When the News Revenue Hub launched as a project from Voice of San Diego in November, five US news organisations joined the pilot to receive support to introduce memberships into their revenue streams.
Over the last seven months, the initiative has raised $1 million in memberships and reader donations for InsideClimate News, NJ Spotlight, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens and Politifact. The hub has also added five other outlets who are in the process of adopting memberships: The Intercept, The Rivard Report, The Marshall Project, Youth Radio and CalMatters.
The News Revenue Hub is now spinning off into a standalone organisation and it will continue to work with its existing clients as well as add more newsrooms in the US and other countries. Mary-Walter Brown, the former publisher and chief operations officer at Voice of San Diego, who has been at the helm of the hub, will continue to lead the expansion alongside digital manager Tristan Loper.
The Revenue Hub is also partnering with the Institute for Nonprofit News for its first year, to help set up the new non-profit organisation and shape how it will work with newsrooms going forward.
"When we launched in November, it was such a serendipitious time to be starting a membership programme because there was so much additional interest in news around the election," she told Journalism.co.uk.
"But that interest continued for the next five months. We knew that people in San Diego would respond because they had been supporting us over the last five years, but it was rewarding to see that it was the same in many different markets across the country."
Out of the first five organisation who joined the News Revenue Hub, four launched their memberships in December, while Politifact did so after the presidential inauguration in January. Each of them kicked off with a month-long marketing campaign designed to introduce the new membership scheme and explain to readers why they should support the outlet.
After the first month, the titles continued with ongoing, monthly drip campaigns to recruit and retain new members.
"The automated drip campaign means that every time a new reader comes into their pipeline, say if they register to comment on the site or to come to an event or if they've given their email address to sign up for a newsletter, we slowly start explaining to them what the membership programme is.
"So we introduce them to reporters, to the publisher, to the chief executive of that news organisation, and we begin to really lay the foundation for why they should ultimately become a member."
These regular outreach strategies were also combined with "timely and topical email blasts", aimed at highlighting a particular story the news organisation had produced during that month, and explaining the impact of that reporting to readers.
Events have also been part of the membership strategy for Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens, NJ Spotlight, InsideClimate News and Politifact. The first three, as local and regional outlets, have held multiple events with readers, such as monthly member coffees and happy hours, to build a stronger connection with their communities.
"It's really a way to forge that deeper connection so when it's time to renew, people feel a real, personal connection to the news organisation, so I think events are becoming less of a recruitment tool and more of a retention tool," said Walter-Brown.
One of the challenges for the news organisations going forward, particularly those who are six months into their membership schemes, is dealing with email saturation.
"We've been talking to audiences in each of these markets for six months now, so the people who have received these messages have probably already signed up.
"We need to become equally focused on getting new people into the pipeline, turning those casual readers into newsletter subscribers, or getting commenters in that pipeline somehow so that we can start to talk to them in a more personal way via email," she added.
The News Revenue Hub will probably take on another five newsrooms in 2017, Walter-Brown said, explaining that it is very much "a work in progress". The team is determined to let the newsrooms who are interested in joining decide what services and what type of support they need to set up their membership programmes.
"We think we have already identified different components of membership these newsrooms need help with, like events and basic administrative support, such as setting up Salesforce and doing basic email campaigns.
"But we're committed to being nimble and responsive to the needs of our clients, while also being mindful not to bite off more than we can chew. Instead of us assuming what services are needed or what [the hub] should look like, we will let the industry determine that."
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