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:

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.”

The Kyiv Independent raises nearly $1M amid invasion

A scroll through The Kyiv Independent’s website eerily documents the sudden turn in fate for the people of Ukraine. A culture section featuring national opera, contemporary art and film events is now eclipsed by regular updates about “Russia’s war on Ukraine: Where fighting is on now” and social media infographics listing Ukraine’s casualties.

The independent news outlet launched less than four months ago after 30 journalists and editors found themselves abruptly locked out and fired from the Kyiv Post — the longest-standing English language newspaper in Ukraine. Now the publication is covering the front lines of a war while raising nearly $1 million (USD) in reader support. 

The backstory

Shortly after editors published critical coverage of the Ukrainian government, as they’d been known to produce, the owner’s media manager announced she would head new Ukrainian and Russian versions of the publication and hire entirely new editorial staff. The newsroom saw it as an attempt to undermine editorial independence, writes ​journalist Illia Ponomarenko for the New Statesman. After demanding transparency — the Kyiv Post was temporarily shut down.

The group of journalists swiftly jumped to action with a Patreon campaign for the launch of a new outlet, The Kyiv Independent. A local agency developed the website pro bono and a newsletter and podcast soon followed. “In a time of ongoing Russian aggression and political turmoil in Ukraine, we can’t allow our country to end up without an independent English-language publication that can speak to the world,” they wrote in November.

Importantly, this new outlet would be funded by readers, not a wealthy businessman like the Kyiv Post. “We are not backed by a rich owner or an oligarch,” they wrote. “We want to be closer with our readers and champions than we were at the Kyiv Post.”

The latest

Today, they are among a handful of outlets scrambling to report accurate information on Russia’s war in face of physical and cyber attacks and rampant mis/disinformation. To keep up with the need, they launched a GoFundMe campaign, which has surpassed 14,000 donations and raised nearly USD $1 million from the original goal of USD $75,000.

As The Kyiv Independent staff point out on Facebook, they are not alone. “While we are extremely grateful for the support we’ve been getting, we understand that other media outlets in Ukraine have been less lucky. That’s why our partners launched a new global fundraising campaign to help independent Ukrainian media get through this crisis.”

This consortium of European media outlets and NGOs is raising money in support of Ukrainian media like Ukrainska PravdaZaboronaDetector Media “aimed at helping media relocate, set-up back offices and continue their operations from neighboring countries.” 

How to help

Indiegraf contacted The Kyiv Independent to offer help and made a donation in the network’s name. We know many of you want to help as well. Here’s how you can support:

New website features will help Indiegraf publishers gain more reader revenue

If we expect readers to contribute to our work, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to pay.

That’s why Indiegraf’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Caitlin Havlak and UX/UI designer Anastasiya Razumyeyeva spent months researching ways to improve our publisher payment pages. Now they are in the process of upgrading Indiegraf’s subscription and management platform and improving the support page design. The upgrades enable several improvements:

  • Improved user experience: design optimized for maximum conversion
  • Improved subscription management: Easier to execute payments and manage subscriptions on the backend
  • Improved analytics: powerful dashboard to track conversion, subscription growth and churn
  • Improved integrations: powerful integrations with Google Analytics, Mailchimp, Stripe and Braintree
  • Improved editorial features: new opportunities for untapped revenue, including e-commerce, gifting and exclusive content.
  • Improved security: fraud prevention and more security measures

Indiegraf publishers IndigiNewsShasta Scout and Cold Tea Collective are among the first Indiegraf sites to implement the new membership management improvements. All Indiegraf websites at the Pro Plus Tier will receive the same upgrades by the end of March. 

Here’s a rundown of the new offerings and how publishers can leverage these new features to bring in more reader revenue.

Screenshots of new-and-improved payment pages.

Minimalist design 

In marketing-speak, barriers to payment are called “friction.” Even the slightest slow-down or cluttered text can cause someone to second-guess their decision to pay.

That’s why big players such as The New York Times have very minimalist payment pages. There’s little to no distraction and no way to navigate away from the action of payment.

Indiegraf’s payment page has also been simplified significantly, with a subtle footer and collapsible FAQs. It’s also modal-based, meaning it functions as a pop-up so readers don’t have to navigate away from content. For example, readers can click the “Support us” button mid-article and pay right on the page without leaving the story. 

“The goal is to have as few distractions as possible,” Havlak says.

The new payment page also integrates with Apple and Google Pay. These services are almost entirely frictionless — it takes one action to pay. These payment integrations also boost security and enable use of additional payment tools. There’s also an option to login using Google or Facebook, speeding up the registration process significantly. 

The new workflow is focused singularly on helping readers become supporters, according to Razumyeyeva. But it gives enough flexibility to add important context and emotional appeals.


That brings us to the next benefit: personalization. Publishers can easily tinker with all elements of the support page — from the description and header to background image. The new system also enables Indiegraf to A/B test different approaches, from messaging to design.

“Before the payment page was pretty static, it couldn’t change much,” Havlak says. 

New landing pages can be replicated and customized for special campaigns and special promotions, including swag giveaways. Publishers can also add emotional appeals like reader testimonials and easily empower readers to offer a subscription or membership as a gift to a friend or loved one. 

Exclusive content can also be placed behind a paywall for members-only access. Additionally, the support page adds a progress bar during revenue campaigns, unlocking another feature not previously available to Indiegraf publishers. 

“If the publisher is running a campaign, they will have the option to display a progress bar, and change the message from the publisher to a campaign message,” says Razumyeyeva, who points out Indiegraf will also be testing whether this helps boost conversions. “The goal is that, when landing on this page during campaign times, the reader will know at a glance that a campaign is going on.” 

Reader revenue analytics are now organized in a single dashboard.


A new analytics dashboard, powered by Pelcro, provides all the information and features required to manage subscriptions and better understand what motivates contributors.

With improved Mailchimp integration, Indiegraf publishers will have much more flexibility to update automated emails sent when someone becomes a supporter.

“This is really going to level up our segmentation abilities,” Razumyeyeva says. 

New integrations with Google Analytics also make it easier to follow how readers navigate the site to become paying customers. With better insights into what channels — social, email, etc. — are most effective in driving reader revenue, publishers can strategically fine tune their marketing funnel.

“The analytics dashboard paired with Google Analytics will be a super powerful way to track conversions, subscription growth and churn,” Havlak says. “I’m really excited about having clear data on where people fall off in the payment flow and clear data on conversion rates.”

Subscribers and supporters can also easily update credit card information or add an address for receiving swag. And any registered reader has the ability to save stories to read later, further encouraging on-site registration.

Amid all these changes, the transition will be seamless for readers and supporters. 

Online content isn’t forever: Archiving as a digital publication

Shortly after Gawker suddenly announced its bankruptcy and shut down in 2016, a high-profile investigation was pulled from its site, spurring renewed concerns over the preservation of its archive.

Gawker’s articles were facing the “billionaire problem” — wealthy interests buy remains of bankrupted sites to remove controversial content. To mitigate the risk, Freedom of the Press Foundation teamed up with U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Archive to protect the website’s content and ensure the public record would remain.

But billionaires aren’t the only ones who see value in archives. After the hyperlocal outlet serving Chicago and New York, DNAinfo, shuttered in 2017, a group of former DNAinfo Chicago editors scooped up its brand and archive assets for free, courtesy of New York Public Radio WNYC (who had previously acquired them). They then leveraged the notoriety of the brand to launch Block Club Chicago in 2018.

Archiving your stories isn’t only a safety precaution for if you ever close your doors, it’s also vital to the health of the news ecosystem at large. Here’s a primer on news archiving and why you should be thinking about your publication’s public record.

The difference between backing up and archiving stories  

Do you have a system in place for backing up your new articles? Google Docs and Microsoft Word files are relatively stable in the short term, and can empower you to repopulate your stories in the unfortunate event that your site is hacked or crashes. But as Columbia University journalism professor Angela Woodall explains, it does not ensure long-term access spanning decades or more.

There are a number of issues with both solid-state drives, like those you plug into your computer, and cloud storage. What happens if the storage software you use becomes obsolete? What happens if there’s a meltdown at the server farm for the cloud storage you use? Keep in mind that no matter the cloud storage, it’s probably outsourced to Amazon Web Services, Google or Microsoft, according to Woodall.

In the face of market volatility, what happens to this information? Backing up your articles is an important first step — but not enough to ensure ongoing access.

Local news archives could offer a clearer picture of history 

“Local, independent, and alternative news sources are especially at risk of not being preserved, threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favor dominant versions of public history,” Woodall and colleague Sharon Ringel stated in a 2019 report called “A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age.

Long-term plans for preserving content help ensure increased access to vital information. It’s just a matter of publishers making archiving a priority. “Having the consciousness is the first thing,” Woodall says. “And then I think from there, you can assess what needs to be done.”

Jeremy Klaszus of The Sprawl has been thinking about archiving a lot lately. He points to OpenFile Calgary, which disappeared in 2012, as an example. “If you read around in the Wayback Machine long enough, you can find a way to certain stories,” he says. “But that’s an issue you know, all this work, kind of assuming like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s online. It’ll be online. No it won’t, actually.”

Make your content redundant 

The biggest obstacle to archiving — besides just not saving anything — is that formats change a lot, explains Woodall.

There are different ways to proactively overcome this barrier depending on your budget and scope of what you want to preserve (Do you include social media posts? Newsletters? Comments on your site?).

“The bottom line — redundancy is probably the best bet. Having [your files] on a cloud server, a PDF format, and your original word document, which is pretty stable. And then just printing it.”

If you choose to back up content as PDFs, Woodall suggests you revisit the strategy annually to assess whether there’s a possibility that the format will become inaccessible.

Third-party services can help, like Preservica or The Internet Archive’s Archive-It. Just remember, this puts preservation in third-party hands.

Be wary of silver bullets — and blockchains

While Woodall and Ringel’s research found that most major newspapers have contracts with commercial search databases like ProQuest or, many small digital outlets don’t have archiving plans. 

Klaszus of The Sprawl says he’s approached the Calgary Public Library a few times about the preservation conundrum without any luck. “They basically don’t know what to do with an online news publisher.”

“As for a silver bullet — there is none,” Woodall says. “Finding a silver bullet is a really demanding proposition because then you start getting into collective memory and history and a lot of other issues.”

Blockchain startups are marketing hard for asset storage, but what they’re offering is unrealistic, Woodall warns.

“These blockchain startups or anybody else who’s offering some like, magic potions that are going to keep everything safe and nobody’s going to be able to touch it, they don’t actually store the content. They just store the hashtags and other things.”

Five reasons why independent news outlets and local campus radio make powerful allies

Jeremy Klaszus, founder of The Sprawl, an independent news outlet serving Calgary, Alberta, strives to tell stories that “surprise and delight.”

So when he was asked to produce a podcast by CJSW 90.9 FM, Calgary’s only campus and community radio station, he jumped at the chance.

The half-hour radio show and podcast, The Sprawlcast, is now in its third year. Each week, Klaszus surfaces stories focused on a specific theme of interest to Calgarians, like the city’s geographic income segregationcommunity-building corner stores and what the city can learn from Vancouver’s quirky and famous Commercial Drive.

Here are some benefits to pairing up with campus radio to produce a show or podcast:

1. Get the goods

If you’ve ever considered producing a podcast, you’ll know you need a ton of gear. Klaszus says the decision to partner with CJSW was a no-brainer because of the resources that come with it. The station provides access to a professional studio, equipment, editing software, tech support, knowledgeable production staff and an audience of listeners.

Since Klaszus had some experience reporting for radio at CBC, he was able to get started relatively quickly.  

“For folks who are newer to audio, they do have staff to walk you through how to do it,” he explains. “And that’s huge. Because the alternative is, you’re in your basement with a microphone and whatever setup you can cobble together.”

2. Grow your audience

No matter who your target audience is, there’s an obvious benefit to gaining the ears of community and campus radio listeners. They can become future contributors or supporters. 

To this day, community radio remains a key information resource. For those who refuse to listen to podcasts or radio, Klaszus posts a transcript for each episode on The Sprawl’s website so the content is searchable and accessible. 

He says that while the precise number of listeners is hard to gauge with radio and podcasts, they get about 2,000 downloads each episode, a number in line with the outlet’s membership.

But another important measure of success is direct feedback.

3. Connect with your audience

Newsletters are a great tool for building relationships with readers and growing revenue, in part because readers appreciate hearing directly from a journalist. Podcasts have the same power.

In one recent episode, Klaszus interviews David Goa, a scholar of religion, on the importance of meeting and connecting with strangers. It’s an intimate, thoughtful conversation.

Klaszus says he specifically chooses stories well-suited to audio — and it shows. Each episode offers a thoughtful glimpse into issues Calgarians care about led by a compelling, approachable host.

“If they see that you’re committed to this thing and you’re putting in the effort and it’s not like a side project of an article or whatever, I think they’re more likely to give attention to it,” says Klaszus.

4. Bring your readers in

As a member-funded news outlet, The Sprawl does a great job of involving readers in the creation of new products. In 2018, they had a member drive to launch Sprawlcast.

If you’re thinking about a podcast or radio show, consider inviting readers to help you make it happen. It rallies your audience around a specific goal, helps raise awareness about the new product and gives you something to celebrate with your readers later.

5. Diversify your news products

Delivering journalism in new formats helps make new people aware of your work. It’s also a way to deepen your connection with your readers and supporters. 

As former Buzzfeed newsletter director and publisher of the Not a Newsletter Dan Oshinsky explains in an interview with The Fix, offering multiple products builds relationships. “When we ask them for the next step to support us or donate, they will really care about us and have a good relationship with us on a few different platforms.

“Those are the readers who are most likely to convert. So that’s where that comes in. It’s just an additional way to deepen engagement.”

But Klaszus says quality must stay top of mind. “The podcast space is so crowded, right? So if you’re going to go there, it has to be good. Is it quality stories that connect with people? If it’s not that, then little else will work.”

The Sprawlcast is just one way to collaborate with campus radio stations. You could also connect with the station’s programming director to find out if there’s already a news show, and offer up a short five minute segment. 

You could take inspiration from The Sprawl and make your show a limited time pop-up to test the waters before a more permanent launch.

If the station offers a newsletter, consider arranging a newsletter takeover or swap to grow your subscriber base.

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