A nonprofit, statewide newsroom that does watchdog reporting on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy.
VTDigger is a statewide news organization committed to providing watchdog journalism to Vermont. Membership has been a key part of their revenue mix for years, and their spring membership drive is one of the most important revenue drivers they have.
They were gearing up for their spring 2020 membership drive as coronavirus arrived in the U.S., locking down much of the country and causing a tremendous economic shock. They couldn’t afford to skip the membership drive, but they knew they needed to change it dramatically to respect the financial and medical concerns their readers suddenly faced.
Why this is important
This guide is being published in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The Membership Puzzle Project team has sought to recognize the challenges the pandemic has introduced while focusing on advice and case studies that will remain relevant when people are able to come together again in person.
While this example from VTDigger is specific to coronavirus, their insights can be applied to launching a membership appeal during any number of sensitive times, such as a local tragedy. And while it’s not recommended to constantly change your membership program offering, which can get confusing for members and potential members, a time-limited, mission-aligned benefit can give a boost without detracting from the value of the program itself.
Having a sense of what your members and most engaged readers value about you can help your organization identify what types of benefits might resonate and be easy to implement on a short-term basis.
What they did
Although readers can become a member of VTDigger at any point in time, VTDigger focuses heavily on two membership drives a year, typically one near the end of the calendar year and one in the spring.
Their spring 2020 membership drive came up as the coronavirus pandemic was hitting the U.S. They couldn’t afford not to host the drive, but as they saw the economic fallout, it did not feel right to follow their typical template, a celebratory mix of appeals to the importance of local journalism and member benefits.
They quickly made the following changes to their plan:
- Put the incentives they typically offer on the shelf (such as a New York Times subscription, raffle drawings, and swag, such as hats)
- Switched from a public financial target to a public target for number of donations – 3,000 (this focused it less on money and more about joining a community)
- Partnered with a local glove-making company who had switched to manufacturing cloth masks to donate one mask to a local hospital for every donation made
On April 1, they launched the drive with a letter from founder and editor Anne Galloway.
In subsequent appeals, VTDigger referred to the campaign as a “mask drive,” rather than a membership drive. This put the focus more on how VTDigger was helping Vermont residents, rather than VTDigger’s journalism, which is usually what membership drives focus on.
In one of their appeals, Galloway also offered further insight into the decision to stop offering many of their benefits in the short-term.
It was a close call – they sent out an appeal on April 30 that they were still 450 masks away from their goal of 3,000 – but they reached 3,050 donations, allowing them to donate 3,000 masks to hospitals across the state. In their “thank you” note to donors on May 1, VTDigger detailed how many masks went to each Vermont hospital.
The drive raised $291,000 – $6,000 more than their goal for the drive they had planned before COVID-19 arrived.
They also noticed a few interesting member behaviors, Peters said.
- One member made five separate donations in order to donate five distinct masks
- They saw a 30 percent increase in members in the southern Vermont city of Rutland, and a sizable increase in members across all of southern Vermont. Many of those new members thanked VTDigger for donations to specific hospitals in those areas.
- Nearly 40% of the donations came from out-of-state donors. The percentage of donations from out-of-state is usually in the single digits.
- Readers assumed that swag was still part of the plan and they received messages from new member testimonials “imploring” VTDigger not to send those items
They applied those learnings to raise funds again later in the year. Back in 2019, they found out that they had been selected to host a Report for America journalist to cover southern Vermont. But to make it happen, VTDigger needed to raise their own matching funds. They designed a membership campaign around that target, asking people to become members or increase their contribution to make reporting on southern Vermont possible. They launched the campaign on June 1 and wrapped it up on June 7, raising the required $11,500 needed in a week, and not just from people living in the southern part of the state who wanted more local coverage.
What they learned
Swag has a time and place – and this wasn’t it. Offering typical swag like a tote bag would have missed the mark completely and potentially alienated their members and potential members (as evidenced by the requests from new members not to send swag). The mask campaign worked because it met both VTDigger’s needs – finding a way to hold their spring membership drive – and their readers’ needs – the desire to feel like they were doing something to help Vermont during a difficult moment.
You have more than one chance to pitch your members. Although the average contribution was lower – the average monthly contribution was 20 cents lower than the spring 2019 campaign and the average annual contribution was $48 lower – VTDigger says the most important thing for them is that they are now members. When the economic recovery begins, VTDigger will begin thinking about how to approach those members about increasing their contribution.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Read the room. The pandemic caused financial hardship not just for news organizations who lost events and advertising revenue, but for huge swathes of the communities that they serve. If you’re going to design a membership campaign around a negative news moment, you’ll have to get the tone and social contract right – and consider ways that you can do good for the community at the same time.
- Shorenstein Center, case study: VTDigger: A rising star in nonprofit news
- American Journalism Project report: Revenue models in local news: case studies from exemplary civic news organizations