How The Discourse Nanaimo ran a successful campaign without asking for money

The independent news outlet rallied supporters with a news petition.

Lauren Kaljur Lauren Kaljur  - January 28, 2021

For more than three years, The Discourse has been innovating a new model for local, community-powered news, building from successes in the Cowichan Valley. So when people kept telling Cowichan reporter Jacqueline Ronson that another Vancouver Island community, Nanaimo, could use The Discourse, the team decided to test interest first. 

Here’s how the team gauged interest for a model of journalism that didn’t exist in that community yet:

They delivered pop-up coverage

Over a series of months, the team surveyed people in Nanaimo through Facebook ads to learn about what was missing from local news coverage. They narrowed down responses to two story ideas and put them to a community vote. As they delivered a series of in-depth stories, they encouraged readers to sign up for updates with Facebook lead ads and grew the Nanaimo audience to a base level of about 1,300.

They launched a petition 

At this point, The Discourse was ready to launch an official go-to-market campaign. But they were concerned they didn’t quite have the level of trust and community awareness to make a strictly financial ask. On Nov. 23, they launched a campaign to get 5,000 people to sign up to say they wanted in-depth journalism in Nanaimo by Dec. 4. Indiegraf developers created a petition page with the deadline and the goal. Lower down on the page, The Discourse communicated its vision for Nanaimo, some background on the outlet and community testimonials. 

They connected with the community 

Community awareness and audience growth were a key part of the strategy. In the lead up to the campaign, the lead reporter and producers hosted an online event with more than a dozen stakeholders in the community, from business to education, to find out how local news coverage could be improved and what stories should be investigated. At the end of the event, they shared the petition idea and asked for feedback. These core supporters turned out to be important champions of The Discourse’s efforts when they launched the in-depth news petition a week later.

At the same time, the editorial team helped produce a PDF summary of findings from their second in-depth investigation into homelessness in Nanaimo, which the Indiegraf team used as a lead magnet for Facebook. That single lead magnet brought in 1,285 leads.

Additional Facebook leads were pulled in from stories and petition posts, for an overall cost of $3 per person.

What worked?

At the heart of this campaign was the content itself. In the last week of the campaign, reporter Julie Chadwick’s abandoned building story performed as the top story on The Discourse website, while her reporting on homelessness informed the successful lead magnet. 

Subscribers were encouraged to share the petition on social media and via email — and a surprising number did. A number of dedicated readers wrote about what they loved about The Discourse on social media and forwarded the petition to friends. And while a financial ask was not core to the campaign, almost 40 individuals stepped up to financially support The Discourse Nanaimo

Community business partnerships were also solicited through a Founding Supporter campaign, with contributions matched using grant funding from Vancouver Foundation. After this announcement, a local campus radio host stepped up to launch a Founding Supporter campaign through their own website.

In the end, The Discourse Nanaimo reached 3,420 sign-ups out of the overall target of 5,000. While they fell short of their goal, the overall interest and feedback was so strong, they decided to make it official. They’d surpassed their internal goal, and recognized that a smaller, engaged audience is more important than a large, unengaged audience.

What didn’t work?

With lead magnets running at the same time as the campaign, there were a few instances of subscribers getting too many emails all at once. For this reason, content needs to be spaced out to ensure readers still receive valuable reporting as a preview of what’s possible, and aren’t overwhelmed with campaign asks.

Also, the decision to promote the founding supporter and petition campaigns concurrently may have been confusing to some audience members. If they did it again, the team would focus on making calls to local businesses directly to get the word out, rather than sharing this news about the campaign with individual supporters. In addition, they would lower the sign-up goal slightly — to 4,000 instead of 5,000 — to make it a slam dunk.

In the news

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And one more thing… 

I’ve been having a lot of fun making Bernie Sanders visit some famous newsrooms.

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