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Dec. 19, 2017, 9 a.m.
Business Models

To make fundraising appeals more appealing, Mother Jones turns them into stories readers want to read

“Conventional fundraising wisdom is that you’ve got a couple of seconds to reach people and get them to do what you want them to do, and here we are writing 2,500-word appeals.”

December is the season for fundraising appeals. In an inbox awash with individual appeals from publishers, standing out is tough, and brevity seems the obvious way to go.

Mother Jones has found success instead in longform essays — as long as as a couple of thousand words — about the process and work of journalism, and about the changing economics of the journalism industry.

“I won’t beat around the bush: December is our most important fundraising month, and I hope that by the time you finish reading this, you will consider joining in (or renewing your support) with a tax-deductible donation,” Monika Bauerlein, Mother Jones’ CEO, wrote in her latest appeal for December, titled “It’s a Perfect Storm for Destroying Journalism.” “But whether or not you’re ready to pitch in, I hope you’ll keep on reading, because this story is about a lot more than Mother Jones. It’s about how investigative journalism can survive, and why this moment in particular feels so critical.”

The ask, with a link to donate, comes four paragraphs into the piece, which goes on to detail the various political threats on journalism from the current administration, and the economic realities of the advertising market.

“Conventional fundraising wisdom is that you’ve got a couple of seconds to reach people and get them to do what you want them to do, and here we are writing 2,500-word appeals,” Brian Hiatt, Mother Jones marketing and membership director, told me. “But in retrospect, substantive journalism is our currency. Why should our fundraising be any different?”

Mother Jones is hoping to raise $350,000 in December, and will rely heavily on Bauerlein’s column to bring in year-end donations. On Tuesday, when Hiatt and I spoke, the publication had hit $50,000 of that goal, but in year-end fundraising campaigns, the majority of money often comes in the final week of December, he pointed out. It has around 400,000 people total on its email lists it can hit up for donations.

In addition to a banner on its homepage linking to a plain donation page, Mother Jones is directing readers to the column, partly to get around the tendency of some site visitors to block out anything perceived as advertising, but also because the in-depth columns have actually been more successful at raising money than direct donation asks. Another column in January following Trump’s inauguration that focused on adding more email newsletter subscribers led more people to sign up for emails than isolated ads or forms on the site had in the past.

Mother Jones now makes between $15 and 16 million in annual revenue and counts around 240,000 people who have paid in some way to sustain the publication, 190,000 of whom are subscribers to its print magazine. Roughly 50,000 people have now made donations, from small dollar amounts to substantial sums (it says the average one-time donation for this year has been $47, a nod to Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “47 percent” moment, a story Mother Jones broke.) It’s seen an additional 10,000 to 15,000 in one-off newsstand sales.

The longform appeal as a rinse-and-repeat fundraising strategy clicked into place in October of 2015, when Mother Jones won an expensive defamation lawsuit filed by a billionaire Republican donor that left the magazine $650,000 in the hole in legal fees (it’s since crawled out of that hole). Bauerlein and Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery wrote a long piece explaining the reporting that set off Frank VanderSloot’s lawsuit against the publication and asking readers bluntly for support.

“That was one of the aha moments — that piece raised a lot of money, and way more money than an ad on an article ever raised, than we thought would raise,” Hiatt said. “Six weeks later, we had to go right back to the well for our December campaign. Monika and I were brainstorming, and we thought, let’s just level with people and explain why we need to raise yet another $200,000-some dollars. That longform piece was the first time we really integrated with fundraising, and it worked.” It laid bare the amounts Mother Jones was raising through the week in multiple updates, including a breakdown of the percentage of donations coming from email pushes, through ads on its homepage, and via links in the longform piece.

Mother Jones tried again with Shane Bauer‘s undercover-in-a-private-prison piece, its first real online push centered around increasing sustained monthly donations. It added about 2,000 sustaining members from that campaign. It tried again this May around getting monthly donations to specifically support doubling down on the Trump-Russia beat. A helpful bump to the fundraising campaign came when Trump fired FBI director James Comey, putting the Russia investigation back in the news. The columns, Hiatt said, get “a lot of direct traffic,” and are definitely intended to do so.

“We started going down the path of tying these appeals to the news cycle,” Hiatt said. But a fundraising piece tying together its reporting on the rise of far-right extremism in the aftermath of Charlottesville didn’t actually end up doing very well. “We realized our fundraising appeals need to be broader and focused on the bigger picture, on the journalism itself.”

There’s much more competition now for readers to give money to journalism; across the industry, more energy has gone into pushing readers to become subscribers and members. Will we reach peak membership?

“Email frequency has undoubtedly gone up over the last several years in December,” Hiatt said. “We try to differentiate ourselves through our readers’ mailboxes as something worth reading. We monitor it — are we getting diminishing returns, are people dropping off of our list? But it’s just one of those things. It works. To hit our aggressive budgets, to do the things we need to do, we need to be comfortable sending that email. We just need to make sure what we send is good email — that it’s something people actually want to read.”

Lights on the White House at night. Image by Matt Silverman, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 19, 2017, 9 a.m.
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