Why engaging your audience pays

Cowichan Discourse grew their audience five-fold. Here’s how they did it.

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.

In the news


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And one more thing… 

If you see the Indiegraf team at ONA 2020, wave (digitally) hi! For now, we’re loving these newsletter tips.

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