Local online news sites talk membership programs as key new revenue source

Build a loyal readership, establish a subscriptions list, and don’t stop asking for money.

By Jeff Wong | Nov. 2, 2017

Mary Walter-Brown of the News Revenue Hub speaks at the 2017 LION Summit in Chicago. (Karen Kring photo)

To build a paid reader membership program, publishers need to establish a relationship with their audience, grow the number of subscriptions, and -- most importantly -- take the leap and ask for money, Mary Walter-Brown said Oct. 28 at the 2017 LION Summit in Chicago, the country's largest gathering of local independent online news organizations.

“Just do it,” said Walter-Brown, the chief executive officer of News Revenue Hub, a two-year-old nonprofit that help journalism organizations with member recruitment and retention, audience engagement, and installation of software tools to facilitate the fundraising process.

“There is money on the table, and I don’t want you to leave it there,” she added. “I’ve seen it work. I would hate for anyone to miss out on the opportunity. If they are passionate about your work, they will help you.”

Publishers need to establish a relationship with audience members with content that engages readers and consistently integrates calls-to-action to subscribe to the publication’s newsletter or ask for money.

“You have to be creative and send them content that’s interesting to read,” Walter-Brown said. “That’s the key to membership. … And it’s as simple as asking and being clear about why you need the money. You just have to make that a part of your culture and assign it to somebody.”

It’s helpful to personalize “the ask,” outlining the impact of the publication’s good journalism and featuring pictures of the staff.

Publications also need to grow their audience by leveraging tools such as Google News and NextDoor, where keyword searches may lead new users to the website and ultimately funnel them into subscribing to the publication’s newsletter. The subscription helps build a database that allows publishers to engage directly via email over time.

“We want to get in a committed relationship with them,” Walter-Brown said. “They’re signed up for your newsletter and you’re in control. You’re the one who’s landing in their inbox on a daily basis.”

Finally, publishers must overcome the mental hump of asking for money, she said.

“Be honest and transparent, have a goal and just keep talking about it until you do it,” Walter-Brown said. “(Readers are) very tolerant, much more tolerant than you think they’re going to be if you tell them why you need the money.”

She suggested implementing a year-end campaign as publishers’ first foray into membership fundraising. “Whether you’re a nonprofit or for-profit, test the waters,” Walter-Brown said. “It’s a great time to ask people to give. See what kind of return that gives you, and that’ll give you more confidence to do something throughout the year.”

Other tips:

- Provide readers with multiple, prominent opportunities to either donate or subscribe on the website’s homepage, story pages and newsletters. “In the midst of consuming a story -- that’s the time that the reader is most passionate about your work,” she said. “If you’re not talking about an opportunity to support your work, that’s a lost opportunity.”

- Track your audience segments and tailor your targeting efforts. “It’s important that you’re not sending the wrong message to the wrong person.”

- Use events such as coffee meetings or happy hours so readers can engage reporters and so publishers can directly fundraise.

- Meticulously document the impact of your journalism, which can be used for subsequent fundraising efforts. “It’s a great thing to send to donors, advertisers and regular readers so they associate impact with journalism.”

Jeff Wong is the editor and publisher of DC Commute Times in Washington, D.C.

Watch Mary Walter-Brown's full talk here:

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