Here’s how Detour Detroit leveraged new members to spur additional revenue streams

The self-styled guide to Detroit sold $20,000 in email ads last year.

Joe Lanane Joe Lanane  - February 2, 2021

Membership may not be Detour Detroit’s top moneymaker, but the self-described “guide to Detroit” nearly tripled its membership base last year, from 200 to 550 paid supporters. 

Co-founder Ashley Branch Woods said it validates the operation’s efforts and helps drive additional revenue opportunities.

“It is an expression of community support we leverage in other ways,” said Woods, a Detroit-based journalist who started the operation nearly three years ago with editor Kate Abbey-Lambertz. “Even though membership may not be the most lucrative revenue stream, it’s the most important and where I spend the majority of my time.”

Detour’s 2020 membership gains came from a ”Keep Detroit Local” campaign, which attracted paid members with the promise of free newsletter ads to local businesses for each new high-tier supporter. 

“For our readers, that mattered a lot to them,” Woods said. “They don’t want us to be unbiased about businesses surviving.”

That campaign proved so effective that as those local shops regained footing, they turned into paid advertisers. Detour Detroit sold $20,000 in email ad sales last year, Woods said, helping to overcome a significant loss in event-related revenue. 

“That really gives me a lot of excitement about the future,” said Woods.

Those advertisers also offer discounts to paying Detour Detroit supporters, further incentivizing readers to retain their membership. Wood also leverages paid supporters when pitching Detour Detroit to other funding sources.

“We’re not asking you to fund us, we’re asking you to match what’s already been raised,” she said. “Our readers want this, it’s already been raised. We’re just asking you to come along with us.”

Most importantly, members have benefited from Detour Detroit’s pandemic coverage and gained additional context surrounding election controversies of national relevance in their own backyard. A lot of that information was shared in a member’s-only Facebook group where Woods and her team communicate with paid supporters directly.

“I feel like we really earned our value in a way that might’ve not been so apparent if Detroit hadn’t been the center for these election fraud claims,” Woods said.

New year, new initiatives

Detour Detroit continues to expand and innovate heading into 2021. The Dig real estate newsletter, launched late last year, will expand in 2021 using a Solutions Journalism Network grant to evaluate Detroit’s lack of economic mobility and opportunity for people of colour. Woods said the goal is to “reimagine the real estate beat” in a way that goes beyond big developments and wealthy players.

“Our stories are based on what our readers want, what is actually happening in their neighborhoods,” she said.

If successful, The Dig could expand into its own “freemium” product, Woods said. Detour Detroit also offers two other newsletters beyond its flagship product, including The Blend, a digital magazine for women, and an events-themed newsletter called Get Busy

Detour Detroit also runs a content studio responsible for producing newsletters for other publishers. Woods expects that operation to expand this year from serving three to four partners to at least a dozen by the end of 2021. Additional services include launch support as well as ongoing training and content creation.

“We are really all-in on newsletters,” Woods said.

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And one more thing… 

One of my favourite pandemic stories was New York magazine’s piece on where all the bucatini went. Now here comes the Hamilton Spectator to remind us there is always a local angle.

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