How to use swag to meet your audience goals

At The Discourse, we used to be weary of swag. We’re a small team and didn’t want to get into the retail biz. But having followed the ever-successful Black Friday membership drive from our friends at The Narwhal, centered on their signature red toques, we decided to give it a try last year.  

With The Narwhal’s permission, we copied the Black Friday campaign. In a matter of days, we reached our fundraising goal. Wanting to share some of The Narwhal’s knowledge, I caught up with Editor in chief Emma Gilchrist to find out what other indie outlets need to know to run their own stellar swag-driven fundraising campaign.

Let your swag speak for itself

Each type of swag tells a story. Fun garments like toques and T-shirts with logos or slogans can boost brand visibility. If a person wears a toque everyday, Emma explains, they’re engaging with The Narwhal daily.

Each new hire at The Narwhal is photographed outdoors wearing company swag that resembles something from a lifestyle-brand, which Emma laughingly describes as “ProPublica Patagonia.” But awareness advertising isn’t the primary goal of The Narwhal’s famous toques. “I kind of see that as gravy on top of it,” says Emma. The core objective is to drive new members to sign up. (More on that later.)

The swag you choose, and how you go about it, can also communicate values behind your brand

The Narwhal produces a yearly print edition featuring its top visual stories. The campaign around this piece of swag is cleverly timed to coincide with journalism award nominations, which are often featured in the magazine. In this way, the print edition serves to celebrate the best stories of the year.

Swag like this centers what The Narwhal is all about: high-quality investigative journalism you can’t find anywhere else. 

As a community-driven local news outlet, The Discourse decided to center its values by commissioning a local artist to design our tote. We then shared the story of Qwiyahwult-hw (Stuart Pagaduan)’s design with readers. Similarly, IndigiNews shared the story of Lauren Marchand’s art featured on its stickers, titled “coyote goes viral,” where senk’lip (coyote) is shown sitting in front of a computer sipping mountain medicine tea.

Build a sense of urgency 

Once you’ve chosen your swag and put production in motion, it’s time to build a campaign around it. As you know from reading this newsletter, every good campaign involves a sense of urgency. That can look like a deadline or a scarcity of the swag itself. 

“Become a monthly member by midnight tonight, and we’ll send you a sweet Narwhal toque,” The Narwhal’s campaign email reads. This works because it’s only offered for a limited time period, which encourages people who might be on the fence about giving to go ahead and fill out the form.

“We all know how many emails we get, how many things we might want to do on the internet,” Emma says. “But what makes you actually complete an action on any given day? A deadline.” 

Use it as a premium 

The Narwhal also uses swag as a premium to upsell people, Emma explains. During most of the year, supporters have to pay a premium amount to get a Narwhal toque, boosting the average donation. “A certain percentage of people really want the swag, so they’ll want to make sure to give $20 a month to get it.”
You can also use your swag for special contests, like Instagram giveaways that encourage people to follow your account or sign up for your newsletter. It’s an easy prize that circles back to the value of your brand.

Screenshot of an Instagram post by The Narwhal.

Be practical

Operationally, you’ll need to make sure you have a way to gather people’s mailing addresses when they sign up to become a supporter. This can be done with support of the team at Indiegraf. A possible work around it is to follow up asking people for their address via email, but that’s a pain for both parties.

Also, T-shirts and other clothing items are fun, but consider the fact that you’ll need to gather sizing information. If it’s not inclusive of a wide range of sizes, consider what this communicates to readers. A tote bag, especially on the thinner side, stickers or a thin toque will be cheapest to mail. Anything that you can’t fit into a mail slot will be more expensive. Be wary of heavy items like books or bulky items like sweatshirts. 

Something like a print edition magazine is nice and easy to fulfill. Just keep in mind that shipping costs have to be factored into your return on investment. 

Lastly, don’t underestimate the amount of work it will take to package and label orders, and consider the impacts of a long delay before eager readers get their swag. To speed things up and make the process less agonizing, consider locking in a day for a team mailing party, Emma advises.

To store or not to store?

Like many outlets, The Narwhal team has gone back and forth about opening an online store, says Emma. They’ve decided to go for it, but it will only be available to members. That way, people still need to be part of a club to get their hands on it, Emma explains, and the relationship with readers doesn’t become too transactional. 

“I think some people might be allured by the idea that they can maybe make a little bit of money off of selling swag — but you’re not going to make very much,” Emma warns, especially once you factor in your full costs including the time it takes to build the campaign, fulfill orders, etc.

“For us, the swag is more valuable in driving membership and engagement.”


Here are some of our favorite pieces of swag, from the network and beyond:

Waiting to be told: Behind the Resort Harassment story by Sun Peaks Independent News

A controversial comment made during a tourism conference in March made national Canadian headlines. After asking all the women in the room to stand in honour of International Women’s Day, a man said ‘Now go clean rooms and do dishes’ — a bad joke, bad enough to turn heads and land him in the spotlight. For the reporting team at Sun Peaks Independent News (SPIN), however, this was more than a poorly chosen joke: it was a red flag. 

That man was former general manager of Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, Vivek Sharma. Aware of the role Sharma had once held within the community, the SPIN team decided to dig a bit deeper. Sadly, as their research eventually found, it’s never “just a joke.” 

Looking into Sharma’s history at Sun Peaks Resort (SPR), a new, even more troubling remark came to light. A former resort employee shared the story with SPIN: While trying to “motivate the staff” at a meeting in 2016, Sharma said “Sometimes you get raped. You just have to lay down, take it and enjoy it.” This particular comment was then made public by CBC, following the 2022 comment. And yet, the SPIN team knew that’s not where the story ended. In fact, it raised an even bigger red flag: why had Sharma continued to work at the resort for three more years after that comment?

Indeed, as Sharma’s comments became part of the national news cycle, former and current SPR employees started reaching out to SPIN. They had stories to tell. Not only had there been no reprimand for Sharma’s comment in 2016: this was just one of the many instances of discrimination and harassment that were swept under the rug by the resort’s management. Eager to open an important discussion about harassment and power in their community’s tourism industry, the SPIN team got to work.

Indie Publisher reached out to Kayla Empey, community reporter at Sun Peaks Independent News who led this coverage, for the story behind the story.

How did you first learn about this issue?

Empey: The story began with a post we saw on LinkedIn explaining how Vivek Sharma told women at the B.C. Tourism and Hospitality Conference to ‘clean rooms and do dishes’ while speaking at the podium.

When SPIN’s publisher Brandi Schier saw the post, it caught her attention because Sharma used to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, and there were allegations of other offensive comments he made at the time.

I began investigating the story, but CBC ended up breaking the news before us. However, once Sharma’s name made national headlines, more sources began reaching out to SPIN wanting to share their experiences.

Through my interviews, our team realized the big ‘issue’ might not be Sharma’s behaviour, but the fact he continued to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel for years after formal complaints were put in against him, and staff said he didn’t seem to be reprimanded.

The issue then became more clear when I spoke to other employees who said it wasn’t just Sharma who has gotten away with harassment at SPR.

Why was it important for the Sun Peaks Independent News team to cover this story?

Empey: It was important for SPIN to cover this story because we wanted to begin valuable conversations about how SPR and the tourism industry as a whole can move forward towards change. We wanted to give a voice to those who have felt like they weren’t able to speak up.

Covering this story also helped show the community we are truly independent. SPR has a lot of influence in Sun Peaks and some residents might have thought we wouldn’t publish a story like this. However, what matters most to SPIN is telling stories that impact the community.

What made you decide to go deeper after Sharma’s comments made national news, considering he no longer worked at the resort?

Empey: We wanted to dig deeper into the story because even though Sharma no longer worked at SPR, it’s still relevant to current and former employees because of the lasting impact his comments had on them. Also, it highlighted the overarching issue of how it was addressed by resort leadership and how staff said issues continued to be brushed aside after he left. 

In addition, we heard directly from our readers and the community that the story was much larger than Sharma’s actions, and that many people felt the issue deserved a closer look in the community.

When covering difficult topics, how do you establish trust with your sources so they feel safe to speak openly?

Empey: I think since this issue had not been publicly spoken about for so long, the sources trusted SPIN because we were the ones finally bringing it to light. Most of our sources reached out to us wanting to tell their stories, and I was ready to listen.

I also made sure to communicate with the sources frequently throughout the process to ensure they were comfortable with what we were publishing and that nothing identified current employees who wanted to remain anonymous to protect their jobs.

What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?

Empey: A lesson journalists could gain from this coverage is to not be afraid to speak up against those with strong influence and use your platform to give others a voice. The positive feedback I received was overwhelming and showed how long the community was waiting for this story to be told properly.

Another takeaway is how important community-based independent journalism is. This story wouldn’t have been possible without a local reporter who was dedicated to digging deep into the wider management issues, and a great team for support.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

This is what a youth-led editorial agenda looks like

Since launching in July 2021, The Kansas City Defender has surfaced stories by and for Black youth that would not have been told otherwise. The independent non-profit news outlet has built trust with youth across Kansas and Missouri high schools by centering their voices and inviting them to produce content.

Indie Publisher’s Lauren Kaljur caught up with founding editor Ryan Sorrell to learn more about what’s possible when youth lead the news direction of an online outlet.

They speak to youth, and youth speak to them

Social media is central to The Kansas City Defender’s content and editorial strategy because their audience is predominantly Gen Z. The Defender’s Instagram feed is filled with hyper-shareable videos and bright yellow text over images, which relay everything from student walkouts to sports wins to youth profiles. The effort clearly resonates, with nearly 12,000 followers helping to fill each post with lively comments.

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "A Lincoln Prep HS Male Teacher Sent Explicit Images of Himself to Girl Students. Today the Students Wlaked Out in Protest."

The page’s popularity is not by accident. As a news outlet in service of Black youth, they’re often reporting on racism in schools, Sorrell explains. “That’s really how we were able to garner such a large Gen Z audience, because a lot of other media outlets weren’t covering these things.” 

When legacy media outlets such as The Kansas City Star cover these incidents — if they cover them at all — they often describe the story using headlines like: “Olathe South principal vows to ‘immediately address’ student’s racist homecoming sign,” Sorrell said. “Whereas we would say something like, ‘Racism exposed.’”

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "RACISM EXPOSED: 'If I was Black I  would be picking cotton, but I'm white so I'm picking you for homecoming.'"

After confirming facts and gathering information on the ground, Sorrell said the publication goes on to describe why the incident is not okay and contextualize the reaction with information about the school district’s history of racism.

“We’ve gotten a lot more tips, I think, than other media outlets do just because more and more students are trusting those outlets less and less, because of how those outlets report on these situations,” he said. “It’s like a cyclical kind of thing, where we continue to get more and more tips as people continue to trust us more.”

They earn trust through collaboration

“We don’t consider ourselves to be an objective media outlet. We consider ourselves to be advocates. We’re unapologetically a pro-Black organization, pro-marginalized people, and pro-LGBTQ. And so that has garnered us a lot of trust with young people,” Sorrell said.

With trust comes deeper engagement, and The Defender connects with students throughout the district to see how they can support them to tell their stories collaboratively.

Because they’re a small team of four main reporters and editors, The Kansas City Defender relies on students to share information from about 12 or 15 schools in the surrounding area. If something happens at any of these schools, they can ask students to film or send pictures, Sorrell explains. “So it’s almost like having reporters in the school in a way.”

These on-the-ground sources were doing such a great job that the team asked if they would be interested in an internship last fall. Five student interns are now working voluntarily for the outlet. 

“They’re just as much a part of the team as anybody else,” Sorrell said. They produce stories and content for the Defender’s Instagram and TikTok. “They know a lot more and are living with social media. And so they have a very good understanding of, number one, what interests other students.”

A recent story about student mobilization in response to the presence of a white extremist group in their school was written entirely by a student intern. In February, the interns led a Twitter space that included journalists from The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.

By embracing the interns as community organizers, The Defender was able to establish more relationships with students across Missouri and Kansas, resulting in an ad hoc group called The Black Futures Coalition. There, students share coping strategies in the wake of racist incidents or in one case, a school shooting. They also share strategies for protests or walkouts.

A piece the student interns collectively wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlined the way Black history is censored and white-washed in schools. The coverage resulted in a feature on the local NPR station.

“I pretty much give them full creative reign to produce the type of content, stories and media they think will best resonate with our audience,” Sorrell said. “I’m just a guiding person. I ask them what they’re interested in, and how can I help them.”

What’s next?

“We are following in the tradition of the radical Black press,” says Sorrell, pointing to the resurgence of Black media organizations in the United States — particularly outlets in Detroit, Dallas and Chicago’s The Triibe. “I think it’s necessary, especially with the state of what’s happening in the United States right now,” he adds. “We are very much trying to challenge people’s understandings of journalism, and to try to move it into the future.”

With support from Indiegraf, The Defender is also expanding its newsletter audience. In the span of three weeks, the publication drastically increased subscribers from about 300 to 1,500. “We have figured out the strategy to reach young people, so we have wanted to reach older people. And that will ultimately also help us by bringing in more audience revenue.”

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