With its $30,000 award from the INNovation Fund, New Mexico In Depth set out to develop an ongoing program for direct contact with communities, making it easier for New Mexicans to engage with public policy and building a sponsorship program to support the outreach.
Responses have been edited and condensed.
What was your organization trying to achieve?
Our goal was to develop an ongoing program that brings us in direct contact with our communities, making it easy for New Mexicans to engage with the public policy issues we cover, and that systematizes a process for acquiring public support from within New Mexico. We set out to develop a successful narrative and engagement approach that persuades New Mexicans to support New Mexico In Depth.
What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?
The INNovation Fund supported our ability to implement year one of our two-year sustainability plan. Throughout the course of the year, we conducted focus groups, implemented several events, undertook a fundraising effort focused on corporate sponsors and donors and experimented with Facebook as a publishing platform.
What were the key successes of the project?
1. Audience Growth
We’ve seen steady growth in our audience due to a commitment to more regular content and active engagement with New Mexicans on social media, particularly Facebook, and through email.
We dedicated time and resources to growing our audience on Facebook with the goal of achieving 4,000 readers by the end of 2017. We began 2016 with 1,513 Facebook readers. As of December 2017, we have more than 4,300 likes.
On Twitter, we’ve grown from 4,092 to more than 5,000 followers since the beginning of 2016.
On the other hand, we’ve fallen short of our goal of growing our email list, which has consistently hovered around 3,500. While we have been able to grow the list since the beginning of 2016 by 629, during that same time period 501 people unsubscribed. We’ve had a total of 871 unsubscribed people since 2012. The significant increase in 2016 may be a function of increased automated emails they received, due to higher content frequency. Our reporting program grew significantly in 2016.
This project focused on growing the number of individual donors through the use of regular donor solicitations that focused on programmatic areas of New Mexico In Depth. While we did not raise a significant amount of new dollars in 2016 over the previous year, we did see a slight increase of revenue, from $5,672 to $5,945. However, the number of people who gave to our organization jumped significantly, from 47 to 72.
In 2015, we focused on acquiring individual donors through our sponsorship program focused on a legislative session special edition. Those donations were higher, but fewer in number than the following year. In 2016, we focused on regular solicitations that brought in more donors at lower amounts. We also continued soliciting corporate sponsors for the special edition. An additional shift was adding a digital sponsorship component to our special edition sponsorship program, which proved compelling for several large sponsors.
We developed a practice of regular donor solicitations that led to increased individual donors.
Our reporting program grew significantly in 2016. We initiated two special projects, one focused on climate change and one on criminal justice. We also began a fellowship program for a student journalist of color at the University of New Mexico. These programs resulted from our strategic goals, primarily the desire to tackle subject areas that are under-reported but critical to the wellbeing of New Mexicans and to create a program that supports the professional development of students of color as one avenue for creating a journalism field that represents the communities in which we work. But additionally, we hoped to increase the number of stories we produced on a weekly basis, as a way to develop a more regular readership.
What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?
We achieved several goals during this project:
- We significantly increased the number of individuals who donate to our organization.
- We more than doubled our Facebook audience. As a consistent source of readership, the growth in Facebook reach has significantly expanded our readership online.
- We successfully undertook two community forums and three focus groups, which helped generate an almost 20 percent increase in our email list.
- We achieved greater clarity about how to engage New Mexicans on the topics we covered via experimentation with boosting posts on Facebook and holding three focus groups.
What were the lessons learned?
We learned several lessons about building our community.
Our reach in New Mexico can be quite broad because partner newspapers often run our stories. Yet the building of a loyal readership specific to New Mexico In Depth requires engaging readers with our stories. Facebook is important for growing an engaged readership in New Mexico. Both the number of people who read our stories and the level of engagement via commenting on the platform have grown significantly. We now recognize Facebook as a publishing platform and treat it as such. This required an investment of our resources which we’ve incorporated into our budget.
Through the course of the project, we were able to see how certain subjects and media resonate with readers. While we did not do many stories with video at the center, those stories did very well.
Our insights about Facebook, in particular, and observations about what sorts of stories resonated with readers were validated by three focus groups we held in Albuquerque. The focus groups were composed of three sets of participants: nonprofit policy professionals, women, and youth aged 18-24. Across the groups, a resounding theme was the delivery of news through Facebook. While other social media sites were also mentioned, Facebook was almost universal. We also heard repeatedly that articles that provide video or graphics are more likely to hold attention than text-heavy articles.
An additional insight from the focus groups was the need for consistent cultivation of readers over time. All of the participants clearly were habitual newsreaders—they knew where they get their news, and they rarely deviate. Each could cite a specific set of news outlets, and almost all pick up news on Facebook on a daily basis, mostly from those they consider trusted sources in their lives.
One focus group member summed up what is necessary, stating “Invade my habits” if we want her to become a reader of our New Mexico in Depth. This learning can also be applied to donor cultivation, through the use of relationship building over time and provision of consistent opportunities to give.
Do you plan to do this project again?
This project covered the first year of a two-year sustainability program. In 2017, we will apply what we learned in 2016, directing more resources and emphasis to multimedia reporting, growing our donor base through relationship-building with past donors and soliciting new donors, and the launch of a membership program. We’ll focus on growing our social media presence and our email outreach, and add new sponsorship opportunities.
This project helped us demonstrate that New Mexico In Depth is committed to building a sustainable business model, which was a critical factor in our ability to acquire a new foundation funder, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?
Yes. While each organization has its own unique variables based on resources and geography, the strategies we’ve incorporated into our program to diversify our funding sources and grow our reach stem from time-tested nonprofit donor development strategies.
What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?
Our sustainability project was, and is, very ambitious. In the first year, we were overly optimistic about our internal capacity, particularly for public forums and events. While stretching our capacity to meet goals is a worthy operational value, we probably could have understood earlier that there were certain components beyond our operational capacity to fully achieve. That said, we did build valuable capacity through the course of the work, which will allow us to achieve those goals in future years. Building a donor and member program requires time and attention to detail. We recommend carefully thinking through what you can achieve in one year, and how that will build your capacity to grow in the following year.
We also recommend asking community members directly how to best meet their news delivery needs. The insights we gathered from the focus groups were eye opening. We obtained additional insight for studying the type of news stories that were most likely to be shared on Facebook.
What is the market/community that you serve?
We are a statewide public policy news organization that publishes online and provides articles to partner newspapers around the state. Our audience can best be described as people who follow the public policy and political debates in the state, particularly the State Legislature. These are public policy professionals, activists and advocates, and engaged individuals at the grassroots.
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?
Our revenue mix is consistently 90 percent foundation revenue and 10 percent non-foundation revenue.
Foundations are still projected to be 90 percent of our revenue in 2017. However, our non-foundation revenue is more diversified, with more individual donors and earned revenue from content distributed by other news outlets. Within the foundation basket, we have a new foundation donor, which represents out-of-state funding to New Mexico In Depth for the first time.