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June 25, 2018, 10:46 a.m.
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When it comes to launching serious, sustainable membership programs for journalism, ask for more, more often, and aim higher

“The best predictor of membership loyalty is whether an organization has been talking to their audiences already about their need to raise money. The other predictor is how many subscribers you have on your list, and how engaged those subscribers on your list are.”

Many more journalism organizations have been investing real money and time to get their membership programs in order.

That means more work — and business — for the News Revenue Hub, which facilitates membership programs for journalism organizations. It formed in 2016 as an initiative of the Californian nonprofit news site the Voice of San Diego but spun off from its home base last year . For a fee, the Hub works with participating news outlets to set up their membership messaging, pricing and benefits, and the technical infrastructure for retaining members, and offers continuing support throughout the process. The Hub also helps its member organizations with surveys to understand their audience makeup and preferences, and is experimenting with nudges such as a metered popup window encouraging a reader who’s read a certain number of stories to sign up for a newsletter.

“What usually happens is an evolution where, when participants first start, they feel like, ah, we’re talking to our audience so much we’re overwhelming them. But it takes multiple asks and a consistent hard-wired approach before you start to see numbers, before you see the money come in,” Mary Walter-Brown, the Hub’s CEO, said.

More about how news organizations are approaching membership programs, News Revenue Hub or not

Perspectives from The Marshall Project and InsideClimate News, both part of the Hub, on membership as “single-subject” news sites.

— The Intercept is billionaire-supported, but embarking on a membership push as well (as part of the Hub). Why, and how?

— Here’s our coverage of the origin story of the News Revenue Hub.

— Here’s a useful report from the Membership Puzzle Project on what seems to work and what doesn’t.

— The Guardian is turning its finances around, with the help of members: “No prizes, no swag.”

The Hub officially counts more than 20 journalism organizations as Hub members, ranging from small, geography-based news sites like NJ Spotlight and The Incline in Pittsburgh (and its sibling sites Billy Penn and Denverite) to national, subject area-focused sites like The Intercept and the Marshall Project, to training and education-focused trade groups like the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. It’s in the process of finalizing contracts with several other organizations and will launch membership drives for each of these Hub participants in batches through the fall (full, updating list here). Walter-Brown said she anticipates nearly 30 participants in the Hub by the end of the year, if everything proceeds according to plan.

The attitude the Hub operates under has been if you ask, many will give. At least, if you don’t ask and don’t convey the difficulty of the work you do, your readers will never have an opportunity to monetarily express their support for the journalism your outlet produces. Now with more than a year of results from a couple of dozen member organizations, the Hub’s been able to back up the membership strategies it’s used for these news organizations with qualitative and quantitative data.

“Up to now, it’s been about collecting data, giving better projections about how new clients can expect to perform, and zeroing in on what really moves the needle,” Walter-Brown said. “Now, well over 12 months into it, we can start to really make decisions based on data rather than assumptions. We’re able to better predict how the client is going to perform.”

$12 per month, for instance, is a “sweet spot,” representing the average monthly donation across every Hub participant, according to Walter-Brown. The Hub tries to guide all readers to a monthly giving plan: on average, a monthly donor gives ends up giving for around 20 months, while there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the one-time or yearly donors.

“The best predictor of membership loyalty is whether an organization has been talking to their audiences already about their need to raise money. If they’ve established that expectation in any way, although there are some anomalies, that is a great predictor,” Walter-Brown said. “Have they done anything to start to build that loyalty? The other predictor is how many subscribers you have on your list, and how engaged those subscribers on your list are: for instance, are they opening your newsletters on a regular basis?” With participants’ consent, the Hub collects monthly data from them — information that feeds into a model that can then give projections for reasonable revenue goals.

The Maynard Institute, a new Hub member, finds itself in a more unusual position as a journalism trade organization rather than a news outlet that publishes daily or even weekly work. After rigorously reworking its mission for more than a year last year, the Institute is in the middle of developing many new trainings for the industry, bringing on new bigger funders, and pushing forward a multi-year initiative to move at least 200 journalists of color through the media industry pipeline. For support — including financial support — it’s turning more consciously to people who’ve benefited from Institute initiatives in the past. It’s planning on three tiers of membership — family, funders, and financiers — and will offer a dedicated newsletter, potential swag, access to events, meetings, and trainings, as the Institute adds more overall programming.

“We know it’s going to take some time to ramp up, because it’s not like we have some five million readers — we instead have a smaller group, many alumni, who care about our mission,” Martin G. Reynolds, Maynard co-executive director, told me. “But as long as we can effectively reach them and poke our heads in, with all of the new stuff we’re doing and some of the stuff written about us in the trade press, our hope is that that raised profile will also lead the Institute’s graduates and any new people who want to sign on to help support what we do.”

The Maynard Institute is paying $30,000 in fees to the Hub, which Reynolds calculates is ultimately much less than what it would need to pay even a part-time membership manager to handle coordination and setting up software like Salesforce. (Regarding the Hub’s fees, Walter-Brown told me in a follow-up email: “Our pricing structure is evolving as we expand our service. We’d prefer not to publish a set price because there are different circumstances for each organization and we base the price on their service needs. At least four of our clients have received grants to cover the cost of joining the Hub. The others are funding it on their own. Even our lowest performing client in year one made at least 13 times what they invested.”)

“We don’t know what this response will be, what we can expect in terms of an ideal amount of members and funding raised from members. But I’m thrilled and hopeful,” Reynolds said. “[My co-executive director] Evelyn Hsu and I have talked about the fact that we’d really like to have the Institute be able to raise maybe a third of its budget from members, because all of that would be unrestricted.” Right now, less than 10 percent of the budget comes from those donations, he said.

The Hechinger Report is another one of the newest cohort of sites to join the News Revenue Hub, with a membership option for its readers starting at $35 per year, all the way up to special perks for those giving more than $500. (Disclosure: Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton is an advisor to The Hechinger Report, but played no role in assigning or editing this story.) The education coverage nonprofit had been working toward a membership program for some time, Hechinger’s membership manager and West Coast bureau chief Lillian Mongeau told me. In 2015, it ran a crowdfunding campaign through Beacon Reader, the crowdfunding platform for journalism projects, and was able to raise around $42,000 from readers. By 2016, it started to drop membership-type messaging, joining the NewsMatch donations-matching initiative partway through December 2016. It was part of NewsMatch again last year, each year raising from its readers more than the last without aggressive, data-driven membership pushes. With a Knight Foundation grant to cover the initial fees of being part of the Hub, it’s now gearing up for a serious membership drive next month.

Benefits will range from calls with Hechinger reporters at the highest level of giving, to a special newsletter, to swag (“If you ask, people say they they don’t donate to get swag, but frankly, I don’t believe that: we get a lot of donations at the level where swag starts being offered,” Mongeau laughed). It’ll also have a special box that members who are teachers can check, to get a special teacher-focused gift (it wants more teacher-readers).

Hechinger doesn’t have a down-to-the-dollar fundraising goal set in stone. But when I asked for some sense of scale for what it is hoping to raise from readers, Mongeau said that the Hub estimates that every reader email an organization collects is worth roughly $10 in donations, and Hechinger has about 18,000 total people signed up for its newsletters, so that could mean $180,000.

“That really seems so high. That’s more than double we’ve been able to raise in our campaigns,” Mongeau said. (Always be reaching, I guess!) “But I’ll tell you next year what we find. This year I think we’re going to push it, see what happens, and set our new goals based on that.”

Based on the Hub members’ past performance, $180,000 seems achievable. Among news organizations that have been working on their membership programs with the Hub for at least a year, the top news organization was able to raise $900,000, with a median of around $150,000 (on the smaller end: $80,000), according to Walter-Brown.

The Hub is also slowly building its own staff, as well, on top of its original team of a few other former Voice of San Diego staffers Tristan Loper (now the Hub’s chief strategy officer) and Christina Shih (now the Hub’s COO). This spring it brought on Rebecca Quarls from the Texas Tribune to work directly with Hub clients to track their progress. Currently supported by and housed at the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Hub will become its own legal nonprofit by the end of this year.

“Across the board, we see that people who value journalism and appreciate the content that an individual news organization is producing are very willing to help support it financially — if they understand why that news organization needs their financial support, if the organization is willing to make a clear and honest case to the reader why they need their financial support,” Walter-Brown said.

POSTED     June 25, 2018, 10:46 a.m.
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