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 transformative 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.

As Facebook referral traffic generally continues to decline for publishers, many news organizations have shifted their social media strategies to paid advertising. In fact, publishers in this final U.S. cohort of the Meta Reader Revenue Accelerator found that ads on Facebook were more effective than any other social media platform they experimented with for lead generation.

Creating effective campaigns can take a lot of trial and error, a lot of testing and learning. Below are some examples of participating publishers’ winning content, targeting and creative executions for everyone’s testing consideration.

Target local and focus on best performing content

The team at The New Bedford Light applied one of the Accelerator’s 10 essential ingredients — testing and learning — to its project aimed at growing newsletter sign ups through Facebook ads. During the six-month grant period, the team spent roughly $5,000 and generated more than 2,200 new email signups – less than $2.30 a lead.

Brendan Kurie, director of audience for the nonprofit news organization, said the team wanted the ads to focus on the “top of the funnel” to get its work out to more people. Team members targeted the ads to a radius of 15-30 miles around their core coverage area of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Instead of working from a standard template, a few members of the staff met every week and reviewed their content to decide which articles would make the most effective ads.

Through A/B testing on the Facebook advertising platform, they learned that photos worked better than graphics, and one story worked better than a carousel of links. They also found that the most popular stories were consistently the best performing ads. Essentially, the closer the ad represented the publisher’s original digital content, the better the ad performed in generating newsletter sign ups.

Choose content that emphasizes your shared connection to your community

Before the Accelerator program, the team at El Paso Matters had experimented with Facebook ads, but its efforts weren’t particularly focused on performance.

President and CEO Bob Moore said the team decided to engage with a local marketing firm EFO to help develop a strategy for growing newsletter subscriptions through ads.

“We knew we had to build that out to create relationships with more people that could lead to future donations,” he said. “We wildly exceeded our expectations.”

The ads drove more than 4,000 new email signups, and team members were able to get the cost per lead down to roughly $1.

They focused on creating ads that showed the newsroom’s connection to the community. In the summer, the ads had a theme of climate and the environment. In August, they moved onto education topics as students went back to school. They rotate these seasonal topics with a generic El Paso topic once a month.

It’s important to keep the creative fresh

A collaborative team effort to create Facebook ads was a great way for the team at Mississippi Today to apply one of the 10 essentials of the Accelerator program: Get everyone in the canoe.

Lauchlin Fields, audience development director, said team members had to work on designing ads that created a clear value proposition to their readers. They also embraced a culture of testing and learning by monitoring ad performance and changing out the ads each month.

“Our culture of listening and responding to readers also played a role in this strategy,” she said. “We were able to respond to the information needs of our readers by using surveys to know what topics they were most interested in.”

The best performing ad highlighted a five-month investigative project. It yielded more than 900 newsletter signups and cost roughly $1 per email.

Test a variety of target audiences

For a local news outlet as young as new as The Cardinal News, growing the audience was one of the news organization’s top priorities during the program.

Luanne Rife, executive director and chief development officer, said they knew from their analytics that paid advertising was a way to grow the audience at the top of the funnel. They decided to test and see if an increase in ad spend would lead to more newsletter signups. They were correct.

As they started to increase Facebook ad buys to grow their audience, they saw a significant increase in the number of email signups, first from 10 a day, to 20, and then to 50 a day. They ultimately added more than 6,500 email signups during the duration of the program.

The team also worked with marketing firm Foxglove to test lots of different targeting strategies, including some hyper-local targeting of stories in different towns they cover in Southwestern Virginia.

The best performing Facebook ad was a carousel ad that highlighted different popular stories, and then was adjusted based on their coverage area.

Rife said the team experimented with Google and LinkedIn ads, but found that Facebook ads had the lowest acquisition costs.