A streamlined approach to tech helped INDY Week’s reader membership program bring in over $150,000 in one year. Here’s how your online publication can replicate it.
Steph Zimmerman, January 15, 2021 (Original article from MetroPublisher.com viewable here)
This spring, many publishers were financially reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Newspapers announced layoffs. Magazines suspended their print issues. Some newsrooms closed for good. Poynter’s article keeping daily tabs of the damage is depressingly long.
But Durham-based alternative weekly INDY Week had a different type of announcement. Their reader membership program, the INDY Week Press Club, had reached $150,000 in revenue in its first year, including over $10,000 in monthly recurring revenues.
Membership programs are a popular topic among publishers. They help grow email databases, create a revenue source beyond advertising, and provide newsrooms with a direct connection to their most loyal readers. National media organizations like The Washington Post and The New York Times are often noted for their successful programs. But for small local publishers, replicating the strategy of these large news outlets is often not realistic.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how one publisher, INDY Week, developed a successful reader membership program with a small staff and small budget.
“A Spine of Steel”
INDY Week is an alternative weekly newspaper that’s been in publication since 1983. The paper’s 15-employee team covers politics, culture, food, music and other news in the Research Triangle, a region that includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and three research universities. They have been recognized with an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, a George Polk Award, and several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, among other accolades. In a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, writer Mary Ellen Schoonmaker describes INDY Week as having “…a spine of steel: solid investigative pieces, witty, incisive coverage of politics and state government, and a thoughtful, conversant air…”
In 2018, a round of layoffs convinced previous editor-in-chief Jeffrey Billman that INDY Week needed to develop some sort of membership program to stay financially afloat. He had read about subscription programs that worked for national papers, but he wanted to ensure that INDY Week stayed free and accessible to the community. He didn’t want to lose sight of the community-focused mission and grit that alternative weeklies are often known for.
After much deliberation, he decided to appeal to readers directly.
In an article describing the launch of the Press Club, Billman defines the mission of INDY Week’s membership program. “The INDY is and will remain a free publication for everyone. But to keep our journalism viable, we need those who can, to support us.”
On May 6, 2019, INDY Week launched their Press Club, which gave readers the ability to make one-time or recurring donations to the paper. By the end of that month, the Press Club received more than $12,500 in reader donations. INDY Week used the revenue to pay for editorial features, writers’ fees, and to re-launch a popular morning newsletter.
Bringing in the Experts
Ten months later, INDY Week wanted to expand the growth of the Press Club, but like most alternative newspapers, they didn’t have the in-house resources to do it themselves. So, INDY Week looked to BlueLena, a new company founded by two audience development experts who have previously held positions at New York Times Company, Gannett, and LEAP Media Solutions, among other roles. BlueLena specializes in providing end-to-end audience management services that even small journalism organizations can afford.
One year after INDY Week launched their Press Club, it had brought in over $150,000 in revenue.
“[INDY Week] needed a partner devoted to optimizing their onsite conversion and audience engagement efforts to propel growth of their email database and donor base,” writes Daniel Williams, one of BlueLena’s co-founders, in an email. “We were able to deploy our solution in just two days and immediately reignite their user registration and Press Club conversions.”
BlueLena set INDY Week up with Pico, a payments and CRM system designed specifically for membership programs. Because INDY Week’s content management system Metro Publisher integrates with Pico, the whole setup process took just a few days.
Now, any non-members who enter INDY Week’s website are prompted with a window that asks them if they would like to sign up for any of the publication’s newsletters. If the visitor enters their email or uses one-click authentication with Google, they are enrolled in a curated email workflow developed and managed by BlueLena. Besides regular member acquisition emails and occasional reader surveys, the BlueLena team sends members theme-based campaigns, such as Giving Tuesday or World Press Freedom Day.
The Press Club is also promoted in INDY Week’s daily editorial newsletters, in print, on indyweek.com, and through contests. (On May 8, 2020, anyone who signed up for the Press Club was automatically entered into a contest to win a free summer dance course.) The alternative weekly also experimented with offering members-only perks, like INDY Weekmerchandise discounts, thank you ads, discounts at local businesses, and access to exclusive events.
BlueLena utilized Acxiom to grab additional information about members to better understand their makeup and demographics. Then, they created easy-to-understand visualizations of that data with Tableau. They regularly send INDY Week’s team analytics information as well as insights from reader surveys.
At the center of the alternative weekly’s promotional messaging is the publication’s community-driven mission. For example, the top of INDY Week’s morning newsletter included the tagline “Support the INDY Press Club: Better Journalism for a Better Community.”
An article that features testimonials from members about why they support INDY Week makes it clear that the publication had earned its community’s trust through years of committed coverage. “It’s local. It’s independent. It’s nosy. It’s unafraid,” one member writes. And that trust is essential to any successful reader membership campaign. Without that foundation, even the smartest technology solutions will fall flat.
When non-members access content on indyweek.com, they are prompted with the option to enter their email or sign up for any of INDY Week’s newsletters. At this point, they are not asked to donate any money.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020 and many journalism organizations were on the brink of folding, INDY Week appealed directly to readers with their new system courtesy of BlueLena, Pico, and Metro Publisher.
The results speak for themselves. INDY Week raised $37,000 in five weeks.
In early May, INDY Week launched a 10-day fundraising spree to raise $10,000 ten days ahead of the Press Club’s one-year anniversary. Readers who contributed received T-shirts and discounts at local businesses. One of the available T-shirts featured the text “INDY Week, a liberal rag that hates guns” — a phrase INDY Week staff proudly lifted from the comment of a disgruntled reader. The campaign ended up generating more than $17,500 from 313 new Press Club members. 35% of those new members signed up to be recurring contributors.
By the end of June, INDY Week had raised over $150,000 since their initial launch a year prior.
Since INDY Week started working with BlueLena and Pico in late March, they converted over 12,000 anonymous site visitors to registered users. Of those registered users, over 2,000 were converted to paying Press Club members. And most impressively, INDY Week has raised over $80,000 in that timeframe, with an average of $38.04 in revenue per member. The Press Club now provides INDY Week with $11,000 in recurring monthly revenue, a 358% increase since January 2020.
What’s encouraging about INDY Week’s story is that their success is something that other small publishers with communities of loyal readers can replicate. The technology involved in INDY Week’s current membership program is inexpensive. It does not require steep upfront costs or any additional hires. Instead, BlueLena and Pico make the majority of their revenue by sharing a percentage of their clients’ membership revenue. So, they only succeed if their clients succeed.
And since BlueLena takes over much of the day-to-day management of their clients’ membership programs, using BlueLena’s services allows small publications to free up some of their staff’s already over-extended time.
Currently, BlueLena is working with INDY Week to make its membership program even more valuable to readers. They are helping develop a system that consistently connects readers to perks offered by INDY Week’s advertising partners, such as discounts at local restaurants. “We believe this approach to membership,” writes Daniel Williams of BlueLena, “where those who support INDY Week financially are entitled to added-value perks and promotional opportunities will help sustain its independent journalism, but also fulfill its mission of providing a paywall-free environment for all readers to benefit from access to critical local news and reporting.”
Pico — Connect your Pico account in just one click and take advantage of their signup and payment tools.
BlueLena — End-to-end audience management enabled by world-class technology, proven best practices and deep industry expertise.
Steph Zimmerman has worked in digital media management for over five years, holding positions at St. Louis Magazine and St. Louis Public Radio. She is currently a master’s candidate and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University