How we grew one small publisher’s audience revenue by 1,745% in six months

Last summer, Indiegraf helped journalist-entrepreneurs Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson raise over $20,000 to launch the website for their small digital publication Peterborough Currents. 

The $20,000 had come in the form of one-time contributions with a very specific ask: help us build our website. The next step? We needed to grow monthly recurring contributions from readers in order to sustain the local journalism long-term. 

Indiegraf was tasked with developing a growth strategy to help Peterborough Currents strive towards sustainability through a reader-revenue business model. After six months of execution, we were able to grow monthly recurring revenue by 1,745 per cent, setting Barmania and Pearson up for a successful second year in operation. 

Here is a breakdown of the two reader revenue campaigns and one lead generation campaign we ran during this time that contributed to sustainable growth for Peterborough Currents. 

Holiday 2020 campaign leverages super engaged email subscribers 

In December 2020, we executed a 10-day reader revenue campaign targeting Peterborough Currents’ 1,700 email subscribers and 900 social media followers. We knew that the email audience was highly engaged — nearly 50 per cent of subscribers were considered “super members,” a distinction given to those that have either a four or five-star engagement rating in Mailchimp. 

At Indiegraf, we hope that at least one-third of our client’s email subscribers become super members eventually. That’s healthy, strong audience engagement. To have nearly half of the subscribers be super members indicated to us that Peterborough Currents’ audience was small, but incredibly engaged, loyal and loving the in-depth reporting Barmania and Pearson were providing. 

We sent out five emails during the 10-day campaign. We crafted our email marketing strategy around an eight-episode podcast series breaking down the City of Peterborough’s municipal budget, as well as a deep-dive investigation into Peterborough’s homeless shelters. We knew from survey feedback and Google Analytics data that this was the type of in-depth local journalism that residents came to Peterborough Currents for. 

Our emails were mini-case studies sharing the methodology behind these stories. We explained how being an independent news outlet not beholden to corporate shareholders or advertisers empowered Barmania and Pearson to pursue these long-form investigations — and it allowed them to dig beneath the headlines, covering local issues in a way that no other news outlet in the region was doing. 

The messaging focused on showing readers the value of their journalism and letting them know that their ongoing financial support was needed to ensure the publication they love could continue for the long run. By the end of the campaign, we converted 50 readers into paying supporters and grew monthly recurring revenue from $62 a month to $683 a month. 

Facebook lead generation campaign brings in new readers

In early 2021, we switched focus from revenue to lead generation. We wanted to grow Peterborough Currents’ audience so that we had a larger pool of potential supporters in their upcoming spring revenue campaign. 

We ran lead form ads through Facebook for two months with a $2,000 monthly advertising budget. Lead form ads are native to Facebook, meaning users don’t click a link that takes them outside of the platform to sign up for the newsletter. Instead, users stay where they are on their newsfeed. This ease of use results in higher conversions and a lower cost-per-lead (CPL). 

Indiegraf aims to have a CPL of $4 or less when running lead generation campaigns for small publishers. If the CPL rises to between $4 and $5, we spend a couple of weeks tinkering with audience segments and creative options, like headlines and images. 

If we are unable to bring the CPL back down after these adjustments, then it is a clear sign that we have exhausted the publisher’s audience through this tactic and platform. Luckily for Peterborough Currents, that was not the case. We spent $3,840.42 on lead form ads over two months, generating 1,352 new email newsletter sign-ups for a CPL of $2.80. 

Peterborough Currents has two newsletter products: a news-focused issue and an arts-and-culture-focused issue. We ran lead form ads for both products and found that the CPL was consistently lower for the news-focused product. This showed us there was more interest in the market for local news coverage than there was for arts and culture coverage. This was a valuable insight to share with the publisher. 

One-year anniversary spring 2021 campaign celebrates local independent journalism 

In March 2021, Peterborough Currents celebrated the one-year anniversary of their newsletter launch. We leveraged this moment to run a three-week reader revenue campaign. We felt good about the timing of this campaign because we had just built the email list up to 2,700 without compromising our strong super member percentage in Mailchimp. As newsletter lists grow, you can expect engagement to drop a bit. But nearly 40 per cent of Peterborough Currents’ subscribers were still considered super members. 

Not only did we utilize celebratory messaging around Peterborough Currents’ one-year anniversary for this campaign, but we continued to leverage strong in-depth reporting. This time, the publisher was releasing a six-part podcast series on the opioid overdose crisis, and had just released a deep dive on affordable housing

Over the 21-day period, we garnered 62 supporters, raising monthly recurring revenue from $738 a month to $1,144 a month. Email remained our strongest marketing tactic, with more than 30 of the 62 supporters coming from our newsletters.

We sent out 10 emails over the three weeks, and boosted all of Peterborough Currents’ content on Facebook as it was published, which brought more than 5,000 readers to the website. On the site, we set up inline and popup ads, which were directly responsible for converting 13 of those supporters. 

Next steps for Peterborough Currents 

Peterborough Currents has now converted eight per cent of their current email subscribers to paying supporters. Indiegraf bases our client’s financial projections on being able to convert 10 per cent of subscribers to supporters over time. 

This means Barmania and Pearson have nearly maxed out their financial potential with current subscribers and need to grow their “top of the funnel” audiences. This means attracting more casual readers to follow them on social media and visit their website, bringing them further down to the middle of the funnel (newsletter subscribers) and ultimately to the bottom of the funnel (super members and paying supporters). 

It’s been clear from the very beginning that Barmania and Pearson are providing Peterborough with a news product that is greatly needed and valued by residents — a fact that is solidified by their steady and sustainable growth over the past six months.

In the news

Opportunities and education

  • Google News Initiative is hosting a fireside chat with The 19th founder, Amanda Zamora. 
  • Poynter has a newsletter, called The Cohort, all about “women kicking ass in digital media.” Have you subscribed yet?

And one more thing…

Last week, Indiegraf’s Rachel Chen shared her thoughts about the term “BIPOC” with The Other Wave’s Anita Li. Missed it? Find it here

Here’s how Chicago’s City Bureau trains citizens to report on local government

School boards, zoning committees, public safety councils — every community in the United States has governing bodies like this and, despite boring titles and jargon-filled agendas, they make decisions that impact people’s everyday lives. However, without local news outlets to report on what’s happening, residents are left largely in the dark about critical elements of local government and community life. 

City Bureau is changing this dynamic by recruiting citizens, not professional journalists, to cover government meetings through its Documenters program. Documenters serve as the community’s eyes and ears at public meetings and help spread the word about what local government is up to.

Founded in 2015, City Bureau is a non-profit civic journalism lab based on Chicago’s South Side. It brings journalists and community members together to tell stories inclusively.

Rather than extracting information from community members for news stories, City Bureau brings them into the newsgathering process. Readers weigh in on story ideas, provide feedback and in some cases, even take on the role of citizen journalist.

“In 2015, we set out to address a structural crisis in journalism,” said City Bureau co-founder Darryl Holliday. “We saw four interrelated problems: inequitable, misrepresentative local reporting; a lack of diverse budgets in newsrooms; distrust of media in communities of colour; and unsustainable media business models.”

Creating a new public record

Documenters is City Bureau’s largest journalism training program. Each Documenter is paid for covering meetings and receives training in topics including fact-checking, social media and the basics of local government. Rather than producing traditional news stories, the goal is to create a public record without complicated jargon that’s more easily accessible than what the government produces.

More than 1,000 people have covered more than 1,300 public meetings in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland since 2018. The program is open to anyone; Holliday said its participants range from high school or college students to retirees.

The League of Women Voters has public meeting watchers, but Holliday said he’s not aware of any organization combining those efforts with journalism like Documenters does.

“We tried it as a series of projects beforehand to see if it would work well as an ongoing program,” Holliday said. “The network aspect of it and working in multiple cities came later. We felt confident that what can work in Chicago can work in Cleveland or work anywhere.”

The initial Documenters cohort came from participants in City Bureau’s fellowship program and spread from there to include teachers, lawyers and people involved in other civic organizations in their cities.

Documenters is City Bureau’s largest program, but far from the only way it engages in community-centered journalism. It hosts Public Newsroom events that bring community members together for a conversation about local news and issues, as well as a civic reporting training program for journalists that focuses on racial equity and community engagement. 

A path to sustainability

City Bureau has received funding from more than a dozen foundations across the United States. But as independent publishers know well, grant funding does not last forever. Holliday and the team are beginning to explore what other funding models could look like.

The first such attempt is Newswire, a newsletter based on reporting from Documenters in Chicago that City Bureau describes as a “daily dose of civics.” It’s currently free, but Holliday expects to eventually add a paid version.

“I also see a world in which groups like Chalkbeat or another topic-driven organization might have Documenters to attend meetings they can’t get to,” Holliday said.

Holliday said City Bureau has heard from more than 90 outlets that want to bring Documenters to their communities. As the program grows, he hopes the team at City Bureau can take a step back from directly running it and move to a community governance model led by the Documenters themselves.

“As those generative relationships form, they lead to new ideas and new cohorts,” Holliday said. “The programs that form in other areas might not look exactly the same as Documenters does now and that’s okay.” 

For more information on this model of journalism, visit Gather, a project of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon or check out the book “Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust” by Temple University professor Andrea Wenzel.

In the news

Opportunities and education

And one more thing…

Our first Indie Capital recipient, Bushwick Daily, is expanding their team to better represent, engage and serve their community in NYC. Congratulations! 

Here’s how small publishers can be more secure online

It’s the notification we all dread: your account has been compromised. Panic sets in, followed closely by frustration for having used your cat’s name for 80 per cent of your account passwords. The dread compounds when you consider that your indie outlet, and maybe even your staff, could be affected. 

As indie publishers, we often don’t have the luxury of hiring cybersecurity firms to protect our business. But preparation is much more effective than damage control. To make the journey through the world of cybersecurity slightly less overwhelming, here are some essential steps you can take.

Consider your risk

If you’re a racialized journalist, identify as a woman or LGBTQ2S person, or report on sensitive issues, you will have unique security needs. To help with assessing your risk, the Ford Foundation’s Cybersecurity Assessment Tool is a great place to start. 

Practice digital work-life balance 

Just because you’re at the helm does not mean you should have your personal information attached to your organization. Be diligent about using separate emails, usernames and passwords for personal and business use. This is especially important for remote teams that share account information regularly. Use a password manager like KeePass to make life easier. 

Scrub your personal information 

Dox yourself! Google personal information like your phone number, name and email and get to work removing them. Set up a Google Alert for this information to get ahead of it.

Use fake names and fake birth dates as much as possible. Just because for-profit apps ask for this info all of the time does not mean we should hand personal information out like candy.

Use a burner email for sketchy account sign ups. You shouldn’t be using the same email address to communicate with your accountant and play Donut County. 

Ever heard of SIM Jacking? Hopefully you never have to. Ask your phone provider to add a PIN to your account and protect your SIM card from being hijacked.

Set up a virtual phone number (like Google Voice) and make it the only number you use publicly.

Opt out of data brokers’ lists. It’s time consuming, so focus on the big players like Epsilon and Acxiom. To take this to the next level, use the Big Ass Data Brokers Opt-Out List.

Remove yourself from white pages and other people-search sites with these tips from Consumer Reports. 

Delete your name from your devices (phone, tablet, laptop) so that it doesn’t show up to everyone around you with Bluetooth enabled. 

Clean up your digital footprint 

Axe unnecessary apps. Every time you add an app to your browser, social media accounts, phone or desktop computer, you’re giving a new entity access to your information. Clear them out regularly. You can check accounts linked to Google here.

Be careful about app permissions in general. If they don’t need access to your photo library, don’t give it to them. And turn off location tracking. It’s creepy! 

You can check if your account credentials have been leaked with Have I Been Pwned.

Tighten up security 

If you do one thing right now, add two-factor authentication to your accounts. Avoid using your primary phone number, however. Apps like Google Authenticator are preferable. 

Use a VPN to hide your IP address. (Check out Wirecutter’s guide to secure VPNs for more.)

Use Google’s password manager to eliminate duplicate passwords and to make existing passwords longer and more complex.

You can also start using a privacy-conscious browser like Tor Browser, Firefox or Chromium, and make your browsing more secure by installing the extension HTTPS everywhere.

Remember: the digital security landscape is always changing. If your worst cybersecurity fear becomes reality, try not to panic. Access Now offers a free digital security helpline to help organizations and people recover from an attack. 

Here are some additional sources to check out:

In the news

Opportunities and education

And one more thing…

  • One of our partners, Briarpatch magazine, just put out their July/August issue, “Sharing treaty land in Saskatchewan.” Congrats!

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