Thirty news organizations in the U.S. and Canada grew their total customer lifetime value by almost $10 million as a result of what they learned and applied in the Meta Journalism Project’s Reader Revenue Accelerator program.

Representatives from the media companies participated in 12 weeks of virtual group sessions in 2021, and also spent six months executing on a grant strategy, applying program lessons.

Brian Edwards, associate publisher of program participant Native News Online, said the Accelerator was nothing short of transformational for the website and the company.

“We have fully embraced agile development in all areas of the company — audience development, editorial, production, marketing, and sales,” he said. “The Accelerator helped us realize that gut instinct has a place as long as you frame it with a hypothesis, set reasonable time frames to experiment, and measure results when you’re done. It also provided us with tools to manage, track and measure our tests so we could make more data-driven decisions.”

The program was led by Blue Engine Collaborative, a consortium of mission-driven consultants and advisors focused on driving digital audience growth and revenue. Participants from previous accelerator cohorts also served as coaches for the news organizations. The program is funded by the Meta Journalism Project with financial support and other organization provided by the Local Media Association. Worldwide, Accelerator publishers reported almost $75 million in total customer lifetime value over the last 3 years.

Participants set “SMART Goals” (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) and kept track of growth in at least three areas: new registrations (such as newsletter subscribers), new paying subscribers or new members, and customer lifetime value. In total, the cohort generated:

  • $9.9 million customer lifetime value
  • 24,000 new paying subscribers
  • 103,000 new free subscribers and 31,000 new site registrations

Here are five strategies a news organization can execute as a way to grow reader revenue:

Launch desktop notifications to grow the top of the funnel

The Hill Times, Canada’s government and politics news service, implemented desktop push notifications on its website. The notifications added 6,300 unique users and drove an average of 300 visits per day to the site. Desktop notifications have a high engagement rate and have also been a driver for digital subscriptions.

For publishers looking to launch desktop notifications, the team realized they had underestimated the number of readers who would opt-in for these alerts. They had predicted they would get only 2,000 to sign up, compared to the 6,300.

Program impact:

“We’re faster and we test more and because of the program and the coaching, we’ve found ways to test and ‘melt ice cubes’ all across our reader funnel.”

Ann Marie Creskey, publisher of The Hill Times

Launch first membership drive that explains the mission to readers

QCity Metro, which covers the African-American community in Charlotte, North Carolina, launched its first membership drive at the end of the program. The campaign focused on the origin and mission behind the organization. The drive lasted 12 days and brought in 100 new members. The team learned that messaging and timing are everything when it comes to successful membership drives.

For publishers looking to launch their first membership drive, the QCity Metro team learned that for members to join, they needed to feel connected to each other and the mission.

Program impact:

“We will no longer be afraid to ask for money.”

Bethany Lane, revenue strategist at QCity Metro

Re-launch membership program to focus on acquisition and stewardship

The Chicago Reader, which is the process of converting to nonprofit status in its 50th year in operation, started the program without running any new member or donor program in five months. Now, over the course of the program and the grant period, they have completed four successful donor and member campaigns. The results were more than 1,800 new members and the average one-time donation increased from $18 to $63 in just under a year.

For publishers looking to apply the same lessons, they should align membership levels to what the average donation was. For the Reader, $5 continues to be the most popular amount, and the perks of the membership program are set up to incentivize that amount.

Program impact:

“We now have a repeatable system for running member, donor, and newsletter acquisition campaigns that we can build upon, test, and grow.”

Karen Hawkins, co-publisher of The Chicago Reader

Launch a reader onboarding program that deepens the readers’ relationship with the content and the community

The Bulletin in Bend, Oregon, launched a 55-day email onboarding series for registered users. The welcome series walked readers through each beat or topic the publication covers, and included personal introductions from newsroom staff. The team also promoted subscription links with CTAs to unique offers in eight of the 55 emails. The results were a 372% increase in conversion on the offer page, 66% journey completion rate, and 233% increase in referrals to the offer page from email onboarding.

For publishers looking to start a program like this, the Bend Bulletin team learned a valuable lesson about how to find new residents to the area. Instead of purchasing an email list, they did a direct mail campaign and also ran Facebook ads targeted to users in the region who shared a life event of moving.

Program impact:

“We are now working across departments and collaborating in ways we had never before to treat our digital subscribers like the gold they are and reach new audiences.”

Jeremy Feldman, director of audience development at EO Media Group

Use tools to study reader behavior on the site

The AFRO, one of the nation’s oldest newspapers covering the African-American community, used Hotjar, an affordable tool that tracks a user’s session on the site. This data allowed the team to correct broken links and make more precise changes to their purchase flow. The results were an increase in visitors who come to the site more than twice within 30 days by 12%. The AFRO also increased the average site rate visit by 116%.

For publishers looking to understand reader behavior through a tool, they can also use this data to make changes to their article page template, which is what the AFRO team did.

Program impact:

“We cannot manage what we cannot measure. We are now dedicating resources, capital and better informed team members, to monitor our key indicators.”

Dana Peck, digital solutions director at The AFRO

For news organizations who would like to learn more about what publishers learned in this Accelerator cohort, check out our case study page here. You can sign up for LMA’s newsletter here.

From November 2021 to March 2022, 30 new U.S. publishers joined another round of the Accelerator led by Blue Engine. The group has started working on their grants and will finish their work in the fall. Meanwhile, 16 publishers in Canada are in the midst of their reader revenue Accelerator program. LMA will publish case studies on these programs after they wrap up.