Thirty news organizations from North America recently participated 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 fifth 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 Plug.

When describing early days of The Plug, Founder and CEO Sherrell Dorsey said they were chaotic. She was a “solo-preneur” writing all of the content for the newsletter covering the Black tech community.

Dorsey set out to create the Black Bloomberg and was hyper-focused on her audiences from the start, targeting investors, technologists, and C-suite executives who want to create more inclusive companies.

In the early days, she focused on creating relevant content for those audiences, which would prove out her paid membership model.

After she grew her audiences organically and scraped together enough money to pay an hourly fee to her first managing editor, she knew she had to take goal setting and audience targeting to the next level.

That’s where the Facebook Accelerator program came in and helped her grow her membership by 15 percent. In particular, the program and her coaches helped Dorsey and the growing team move from setting goals by quarter based on the needs of the company to S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goals that were focused on making fast improvements to seek out early wins.

“When you’re starting up, you’re constantly in survival mode. Attaching revenue and member goals strategically gives us a north star and a way to help us better align our work with measured results,” she said.

The company now has four full-time employees, plus 10 part-time contractors. With a grant from the Accelerator program, The Plug invested more in marketing and audience engagement, which powered growth of its paid membership program, and adopted a clearer budget and goals than ever before.

Sprinting to seek out early wins: Before the program, the small team put marketing on the back burner. By shifting to an agile-based sprint approach, team members were able to market the company and get their top-flight journalism published each week.

The coaching team at Blue Engine Collaborative encourages publishers to work in short sprints, where they iterate and test quickly in two-week cycles and then adjust further in future sprints based on what they learned.

Sherrell Dorsey, founder and CEO of The Plug

“The design sprints were empowering for our team, as our day-to-day is usually designed around the need to get as much done as possible to stay alive,” Dorsey said. “Sprints helped us to focus on the target we’re actually trying to hit, and use experimentation to better parse out the work required to reach our goals.”

Even if a sprint wasn’t a total success, or if the outcome they hypothesized didn’t happen, the team would have lessons to apply to future tests. Dorsey said that approach was far more effective in driving growth than not testing at all or getting bottlenecked as the organization once did.

Asking readers to support the work: Prior to the Accelerator, Dorsey said, The Plug was only “softly” asking people to become paying subscribers.

But after some early sprint tests showed results, team members realized they needed to be more persistent and push opportunities to join more frequently. The sprints helped them overcome their internal fear of sounding like a “car salesman,” Dorsey said, and built confidence to better make the ask of their audiences.

In its membership renewal campaign, in particular, the team clearly articulated the value of the Pro Membership, which included more custom content the audience craved, as well as access to a customizable dashboard and downloadable reports.

The updated marketing language and membership campaign resulted in $4,000 in membership sales in five days. Half of those were early renewals.

“Even though I have a marketing background, I might have been more so focused on events and partnerships versus this kind of recurring revenue that we’ve been experimenting with for the last two years,” Dorsey said.

Adding value to the membership: The Plug also added membership benefits halfway through the Accelerator, which propelled a lot of early renewals. These benefits were based on listening to audiences — another of the essentials the team learned in the Accelerator — and tying the benefits to what readers said they wanted.

Before the Accelerator, there wasn’t an engagement or social strategy around product launches. But when The Plug re-launched its website this year, the team added a member preview perk, a launch party, and more clear language around membership benefits.

The staff also surveyed members to get a better understanding of what they felt was missing from the site and how the staff could better inform them. Readers said they wanted to connect more with each other and have a place to express ideas.

Based on that feedback, Dorsey’s team integrated a community management platform available only to members.

Fran Scarlett, The Plug’s dedicated coach from Blue Engine, said the team didn’t just offer arbitrary benefits for the sake of providing benefits. Team members listened to what really mattered to their audiences, which is critical to “paying off” a differentiated value proposition — and unlocking consumer revenue growth.

“​​They recognized that creating a community for their audience was as important as offering data sets and other tangible benefits that come along with Plug membership,” she said.

Dorsey said the new outreach to members also created an engagement feedback loop.

“Refining member benefits can be as simple as asking your existing members what they value,” she said.

Team alignment: As the staff has grown, Dorsey also applied Accelerator lessons to create cross-functional ownership of results (what the Blue Engine team calls “getting everyone in the canoe.”)

With COVID-19 risks lessened in the last few months, the team held a retreat for the first time. The first day was focused on the company values and mission, which helped inform the mostly new staff. The second day, Managing Editor Monica Melton presented ideas on how to refine the messaging and voice of The Plug.

Just about all of that refined messaging came out of goals set and tests run during the Accelerator, Dorsey said.

“We wanted to make sure that as our team was growing, every single person felt connected to where we were heading.”