Support Us: How to ask your news audience for money


Indie online news sites can ask their audiences for money by stating very simply: “Support Us.”

”I believe there is value in what we do and readers should pay for it,’ said David Boraks of DavidsonNews.Net and In lieu of a paywall, “the next best thing is to ASK  for voluntary payment.”

Boraks, Kelly Gilfillan of and, and Tracey Taylor of shared their thoughts about how to ask readers for support in an unconference breakout at the 2012 BlockbyBlock Community News Summit in Chicago. Watch the video

Shortly after they started operations, all three publishers started receiving unsolicited checks. In Boraks’ case, these checks inspired him to pivot and fully commit to his site as a business.  In a nod to the bare minimum required to start building a membership base, each of these publishers has incorporated a “Support Us” button into their sites.

10% is rule of thumb for number who will give

A good rule of thumb for understanding how much reader support you can expect is to look at the public radio model, which says that about 10% of listeners will give. “Ninety percent of your readers love what you do but will not pay for it,” Boraks said.

Boraks said that he has a couple of supporters who give up to $1000 per year, but most commitments are between $8 and $10. He estimates that 450 people contribute and that scales appropriately as 10% of the 5000 people who visit the site every day or so.

If you are a commercial site set up as an LLC or other business structure, you’ll want to use language that doesn’t confuse your audience about your tax status. “Support us,” says we accept your donations but it does not imply that you are a nonprofit.

Boraks does not recommend a level of support. Instead he provides his audience with examples of how much it costs to accomplish the work of the newsroom. He’ll also mention the cost of buying a daily newspaper.

“Is it worth $180 or some portion of that to get the news from our site?” Boraks said.  “I try to inspire them to think about the value they find in our site.”

The first year that DavidsonNews asked, readers gave $5,000, and the next year the readers gave about $15,000. It’s been holding steady.

“We get about 15% to 20% of our revenue from readers in different ways,” Boraks said. “The average payment is about $62.50.”

They’ve been moving readers to an automated system and providing instructions for how readers can pay from their bank accounts.

Boraks said he’s not been giving away coffee mugs, but sometimes they give away tickets. Special events have also been helpful.

“Folks might not respond to anything but they might respond to a party,” he said.

For instance, an event and silent auction at a local coffee shop attracted 400 people. The evening contributed $7,000 to his sites.

BrentwoodHomePage’s Gilfillan  said her site is working with an advisory board to come up with ideas.

Tell your readers who you are

“We wrote a letter to our readers, saying ‘This is who we are. This is what we do.’ We gave an option to use a credit card and also give them an option to write a check,” she said.  Brentwood offers five giving levels.

The site is forming a readers council. Anyone who  contributes more than $1000 is on the council and gets some perks, like getting breaking news first. So far, the site’s recently launched subscription effort has brought in $4000.

“We are getting a check a week and they are usually $100 checks,” Gilfillan said.

Brentwood has also started getting handwritten notes from people saying how much they love the site.

Berkeleyside’s Taylor had the same experience of folks asking how they could support the site’s work.

“10% of our current revenue is from our readers. We hope it will be 20%,” she said.

Berkeleyside’s partnership with the Bay Citizen paid off for news distribution and operational insight. The full time membership director with the Bay Citizen, wrote a strategic plan for BerkeleySide at Taylor’s request.

Taylor said their daily email newsletter has given them a start and most of what the site is learning about contribution has to do with retention.

Berkeleyside plans its “asks” for two to three campaigns per year.

They’ve offered limited edition prints as a gift for those who give large amounts. They are hoping that most subscribers will come in at $25 per month.

Resources mentioned in this session:

The publishers all use a WordPress Popup plugin that tells your readers that you are running a donation campaign.

David Boraks mentions EasyDrive,  a service rated A+ by the Better Business Bureau,  that Boraks says is more affordable than PayPal for automated ayments.

If your site is an NPO, Salesforce CRM is free to non-profits

If your an LLC or similar, consider CRM for small business [Eleanor Cippel would approve!]  Sugar CRM, Zoho, Really Simple Systems are some suggestions from experts in teh membership drive arena.

If you’re looking for other innovative sites, Boraks recommends looking at news sites in the larger markets: These include the, the and the

If you are a news publisher who’d like to see BerkeleySide’s membership plan, send Taylor an email at TraceykTaylor AT 

 Here’s a Quick Start Guide to a Support Us Campaign.

Write Copy – Campaigns include many written appeals, “Thank you”letters, cases for giving. This is fundraising 101 combined with marketing 101. Google for resources.
Create Support Us Page

Opt-in new readers
Ask existing readers to tell their friends
Drive readers to the site

Incorporate email sign up in to your email newsletter format, ConstantContact or MailChimp.

THANK READERS for signing up
Introduce them to other ways to get involved, such as membership.

USE a SIGNUP POPUP for your one to two week campaigns on the website

Host a table/booth at affinity events. If you can’t spare the person power, enlist some volunteers.

Promote their event on your list. Have them promote your event on their list.
When someone signs up from these emails, you both get to share the email address.
DO NOT TROLL for email addresses or USE other people’s lists. This is spamming.

SCHEDULE MEMBERSHIP DRIVES two to three times per year.
Each campaign should last only two weeks.
Identify incentive to activate commitment — either a gift or a goal the donor can help you meet.

Send three to four emails per membership drive.
Each should be signed by a person in your organization.
Don’t ask folk who have recently given – they might get annoyed.
Make it obvious how to donate.

Feature a donate button — clickable “button.”  The upper right hand side or your side is found to be most activating.
Include a donation form — information on how to give by mail.

It costs 4-5 times more to bring in a new donor than to keep an existing donor. Because of that, it is critical to do an excellent job of cultivating and retaining your existing donors.

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