Here’s how Peterborough Currents raised $20,000 from readers

When COVID-19 hit Peterborough, journalists Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson saw their community was searching for information and connection. They knew that vulnerable communities would be disproportionately impacted by COVID, and that local media wouldn’t cover many of their stories. 

So they launched an email newsletter.

With Indiegraf’s help, they quickly attracted more than 1,700 subscribers to the Peterborough Currents newsletter, which they produce weekly off the side of their desks. As the pandemic dragged on, and they received grateful feedback from their readers, they realized there was a need to expand Peterborough Currents into a full-fledged, permanent digital news outlet for their community.

In summer 2020, without even having launched a website, Peterborough Currents asked their readers to help make their vision a reality by becoming Founding Members. They raised more than $20,000 in a few short weeks.

This week, Peterborough Currents launched the website that their community helped them build. To celebrate their milestone, we wanted to share lessons from their successful Founding Member campaign.

How did they know when to ask their readers for money?

The first indication was that Peterborough Currents reached a sufficient number of email subscribers to drive revenue. 

Not only did they have over 1,700 subscribers, but there was a clear need for their journalism. The cost of attracting each new subscriber from paid advertising was low, which indicated there was demand in Peterborough for in-depth journalism. And once subscribed, readers were very engaged. Their average email open rate was at 40 per cent and over half of their subscribers had five-star ratings on MailChimp, meaning they were highly engaged readers.

The Peterborough Currents team also circulated a survey to their subscribers before the campaign, asking whether they’d be willing to pay. The response was very positive.

All of these signals suggested that they genuinely had that community connection they needed to succeed. 

How did we set a campaign goal? What did we learn?

Based on these metrics, we predicted we could convert 200 subscribers to Founding Members, an 11.5 per cent conversion rate. If each paying supporter kicked in $100 on average, Peterborough Currents would raise $20,000. So that became our campaign goal.

In the end the campaign converted 169 supporters. The actual conversion of email subscribers to Founding Members was 9.75 per cent, which is more in line with industry norms of 10 per cent.

Despite overreaching on our estimated conversion rate, Founding Members contributed more than we anticipated: an average of $128. The campaign raised $21,645 in total, exceeding our goal. By inviting Founding Members to choose from a variety of pricing choices and set their own contribution amount, Peterborough Currents readers stepped up.

How did they tell their campaign story without a website?

All Peterborough Currents had, in terms of digital presence for its newsletter, was a landing page. They worked with the Indiegraf team to evolve the landing page to invite people to contribute financially. 

Through surveys and interviews with their readers, Will and Ayesha had developed an understanding of why their audience valued their work. This helped them craft campaign messaging that emphasized the quality of their writing, community connection and journalistic independence. 

They were also sure to be very concrete about what their Founding Members were paying for: expanding their journalism, building a website, pursuing longer term investigations on specific topics and hiring local freelancers to diversify the voices they publish.

How did people find out about the campaign?

Will and Ayesha then worked with Indiegraf to tell their campaign story in other formats, including email and social media. Campaign emails drove more traffic to the payment page than any other source. It was important that they published strong editorial content during the campaign period so they continued to deliver value to their audience while asking for support.

Founding Members who came to the payment page from email also contributed more on average ($134) than those who came from social media ($48). This is likely because email subscribers knew and valued Will and Ayesha’s work from receiving their newsletters.

Facebook and Twitter were also important drivers, and we ensured people saw their Facebook posts by spending about $500 boosting their campaign posts. 

They also held a virtual event, inviting a well-known local podcaster to host questions from readers. This event showed their readers that they were serious about being accountable and transparent to their community.

Interestingly, although people found out about the campaign almost entirely online, only 60 percent of the transactions were made via the digital payment page. The other 40 percent came via cash, cheque or email money transfer. This suggests that many people are uncomfortable with credit card security, and so it was important to provide alternative ways for people to contribute on the payment page.

What we learned for next time

For the Indiegraf team, we learned that clear communication with our partner publishers is key. Going forward, we plan to consistently have kickoff meetings and a dedicated project manager for every campaign.

The Peterborough Currents team wished that they had better anticipated some of the questions their readers would ask. They recommend preparing a FAQ document in advance.

Finally, in order to maintain momentum over a 3-4 week period via social media and email, campaigns need lots of high-quality visual assets to keep the campaign fresh.

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And one more thing… 

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Why engaging your audience pays

You’re delivering a news product that you think provides real value. But you find you’ve reached a plateau: your audience isn’t growing at the same pace, and your product isn’t yet financially sustainable. What next?

The Discourse Cowichan knew this challenge well. The community-powered news outlet on Vancouver Island, B.C. had already built an engaged audience of newsletter subscribers and paying members by investigating stories that weren’t being covered. But they wanted to boost their audience size and improve conversion rates to keep the outlet sustainable. 

So the team went to work. They grew their subscriber base by 513 per cent in roughly twelve months. Increasing the quality and quantity of Cowichan’s content in an effort to double down on engagement was a key part of this success. Here’s how they did it. 

They reassessed their product offerings

Cowichan Discourse’s weekly newsletter was performing well. But from a combination of reader feedback and performance analysis, the team came to the conclusion that it was trying to accomplish too many things. The newsletter was successfully delivering on its goal to provide a roundup of weekly news in bite-sized pieces, but it was also adding in analysis, community features and soliciting reader feedback to drive reporting. “It just ended up being a clearing house for a lot of things,” says lead reporter and editor, Jacqueline Ronson.

They refined the purpose of the product

The team decided to split it into two: Cowichan This Week would focus on news, current affairs and community event briefs. An additional weekly newsletter, Curious in Cowichan, would deliver on the second identified goal of community connection by answering readers’ curiosities about the place they live. “Curious in Cowichan was a way of sort of deepening the relationship and giving deeper content,” says Ronson.

They put their readers first

With a newsletter now fully dedicated to answering community questions, the team hypothesized a key strategic benefit: improved audience loyalty. As the Membership Puzzle Project has found, this benchmark is a community-powered news outlet’s northern star. By directly engaging with your audience, you’re giving readers or listeners a reason to come back. And those that keep coming back are the most likely to share your work and ultimately pay. Nurturing this loyal segment of your audience is known as a “middle of the funnel.” tactic. (The term funnel is used to describe the path we want consumers to take from early brand recognition at the top, down to purchase at the bottom.) 

A new product focused on engagement also solved another self-diagnosed problem with the Cowichan team’s content: they were being ask-holes. While the Cowichan team would consistently ask for reader feedback to inform stories, they weren’t always giving back. “Curious in Cowichan newsletter would be a way to directly respond to peoples’ questions and what they want to know, and do something concrete with all of the feedback we were already soliciting and asking for,” says Ronson.

The voice would be different, too. Ronson’s voice wouldn’t be central to Curious in Cowichan.  Instead, the focus would be on the curious community members themselves.

They increased touchpoints 

Splitting the newsletter into two separate products had an additional benefit. It doubled the number of opportunities to connect with readers who would hopefully become loyal readers, and had the potential to attract new audience members who might not be drawn to weekly news updates. These audience touchpoints, as they’re known, are a key part of success, says Indiegraf founder and lead marketing strategist, Caitlin Havlak.

“I think lots of journalists (especially ones that have previously focused on long form) struggle with this. Increased frequency of content does not need to decrease the quality and depth of content. It’s about finding ways to interact with your audience in low lift ways and repackaging big investigations or long form journalism into more bite size pieces,” she says. 

They measured success, and built from what they learned

The team monitored Curious in Cowichan’s performance closely, watching metrics like subscription growth, churn and open rates. The data shows their strategy worked. The team continues to grow its subscription base, and a strong proportion of their most loyal readers become paying members. And with 40 per cent open rates for both newsletters, they know readers are finding value in both.  

Ronson says they’ve also deepened their understanding of their readers. “We’ve just discovered so much about what our community is interested in and what kind of stories they like using this format,” she says. 

The insights gleaned from the Curious in Cowichan questions has also informed fundraising campaigns. When the team found that many readers wanted to know about Cowichan’s Indigenous history, Ronson recruited an engaged community member and writer, Jared Qwustenuxun Williams, who’s a member of Cowichan Tribes, to guest-write Curious in Cowichan. It was such a success that the team ran a mini-campaign to raise funds to hire Qwustenuxun. “We thought the target was really ambitious and then we blew through it,” Ronson says, adding that readers consistently say they’re supporting Cowichan Discourse because of Qwustenuxun’s work when they make contributions. 

Ronson points out that Curious in Cowichan is only one part of a wider engagement strategy.

Whether it’s connecting with the community through the dedicated Cowichan Discourse Facebook page, mining other local Facebook groups, or showing up at community events without a story agenda—the success of Cowichan Discourse conversion builds on years of listening to the audience’s diverse interests. 

Her biggest piece of advice? “Just listen. Listen in lots of different ways,” she says.

The key takeaways from the case study.

The key takeaways:
Don’t try to achieve too much in a single product

Nurture the middle of your audience funnel through engagement 

Increase audience touchpoints

Don’t be an “ask hole’

Listen, listen, listen. Never assume you know what your audience wants.

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