MinnPost, Voice of San Diego set high membership goals with support from Knight

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Two nonprofit newsrooms are sharing a Knight Foundation grant to boost their membership programs, with a goal of developing models that other organizations can emulate.

MinnPost and Voice of San Diego are splitting the $1.2 million grant over two years to improve the operations of their membership systems and to enhance promotion of memberships to readers. The newsrooms began work on the project in January and aim to triple their members by the end of 2016.

Scott Lewis

Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis addresses the audience at the nonprofit’s annual Politifest. Members of the site enjoy VIP seating at the event. (Photo: Sam Hodgson, Voice of San Diego)

To survive long-term, nonprofit newsrooms such as MinnPost and VOSD will need to shift focus away from earning revenue through advertising, said Michael Maness, v.p. of journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation. “Increasingly, it’s important for you to really have an in-depth understanding of who your audience is and what they’re doing, what they expect, because then you can leverage it in all kinds of different ways, as opposed to just going out to an ad network,” he said.

Donors to nonprofit news sites fit a familiar profile, according to Maness. “The people who tend to give money to nonprofit news right now are the same people who do things like give money to an art museum or ballet or symphony,” he said. “They are civic-minded people who are used to giving, and they believe that there needs to be a really functioning local news ecosystem, so they’re supporting it almost as a civic good.”

But for sites such as MinnPost, the biggest donors are not the heaviest users of content, and people who use its services the most contribute the least, Maness said.

During the first year of Knight’s support, MinnPost and VOSD will upgrade their customer relationship management (CRM) systems to help staff determine what donors are reading and tailor pitches accordingly. In the second year, the nonprofits will take advantage of the upgrades to offer donor benefits and to customize requests for contributions.

Reader donations are already a cornerstone for both sites, making up 15 percent of each site’s total income. In 2013, MinnPost had 2,226 members in 2013, and VOSD had 1,850 members. Leaders at both organizations believe there is room to grow membership even further.

“For the most part our donor proposition is still just, ‘Everything is free, and just give us the money because you need to support what we do,’” said Joel Kramer, c.e.o. of MinnPost. To strengthen the site’s pitches, Kramer hopes to offer more incentives for membership, such as “freemium” editorial content.

Kramer sees membership as MinnPost’s biggest opportunity to grow revenue. Over the course of a month, 100,000 visitors visit MinnPost at least twice, according to data provided by Internet analytics service QuantCast. Kramer points to those numbers as evidence that MinnPost has a substantial number of regular online users who aren’t yet members.

Kramer hopes to emulate the success of Minnesota Public Radio, which raised almost $18 million in membership revenue in fiscal 2013, according to an MPR spokesperson, accounting for almost half its budget. “We expect to be a smaller player than they are, but we think we should be doing a lot better and can be doing a lot better in getting donor support,” Kramer said.

Perks beyond tchotchkes

MinnPost and VOSD have always sought member donations but only recently started to approach membership more strategically. Before 2011, VOSD did not extend benefits to members or use its database to track lapsed memberships.

It has since launched efforts to improve its membership program, such as tiers keyed to donation amounts. Donors at the highest level, Loud & Clear, give between $1,001 and $5,000 annually and receive perks such as invites to members-only roundtable dinners.

Another benefit for all donors, the Member Report, is a biweekly members-only newsletter about the inner workings of the site, written by CEO Scott Lewis. On average, half of recipients open the emails, underscoring a high level of interest in engaging with the organization, said Mary Walter-Brown, v.p. of advancement and engagement at VOSD. Higher-level donors get the exclusive opportunity to advertise causes and businesses in the newsletter.

VOSD and MinnPost also offer members discounted tickets to their numerous events, including VOSD’s mayoral debates and MinnPost’s MinnRoast, an annual skewering of Minnesota journalists and politicians.

Both organizations view events as crucial to engaging members, unlike many pubcasters, which more often push tote bags, CDs and T-shirts as pledge premiums. “We’ve never been much of a tchotchke-type organization,” VOSD’s Walter-Brown said. “Our members seem to appreciate the ability to come out to an event and engage with other like-minded residents.”

With the Knight grant, VOSD will aim to increase membership revenue to 25 percent of its total income.

VOSD uses WordPress, and Minnpost uses Drupal, both of which are commonly used by other nonprofit news sites. That will help to make the grantees’ efforts applicable to their peers, Walter-Brown said.

The nonprofits will share code from their overhauls via GitHub. However, other newsrooms that use the code will also need to employ Salesforce and MailChimp, which MinnPost and VOSD are adopting as part of their fundraising efforts.

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