INN Members generally pursue either the creation of a destination Internet site, where they are building a brand and a direct relationship with a reader, or they work to aggressively syndicate their content to others who already have the right audiences for their desired impact.
Perhaps the most critical issues facing investigative journalism start-ups is how to reach and engage the right audience. In other disciplines the higher the stakes, the more disciplined and rigorous the process. If we take a lesson from the hit TV series Mad Men, you can increase the likelihood of your desired impact by delivering the right message, at the right time, through the right channel.
Think for a minute about what you would do and where you would go if you could “buy the attention” of the audience you needed. We see it all the time, and merely imagining it (though it might be sacrilege) is an excellent way to get the creative juices going.
Think about the targeting of campaign ads the night before an election, the appeal from the Red Cross after a disaster, the late night infomercial that cost-effectively preys on insomniacs looking to lose a few pounds or invest in the next get-rich-quick scheme. The fact is that you wouldn’t see these things if they didn’t work; marketers are metrics driven and are pretty hardheaded about engagement and an action’s return on investment.
Over a decade ago, in an era before blogs, author Elizabeth Osder was on the board of TomPaine.com, an independent, nonprofit journal of opinion that used the majority of its funds to purchase ad space to ensure that its messages reached the right audience. Coined “Op-Ads,” this initiative purchased space on the opinion pages of major newspapers, swapping the op-ed page every other week with opinions from the likes of Exxon and Mobile.
Before our time, Tom Paine the pamphleteer was a successful provocateur that helped create a wider debate about independence by boiling down complex ideas into language more easily accessible to the masses.
Regardless of your audience engagement approach, your choice about the product or organizations you build will in many ways define your funding strategy. For example:
• You can sell your content per piece to another media organization, or establish a regular wire service deal and annual subscription rate.
• A skilled multimedia team can sell training or production services; a team of data journalists can create and sell specialized data sets.
• An organization in a wealthy or engaged community can establish a premium membership level and encourage large contributions from high net worth individuals.
• A site with enough traffic might develop a viable revenue stream from advertising.
• A special interest publication can develop a subscription model or a high-value subscriber list.
• Special reports can be published as books or Kindle Singles, or folded into other products.
As an exercise in understanding the INN landscape, we mapped several members on this grid that shows:
• Level of audience engagement (vertical axis) shows the degree to which the organization directly communicates with and monetizes its audience.
• Years since launch (ball size) shows the number of years since the launch of the organization.
• Breadth of distribution (horizontal axis) shows the size of the audience reached by the organization.
• Distribution Strategy (columns) From left to right:
° Destination Website or Print.
° Occasional Regional or Local Distribution.
° Significant Regional or Local Distribution.
° Consistent National Distribution.
The exercise confirmed our hypothesis that there is no right or wrong model; there are success stories in almost every quadrant and age range. It’s still a bit like the Wild West: organizations that have yet to pass the five-year mark face some of the same funding challenges as granddaddy operations like CIR and the Notebook.
A. Direct Audience Strategies: Understanding, Building and Monetizing
It’s easy for journalists to take for granted the reach and influence that their former employers offered. When you unbundle content from mass distribution channels, you are left in the difficult position of making sure that audience will come to what you build.
As Sarah Szalavitz of 7 Robot put it: “For one, building an audience takes time and energy… Be prepared to spend as much, if not more [time], on building your audience as you do on pro- ducing your content. The adage, ‘build it and they will come’ no longer holds true in a world of infinite choice and distraction.”
We classified those that distribute their journalism through their own channels – via the web, print, or email – as “direct audiences organizations.” These organizations choose to create direct relationships with individuals and their community. They are confronted with the challenges of audience engagement activities to identify, grow, and extract value from their audiences.
INN members who are building audience-centric models need to think through their audiences at the start and understand the basics of:
• Who is the audience?
• How will we reach this audience?
• What value can we derive from this audience and vice versa?
Thanks in part to the good work of organizations like the Knight Digital Media Center and J-Lab, we found that INN members have developed a realistic sense of the challenges to building and monetizing an audience directly. You can’t simply build a website and then expect advertising or underwriting to pay your bills out of the gate. For an excellent review of the pressure to deliver on site engagement and translate that into dollars, we recommend chapter 9 of a recent report from the Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School entitled “The Story So Far.”
INN members who have built a significant audience from scratch understand that doing so can take as much or even more resources than the actual production of journalism. It involves constant experimentation and evaluation of engagement efforts and monetization programs. Most impor- tantly, building an audience involves a committed effort to understand who your audience is. Luck- ily, easy-to-use web analytics programs make your traffic and audiences accessible, and if used effectively can inform your strategies for addressing audience needs and growing their numbers.
In this section, we broadly map an approach to building an audience, monetizing that audience, and using metrics to track your progress and inform future strategies.
The Basics of Audience Development
The first thing that becomes a reality to organizations trying to build and manage an audience is that different audience segments create differing value for an organization. The questions INN members must ask are not only which audience they want, but also which one they need.
In our experience, the most commonly misunderstood issue for new entities publishing to the web are the challenges of finding an audience, developing a relationship with it and earning some loyalty or repeat usage of your new brand.
The most common mistake we see is a dependency on “empty calorie” traffic delivering a large number of visitors from occasional portal links that don’t deliver regular repeat users and have a high bounce rate—meaning people visit a single page, then leave the site. Editors chase traffic and links to their sites with stories that capture the fleeting attention of editors at other sites but may be “off mission.” We call these stories “portal porn” and have seen a number of promising niche brands sacrifice small loyal and valuable audiences for the temporary excitement over big traffic days.
Getting beyond a mass point of view is not easy, but for young organizations, it’s quickly becom- ing a necessity. MinnPost’s Joel Kramer explained, “early on we had to shift from the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility and accept that both from a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.” We are again talking about targeting the “right message, to the right audience, on the right channel.” To accomplish this, organizations must think about their audiences in a segmented way and ask what “value” they will offer each segment, and what return they can expect from each.
Beyond the general audience question, some important questions that must continuously be asked are:
• How do you segment your audience/community?
• What is the strategic value of each segment?
• How will you prioritize growing each segment?
• What programs and/or content do you offer each segment?
To be clear, this is not a case for abandoning an underserved audience to pursue donations from a wealthy and elite class. It means thinking about your audience strategy in advance, and being realistic about how to position each segment to deliver on your various objectives from meeting funder goals, to developing alternative revenue streams.
These challenges are not dissimilar to the challenges that other nonprofits have faced for years. Church groups, professional organizations, and public media all provide terrific case studies; we can borrow from them experiences and best practices of balancing foundation support, corpo- rate underwriting programs, membership, and individual donation drives.
Margaret Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis Beacon, makes the case for a more nuanced audi- ence segmentation strategy. Like the voiceofsandiego.org, MinnPost and other community-driven organizations, the Beacon experiments with a variety of community engagement activities, including many in-person events.
Tracing users on the site and attendees at its events, the Beacon’s engagement team was surprised by some of the behavior and interest of its audience. For example, the Beacon’s donors, are not all heavy site users.
Likewise, while the team expected donors to take part in community events, many turned out to have little appetite for that type of engagement.
The INN membership represents a broad brush of creativity. We don’t have time in this report to capture every example and tactic, but here are some examples of how INN members are finding and engaging their audiences.
• A monthly topic-specific print newspaper.
• A highly targeted email list.
• A weekly segment with a local broadcaster.
• An exclusive deal with a national newspaper.
• A localized version of a regional report.
• A complex multi-party collaboration that includes publishing the complete story on your own site.
If done well and given enough time to grow, these organizations can have significant local im- pact, incubating entirely new forms of journalism, community conversation and connectedness.
Understanding Market Opportunities and Challenges
We’ve seen examples of each archetype getting traction with audiences and in some cases mov- ing aggressively on a path toward real sustainability.
Opportunities and challenges by archetype include:
• Opportunities: Have developed audiences of small, but engaged supporters attracted to the quality of their journalism and ties to local communities. In some cases, such as the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, this support is translating into meaningful dona- tion dollars.
• Challenges: Building and monetizing a destination site from scratch without daily news updates, local or related promotion and outreach to specific early adopter audiences are a huge challenge. Particularly humbling are the relatively small numbers of users and repeat users to these fledgling sites compared to the effort and hours that it took to create and publish the content.
• Opportunities: Can gather interested audiences that can be monetized through freemium models. Many of these are focused on developing high-value newsletters as a way of growing a valuable list, rather than destination websites. Examples of this abound in the tech news and business-to-business news space (e.g., Gigaom). But one example of a success- ful topic specialist monetizing community that should be very familiar to INN members is Consumer Reports.
• Challenges: Cater to narrow, often-smaller audiences that because of their niche interests, may be difficult to find and reach on a regular basis. The flip side is that with dedicated out- reach efforts, organizations can identify and target these users on a regular basis.
• Opportunities: Oakland Local and the St. Louis Beacon are examples of organizations successfully serving as civic engagement engines for local/regional communities, offering a variety of programs built around high-quality journalism.
• Challenges: These audiences do not necessarily equate to the donors that can underwrite ongoing operations.
• Opportunities: Name brands like CPI, ProPublica and CIR are successful in partnering with numerous and well-known media organizations to maximize their desired “return on audience” investment. Although some of these are less focused on traffic to their sites, partnerships build their brands and in turn improve the overall health of their organizations.
• Challenges: Many of these sites today fall more into the distribution models, since they tend to do large topical investigations. Without a natural geographic orientation or regular focused topic, it can be difficult to build a community of loyal users that can help sustain the organization. CIR’s California Watch is a good example of how a large investigative organization has taken on a geographic focus to try to build more lasting ties across the state.
We also noted that local direct sites are beginning to morph their missions to include more ex- plicit community focus that go beyond traditional definitions of journalism. These emerging players resemble grass roots organizations emerging from within communities, with a deep sense of collaboration and social media at their core.
Of INN’s members, Oakland Local gets closest to this emerging category, which is tracked and supported by the Knight Community News Network. The in-community programs we have seen include local events sponsored by these organizations, regular breakfasts, walking tours, topic- specific seminars, journalist conversations, and conference calls – all which help drive sign-up lists, and the ability to connect on a regular basis via email, messaging, social media or face to face on a regular, programmatic basis.
We are certain more innovations and models will emerge from this exciting area.
Mapping Audience Segments to Sustainability
It’s helpful to think about audience segmentation in very specific ways and be realistic about what you as a publisher hope each segment can deliver to the long-term viability of your organization.
“We start with visitors, and interact with our audience to move them up an engagement ladder of involvement,” said voiceofsandiego.org’s former Community Engagement Manager Grant Barrett (interview, June 30, 2011).
Barrett’s engagement ladder is much like marketing funnels – the long established tools for illustrating how a product or service builds a relationship with a customer, and deepens engagement with a brand over time. By matter of example, we constructed a sample funnel based on some of the more common organizational attributes we heard from INN members.
We suggest that all members attempt to explicitly map the programs they offer to various audience segments. It’s a realistic exercise in planning the sustainability of your organization. Thinking through explicit programs and value drivers can help members prioritize activities.
In the illustration, the left side shows a “funnel” of audience actions, starting with a site visitor and progressing to membership/financial contributor. As your audience progresses down the funnel, the numbers are smaller, but the value the segments create becomes larger. This journey from site visitor to an audience that is increasingly invested in your mission in real terms demonstrates a greater degree of brand loyalty.
The value side of the diagram shows the same effect. As we move down the funnel, we see the number of users that may participate, sign-up, or contribute grows smaller, but their value to the long-term sustainability of the organization increases. This culminates in that user making an explicit commitment to the organization in a variety of ways, including donation and membership and direct, measurable support (not necessarily financial) to the sustainability of the organization.
Earned Revenue: Getting Beyond Ad Dollars
While INN members have been successful in finding startup capital from foundations and other high net-worth individuals, their paths to sustainability often rest on the promise of earned revenue. For those choosing to focus on developing a direct relationship with an audience, it is important to gain an understanding of the revenue-driving potential of those audiences.
Because nonprofit news organizations are new to market and are mission-driven, they are smaller than many of their in-market competitors. It’s hard to see when many of these organizations will reach significant enough scale (audience size, circulation, reach) that advertising revenue can become a solid and predictable part of the revenue mix. Many entrepreneurial journalists think of advertising first. But this well-known revenue driver is the most unlikely for INN members.
Sites derive revenue from a variety of products, and it’s up to each organization to understand which options best align with their mission and tax status. To help INN members get a better understanding of how various programs relate to revenue potential, we developed the graphic below to illustrate the scale of some common revenue streams.
In this illustration, the vertical axis represents the possible dollars that can be driven from an audience member. The horizontal axis reflects the audience size required to drive the revenue type.
• CPM: Advertising bought on the basis of (1,000) impressions.
• CPC: Advertising bought on the value of a click on the advertisement.
• CPA: Advertising bought on the value of an action taken by the advertising consumer (e.g., completing an online form).
• Subscription/Donation/Underwriting: Money transferred for general organizational sup- port and/or access to unique content or privileges.
What the illustration shows is that you need a very large audience in CPM advertising (horizontal) to deliver a very limited amount of revenue (vertical). Conversely, at the top of the pyramid, there is great promise in a fewer number of users (horizontal) generating a great deal of revenue (vertical axis) through subscription, donation, or underwriting programs. Thus, different revenue driving programs depend on the scale of the audience for each, and smaller, more targeted audiences may in fact have greater revenue potential. To revisit Joel Kramer’s earlier quote: “We had to shift from the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility and accept that both from a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.”
INN member organizations have to consider which of these models best supports their editorial and audience goals, and develop programs to exploit the earned revenue potential of each activ- ity keeping that overall mission in mind.
Other Sources of Revenue
In addition to earned revenue, INN members have been successful in pursuing other forms of income. While it’s not within the scope of this report to explore areas of philanthropy and membership development in any depth, we did see several themes emerging. Systems of donation, underwriting and levels of membership were more common in organizations that rely on larger, more geographically or topic-interested audiences than in organizations primarily relying on distribution strategies.
Other common areas of revenue were found to be:
Philanthropic Funding: Gifts or grants from foundations or philanthropists.
Underwriting: Corporate sponsorship of products (e.g., news content, events, email newsletters).
Donor Programs: Levels of support tied to various dollar minimums and defined member re- wards or benefits. For example:
• Small Donors: Tax-exempt donations in the $1 – $999 range. Often in the form of annual memberships.
• Large Donors: Tax-exempt donations in the $1,000+ range.
• Major Donors: Large donations from high net worth individuals or corporations.
How to Measure Your On-Site Audience
Finding the right measures and codifying how to apply them to best drive the success of your organization is the subject of ongoing debate and a great deal of learning. While those new to the subject tend to focus on atomized bits of information (page views, monthly uniques) without meaningful context, others are trying to get more specific and formulate engagement and loyalty measures that may better reflect the overall impact of the brands they create.
INN members are learning quickly that audience quality may have more impact than the raw numbers in proving both their journalism mission and fortifying their business operations. Margie Freivogel said the St. Louis Beacon staff has come to understand that “…certain numbers are easy to get, but they don’t often measure the things we would like to know. Our concern is quality engagement with an audience, not just sheer numbers. Sheer numbers can take us in directions we don’t want to go in.”
First there is no substitute for a good story; time after time we have seen that an exclusive, timely story that is well marketed can capture a large amount of traffic and begin to make readers aware of your site, brand and mission. As we have watched traffic numbers grow month over month at sites, we have seen that the traffic gains delivered for a big story generally raise the aggregate traffic levels for a site.
We often find people talking about outdated terms like “hits” and tossing around audience numbers without good context. In our research, we observed varying degrees of literacy about key metrics. Ultimately, valuable insights derived from this data require an appetite to deep dive into real performance numbers, set goals, test tactics and formalize successful and proven approaches to audience growth. (Definitions of site metrics.)
Simply put, key questions all INN members should be able to answer about their web offerings are:
What Are My Monthly Unique Users?
The total number of unique visitors that came to a site in any given month is your monthly “unique visitors.” This does not include repeat users. You can also track unique users by other lengths of time (day, week, time of day). You can also track uniques on each story.
What Are My Monthly Page Views?
Monthly page views are the total number of pages that were visited on your site in a month. We often see this number reflect a multiple of engagement for unique monthly users, i.e.: if you have 100 users per month, each of whom consumes 3 pages, your total monthly page views will be 300. You can also look at this by length of time (day, week, time of day) or, if based on an individual story, how many times that story was viewed.
How Do People Find Your Site?
The key to building site traffic is knowing how people find your site. There are three big levers that you can pull to impact how an audience finds your site. These are commonly seen on a pie chart that looks like this in Google Analytics.
• Search Engines: The way most new readers find your site is through search. Search requires a great deal of forethought when you develop your site; consider how it’s coded, what metadata you put on your pages, how you build sitemaps, and finally how you write your content on a day-to-day basis. Writing for search engines requires a style that is key- word dense and often flies in the face of flowery narrative; fortunately, it is generally good with short, newsy, inverted pyramid styles of writing.
• Direct Traffic: These are people that come to your site directly for its content. They know your web address, have it bookmarked, and return regularly. Growing direct traffic numbers can be a solid indicator of brand awareness and loyalty amongst your users.
• Referring Sites: These are sites that send you traffic, often places that will link to your content. Various outreach activities, link building collaborations and partner relationships can help grow this number. It’s generally built with story-by-story merchandising of pieces to other places on the web (see more below on referral footprint building).
We encourage online publishers to dive deeply into their referral analytics. Pay close attention to all the sites that are picking up your content. Take the time to visit them, understand them, thank them for the links and build a relationship with the team, so that you can rely on them to link to the next similar story:
• Blog and Community Outreach/Social Media: The ability for users to share your story with friends on Facebook or link on Twitter will also drive referral traffic and can deepen en- gagement with your brand offsite (in Facebook fan pages and other online communities). In the past two years we have seen social sharing sites constitute the top five referrals on most news sites, indicating that social media programs are highly effective for news sites. Ag- gressive blog and group outreach can also be effective when you have content on a specific topic that may be interesting to a discrete audience that you can track, and contact online.
• Distribution Deals: Sites can establish regular content distribution deals with other sites that produce reliable traffic; INN members have deals with companies as diverse as AOL Patch, Yahoo! and other regular content partners. When content is fully distributed to part- ners, attribution and links back can be requested as part of the deal to drive audience and brand awareness for your own site.
• Promotions or Paid Referrals/Ads: Traffic can also be driven by promotions on third party sites in the form of direct advertisements or promotions for your site. These types of pro- grams would result in referral site traffic or through paid ad performance (beyond the scope of this document).
How Loyal Are Those People? How Often Do They Come Back?
A loyalty measure is important to demonstrate regular traction with an audience. You can find a simple report in Google Analytics describing how many users returned each month by number of visits. For example, of 100 users: 50 people came back once a month, 30 people twice, 15 people three times, and five people four times a month.
Distribution and Collaboration Strategies Are Also Part of the Mix
Distribution is always part of the mix in audience development efforts. Through sharing content, one can build a brand, establish visibility and bring traffic and members back to your site. Many of the sites that we have classified as audience development sites also have robust distribution strategies.
Voice of San Diego has an impressive distribution strategy, and over the past several years has greatly matured the kinds of collaborations and packages that it offers its media partners in print, broadcast and online. It maintains a regular content-sharing agreement with Yahoo! that provides the Voice its largest regular and reliable source of content. It has a regular monthly paid syndication deal with San Diego Magazine for photos and editorials, and a paid broadcast partnership with the local NBC affiliate that began several years ago as a free collaboration to get exposure. The latter has grown into twice-weekly paid collaborative segments produced with the reporters at the station.
It now has a broadcast quality camera in its office and can record segments from there. “We look at these broadcasts as a way of expanding these stories,” says Camille Gustafson, voiceof- sandiego.org’s former Marketing and Development Director. She explains that this relationship grew over time and “the NBC news editor was forward-thinking and the relationship worked well because there were nimble people in both organizations dedicated to making it happen. We weren’t so lucky with other attempts to partner with local broadcasters. It takes vision and commitment to get regular programming in place,” (interview, June 30, 2011).
Just as with distribution, it takes focused efforts to power successful audience engagement programs. Many local sites have hybrid staff working in the community to bring people into the site through events, forums and online activities. Others have dedicated engagement editors whose job it is to drive up the numbers for time spent onsite.
From an outside perspective the role of “Community Engagement Manager” can seem very much like a hybrid of community and social media producers commonly found in news, community and marketing services sites. However, the job often does not include offsite activities and is solely focused on deepening the relationship of onsite visitors with the content and programs.
Opening up newsrooms, creating direct ties to the community and allowing these interactions and conversations to impact and evolve the quality and reach of the journalism are critical to scaling the audience, who through its involvement becomes more loyal and committed to the mission of the organization.
Bringing It All Together
Developing an audience can take time, patience and skills that are different from, yet complementary to journalism. INN members are building local and topic-specific brands that must become familiar, understood, and trusted over time by the target communities that can and will support their work.