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Sept. 19, 2023, 12:31 p.m.
Business Models

A paywall? Not NPR’s style. A new pop-up asks for donations anyway

“I find it counterproductive to take a cynical view on tactics that help keep high-quality journalism freely accessible to all Americans.”

If you’ve visited NPR.org recently, you may have spotted something new. To read an article about the American hostages freed from Iran or the Danish artist asked to repay a museum after delivering blank canvases, you may have to click out of a new pop-up.

Were you expecting a paywall? Not our style. We are on a mission to create a more informed public. To make that happen, we need you to do something extraordinary: donate. Your dollars will be transformed into news, shows, and more. And, all that trustworthy journalism will be freely available to everyone. Can you help?

The new message — which started appearing on NPR.org on Sept. 12 — is (again) not a paywall. NPR’s journalism remains free to read and hear. It’s not quite the “nagwall” deployed by The Guardian, either, which uses a dynamic pop-up to confront readers with the number of articles they’ve read without donating. Instead, NPR is interrupting readers for a straightforward appeal that centers its mission while acknowledging that though many news orgs have adopted paywalls, paying for online journalism remains relatively rare. (Just 21% of Americans pay for online news, according to the 2023 Digital News Report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for Journalism.)

The new pop-up is part of a broader initiative, launched in 2022 as NPR Network, to turn its national audience into donors. (NPR has estimated less than 1% of its 20 million weekly digital users give to their local stations.) The new strategy required changing the organization’s bylaws to allow NPR — not just local member stations — to seek individual contributions directly. Other NPR Network projects include a paid podcast bundle called NPR+ and a digital audio ad exchange.

I had a few questions for Elyse Poinsett, NPR’s senior director of digital philanthropy, about the new approach. Our back-and-forth has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Scire: When and where does the popup appear for visitors — on individual story pages, homepage, after a certain number of page views, on mobile and web, etc.?

Elyse Poinsett: Mileage varies! We target different messages to different user segments based on what we know about their relationship with the NPR Network. Some automated journeys are “always on” because we aim to hit users with the right message at the right time for them. That being said, we also conduct traditional campaigns, like this one, during which messaging appears more often for all users. This particular message “popped up” because we are in our Fall Campaign, which is…coordinated…with Coordinated Fundraising Week for broadcast. The aim of planned campaigns is to create a bit more urgency and “sweep up” any users who aren’t falling into the journeys as expected.

Scire: What can you tell me about the thought process and strategy behind this campaign?

Poinsett: NPR’s digital audience presents a tremendous opportunity to fortify the sustainability of public radio. Yet research indicates that most of NPR’s digital audience are not yet NPR station donors. To bridge this gap, NPR has developed initiatives to drive support to stations and grow revenue across the system. Last November, in deep collaboration with NPR stations, NPR debuted two new audience revenue programs: NPR Network donation and the NPR+ podcast bundle. We have also increased the amount of fundraising conducted on NPR digital properties.

Scire: I loved the copy for the pop-up — “Were you expecting a paywall? Not our style” and the mission-driven appeal — paired with the little heart icon. Can you tell me about coming up with that language? Did you do any tests internally or externally before rolling it out on NPR.org?

Poinsett: Thank you! Open access to news and information has been a cornerstone of public radio fundraising for a generation. We’ve been experimenting with the right framing for a digital-first audience. Messaging tests with NPR digital users suggest that the NPR Network’s focus on the public’s best interest, rather than profit or the best interest of the powerful, is a key motivator for donating. Another motivator is the role we play in fighting disinformation. Younger users, in particular, see this as related to paywalls.

Looking across the media landscape, the NPR Network sits at the intersection of journalistic independence, excellence, and being freely accessible. It’s an increasingly rare intersection to sit at, and our audience really values it.

The heart! The heart is a longtime public media icon, we can’t take credit. It’s been on our site for years. [NPR’s lead product manager for subscriptions and membership] Michael Chaplin and I decided to put it there because it’s a nod to the special relationship NPR has with its fans, as well as the feeling that comes with taking the step from listener to supporter.

Scire: I don’t know the typical click-through or donation rates for a pop-up like this. Do you have a sense for what’s standard? And do you have a number of dollars or other metric in mind as a goal?

Poinsett: We’re still figuring that out. We know that conversion rates across the board vary tremendously with the news cycle. That’s why, besides paying attention to user behavior cues, we try to stay as nimble as the newsroom when it comes to activating.

For example, when NPR left Twitter, our team responded in real time to leverage the moment to great success. For campaigns like this, I set channel goals and campaign goals related to donation count.

Scire: I have a colleague who refers to the no-paywall pop-up at The Guardian as a “nagwall.” Do you have a better in-house name for this? Did you look at The Guardian or any other news org (or another nonprofit perhaps?) when designing this campaign?

Poinsett: I find it counterproductive to take a cynical view on tactics that help keep high-quality journalism freely accessible to all Americans. Grassroots-supported public media doesn’t have that privilege, and the work is too important. We usually say “modal” and try to reserve our judgment for optimization.

Yes, I keep an eye on both the nonprofit and for-profit media industries. I believe that NPR does its best when we borrow from the best of both. It’s also no secret to public media fundraisers that various digital outlets keep tabs on what we do, especially messaging-wise. As they should be! We have a generation’s worth of learnings from over 250 nonprofits informing our work.

Scire: The donate button defaults to donating to my local NPR station — that’s NHPR for me! — though I can choose to donate to NPR Network as well. Is that what all visitors see (local option first) or just those who have selected a local station?

Poinsett: Yes, that’s a typical donor journey. The form defaults to presenting the user with a station or list of stations geographically relevant to the user. There is expected variation based on whether a user has localized to a particular station in the past and how accurate our website’s understanding of the user’s geography is. And users always have the option to “find a different station” if they have a particular station in mind.

If a user on NPR properties wants to give to an NPR station, securing that gift is our top priority. That’s why it’s our default. However, research revealed that most of NPR’s digital audiences do not yet have a relationship with their local NPR station, and most users on our donation form do not complete a donation. Our aim with the NPR Network donation is to secure a user’s gift at the moment they are inspired to give and introduce them to their NPR station(s) in the stewardship process.

Donors who want to make an impact do not understand the complexities of our business model. Early data suggests that the NPR Network donation is increasing the number of new public radio supporters, as intended: the option doubled the rate of donations on NPR’s forms in the first few months it was live. Of particular note, we share the funding and donor contact information with NPR stations so that they have the opportunity to nurture these highly qualified leads to station support.

Scire: Is this the only place NPR Network is soliciting individual contributions directly right now? (Where else, if not?)

Poinsett: NPR activates just about every digital channel for fundraising in some fashion throughout the year, generating direct support for NPR stations and the NPR Network. Any support we earn for the NPR Network is exclusively driven through that form. We aren’t doing telemarketing or direct mail if that’s the kind of thing you mean.

Photo of balloons by Luca Upper.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Sept. 19, 2023, 12:31 p.m.
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