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May 18, 2017

Turning Readers Into Funders

Innovation Fund Screenshot by Knight Foundation


Could a digital platform designed to deepen the relationship between readers and reporters help nonprofit news outlets solve their funding challenges?

Bitch Media put Hearken to the test.

Kate Lesniak, Bitch Media Publisher


Hearken, the audience-engagement tool that invites readers to help shape the news by inviting them to interact with journalists as stories are reported, has developed a reputation for helping media outlets generate higher traffic to their sites and attract younger, more diverse readers.

But integrating the tool into existing digital fundraising strategies may also be a promising way for nonprofit media organizations to raise money from readers.

That’s what Bitch Media, a nonprofit, independent, feminist media organization, discovered when it deployed the Hearken platform and then studied its readers for a year. The study was an INNovation Fund grant project sponsored by the Institute for Nonprofit News and supported by Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.

Hearken-engaged readers, Bitch Media learned, were between two and five times more likely to convert to sustaining membership than ordinary readers.

(More on that wide range below.) The conversion rates were so dramatic that Bitch Media’s editorial and engagement teams plan to integrate Hearken into more of its content this year.

It’s a story that other independent media organizations, dedicated to quality journalism but struggling to keep the lights on, might want to, well, hearken to.

Reader Support Critical

Audience support is critical to Bitch Media. The organization has undergone a lot of changes since its founding in 1996 but it remains committed to the founding idea that its work needs to be supported by readers and like-minded sponsors and free from the influence of corporate advertisers and self-interested investors.

The question Bitch Media had for Hearken was simple: Would Bitch Media audience members who engaged with the organization through the platform become monthly members — Bitch calls them B-Hive members — at a higher rate than those who did not?

Connecting the data dots, the theory looked promising:

  • Hearken customers tell the company that stories generated using the platform keep readers engaged for five minutes, on average, up from just one minute industry-wide;
  • Chartbeat, a leading analytical platform for media outlets, reports that the more time readers spend on a site, the more likely they are to return to the site;
  • And Bitch Media, drawing on both industry analysis and its own experience, knew returning visitors were more likely than infrequent visitors to convert to financial support.

But nonprofit media companies need dough, not dots. So Bitch Media put the theory to the test.

Focus on Two Groups

For a year, Bitch Media looked at two groups of Hearken-engaged readers and their conversion from audience members to financial supporters:

  • Group One was comprised of readers on Bitch Media’s email list who had engaged with the Hearken platform — asking a question themselves or voting on a list of possible questions. Would these readers convert to membership at a higher rate than readers on the email list who had not used Hearken?
  • Group Two was comprised of readers who had signed up for Bitch Media’s email list while reading a Hearken-prompted story. Would these readers convert to membership at a higher rate than users on the email list who had entered through another path?

Over the course of the project, Bitch Media published 20 pieces of content prompted by a Hearken question and influenced by readers’ pre-publication input.

As expected, audience engagement went up. That, after all, is what Hearken promises to do. With Hearken-involved stories, readers spent an average of 9 minutes and 21 seconds either reading or listening. In comparison, readers spent 7 minutes and 35 seconds, on average, for stories that were not informed by a Hearken question.

Conversion Rates Jump

More importantly, that increased reader engagement translated into higher conversion rates to membership for both groups being studied.

Looking at all the readers on its email list, Bitch Media found that just 1.35 percent of them converted to membership during the year-long study. But when it focused on those email list members who had engaged with the Hearken platform, the conversion rates surged to 7.17 percent.

Readers who signed up for the email list for the first time after reading a Hearken-prompted story, meanwhile, converted to membership at a rate of 2.02 percent – nearly double the rate for users who signed up from the email list through another non-Hearken path. 

The Math

Of course, Hearken isn’t free. Bitch Media pays the company $6,000 a year for the platform. But even with the overhead, the experiment proved a modest financial success.

That’s because on average, Bitch Media’s B-Hive members each contribute $10.61 a month to the organization. To cover or exceed the costs associated with the Hearken rollout, it needed to add 48 new members who had engaged with the platform during the year-long experiment.

In the end, it added 55 new members thanks to Hearken. That translates into a projected $7,000 in support in the first year and – because the average member lifespan is 20.4 weeks – should also translate into another $4,901 in support in the organization’s 2017 budget cycle.

So, if Bitch Media acquires new members at the same rate with Hearken, it expects to generate a total of $11,900 in Hearken-related extra membership support in its 2017 budget year – or nearly $6,000 in extra money after paying for the platform.

That will help the media outlet continue the journey toward greater reader support. Over the last 12 months, in combination with other membership-focused strategies, Bitch Media’s sustaining membership program has gone from providing just 26 percent of its overall organizational funding to providing 46 percent of its overall organizational funding.

For Bitch, that means that readers who give an average of $10.61 each month are collectively now making a larger contribution to supporting its work than other more traditional (and volatile) revenue streams, such as term-based subscriptions or newsstand sales, combined. For Bitch Media, that’s particularly important because of its values as an intersectional feminist media organization.

Though ultimately only a small portion of that funding was driven by Hearken this year, the long-term impact and possibilities cannot be ignored: The potential for readers to be between 200 and 500 percent more likely to convert to membership is clearly something that deserves attention – at Bitch Media and beyond.

Kate Lesniak is the publisher of Bitch Media.

Lead image courtesy Knight Foundation and INN.

This case study was produced as part of the Innovation Fund grant program run by the Institute for Nonprofit News and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.  It was originally published on INN.org and republished with permission.