Twenty-nine 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 10 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.
Several news organizations featured in this case study are also Accelerator cohort members from 2021, in addition to 2022.
How much is audience listening part of your reader engagement strategy? For many newsrooms, it is not yet part of a regular workflow or core strategy. But several news organizations that participated in the Accelerator found surveying readers more often reduced subscriber churn and helped refine coverage.
Tim Griggs, founder and CEO of Blue Engine, said publishers looking to start audience surveys should remember to be focused and specific. News organizations also need to be able to act on the responses to questions they ask readers.
“We work with teams to understand that insights come in many forms (analytics, user testing, one-one-one and small group discussions, surveys, etc.) and that ultimately what matters most is that we’re solving problems for our communities,” he said. “So audience surveys are (generally speaking) a relatively light-effort way to gather audience insights, no matter your budget or resources.”
Here are five ways to approach your audience surveys from alumni of the Accelerator program:
Survey readers to build new products
Before the Accelerator program, Mississippi Today conducted an annual survey, but the team realized it wasn’t providing an accurate picture of their entire audience. That quickly changed once they started dividing their audience in various stages of the reader funnel from casual readers to loyal readers and needed more information about readers in each of those funnel stages.
Lauchlin Fields, audience development director for the organization, the state’s first nonprofit newsroom, said they needed to understand their audience better in order to deploy tactics that would move readers down the funnel to subscribe to the newsletter or donate.
“These audience-specific surveys give us a better understanding of our readers’ needs, which allows us to respond through the products and resources we create,” she said.
So far, they have completed three different audience surveys using audience engagement platform Reach. The first — an Informed Mississipians survey that ran below all of their legislative and government stories — received more than 1,300 responses.
One insight they gleaned from the survey was that readers want a legislative directory, which the team is working on for the next legislative session.
At the bottom of the survey, they also explained why they were surveying them and how responses will be used.
To improve retention and reduce churn, ask subscribers why they are canceling
Shaw Media, a family-owned newspaper group with digital and print publications in Illinois and Iowa, started the Accelerator program knowing that retentaining current subscribers was a challenge. During the 12-week Accelerator immersion period, the team sent an email after subscribers canceled their account online.
The email subject was “Sorry to see you go!” and had an open rate of 67 percent. It asked recipients to take a 30-second survey on why they were canceling their subscription. Price was the overwhelming reason in the responses.
The Accelerator elevated surveys as an important and useful way to engage with readers. Ben Draper, the digital subscriptions director for Shaw, said they had a lot of data on their readers, but the program taught them to identify the data points they were missing.
Because subscribers listed price as the top reason for cancellation, the team has focused on adding value to the experience. They introduced a subscriber-only newsletter that has a 50% open rate. Churn has also declined for three straight months.
“We’re focusing on improving our onboarding and subscriber benefit communication to show the value of a subscription is high,” Draper said.
To refine your community coverage, ask readers what topics they are interested in
When the team at The Capital Journal in Pierra, South Dakota, started the program, it became clear they needed to gain more insights into what readers need. They designed a short survey on Formstack and promoted it in print, on social media, and on the website. As an incentive to engage, participants would be eligible to receive a $100 gift card to a local business.
The team wanted to find subscriber alignment around geographic location and niche topics to inform how they could expand reporting. While those alignments did not emerge from the survey results, readers revealed through an open-ended question that they wanted more outdoor coverage. As a result, the newsroom is adding a newsletter on outdoor coverage.
It had been more than five years since the newsroom asked its audience what it wanted through a formal survey. Coaches encouraged a test-and-learn mindset and making informed decisions based on data, which pushed The Capital Journal to prioritize a survey.
Reilly Kneedler, digital audience editor for Wick Communications, the Journal’s parent company, said the team learned a lesson about survey design.
“It’s impossible to account for everything in your survey design, so make sure to give readers space to provide open-ended feedback,” he said.
Survey readers to narrow platform focus and design products
Founded in 2010, The Shawnee Mission Post in Kansas conducted annual reader satisfaction surveys before joining the Accelerator. After going through the program in early 2021, they learned how to apply the insights gleaned from the results more effectively.
They received more than 850 responses on their Spring 2022 subscriber survey. The survey was seven questions long, and asked subscribers their main reasons for subscribing, what value they got from their subscription, and what topics they would like covered more.
Founder Jay Senter said they used questions in the survey as benchmarks from year to year. Overall satisfaction has stayed steady since 2019, which reaffirmed the team’s decision on coverage.
But as the team worked to launch their expansion site, The Blue Valley Post, they used audience surveys to determine if their coverage mix should be different for the new site, and if readers wanted to see the content on social platforms. Results showed readers weren’t as active on Instagram and Twitter, so they didn’t need to focus on sharing as much content there.
“The Accelerator really helped us understand how we can use survey data to design products, not just to gauge how we’re perceived,” Senter said.
Survey readers to understand audience needs and define goals
When the team at Documented NY, which covers the immigration community in New York City completed their Accelerator learning experience, a top priority was to redesign their newsletter, Early Arrival.
The first step of this process wasn’t design or content updates, but surveying their audience. Fisayo Okare, newsletter writer at Documented, wrote in a Medium post that the team brainstormed what types of questions to ask to design a newsletter that fostered community and engagement.
They received 80 responses from readers, and from that group 18 participated in 1-on-1 conversations with the staff and offered more detail. Participants received gift cards for their time, paid for from the $50,000 grant Documented received as Accelerator participants.
Through the survey results, they learned more about their readers — a majority of whom were professionals working within immigration organizations that needed Documented’s information to do their jobs. These readers can play an important role in sharing the newsletter within their networks.
Mazin Sidahmed, co-founder of Documented, said the Accelerator experience helped them more clearly define the goals of their newsletter.
“We wanted to create a deeper and more personal engagement with Early Arrival readers so they would feel more of a connection to our site and in turn be more inclined to donate,” he said.