Thirteen news organizations from Canada recently completed the immersive period in 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 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. LMA will report on their results later this year.

Most news organizations understand that newsletters are a core part of their audience growth and reader revenue approaches. Newsletters provide an effective channel for engaging with audiences offsite, encouraging them to visit and read more often. And they move readers down the funnel more efficiently, ultimately to become dedicated financial supporters.

But how many news organizations have figured out how to optimize newsletters with clear calls to action (CTAs) that grow revenue meaningfully for their companies?

That’s what many participants in the recent Meta Accelerator for Canadian publishers learned: what buttons, offers pages and calls to action drive the most growth. Here are five lessons from the Accelerator and ways your news organization can adapt them:

1. Get readers to ‘keep reading’ via a button

The team at The Walrus, a national news site that provokes new thinking and sparks conversation on matters vital to Canadians, set a goal of increasing the click-through rate in their newsletter.

Bryan Maloney, director of audience engagement, said team members did some testing prior to the program, but the program’s guidance on ordering tests based on agile methodology helped their tests get sharper and, eventually, more effective.

“The big change for us was the use of the backlog and scorecard for recording the tests and results. It helped us focus on the goals and outcomes,” he said.

Previously, the newsletter had embedded links but no clear call to action. They tested buttons that said “click here for full story” and “keep reading.” The clear winner was the “keep reading” button. Once they made it part of the newsletter template, they saw the click-through rate increase by 200%.

The team at the Walrus found that a “keep reading” button was the most effective at increasing the click-through rate in the newsletter.

2. Test multiple buttons in your newsletter to increase click-through rate

The Fort Frances Times is a newspaper that has been around for more than 125 years and is one of the oldest businesses in the Fort Frances region.

The Times had been a “historically print-focused organization,” but that changed through the 12-week intensive portion of the Accelerator program. Team members knew they needed to focus more on digital readers, so their first big test was redesigning the email newsletter.

A new layout focused on one big story and added a “read more” button for each story in the newsletter. They also made their email subject line the headline of the lead story.

A view of the redesigned Fort Frances Times newsletter, which included more buttons.

The changes resulted in a 52% increase in the click-through rate from the newsletter onto the site. During this time period where they changed the design, they also saw a 63% increase in newsletter subscribers.

Lincoln Dunn, general manager of the Fort Frances Times, said the program propelled a significant mind shift for team members. They started to prioritize digital readership in a way they never had before.

“If our newspaper is to survive in the long term, we need to embrace, engage and prioritize our digital readers with intentionality – and we need to do it now,” he said.

3. Use buttons to consistently ask readers for support

Before the Accelerator program, the team at The Capital Daily wasn’t consistently asking for financial support. Team members would ask occasionally when an editor suggested it, but Membership Manager Nikki Frazer said the team felt “awkward” doing it.

An example of the Capital Daily’s new emails asking readers to donate.

“The Accelerator acknowledged the fact that almost all news organizations feel some sort of apprehension around asking for money, and by talking to other brands in breakout rooms about their awkwardness, we could get over these feelings and test things out,” Frazer said.

The program made them realize they needed to ask more often and in different ways. They started sending regular emails from the staff, and added graphics highlighting member benefits such as early registration to events in Victoria.

Over the course of the first 12 weeks of the program, the team gained 127 new members as a result of the email campaigns. Before the program, the team wasn’t tracking membership consistently, and the organization was also losing members.

4. Optimize your offer page for all those button clickers

Driving your audience to a landing page that doesn’t convert means no growth. Energetic City, which covers Northeast British Columbia, redesigned its contribution page to make sure its “contribute here” button drove business results.

By implementing a “squeeze page” — which steers readers toward a specific offer using simple language, the team drove a 175% increase in new supporters in a 3-month period, and its conversion rate on the page grew from 1.17% to 2.29%.

Adam Reaburn, owner and general manager, said it was a shift for team members to think of designing a page that encouraged donations. Their content has always been free, so they spent a lot of time in the program learning to articulate their mission.

A look at the new squeeze page on the Energetic City website.

“We felt like we had to start over and train people in that there is a cost associated with journalism. We needed to start the process of explaining what that is, why it is, and where they come into play,” he said.

5. Newsletters aren’t the only place to use buttons. Use customized pop-ups on your site to grow different newsletter audiences.

An example of the new newsletter popups on Le Soleil.

The team at Le Soleil, which covers the French-speaking community in Quebec, started digging into its newsletter data at the start of the program. Team members discovered that newsletters weren’t performing as well as they could, and that they were relying on an outdated tech stack for sending emails.

Marc Gendron, director of digital growth, said they started testing a new email marketing platform, which enabled them to A/B test subject lines and content.

At the same time, they started customizing their newsletter signup pop-ups. Instead of having one generic call to action for all newsletters, they created custom designs for different newsletters. Signups grew instantly and resulted in 397 new newsletter signups during the course of the first 12 weeks of the program.

Gendron said the learnings from their newsletter experiments during the program have encouraged them to experiment more.

“It made us realize that we were probably leaving money and subscribers on the table because of our lack of optimization,” he said. “Some small tweakings in the customer journey could bring us a very long way.”