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

How to gain 1,000 new Instagram followers in two weeks on a small budget

We all know social media is an important part of any marketing strategy. But how do you decide which platform to focus on in the early stages of growth? How the heck do you grow your following? And most importantly, how do you ensure your new followers are actually engaged and loving your content?

The Resolve is a new independent Canadian journalism company that recently faced these questions. Founded by Black-Queer journalist Matthew DiMera, The Resolve aims to produce journalism that centres, elevates and celebrates Black, Indigenous and racialized voices across Canada.

In anticipation of The Resolve’s launch, we at Indiegraf were tasked with finding and building an audience of potential readers on social media. We decided to focus our limited budget on Instagram. In less than two weeks, we grew our audience on that platform by 1,000 new hyper-engaged followers.

Step 1: Test, test, test

We had a hunch Instagram was going to be our best bet. We had run Facebook Lead Ads before and reached an audience of mostly readers 45 and up. We wanted to reach younger readers, and felt Instagram could deliver that for us.

However, we still had to test that assumption. So we ran a week-long Facebook Likes campaign, a Twitter Follower campaign and a custom hack for Instagram — that I will explain in a moment — to see which platform responded the best.

In the backend of Facebook and Twitter Ads Manager, the metric we watch to measure success is called cost-per-result (CPR). This is also sometimes referred to in marketing lingo as cost-per-acquisition (CPA) or return on ad spend (ROAS). In this case, they all mean the same thing: how much it costs us in advertising dollars to acquire a new page like or follower.

In less than two weeks, the results were as follows:

  • Twitter: $6.80 per page follower (very poor)
  • Facebook: $1.57 per page like (good)
  • Instagram: $0.33 per page follower (amazing)

Our assumption was proven right: Instagram provided the most cost-efficient result for our ad spend. We set each campaign at $50 per day, but you can go as little as $5 a day. Just know the more you spend, the better data you’ll have to make decisions more quickly.

Once we knew Instagram was the way to go, we focused our efforts (and budget) on growing that platform.

Step 2: Create a “Lookalike Audience” based on current followers

There is a caveat to this hack: You must have some followers to begin with. Unfortunately, this advertising strategy won’t work if you’re starting from scratch. The Resolve had 371 followers already from organic (unpaid) marketing efforts and good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth. That was all we needed.

We created what’s called a “Lookalike Audience” of The Resolve’s current followers. This is the Facebook advertising algorithm working its robot magic to find you new followers that are similar to your current audience based on attributes like age, gender, location and most importantly — interests.

Lookalike audiences give you the option to pick a percentage. That means, how “alike” do you want the audience to be? The lower the percentage, the more alike the audience will be, but the fewer people you’ll reach. The higher the percentage, the less alike but the more people you’ll reach.

We created a one per cent lookalike. We didn’t just want to find new followers, we wanted to find new fans. We wanted people who would really resonate with what The Resolve is about. This worked for us because The Resolve is a national news product which means we had a whole country to target with our ads. If your market is smaller, you may want to try a two per cent lookalike.

Once we created this lookalike, we set it as our audience in Facebook Ads Manager for the campaign.

Click here for step-by-step instructions on how to create a lookalike audience from your Instagram following. You have to create a Custom Audience first, which is just the current Instagram following itself, then you create a Lookalike Audience based on that Custom Audience.

Step 3: In Facebook Ads Manager, create a traffic campaign and choose your objective as “link clicks.”

To understand this section, you’ll need a basic understanding of the Facebook ad structure (Campaign → Ad Set → Ad). For an explainer on these terms, click here.

Here’s where the hack part comes in. Facebook doesn’t allow you to run a “Instagram Followers” campaign in the same easy and basic way that you can run a “Facebook Page Likes” campaign.

Instead, you need to run a traffic campaign. Choose your objective as link clicks. At the ad level, insert the url of your Instagram page into the ad. This way, when someone clicks on your ad, they will be taken right to your profile.

In your ad set, you should also click “manual placement” instead of the normally recommended “automatic placement.” De-select all Facebook ad placements so that your ads only show up on Instagram feeds, stories and Explore page.

I also recommend choosing budget optimization at the campaign level. This way, Facebook will automatically direct your budget to the ads that are performing the best. Set a daily budget with an amount that is feasible for you. We did $50 a day and raised it to $100 a day after the initial two weeks.

Step 4: Run multiple ads at once to give Facebook options for budget optimization. 

At the peak of our campaign, we had six ads running. Four of them were videos, one was a static image and one was a slideshow of images.

It’s best practice to have at least three ads running with different creative types. As long as you have your campaign set to budget optimization, Facebook will do the hard work of choosing which ads to spend more on for you.

For video ads, we repurposed the videos that we created to post on The Resolve’s IGTV. The size of an Instagram Feed ad and Instagram Explore ad is 1080 x 1080 pixels. The Instagram story ad size is 1080 x 1920 pixels. We created both dimension variations for all of our video ads.

We found that one video was consistently performing better than any other, so we shut down most of the other ads. But we always kept a minimum of three ads running at a time.

Even when one ad is outshining the rest, it’s still best to give the algorithm options. There is rarely any rhyme or reason for one creative outperforming another and it is impossible to predict. That is why you should always have multiple ads running with different creative types.

Step 5: Create fresh kickass content while your ads are running (daily if possible).

You can spend all the money you want on advertising, but ultimately fresh, organic content still rules the internet. While our ads were running, we were posting daily original videos that we created using this fancy tool. You can take a look at The Resolve’s IGTV to see all the content we were posting during this time (and also repurposed as our ads).

In total, we posted eight videos during the two-week period, ranging in length from one minute (the minimum length required on Instagram) up to five minutes. You may not have the capacity to generate content at this volume, but the point is that people like to follow pages that are posting interesting and relevant content on a regular basis.

The fresh content was key to this advertising strategy. The engagement numbers on the organic videos (videos that we didn’t spend any money on) let us know that our new audience was loving our content. We consistently got between 400-600 views on our videos from an audience with less than 2,000 followers.


After two weeks, we spent $374.80 on our Instagram ads and generated 1,013 followers for a CPR of $0.33 per follower.

The factors that contributed to the success of this campaign were:

  • Fresh content that was relevant and engaging to the target audience
  • 371 followers to start that we were able to use to create an effective one per cent Lookalike Audience
  • $1,000 budget to test different platforms before scaling our spend on Instagram (we’re still spending!) 
  • A national product meant we had a large geographic market to target 

The next step for The Resolve will be to drive their new Instagram followers to their email newsletter, to eventually prime them to become financial supporters — but that is a case study for another day. 

In the news

And one more thing…

We’re thrilled to be included, along with partner publisher IndigiNews, on this excellent piece about the rise of independent digital news in Canada.

Indiegraf Media

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