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Nov. 14, 2019, 11:29 a.m.
Business Models

Facebook’s intentions may not be pure, but its money is real: How publishers made the most of its membership accelerator

“For some [publishers], this program will be a way to get a check. Some of them are going to pick up some ideas and tips and that’s the end of it. For some of them, it’s truly transformational in how they operate.”

Facebook wants you to know that this story isn’t about them (but it was always about them).

When a Facebook spokesperson contacted me with the findings of its latest publisher training program, it was as an exclusive on “our Local News Membership Accelerator” as the company was facing headlines like “Dissent erupts at Facebook over hands-off stance on political ads,” “Facebook isn’t just allowing lies, it’s prioritizing them,” “Facebook calls truce with publishers as it unveils Facebook News,” and “Should Facebook be fact-checked?”

In other words, pretty much the same old thing for the platform with 2.45 billion monthly users and $17.65 billion in revenue in the last quarter, largely from digital advertising money that used to go to the news outlets that Facebook is now working with.

As part of its media sweetener strategy and the Facebook Journalism Project, the company that moved fast and broke things paid for nine months of training and coaching that brought more than a dozen news outlets what Facebook says is more than $3.5 million in lifetime value from their supporters. This is money — and training to make more money — that many local news publishers do need. It’s a real-life case of “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” as long as the man is looking for fish outside of your advertising-revenue pond, and with the caveat that the, uh, school is also something of an invasive predator disrupting the overall ecosystem. And this one comes with fancy videos explaining the work that Facebook’s training has done (but it’s not about them, right?).

In the membership accelerator blog post shared with me ahead of Facebook’s posting of it, a parenthetical reminds the reader: “(Importantly, while the program was funded by Facebook, the programming and grant making wasn’t about Facebook).”

The specific teacher in this case, actually, was Tim Griggs as Facebook’s independent consultant and executive director of the local news accelerators. He and a handful of coaches orchestrated the in-person intensive trainings and coaching calls over the next few months as the projects were put into action. This was one of several accelerators Griggs and Facebook are putting on across the news industry, with a few focused on local news and some internationally for a total of seven in the past few years and a new Australia/New Zealand local news accelerator launched in September. (This is part of the same strategy as the Accelerate: Local Media conference Facebook hosted in Denver in March.) The kickoff was an accelerator for metro newsrooms to delve into subscription growth and then a follow-up with a retention program for those same publishers, along the same lines as Table Stakes/the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative training to get legacy publishers actively working on digital transformation.

I set out to make this story focused on the specific ways that publishers made these gains in their membership strategies, but this wasn’t your typical journalism training (although maybe it is what passes for typical journalism training in 2019). This is training by and for Facebook, but not about Facebook, and a move to make publishers less reliant on Facebook traffic and digital advertising.

The intensive component of the membership accelerator took place from fall 2018 to January 2019. Then each publisher in the accelerator got $100,000 to spend on a project over the next six months. Results from the grants are now coming in. “There’s an ability to actually execute on what you’re learning because you get financial support,” Griggs said. (True, but you’re getting the money from an entity that helped pick apart journalism’s business model in the first place, and hasn’t exactly helped promote truth and fact since then.)

“When they come into the program, people say ‘what is this? It’s about Facebook,'” Griggs said. “They’ve been ensured that it’s not about Facebook. There’s a little bit of skepticism at the beginning and it erodes over time.” The way he sees it: “[Facebook doesn’t] have to do this program at all and they certainly don’t have to put up the grant dollars they are.” (That’s $4.5 million committed for the accelerators in August 2018, and $300 million for the news industry at large spread, across several grants in January 2019.)

While some publishers from the membership accelerator (and industry observers at large) expressed qualms about accepting support from Facebook, many outlets did see value in this approach. However, the 17 membership participating outlets, just like the other accelerators’ participants, were invited by Facebook; the Lenfest Institute helped coordinate the grantmaking process. There was a mix of startups, legacy public media, and other outlets tinkering with membership.

“For some [publishers], this program will be a way to get a check. Some of them are going to pick up some ideas and tips and that’s the end of it. For some of them, it’s truly transformational in how they operate,” Griggs said.

Here are some more specific tactics, based on the Facebook training, that some publishers used to achieve membership results — possibly setting them up for greater success and bigger fish later on. (Some of their quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Lancy Knobel, cofounder of Berkeleyside: The 10-year-old California site created its own membership program but hired the News Revenue Hub to build it up even, at the same time it entered the accelerator (it used some of the $100,000 from Facebook to pay News Revenue Hub fees).

We had participated in a workshop that the Facebook Journalism Project organized in either early 2018 or late 2017 and so we got to know some of the Facebook people. In the summer of 2018 I got a call from Dorrine Mendoza saying “Hey Lance, we’re organizing this membership accelerator and were wondering if you’d be interested in participating.” I said no because I thought the previous thing we’d been involved in was really entirely about how to use various Facebook products, like, “Isn’t this neat?” We didn’t find that very valuable at all. She said, “No, we’ve learned from our experience. This is going to be very different. Facebook is funding it, but it’s not about Facebook at all, run by independent people.” Our development and our knowledge about membership has transformed how we approach things and I couldn’t speak more highly. I entered a skeptic and turned into a convert….

We launched our membership not long after we were founded. I thought we’d done pretty well, but we recognized that we were pretty much handcrafting and inventing as we went along….We used to content ourselves with sending an email or two at the end of the year, we’d get 30 new members and clap ourselves on the back. [We learned] less is not more, more is more. We needed to do more.

One of the things we spent the grant on was developing a metrics dashboard for Berkeleyside. At the first session of the accelerator, the very first thing Tim Griggs said was the data most people look at are the wrong data. People care about page views or unique users and all of that’s pretty much worthless. You need to find the right things to look at — that was transformative….Understanding data and using data intelligently to understand decisions has been a very good thing for us.

Rebecca Smith, social media editor at WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station: The station had outgrown its Constant Contact database and the software’s abilities, so the team decided to migrate over to Campaign Monitor and to involve its whole fundraising and pledge process in that. Before, “it didn’t do a lot of the things we wanted with list segmentation and take our audience on a journey with us of becoming a member,” she said.

One of the recurring themes was to fail fast and cheap. As a nonprofit we don’t exactly have money to burn. [Facebook] wanted us to have fun and try some things. One of the things we had gone back and forth about was “text to give”. People on the television side really wanted it. Other people were really against it, saying that it’s old, outdated, and wasn’t going to work. We took the opportunity to test it for nine months. We’re still tracking it….

We were halfway through this program and we were still thinking, “Okay, what’s the catch?” I’ve been doing social media for a long time and I kind of understand the ins and outs of Facebook as a company more than a lot of people in the media industry. I didn’t really understand what the aim [of the accelerator] was. I started thinking about it and realized I know where Facebook is right now as an organization is: They want to prioritize personal interaction, to see your family posts and what your friends are doing. They don’t want you to see a thousand different pieces of news and media and God knows what coming through your feed all the time.

But at this same time it is really difficult for them to differentiate between the big outlets and those publishing falsities and the ones like us who were realizing using Facebook to survive. At the end of the day they don’t want to be responsible….We all have to figure out a way to use this platform in a way that’s responsible and sustainable and that’s what this was to me….The whole program was put on by Facebook and the Lenfest Institute to teach us how to not rely on the platform.

Wisconsin Watch’s associate director Lauren Fuhrmann and membership manager Emily Neinfeldt: The money Wisconsin Watch raised through its membership growth allowed the University of Wisconsin, Madison–based site to hire Neinfeldt full-time after she filled in for Fuhrmann during her maternity leave. The site, which has a $500,000 annual budget, had had longstanding questions — how to identify itself to readers as a collaborator, how to set up a marketing budget, and more.

Historically our standard line was: We are not a destination site and don’t need to be. The plan was to put the news where people are already consuming the news. While that is still important — we still want to give our info away for free and help provide investigative journalism to readers who wouldn’t be getting it otherwise — we have realized more and more that we do also need to have our own audience. What we had to do to make that happen was focus on the top of the funnel. We went through a rebranding and focused on getting our digital marketing infrastructure in place….

We worked with an agency in Milwaukee to help with rebranding and we worked with a digital marketing agency out of D.C. They helped us set up better analytics, get our Google AdWords back in compliance and up and running, set up Facebook lead generation, and work through the digital marketing infrastructure….In the upcoming year we have our first ever marketing budget. It’s $20,000 as our budget is written right now….

I have never really liked Facebook all that much. I am not very active on social media personally. I have found it to be pretty frustrating to use. But I cannot say a negative thing about the Facebook team we have worked with. Before we signed on, we made sure that we checked with our board, and did our own gut check, and checked against all our policies but I would say that everything checked out and we didn’t have any problems going through it.

Detroit Public Tevision (DPTV), social media manager Colleen O’Donnell: One DPTV started sharing more on social media — content beyond “tune in for our next show” and more about engaging people already on the social media platform.

It was time well spent. One of our partners through the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, Bridge Magazine, was a member of various independent news organizations that were the top tier of people that Facebook reached out to initially [and also participated in the accelerator]….

The first area where we made an impact was in social media. We basically tripled our social media traffic in the six-month grant period, in terms of engagement and impressions. There were a lot of different tactics involved, but in a nutshell, we started posting more stories [on Facebook and Instagram] and sharing more behind-the-scenes content.

[How did it add value to DPTV overall?] That’s an excellent question. The first thing is you’ve got to attract maximum numbers of people who have an affinity with your content. We’ve been focused on a couple of different areas, but we want to make sure we’re reaching people who have an interest in what we do… Overall it has gotten us additional funding opportunities, increased our visibility, and the membership continues to grow….

My area of expertise is with public relations so I didn’t have a conflicted feeling at all. Honestly our journalists seem to be very comfortable with Facebook, with all our social media; the only time that I see faces get a look of concern is when we talk about Facebook and certain capabilities is this whole idea about targeting people based on their interests.

These accelerators are giving newsrooms in needs hands-on tools and the money to use them, but Facebook is also deciding who gets to participate in them. And it’s because of Facebook that this is happening, sparked by other intensive training programs like Table Stakes. So reminder: while the arc of this conversation is about local publishers looking for financial stability, it’s also about Facebook. And while discussion in the industry and the government brews, some publishers participating seem to be okay with that, with a $100,000 grant.

Image provided by Facebook of Tim Griggs leading an accelerator meeting.

POSTED     Nov. 14, 2019, 11:29 a.m.
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