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Now is the time when readers need you and you need them.
Now is the all-in moment.
Now is the time to ask your community for support.
As readers turn to local news outlets in record numbers for vital information and analysis about coronavirus in their area, we asked more than two dozen Facebook Local News Accelerator teams in the US, Canada and Australia to share how COVID-19 is affecting digital community support (subscriptions, memberships or donations).
One thing is clear: Publishers who are being direct, honest and empathetic with readers about their challenges are seeing previously unthinkable levels of support from local communities.
Most Accelerator publishers say their digital reader contribution boom far surpasses the vaunted “Trump bump” after the 2016 election.
“Unquestionably,” as one marketing leader of an American newspaper chain put it, “this is the most important single moment in the history of the digital subscription industry.”
Digital reader support has doubled on a month-over-month basis, on average, among Accelerator publishers since the start of COVID-19. Publishers with a strong competitive position are allowing less free sampling — and clear, compelling subscribe/join/donate calls to action — are seeing bumps of up to 400%, while those who have simply unlocked their content without much outreach to readers are seeing increases in the 20-50% range.
In addition, publishers are seeing a surge in newsletter subscriptions. The best performing publishers have added more than 100,000 new readers in major markets and 50,000-plus in smaller markets in two to three weeks of sustained effort. These new newsletter subscribers represent an enormous opportunity for digital revenue growth to come — if publishers can make the case for support during these trying times.
In terms of retention, subscribers are engaging with first-class journalism more than ever. At the Los Angeles Times, traffic from subscribers is up 50% and the number of subscribers visiting five or more pages per day is more than double what it was a month ago. At The Boston Globe, subscriber visits are up more than 75%. If publishers can turn these habitual visitors into lifetime readers, they’ll make a serious step toward long-term business sustainability.
Let’s take a look at each of these major takeaways in detail, with practical, inspiring examples for others.
Publishers are asking for reader support directly, consistently and empathetically.
Whether publishers are holding to their prior metering strategy or exposing more coronavirus coverage to readers without limits (and most publishers took this route), the highest performing publishers all take the same simple approach: they are making clear, repeated requests for reader support on their site and in emails.
New Zealand current affairs online magazine The Spinoff peppered its COVID-19 news coverage with links for readers to become members, explaining the publication’s role in a crucial moment for all of New Zealand. Total new recurring members in March surpassed 2,600 - an astonishing 80% increase in its overall recurring membership and eleven times higher than its prior month.
At the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Baton Rouge Advocate in Louisiana, a state hit hard by coronavirus, digital subscriptions have doubled since the beginning of the crisis.
Why? “We're being honest,” said the newsroom’s digital director, explaining their messaging follows a straightforward logic: “‘This is a crisis. You're hurting. We're hurting. There's uncertainty. But we're committed to reporting this out. Your support means a great deal to us.’”
That honesty extended to the for-profit publisher’s first-ever fundraiser. Announced in reaction to furloughs and hour reductions to make up for temporary revenue losses, reader contributions enabled the paper to cut the reduction in news staff hours by half through April. In practical terms, these contributions will support 200 additional days of journalism over the month, according to the publisher.
The lesson in all of this: how to ensure readers see a clear message about how they can support you on every page they visit?
“The impetus for contributions needs to be clear and compelling,” said Accelerator coach Lynne Brennen, a former marketing executive at Dow Jones and The New York Times. “Connect donations to specific funds or newsroom initiatives, even in the context of supporting coronavirus coverage. Readers are suspicious of vague requests for support, at best, and see it as a reflection of mismanagement, at worst.”
Want more practical advice for communicating thoughtfully with your members? The Membership Puzzle Project wrote this guide to doing just that, among other things.
Publishers are attracting tens of thousands of new email newsletter subscribers.
The email gains during this time period are staggering.
“Every publisher who has increased the prominence of newsletter CTAs has seen a significant increase in newsletter subscribers,” said Dork Alahydoian, an Accelerator coach and former SVP of Membership at theSkimm. “Newsletters are a great way to nurture a daily habit with readers and reinforce the value of local journalism — especially for readers who may not be as familiar with your brand. It will be critical to introduce these new readers to all of the things your brand offers, expose them to content beyond coronavirus coverage and eventually ask them to subscribe.”
Quebec-based French-language publisher La Presse launched a new daily newsletter (in 7 hours, on the same day they evacuated their building to work from home) and drove 48,000 new sign-ups in one day and more than 100,000 in one week, largely by on-site promotion.
At McClatchy, the second-largest American local news group, each of the chain’s 30 newsrooms launched a COVID-19 newsletter with startling results: an average 50% open rate with a reader base continues to see significant weekly growth.
The Dallas Morning News combined several different approaches taken by other publishers over longer stretches of time — and deployed them nearly all at once.
Dallas took a “metered, not locked” access strategy:
- Allowed unlimited access to public safety content for visitors within their metro area.
- Required readers to register with an email address in order to access COVID-19 coverage.
- Counted the COVID-19 stories readers are consuming and ask readers to pay if they go on to read other types of content on the site above the site’s usual free sampling limits.
- Used a "pick-your-price" support request / subscription signup that worked well in the past to suggest readers "offer support and stand with us" rather than require them to subscribe for access to public safety content.
The impact? In three weeks, The Dallas Morning News COVID-19 newsletter list currently has over 413,000 enrolled recipients, with more than 38% resulting from new email registrations from the email access requirement and creating a significant fresh prospect pool for future digital subscribers. And that’s on top of their well-above-average subscription gain of 225% month-over-month.
Publishers are already attuned to the challenge of retention.
The next big question on everyone’s minds: how do we make sure these readers stick around? Many of them are on low-priced trial offers, to be sure, and publishers are keen to make sure the new reader support remains as advertising craters.
Here are some ideas from Accelerator publishers.
One Australian marketing leader pointed to promoting journalism consumed away from a computer screen, like podcasts, to help deepen the connection between a member-driven publisher and its new contributors. To that end, the Tampa Bay Times is publishing two Florida-focused COVID-19 podcast episodes every week.
In Canada, The Globe and Mail is inviting subscribers and registered users (!) to join weekly, interactive conference calls hosted by the newspaper’s top journalists, such as their public health columnist and personal finance columnist.
Gannett, America’s largest publisher of local news sites, is aiming to increase subscriber engagement with digital benefits and content by emailing new subscribers a guide to access their digital e-edition, download their mobile app, and (of course) sign up for a coronavirus newsletter.
The Dallas Morning News is adjusting its loyalty program to focus on virtual events and revamping all communications to members to make sure they’re appropriate for the current moment.
A word of thanks
If you’re still reading this, you’re deep in the fight to help local journalism survive one of its most important and challenging moments in recent history. We are committed to sharing lessons and supporting anyone looking for guidance at this time.