Thirty news organizations from North America recently wrapped up the Meta 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 sixth 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 Mississippi Free Press.
When Mississippi Free Press launched in March 2020, the founders quickly realized they had to accelerate their timeline to membership and sustainability as COVID-19 numbers were exploding in the state.
They were building a loyal audience, capable of donating more and even faster than expected. The team knew they needed to develop a membership program, but had a lot of questions.
The answers to these questions came from their participation in the Meta Reader Revenue Accelerator program, which occurred during the spring and summer of 2021. The program helped MFP grow newsletter subscribers by nearly 1,000 and brought in 697 new paying members. They did this through creating a culture of testing and learning, creating value for their members, and using events to engage with their audience.
Publisher and Co-Founder Kimberly Griffin said they had a solid base of recurring donors at launch, but the program gave them the tools to start engaging with them more – and to create a sustainable base for the future.
“These [early] supporters joined us without expectation. We needed a defined membership program to keep these founding members while attracting new recurring donors,” she said.
The value of membership
In the early stages of the company when the team had only five people and big goals, they needed funds to stay operational and pay everyone. That made it easier to focus on larger donors, Editor and Co-Founder Donna Ladd said.
But after she saw smaller donations come in from all parts of the state of Mississippi, Ladd said her thinking shifted. She started to see those donors as potential future large donors, or people who could open doors to other funders.
“To me, that shows kind of our grassroots appeal and inclusiveness,” she said. “It was a revelation for us to see recurring donors as a way to get larger money.”
Blue Engine Coach Ryan Tuck said the team was asking the right questions about their audiences when they started the program. But they needed to better focus on collecting data and communicating with their audiences. They needed to learn more about what they wanted – and what a larger number of them would support. So the team surveyed donors to ask what they might want MFP membership to look like and what perks they might want.
Tuck said the best thing the team did was they didn’t get too caught up in the form or model.
“Instead of waiting for a plan, they built one through doing. They are a fantastic example of agile and test-and-learn in action,” he said.
Using a sprint tool to prioritize tasks and doing
The Accelerator introduced teams to Blue Engine’s sprint planning tool, which the Free Press team said immediately became invaluable to them. They started with a backlog of things that they thought would have the biggest impact on their revenue goals and then scored each task based on ease of implementation.
These types of adjustments were described by Griffin as the big and small forward motion that was essential for the team to execute on to grow revenue and membership.
They were able to check off five of those tasks relatively quickly, which was a huge boost to team morale and created early momentum.
Two of those five tasks were to redesign the donation and newsletter signup buttons on the homepage to make them easier to see and click on. Both of those actions had immediate results, with newsletter subscribers increasing by 50 percent from 1,998 to 2,918.
They also hadn’t synced their donor list with their email list, and added an opt-in button to subscribe people to the newsletter when they made a donation.
The positive results of those small changes made the concept of testing less scary to the team.
“We’re empowered to ask more questions about what’s possible. Frankly, we’d like to test more than we do, but we test more than we ever have,” Griffin said.
Telling their story to their audience
Another of their new tactics that the Accelerator encouraged was to experiment with prominent messaging to their readers explaining that donations were a way to support the Free Press. Among other things, the team created an in-line button within stories to promote ways to support the Free Press.
The site had a few stories go viral on social media early in the pandemic, including a story about a person being hospitalized for taking Ivermectin to treat COVID-19. Most readers who clicked on that story bypassed the homepage, landing instead on the story link. This meant they were unlikely to be familiar with the Free Press and its mission.
As she watched stories go viral and the editorial team continued to execute on a successful social media strategy, Griffin realized these new audiences might see value in their work if they were presented with the opportunity to support it.
“They don’t know us. They don’t know we’re nonprofit. And so it’s amazing for them to read a story and go, ‘oh, these people are not-for-profit, let me give them five bucks, 10 bucks, 20 bucks,’” she said.
Through continued and persistent experimentation on-site, and via newsletters and social media, the team increased their number of average monthly transactions from 96 to 187 donations. They also reduced their number of payment tiers and lowered their minimum donation amount from $10 to $5, which helped bring in new donors and reduce friction in their purchase flow – another core pillar from the accelerator.
The power of live events
When the Free Press launched at the start of COVID-19, virtual events were the only option they had. The team was able to develop a loyal following to their “MFP Live” series that grew after they started booking a variety of guests ranging from state officials to filmmakers with ties to Mississippi.
The videos are broadcast on Facebook and YouTube, and the staff takes some of the footage and turns it into shorter video clips for stories and on social media.
In December, they also did their first members-only live event, hosting an interview with Academy Award-nominated Actress Aunjanue Ellis who recently appeared in King Richard.
When viewers tune into the live events, they see a ticker at the bottom of the screen sharing links to where to donate and how to join. Ladd and Griffin also take a minute to explain to readers who the Free Press is and that they are a nonprofit organization.
The program brings voices from women and communities of color, which are often not heard in other talk shows in the state. As a result of this inclusivity, the live events have helped create a community that encourages donor retention.
“Our membership is wonderfully diverse and appreciates connecting with one another and our guests,” Griffin said.