By Andrew Hunter, Facebook News Partnerships, Australia and New Zealand & David Grant, Accelerator Program Manager
Funding and knowledge shared with news organisations participating in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator program has helped publishers to thrive despite perilous business conditions brought on by COVID-19.
Australian and New Zealand publishers participating in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Reader Revenue Accelerator in 2019 and through 2020 secured more than 24,000 new paying subscribers and more than 160,000 new loyal readers (whether through newsletters, podcasts or site registrations) via initiatives they started or supported with funding from Facebook. Overall, these publishers generated $7 million in lifetime value for their organisations during the course of the program directed by Facebook and our partner, The Walkley Foundation.
“The takeup and response from participants have been extremely positive. The quality and international experience of the coaches in the program with directed training sessions were incredibly valuable for Australian and New Zealand publishers,” said Louisa Graham, chief executive of the Walkley Foundation. “This has been a successful and worthwhile initiative by Facebook.”
Facing unique business challenges in 2020, these organisations have held the line, keeping journalists employed during difficult financial times, and in many cases managed to reinvest in their businesses to deliver commercial success despite the hurdles presented by COVID-19.
“The growth in our subscription revenue, in particular, has become a key revenue stream for our company and one that is now pivotal for our company’s long-term stability,” said Vanita Prasad, reader revenue and engagement manager at Newsroom in New Zealand, which increased their donors by more than 150 percent and its paying subscribers by 225 percent during the course of the program. “This funding allowed us to pursue growth initiatives in a time that would otherwise have us looking to cut back.“
Eight news publishers from Australia and three from New Zealand joined the Accelerator program in October 2019. Each organisation was provided with three months of intensive coaching from world-class experts led by former Dow Jones marketing executive Lynne Brennen, former Financial Times marketing leader Joss Cripps and former New York Times and Washington Post audience development leader Justin Bank. The program included three in-person training sessions in Sydney followed by funding to enable reader revenue initiatives. This funding was increased at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to help the publishers continue to grow their businesses during tumultuous times.
“The Accelerator program was fantastic,” said Jane Mahoney, associate publisher at Crikey. “It really changed the way we think about our subscription business as a whole and increased our depth of understanding around our product and the wider industry.”
To help other publishers looking to improve their reader revenue strategies, we present some of the program’s major success stories for inspiration below.
“The training, confidence and funding these Accelerator publishers received was delivered just in time to support their successful and nimble pivots in response to a global pandemic,” said Brennen. “Given all that our teams accomplished in a year of unprecedented pandemic challenges, I’m eager to see how this community continues to accelerate and thrive in 2021.”
Make the flow from advertisement to payment seamless.
Armed with marketing knowledge from the Accelerator program, The Saturday Paper team embarked on some of its longest and most comprehensive marketing work to date. They engaged external agencies to work on a subscription identity and then put that identity to work in their advertisements on Facebook and Instagram as well as on the landing pages back on their own site.
The Saturday Paper team then ensured that readers landing on their site from those well-executed advertisements were given the best-possible subscription landing pages, with fewer fields and simpler paths to purchasing a digital subscription than before.
Before the program, these pages “were clunky and not set up to give us the best possible conversion rate. We have since, from the learnings of the accelerator, improved the user interface and user experience, which we hypothesize has also contributed to our increase in subscriptions this year,” said Fushia Saulwick, marketing and partnerships manager at the Melbourne-based Schwartz Media.
These changes add up: across its titles, Schwartz Media added over 10,000 new paying subscribers, an increase of over 50 percent versus their planned outlook, and saw an increase of nearly 70,000 new loyalists among newsletter readers and podcast subscribers.
“The publication is becoming more self-sufficient, relying more on subscriber revenue and less on advertising revenue in an unstable market,” said Saulwick.
A potent new subscription offering: livestreaming community sport
Securing 5,000 new digital subscribers wasn’t the only impact made by Accelerator funds in News Corp’s regional division in Queensland. About 15 mastheads from the Cairns Post and Townsville Bulletin down to the Gold Coast Bulletin and Warwick Daily News, generated more than 5,000 new paying subscribers by launching an entirely new product built around live video of junior sport.
The main challenge was “people operating outside their areas of expertise,” said Bryce Johns, executive editor for digital at the websites. “We had to negotiate sports rights, tick the privacy box, arrange cameras and kit to be at grounds… We’ve picked up a new range of skills.”
As local audiences surged at the chance to watch matches from the comfort of their home computer or smartphone amid COVID-19 restrictions on attending matches, Queensville realized its experiment may have wider application.
“We are now developing a business case to set up a livestreaming unit,” said Johns. If this trial scales nationally, and all the indications are it will, then we have a major new revenue and engagement stream for News Corp Australia.”
Improving your technology stack can pay off in a huge way
Prior to joining the Accelerator, The Spinoff — a New Zealand news site covering pop culture and politics — was reliant on a third-party provider to manage memberships and subscription payments. This service incurred a 5% commission. Funds from the Accelerator allowed the publisher to establish its own e-commerce and membership platform — owning the complete membership lifecycle — and immediately funnelling that 5% revenue back into the business.
“We also had a steep learning curve in terms of understanding the process of product and technical development, both from a complexity, time frame, and ongoing iteration standpoint,” said Elisa Rivera, audience and engagement Director. “However, we can already see the benefits of owning the complete membership lifecycle and revenue income and feel confident that owning our own platform will best serve our members and organisation based on our future goals.”
And what happens when you reduce the fees you pay? You can invest in more journalism and more journalists.
“The increase in revenue from our membership programme,” Rivera said, “enabled us to hire a full-time political editor, as well as a membership coordinator.”
Accelerator participants: News Regional Media, The Guardian, The West Australian, The Conversation, New Zealand Herald, Australian Community Media, Crikey, The Saturday Paper, InDaily, The Spinoff, Newsroom.
The Accelerator Program
The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.
For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the FJP newsletter.