Mother Jones: Innovations and Lessons Learned


With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, Mother Jones set out to develop best practices for how fellow nonprofit publishers may best utilize Facebook Instant Articles for editorial uses and membership growth and fundraising.

Responses provided by Brian Hiatt have been edited and condensed.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

Facebook referrals accounted for 45 percent of Mother Jones’ total online traffic, and Facebook sharing had helped us reach many readers who previously would not have seen our content. But slow article load times, especially on mobile devices, presented a major problem. There was no way to know exactly how many readers we were losing because of loading lag times. Instant Articles, which loads stories instantly inside the platform, was proposed as a solution. Mother Jones was invited to test Instant Articles, along with a small number of partners. The goal of the project was to undertake experimentation and testing to develop best practices for how fellow nonprofit publishers may best utilize Facebook Instant Articles for reach, impact, and membership growth.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

This grant, which provided about half the funds for the project, allowed us to:

  • Contract with a firm to build custom Instant Articles feed
  • Design and test options for optimal use of platform
  • Evaluate effect on reach, impact, and revenue

What were the key successes of the project?

Audience and Revenue Outcomes

For this project, we tracked Facebook shares and likes, total pageviews, time on page and articles per user, and membership actions (new donors / subscribers / sustainers).

Advertising revenue was an important win from this project as FB Instant brought significantly more revenue than ads on our normal, “mobile web” pages.

We also wanted to see if Facebook Instant would bring more people aboard as donors and members. While the initial results suggest Facebook Instant ads won’t be a major source of membership revenue, we will continue experimenting with membership asks served through Facebook Instant. The timing of the rollout presented challenges to giving this aspect of the project the staff capacity it demanded—we were finishing a major fundraising campaign as we went live on Facebook Instant, then the election threw our existing membership strategy out the window—from November, through End-of-Year-Fundraising, and the inauguration. Now that the dust has settled we will design more thorough tests for one-time donations, sustaining donors, magazine subscriptions and newsletter signups and share our findings as an addendum to this report.

Editorial Outcomes

There were no direct editorial outcomes as this project did not involve changing the content we produce, but we did see a substantial growth in audience during the same time frame and believe that, while part of that is accounted for by increasing public interest as the campaign heated up, Facebook Instant Articles also made it easier for this growing audience to actually access our content in the context and on the devices of their choice.

What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

The INNovation Fund support was critical in accomplishing this project. Especially at a time of revenue constraints as a result of previous litigation against Mother Jones (in which we prevailed, but at significant cost), we could not have invested in this project, and thus would not have realized the resulting revenue, without that support.

It was also essential to separate this project from day-to-day site maintenance, ongoing site improvements, and our platform build. By hiring a contractor, we were able to complete it without slowing down other priority projects.

We also benefited from careful goal-setting and benchmarking; we had an understanding of what we wanted to get accomplished, and how we would measure success.

What were the lessons learned?

Facebook Instant Articles proved more complicated to implement in a Drupal environment than we had hoped; this project, in fact, helped solidify our decision to move to a WordPress environment.

Do you plan to do this project again?

With a transition to WordPress in the works, we hope that future similar projects will be significantly easier as many other publishers are on the same platform and will be solving similar problems.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

Yes, with two caveats: For many organizations, setting up Instant Articles will represent a smaller technology investment than it did for Mother Jones since there is now a well established WordPress plugin. For an organization to do significant custom development to set up Instant Articles, in our view, only makes sense if that investment can be offset with advertising revenue—that is, a significant number of pageviews via Instant Articles.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

Facebook Instant Articles is a clear win when it comes to expanding audience and increasing advertising revenue (where applicable), but work remains to be done to engage that audience as supporters.

Describe the market/community that you serve:Describe the market/community that you serve:

Mother Jones serves a broad range of readers and social media users across age groups and geographic areas. As of January 2017, we had 13.5 million unique visitors on all digital platforms.

What was your organization’s revenue mix (i.e. sources and %) prior to the project? Did the revenue mix change as a result of the project?  

Mother Jones receives 69 percent of revenues from individual donors and subscribers; 15 percent from advertising; and 14 percent from foundations.

As noted above, the project significantly improved the rate at which we monetize mobile page views via advertising. This improvement represents an estimated additional $100,000 to $150,000 in revenue for the 2015-2016 fiscal alone, significantly exceeding the project cost.

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