics the collaborative used, and the results:

1. Paid email marketing campaign

Test: Word In Black executed an email marketing campaign targeting nationwide readers in specific interest and demographic categories in two metro areas — Indianapolis and New Orleans. One target was people who had donated to causes, since Word In Black is also growing its base of donors.

Results: The email — a note from the managing director explaining Word In Black and a collection of recent stories — reached a half million inboxes, and was opened more than 16,500 times. It drove a noticeable increase in traffic to the site, but led to fewer than a dozen email signups.

Lessons: The email marketing initiative benefitted brand exposure but not newsletter subscriptions. With future email marketing campaigns, Word In Black could experiment with a more focused message instead of a sampling of content, or consider email sponsors to cover the cost of distributing to qualified email addresses.

2. Facebook lead generation

This is an example of the Word In Black Facebook lead generation ads.

Test: Word In Black tested Facebook’s paid campaigns using a lead generation objective that allowed consumers to fill out an instant form with their email address. The ads shared original content, targeting a nationwide audience that was a lookalike of existing subscribers. With the help of Social News Desk, the ads used recent, dynamic, original Word In Black content.

Results: The Facebook campaign was seen by more than 17,000 users and resulted in 730 verified leads, almost all of which have confirmed their subscription to the Word In Black weekly newsletter.

Lessons: The new subscribers skewed toward an older age demographic, so for future campaigns on Facebook, the team aims to garner buy-in from a more diverse audience through changes in targeting.

3. Organic networking initiatives

Test: The 10 Word In Black publishers leveraged their own email lists to market the Word In Black newsletter, getting in front of audiences already interested in news from the Black perspective. Additionally, Word In Black has seen breakout success on social media, where publishers and Word In Black share ongoing promotions.

Social shares of a story about Word In Black drove significant traffic, email signups and donations.

Results: The Word In Black newsletter has seen tremendous organic growth since launching in July, totaling nearly 5,000 subscribers, driven by several organic growth tactics. Publishers made a direct ask to subscribers of their own publications’ newsletters to sign up for updates from Word In Black, and become active about sharing Word In Black stories and columns. A recent social media share from investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spawned hundreds of new signups via the website, as well as one-time and recurring donations to Word In Black.

Lessons: It’s easy to underestimate the power of in-house promotions to build organic newsletter signups. Social media — especially sharing from personal accounts — can play a major part in amplifying the mission and work of the news organization. Moving forward, Word In Black aims to increase the frequency of the newsletter promotions, explain the value of the work, and strengthen the onboarding messaging to keep subscribers engaged.

Through these combined efforts, newsletter subscribers more than doubled in September. Ultimately growing a national newsletter from scratch requires the kind of testing that will inform future investments and initiatives in order to reach half a million subscribers.