With its $10,000 award from the INNovation Fund, Arizona State University and Cronkite News set out to test and analyze which types of audiences are most likely to contribute to student media and state news services and whether crowdfunding is a viable ongoing revenue source for student-based media.
Responses have been edited and condensed.
What was your organization trying to achieve?
First, we wanted to raise money to expand coverage of an undercovered and often misunderstood region — the U.S.-Mexico border — that was central to much of the political rhetoric this past election season. Second and perhaps equally important, we wanted to see whether crowdfunding could be a viable path for supporting journalism school projects in the Cronkite School’s teaching-hospital model.
What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?
We used a portion of our INNovation grant funding to experiment with different promotional tactics for our crowdfunding campaign; we hired a graduate student in the W.P. Carey School of Business business analytics program to evaluate the relative success of each approach and we hired an undergraduate Cronkite School student to prepare our data for public presentation and publication.
What were the key successes of the project?
We raised $25,000 through crowdfunding and Beacon provided the other $25,000 for our project. We partnered with Univision and The Dallas Morning News to conduct the first comprehensive opinion poll of border residents in 15 years. The results of the poll were picked up by The Washington Post, The Arizona Republic and hundreds of other outlets through the Associated Press, along with our coverage and those of our partners.
We were also able to establish how we can use crowdfunding in the future to further our reporting and how social media can boost awareness of those efforts. We developed crowdfunding strategies than can be implemented by others looking to use crowdfunding.
What were the lessons learned?
Among our key findings:
Lesson 1: Personal connections make people more likely to donate.
A survey of our donors told us the majority were white individuals older than 40 who had some link to ASU. For example, 23.7 percent of our donors either work or previously worked at the university. Some 21 percent were ASU alumni and 13.2 percent were related to an ASU alum.
Lesson 2: Ask for money primarily through email.
To reach our goal, we sought donors in a number of ways. We sent targeted emails to Cronkite School alumni, faculty and staff, parents of current Cronkite students and Arizona PBS donors. Since the Cronkite School is home to Arizona PBS, we were able to reach out to those donors as well.
Email proved by far to be the most effective way to reach our donors. Sixty percent of our donors found out about the campaign via email. This finding is consistent with other campaigns. In its crowdfunding campaign guide, Indiegogo says the average conversion rate is 34 percent higher for email than other avenues.
Lesson 3: Use social media for visibility, not for getting donations.
We also promoted the campaign through Facebook and Twitter advertisements.
On Facebook, we targeted different groups and we created customized messages for each group. This approach generated thousands of page visits, but few donations. We reached into Mexico and Central America, but none of those south of the border who viewed our campaign donated.
Our results on Twitter were similar. We advertised less on Twitter because it’s harder to target to specific audiences or interest groups.
Lesson 4: Start with smaller projects with clear outcomes.
Our pitch to donors was probably too vague. We asked for help to “expand our coverage of immigration,” support student journalists and “amplify border voices.” We offered examples of past Cronkite News border coverage but were not specific in the types of stories we hoped to do, nor did we mention the still-percolating border poll.
In addition, the majority of our donations were under $100, but the donations of over $1,000 made up the majority of the money we raised. The largest donations in our campaign came through direct appeals to Arizona PBS donors, Cronkite faculty members and others.
The novelty of our experiment drew the larger donors, some of whom said theirs was a one-time donation to help our experiment succeed. This suggests that it is better to try smaller campaigns in the future. While large crowdfunding campaigns might succeed for journalism schools if their own staff and faculty donate, that is not a sustainable model. If we do a future campaign, we think it should have a clear outcome and a smaller goal, with perks aimed at smaller donations.
Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?
From what we learned during our campaign, we don’t feel that crowdfunding is a good idea for journalism schools to use on a regular basis. Journalism schools should stick to using crowdfunding occasionally and only on projects that would be nice to have, but do not absolutely have to be done. Projects should also have attainable goals. For us, projects in the $3,000 to $5,000 range seem doable. Kickstarter campaigns between $1,000 and $9,999 are the most successful.
Are there factors (market types, internal capacity) that are most critical to making it work?
Email is the best way to get potential donors to get out their wallets and donate. Social media is good for raising awareness but it won’t be where the majority of your donors come from.
Having a ready network of potential donors, even just an email list, will make the crowdfunding process easier.
What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?
Here are some other tips: Modest perks help entice donors. $25 is the most common donation. A short “pitch video” helps generate interest. Campaigns should be no more than 30 days. Posting updates about your project on the crowdfunding page helps generate more interest. Push hard for donors at the beginning and at the end.
What is your general funding profile?
Cronkite News is supported by Cronkite School and AZPBS is supported by the community and ASU.
What is the market/community that you serve?
We primarily serve Arizona residents. With this reporting we served residents along both sides of the US-Mexico border.