Best Practice: Respectful and useful membership & donation appeals during Covid-19 from six publishers

Original article can be viewed here

By Cory Brown | The Byline (presented by Pico)

The City: Big Apple Swagger

It’s hard out there for publishers right now.

Coronavirus stories are driving new readers and clicks, but ad revenue has dried up. As you know, transitioning to a reader revenue model is not as simple as flipping a switch. Even publishers with a well-oiled membership machine don't want to come across like profiteering jerks. It’s a tough balancing act.

The news business is facing incredible challenges right now. And yet, people are counting on newsrooms to help them figure everything out. From public health guidance to financial help to neighbors helping each other get by, journalists are doing crucial work that holds our communities together.

Below is a quick roundup of what some publishers are doing to lead readers to subscribe, join a membership program or donate money. If you are struggling to convert readers in trying times, I hope these examples are helpful.

The City is a nonprofit newsroom covering all five boroughs of New York City, and it’s not short on attitude. Check out this banner that sits above the story:


This is assertive. It’s strong. It’s clear. Reporters for The City are covering some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the U.S. That is essential work. 


This banner isn’t a request, it’s a confrontation: “100% essential, 100% New York”. It taps right into New Yorkers' reputation for toughness.


Don’t be afraid to use your voice! People are worried. Your voice can provide comfort, or even inspiration.


The Colorado Sun: Asking for support in high profile places

Colorado Sun created a special Coronavirus in Colorado page for the most up-to-date information in one place.  This page features, maps, links to testing locations, and other resources. Your publication probably set up something similar.


This is a high profile page, and an introduction to Colorado Sun for people who aren’t regular readers. That’s why I like Colorado Sun is claiming valuable space to ask for support.



Right off the bat, in bold: The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. This is great, because not everyone knows what a “paywall” is or how it functions. For people familiar with paywalls, they may not realize that this local outlet doesn't use one.


At the bottom of the box, the Colorado Sun provides a link to join their membership program.


But that’s not all. Farther down the page, there’s a How To Help section.



This section sits below the official government information, but above Colorado Sun’s story links. This placement is key. It's a bridge between official orders and original reporting.


Another key feature of this section: It doesn’t look like a traditional ad. Banner blindness is a real phenomenon. Your readers are well-trained at skipping over ads.


People and organizations need help, but there are also people that want to help. Colorado Sun shows newsrooms are important pillars of a community, like local restaurants and shops. 


KQED: Keeping consistent tone across different messages

Pinned at the top of KQED’s Twitter profile is a reminder that they have dialed back their spring pledge drive. I was surprised to see they had cut the planned drive back 80%. That’s a big hit to the budget. 


Instead of one big pledge drive, KQED has different donation messages across their site & newsletters. The copy may be different, but each acknowledges the emotional stress of the pandemic into consideration.


For starters, there’s this big banner right at the top of the home page:



On the story page, there’s a modal in the bottom corner. The copy doesn’t mention coronavirus or pandemic, but take a second look at the photo. Like many of us, KQED is making things work at home. Even if that means using the closet as a recording booth to reduce echo and background noise. 



KQED’s newsletters have also a few different donation messages. One mentions the scaled down pledge drive, with an opportunity to help unlock matching funds.



The second example, addresses the uncertainty people are feeling head on:



Dodging people’s fears won’t make those fears go away. I appreciate the awareness of this messaging: it’s scary out there with a pandemic and economic uncertainty. It isn’t forceful, but it makes a compelling reason for those who are able to donate.


This is quite different from The City’s “100% Essential” brashness. However, KQED’s voice shows a consistent tone. Either path can work, but take extra care to be mindful of context.


For example, are you providing instructions for people to find food? A way for people to share what they are feeling? Or even a momentary escape from it all? Each of these situations warrants a different approach.


When a recent KQED MindShift newsletter asked “Are you okay?” And “How can we help?”, there was no donation appeal. With a focus on getting people to open up and share their feelings, a donation ask might feel inappropriate.


Take each situation case-by-case. Your messaging doesn’t need to match each scenario exactly, but it should be harmonious.


Texas Observer & Montana Free Press: Two big states, two modest asks

It’s absolutely understandable if you don’t feel comfortable making a big membership drive right now. If that’s the case, you may want to check out these more gentle asks for money.


For example, Texas Observer uses a small slider at the bottom of the page:



It doesn’t appear until you’ve scrolled down the page a bit, and it’s easy to dismiss. 


Montana Free Press takes a similar tactic, with added social proof:



Both of these are low-pressure pitches. Texas Observer notes the “responsibility to its readers to share vital news”. Montana Free Press points to the support of “more than 800 members who care about Montana nonprofit journalism”.


It's helpful to remind people that any amount helps. So many people have a precarious financial future ahead. Some of those people still want to give, even if it's not a full membership or sustaining donation.


Bklyner: Customer service pays big dividends

Also in New York City, Bklyner provides all coronavirus coverage for free, while collecting reader email addresses with a registration wall. In April, editor Liena Zagare added a brief note to the top of each newsletter. 



This note does more than explain that coverage is free and how to register. If someone gets stuck, they have an editor’s email address to get help. Or, they can simply reply to the email itself. No jumping through unnecessary hoops!


People have different abilities and needs, so we can't assume that everyone is tech savvy. Even the best designed registration processes need tech support.


This is even more important when people are struggling. If you are out of work and caring for people at home — it's easy to miss a verification email. People are doing the best they can right now. If you can offer a helping hand — even on something small like getting registered for a news site — people will appreciate it. 


In a world full of analytics and data, keep the big picture in mind. Every day, newsrooms invest in nudging conversion rates a few percentage points. But —nothing has a better return on investment than kind, empathetic customer service. 


Lastly, remember to give yourself room, too. You will probably make a mistake. You may burn out. The new membership ask may not work as well as you hoped. It's okay.


It doesn't mean the work is bad, it just means it isn't working right now. A lot of factors are out of your control. When you are able, make adjustments or try something new. The more you learn, the closer you will get to what works for your publication.


Ready to put all this advice into action? See how Pico can help you build your community business – from high-converting email popups to fully featured membership landing pages.