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April 2, 2015

What Works For Crowdfunding Local News

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When it comes to crowdfunding it is usually the record breakers that make news. The largest number of donations, the highest amount raised, etc… However, every week hundreds of small projects launch crowdfunding campaigns, and there is a lot we can learn from their successes and failures too.

That’s why I was excited last fall when I began talking with journalism crowdfunding platform, Beacon, about experimenting with how to make crowdfunding work for small local news organizations. Local organizations present some unique challenges — their audience is much more limited than national publications, they often can’t tap into national interest in a niche topic, and the smallest organizations don’t have dedicated marketing or outreach staff to run the campaigns.

One of our partner sites, New Brunswick Today, just successfully completed its Beacon campaign, raising $15,000 in one month. New Brunswick Today is an amazing four-year-old digital news start-up that publishes in English and Spanish and prints a monthly newspaper. The specialize in great watchdog reporting focused on local government and civic institutions and they have built up a loyal community following. As part of our journalism sustainability project, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, offered $5,000 in matching funds and spent $2,000 to hire Beacon staff to coach the New Brunswick Today team on managing the campaign.

Local Passions vs. National Topics

Prior to this campaign, many of the projects funded on Beacon covered broad topics of national concern, like climate change and net neutrality. Those issues benefit from drawing on a large base of passionate advocates and concerned citizens. However, in my interview with Catherine Hollanderof Beacon after the New Brunswick Today campaign ended, she remarked at the deep passion of local people for their local news outlet. Hollander usually encourages groups to focus their campaigns on a specific, tangible project, but New Brunswick Today focused their pitch mostly on general support of their reporting. With the funding they hoped to hire more translators and expand their use of video, but those themes were secondary to their more general appeal for support. Hollander said that the response New Brunswick Today got was a testament to the fact that they have cultivated a very loyal community.

Crowdfunding Forces You to Find Your Voice

Like so many journalists, New Brunswick Today isn’t used to talking about themselves and promoting their work. But the campaign forced them to explain what they do and why they do it. New Brunswick Today editor Charlie Kratovil told me, “We needed the crowdfunding campaign to help us find our voice.”

By the end of the campaign you could see a shift in how they described their work. “We are working to empower the New Brunswick community to have a voice in the important decisions that affect their lives,” wrote Sean Monahan, the publisher of New Brunswick Today, in an email to Chris Daggett, the president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “Without critical coverage over the activities of decision makers and the powerful every person feels like an island trapped alone in a raging river. But when we shed light on a story we can help those islands unite and ultimately change the course of that river.”

Asked if there was one thing they would have done differently Hollander said that they would have encouraged New Brunswick Today to put more of their voice into the fundraising appeals. “The advice I’d give going forward is that news organizations should inject their news personality and voice into the outreach they do during a funding campaign,” Hollander wrote in a follow up email. “One way to do that is to highlight recent coverage or talk about past successes you’re proud of, and to personalize the outreach you do so readers feel like they’re getting to know you — and the people who work in your newsroom — even better during your campaign.”

One way New Brunswick Today did weave their voice into the campaign was by doing profiles of their freelancers and contributors on Facebook as a way of keeping the crowdfunding campaign front and center.

Six More Lessons for Local Journalism Crowdfunding

  1. Local Journalists Should Mine Facebook During Crowdfunding Campaigns — Facebook obviously plays an important role in outreach for any crowdfunidng campaign. Hollander told me in an email, “The fact that it was so important here was less a surprise than the degree to which it was important. In the case of New Brunswick Today, the conversion rate from Facebook was much higher than average, suggesting that there’s an even larger role for Facebook to play in local campaigns.”
  2. Two Bursts and a Long Haul — The pace of the New Brunswick Today campaign was typical of many crowdfunding efforts. There was a spike in donations at the start and end of the campaign with a lull in weeks two and three — but those middle weeks are critical for outreach and momentum building. New Brunswick Today’s editor told me “Most of the money comes at that beginning and the end, but a lot of the hard work happens in the middle.”
  3. Design Your Campaign for Many Funding Levels — When we think of crowdfunding we often think of lots of little donations, but Beacon told me that New Brunswick Today had a bit more high level donations than many other campaigns. And I have seen news orgs include higher funding levels designed for local businesses too.
  4. Pick Up The Phone — New Brunswick Today reached out to people via email, Twitter, Facebook and more, but both Beacon and New Brunswick Today told me how valuable their phone calls were. For New Brunswick Today it was a chance to listen to their community and talk about their work as well as solicit donations. It also help motivate people who already gave to help spread the word. After the campaign New Brunswick Today also called many of the donors to thank them. (When you don’t have a phone number, other kinds of one-to-one outreach — Facebook chats, Twitter messages, etc. — can be important.)
  5. Put Your Campaign Everywhere — New Brunswick Today had a prominent box on all their websites, with a strong call to action linking back to the crowdfunding campaign for the entire month and Beacon staff said it was one of the better performing calls to action they had seen, attributing this to its front-and-center position on the website throughout the course of the campaign. It was impossible to visit New Brunswick Today’s website without seeing it.
  6. Don’t Worry About Over Asking — Don’t be afraid to Tweet, Facebook, email your fans about the campaign often. Crowdfunding is part of our online lives today and people recognize that campaigns are short and intense. Most successful campaigns share info about the campaigns multiple times a day and send out regular emails. New Brunswick Today saw nearly zero unsubscribes from their email list due to campaign related asks. In fact, the editor there told me that people liked getting the updates about how the campaign was going — they were excited to be part of supporting something.

And this leaves us with one final point that Catherine Hollander at Beacon really drove home to me. “Your readers want to hear from you and they want to support you,” she said “but they also want to feel inspired to support you and reminded about why that support is so important.”

New Brunswick Today is doing great work and their crowdfunding campaign helped them expand their reach, hone their marketing and encourage deeper investment from their community. We are about to launch our next local journalism crowdfunding experiment and we’ll have more to share soon.