Mary Walter-Brown is the founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub – an organisation focused on helping publishers to build sustainable revenue models.
I recently interviewed her on the Digital Media Growth Podcast.
It was a fascinating conversation. Her advice is solid whether you’re a local news outlet or a niche publishing startup.
I’ve distilled her insights into this article – we talk about audience development, revenue models, membership programs, newsletter strategy and much more.
I hope you enjoy the mixture of high-level insights and actionable strategies she shared with me.
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Introducing News Revenue Hub
Since 2016 News Revenue Hub has been focused on helping news organizations around the world to build more sustainable revenue streams.
Their main focus is helping their clients to build membership programs – by building their case, story and using the right technology.
Previously Mary worked at Voice of San Diego and was instrumental in building a very successful revenue model there, and she realised that the model developed there had a wider application.
“We saw an opportunity to spin off from the Voice Of San Diego and create our own non-profit site – The News Revenue Hub – in an effort to help more news organizations to build the same revenue stream and relationship with their audience. We went from serving one outlet in 2016 to over 35 today”
News Revenue Hub Want You to go Beyond Subscriptions
“For us – a subscriber is someone who subscribes to a newsletter or pays for access to particular content. If there’s a paywall and they’re paid subscribers – that’s a transactional relationship. If someone gives their email to register for a newsletter, to comment, or to attend an event – they have become a subscriber – and a potential member at that point”
A member is a different kind of reader.
“A member is someone who gives voluntarily to a news organization, who makes a financial contribution voluntarily to sustain their business model”
News Revenue Hub is really focused on these members, as opposed to just subscribers.
Are You Ready for Membership?
I asked Mary what kind of organizations are ideally positioned to start developing membership programs, and if there are any key prerequisites.
“We work with all different kinds – from hyperlocal sites to large international publishers. At first we weren’t sure of the bigger national sites would have the same type of compelling value proposition as a local site with a very defined audience”
At News Revenue Hub – they’ve found that there is one key factor in success though.
“What we’ve found is that news organizations that are successful at membership are those who’ve developed a very loyal audience. When I say loyal I’m talking about the percentage of their audience who read their content several times a week, who consume full articles, share their stuff, follows them on social”
Audience members are not all the same.
“Everyone in the business knows there’s different kinds of news consumers. There’s the casual readers and there’s the loyal folks. The people who want to wake up, open up their inbox and see an email from their favourite and most trusted news outlets”
Those are the kind of readers who lend themselves to membership.
“News outlets who have a robust, loyal following are going to be the most successful at membership. That’s true whether you’re for-profit or non-profit”
News Revenue Hub’s Strategy for Building Loyalty
Perhaps you’re not quite there yet with your own audience. So how do you foster an engaged and loyal audience ideally primed for a successful membership program?
“Not everyone can jump right in and build a membership program. You might see a spike right out of the gate – people who are really interested in supporting the outlet, or view it as a crowdfunding campaign to build sustainability. But what we now prescribe is really spending a good year focusing very strategically on growing audience and developing loyalty”
News Revenue Hub are building out a new team to focus on audience and product development based on what they’ve learned so far.
“We’ve found that email is the number one most effective method to convert readers to subscribers and paying members. It’s more effective than every other platform combined including social, website and text”
As is often the case – email is king.
“All of our efforts are focused on helping our clients to grow their audience and traffic to their site. But more importantly than those raw numbers is how many we can get to sign up to a newsletter. We need their email address – so we work with them to build products that really serve the needs of their readers”
You can leverage existing data to figure out the best way to do this.
“There’s a lot of information inside each organization’s analytics – we can see what kind of stories are drawing people in. We can see what kind of topics are important to them. We do a lot of audience analysis with direct audience surveys to see how they feel about the stories and what their connection is with the news organization. We take all that data and advise the news organizations on how to build products that will really deepen loyalty and better serve their readers. Rather than just posting random stories, how can we build products that will give readers what they need every day?”
Modal Windows for Lead Generation
News Revenue Hub are constantly experimenting with the best routes to conversion, but they have found a few winning formulas.
“We’ve found the most success with elegantly designed modal windows, particularly one commonly referred to as a toaster animation that pushes up from the bottom of the screen. It doesn’t cover the entire screen, but it does provide motion and animation that draws the reader’s eye. It appears after a certain number of seconds and has a very clear call to action value proposition in it”
They are often connected to the referral site too.
“If a user arrived from Facebook the modal window language might say ‘don’t let Facebook determine what stories you see- sign up for our newsletter’ the same applies to search”
Targeted language and acquisition strategies are the most successful.
“We’ve found that our clients deploy a modal window make $4000 more on average per month than those who refuse to do so”
Some may have an aversion to modal windows and feel like they interfere with the readers experience.
This is an individual business and editorial decision. You have to weigh up the pros and cons for your organisation. The News Revenue Hub team are unambiguous on this though – modal windows are strongly recommended.
“If you can figure out a different way to collect a thousand email signups a month. We challenge you to do that if you have an aversion to modals. It is simply not that easy to do – so we’ve found that modal is by far the most effective”
Obviously different size organizations will have different acquisition targets.
Mary thinks that 1000 email signups a month is a good benchmark for a midsize site with a couple of hundred thousand uniques a month.
How News Revenue Hub map the Journey from Subscriber to Member
So you have a decent sized email list, and you’re gathering a healthy amount of new signups each month.
“We are very committed to ensuring that data is driving all our decisions and assumptions are not. That’s something we have to confront news teams with all the time. Reporters and editors may think that their audience wants a certain type of story because they are the stories most important to them”
In a previous interview, Becky Pallack made a similar point: journalists are really weird news consumers.
Editorial intuition is great, but sometimes can be misleading in membership-driven publishing.
“We like to look at the analytics and determine what stories people are gravitating towards – and then advise them on creating newsletter products around that. Often we need to engage the most unengaged and casual readers. Then we develop a user journey to help condition the casual readers who may want to read stories that aren’t hard news. If we begin to build a relationship with them we can start to move them from products with more surface content to deeper more informative news content”
It’s a different dynamic and workflow in each newsroom, based on the individual strengths and talents of each organization.
What motivates members to contribute?
What is important to them, what drives their decisions to support news outlets, how do they feel about the news organization?
The News Revenue Hub team send out surveys to their clients’ audience to uncover the answers.
“We really find a lot of commonalities across all 35 of our clients when we look at audience”
It’s important to note that respondents to these surveys are the most engaged and loyal – as they take the time to actually respond to the survey – so they aren’t necessarily representative of the audience as a whole.
“These people are typically affluent, they consider themselves news junkies, they want a newsletter in their inbox every morning. They really care about philanthropy, politics and what’s going on in the world”
Mary noted that demographically members often tend to be older, white, and highly educated as well as self-confessed news junkies.
When you’re creating a call to action for these types of people – it’s a simple case of helping them to understand why you need their support.
Others are often more skeptical though. How do we deal with this, and attract a wider range of members?
Part of this the answer is creating content and products that attract a more casual reader, another part is telling your story well to your broader audience and showing them why their support matters.
Telling Your Story
“News outlets have to do a better job of telling their own story. As journalists we’re really good at telling other people’s stories – but when you really peer behind the veil of a news organization you find that there’s little information that defines who they are. What is their mission, values, agenda, vision?”
Crafting a compelling story and vision – and telling the story of their business model too – can help to build a deeper connection with your wider audience.
Often readers have no idea about the financial struggles that publishers are going through lately.
“In the industry we know about it – but the audience are often in their own bubble. We often have to confront them with some of the hard truths. With journalism under attack on a broader scale, it resonates. We just have to take the time to have those conversations and we have to have them frequently”
The best way to tell your story is through a welcome email sequence to new subscribers.
“It’s usually five to six emails over a period of about six weeks. Very personally written by members of the news team: from the publisher to the editor, events manager, engagement editor – talking about their job, business model, aspirations and goals. Really trying to build a personal connection with the audience. These are all written in first person, signed by someone with a personal picture. We want to show this is who we are, these are the people who are devoting their lives to this organization – and this is why we may ask you to help support us”
It doesn’t come straight out of the gate with a financial ask – it’s a slow nurturing of a relationship between real people. This is the road to sustainable, long term loyalty and strong connections.
What are the Biggest Hurdles?
Perhaps you’re thinking about taking your publishing in a more member-focused direction.
What are the biggest challenges and how can you overcome them?
“I think the biggest roadblock is capacity. We’re not just a consultant that breezes in and says ‘here’s all the things you need to do good luck’ – we work hand in hand, year over year with them to execute. It’s simple to tell them to develop some newsletters, revamp their website or use modal windows. But they often don’t have anyone on staff to do that, they’re a bunch of reporters. How do they make this happen? But the beauty of what we do – we make it happen with them. Capacity is the number one challenge”
It’s not a lack of will or openness to new ideas.
“To my surprise a we rarely encounter a cultural hurdle. We don’t get a lot of resistance to incorporating the audience into the business model, asking readers to support news, or being open, transparent and accessible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. From local to national sites – the attitudes inside the organizations has shifted drastically to really understanding that building a deeper trust and relationship with audiences is crucially important both for mission and business reasons. Everyone is usually really excited and cooperative and ready to turn the page on the old ways of doing things”
Does News Revenue Hub push Paywalls?
When we talk about revenue, a lot of people’s minds jump to paywalls and paid subscriptions.
I asked Mary how common paywalls were with News Revenue Hub’s clients.
“Right now all of our clients have all of their content open and free to access. None of them are using paywalls. We have some who started out using paywalls but felt like they weren’t reaching a wide enough audience to really achieve their mission – so they took them down. In the cases where they did do that, they found that they actually increased their revenue by making their content more freely accessible and talking to their audience about supporting them voluntarily”
Paywalls can make sense – but they’re not for everyone.
Mary gave an example of a client, Honolulu Civil Beat.
“When they first began with us they had a paywall. They decided to take it down. They weren’t making as much as they wanted to from it and more importantly they weren’t reaching enough people in Hawaii. This amazing content wasn’t connecting enough with the community. They took down the paywall, became a non-profit and jumped in with both feet. We helped them craft their story. They launched a membership program and within a year they’d increased individual gifts by 70%, their revenue increased when they took the wall down and opened up their content. They’ve continued over the past three years to communicate openly and honestly and be good stewards”
Retention and Reducing Churn
Pleasing and retaining an existing member is more valuable than gaining a new member.
We’ve already talked about fostering loyalty through solid audience research, well designed products and transparency.
This goes a long way – but the specific commitment you ask for is also key.
“We work very hard on establishing monthly recurring donations for our clients. Someone committed to giving on a monthly basis and their membership auto-renews each month until their credit card expires. We’ve found that sites who focus on acquiring monthly recurring donors keep those members for an average of 24 months – much better than a one time donation”
How do we do this in practice?
“It’s much harder to get someone to renew a one-off donation than it is to get someone to simply update their credit card. We have a huge focus on our checkout pages on defaulting to those monthly payments. We also use language that reinforces the importance of having predictable revenue and the ability to project revenue for the year so we can make important editorial decisions and prepare for elections and other big news events that the audience cares about”
If you’re considering the donation route – it’s crucially important to make sure that potential donors are thinking about the importance of making a long term contribution and are defaulting to the monthly commitment.
“Stewardship is having an ongoing conversation with your audience whether they’re a donor or just simply a reader. Keep them up to date with what’s going on with the organization throughout the year”
The first part is treating your members well.
“Ensure that when members open a newsletter there’s a little message at the top thanking them for being a member and reminding them that their support is what makes important public journalism and this newsletter possible every day. Injecting some conditional language in the newsletter or in a separate email to existing members to thank them, remind them that they are special as a member is important. When they get that renewal message a year from now they’ll remember that they are a member, they’ll understand what it means to contribute to the site so they might consider increasing their donation”
The second part is a gentle push to more casual readers.
“We also send these conditional language messages and newsletters to people who aren’t members. We say that we’re glad they’re enjoying the newsletter. We also remind them that it’s not free to produce, and that we notice that they aren’t yet a member – and ask them to please consider giving”
It all comes back again to building a solid relationship, and nurturing a conversation over time.
Building communities and valuable spaces for your loyal audience members is a great way to make them feel involved and appreciated too.
This could take the form of social groups, comments sections, or your very own native apps – a great way to make readers feel connected to your work.
Key Signs of Success
How do you measure membership success?
“We’re obsessed with KPIs. We look at them on a monthly basis and zero in on what moves the needle”
What moves the needle?
“Audience growth, list growth, and conversion from subscriber to member and retention”
Mary and her team also dive deeper into loyalty.
“We look at what percentage of the email list has moved up into the 4-5* rating. We want to constantly keep an eye on not just the raw numbers – which are important as it’s the pool from which we fish – but we really want to focus on loyalty. The days of us just counting eyeballs and impressions are over. We need to look at quality versus quantity. We’re measuring success in terms of membership – people who voluntarily give you their hard earned dollars because they care about the news you provide. So we have to look at quality and constantly keep an eye on the loyal percentage of your readers and what we can do to move the needle there”
Again, loyalty is the key to successful audience development.
“We found that organizations with higher percentages of four and five star Mailchimp recipients make three times as much revenue than those with a lower percentage. There is a significant revenue increase tied to loyalty. The point of better newsletters is to build more loyalty which leads to more revenue”
Plateaus come and go.
“We’re constantly A/B testing and experimenting with different ideas and strategies within The Hub to see how we can continue to move past those plateaus”
What Makes an Effective Newsletter?
Over the last year, Mary and her team did a lot of research on the ingredients of a high impact, revenue generating newsletter.
“We found that newsletters that are better designed aesthetically unsurprisingly do well. Those that have more curated and personalised content – as opposed to just rss feeds – do a lot better. Those with some white space that aren’t cluttered, and that are quick reads as opposed to long form tend to do well too”
What Does it Take to Succeed in Membership?
Mary said that there are several key traits shared by standout organizations who succeed in membership.
“They’re absolutely truly committed to it from the top down. They have a culture of experimentation. They constantly try new things. They’re really committed to building personal connections with their readers and creating opportunities to give people access and experience driven opportunities with the organization. They’re just constantly thinking of – and working on – new ways to create better experiences. The ones who just set it up and let it run can still make money, but they won’t have the same kind of robust membership program that the truly invested will”
Cultivating multiple revenue sources is also key to success.
“The healthiest organisations are those with very diverse revenue streams. Most of our clients are non-profit. A healthy mix for them would be major donor support, foundation support, advertising and sponsorships, underwriting events – and then membership. Individual support from donors should make up about 50% of your revenue pie. You should definitely continue to appeal to the local business community. They should be supporting public service journalism in their town or city – and they should have the opportunity to do that. Some of our most successful clients have been able to make that case to local business – that supporting journalism is still important it just looks a little different. It’s more about aligning their brand with the community”
Working with Startups
The hub is evolving as their clients become more sophisticated and grow their membership programs.
“The hard work really starts a few years in. What are you doing to grow your audience now? How is your editorial strategy evolving along with the needs of your audience?”
They’re adding an audience product team, and are building a research arm.
“More and more startups are asking us how to start a news organisation from scratch the right way? How do you bake membership in from the beginning?
Although the work up to this point has been mostly focused on local news and nonprofits, a lot of the lessons apply equally to journalistic startups and digitally native for-profit content publishers.
“One of the steps that news org founders often skip – the market analysis. Often the founders have an idea of what a community needs, and they just start writing and hope that the audience finds them”
Mary recommends the opposite approach.
“Do the research in advance. What kind of news is missing in that community? What voices are not being heard, who is being overlooked? Then really try to create an outlet that answers those questions, fills in the gaps and serves those needs?”
Editorial and entrepreneurial gut instinct are great, but must be tempered by solid research and data informed decision making to build strong and sustainable business models.
Talking with Mary gave me a great insight into the work she does and how smaller publishers can thrive in the new media landscape.
She shared a mixture of high level insights and practical, actionable tactics that can apply to a wide range of publishers – from local news outlets to dynamic digital startups.
I hope you got some valuable ideas that you can apply to your own work.
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