What four news sites learned from running crowdfunding campaigns

By Jordy Meléndez

This is the first article in a multi-part series by SembraMedia on how independent news sites can achieve financial stability. See part two here

Nowadays, creating a news website can merely take a couple of hours, a few clicks and nearly zero investment. You can create a media site from a cafeteria, an airport or a waiting room with practically no team and no resources.

Nevertheless, financial sustainability and editorial independence are two of the biggest obstacles facing digital media sites all across the world. How do you sustain a credible, professional news site? How can you make it profitable without losing your editorial independence? What other forms of income are there besides advertising or support from international donors?

Over the past five years, news sites have increasingly bet on funds raised directly from their community of readers via crowdfunding campaigns or donations. That’s why SembraMedia is presenting four cases of native digital media sites in Latin America who ran campaigns in late 2016: El Faro’s “Citizen Excavation” campaign in El Salvador, La Silla Vacia’s “Super Friends” campaign in Colombia, Lado B’s “We Want More” campaign in Mexico; and Efecto Cocuyo’s “Who said fear?” campaign in Venezuela.

You can read about each of these four cases over the next few days as part of this series. Each one includes an in-depth report on the fundraising effort, its goals and results, based on conversations with the journalists involved in the campaigns. The experiences, difficulties and lessons learned are different in each case, but altogether they shed much-needed light on the importance of diversifying funding and, fundamentally, exploring the possibility of using audiences to gain financial security.

Media outlet

How many crowfunding campaigns have they done?

How much did their last campaign raise? (in USD)

Lessons learned

El Faro 2 $27,765

1.) Simple, concrete narrative work best.

2.)  Focus on getting people to donate.

3.) Seek out creative allies.

 La Silla Vacia 5 $29,000

1.) Constantly test your payment platform.

2.) Make someone responsible for overseeing the campaign.

Lado B 1 $5,000

1.) Incorporate offline activities

2.) Have clear strategies for spreading your message.

3.) Seek out creative allies.

Efecto Cocuyo 2 $5,391

1.) Complement the campaign with traditional media.

2.) Engage closely with your donors.

3.) Someone who donates once won’t necessarily do so again.

It’s important to point out that these case studies are campaigns that were active during a specific period of time. In another study soon to be published by SembraMedia, we’ll be looking at cases of digital media sites pursuing ongoing subscriptions and donor campaigns, including Animal Político of Mexico, eldiario.es of Spain, Ojo Público of Peru and Chequeado of Argentina.

Some reflections to keep in mind

The SembraMedia team would like to thank the journalists who’ve been generous enough to share not only their achievements and efforts, but their mistakes as well. Our community of digital entrepreneurs understand the value of collaborating and supporting the development of other journalists by sharing their experiences.

The digital sites in Latin America are as diverse as the region itself. They all follow different strategies as they cover a particular beat or audience. Some publish transnational coverage, others are hyper-local. Some focus on politics, others on sports and health. Nevertheless, based on our analysis of these crowdfunding case studies, there are at least six major conclusions worth highlighting:

1.) Make sure the narrative of your fundraising campaign is simple and direct.

Generally speaking, crowdfunding campaigns should appeal to emotions. All of them are seeking to inspire and motivate people to open their wallets and contribute. Nevertheless, it’s recommended that you avoid complex narratives and be very clear about the message you want to send and what action you want readers to take. Before starting a campaign, at the very least it’s worth answering the next four questions:

a.) What product or service is my outlet offering and why is it relevant?

b.) Why are we doing a fundraising campaign?

c.) What do we plan to do with the funds we collect?

d.) If someone has previously donated, how do I incentivize them to do so again?

2.) Make someone responsible for the campaign.

Not all digital outlets have the luxury of hiring a specialized team to handle crowdfunding, but it is important to designate someone as the point person of your funding campaign. This means that whoever is responsible should be relieved of some of their everyday responsibilities, in order to better plan, run, and track the campaign from beginning to end. Ideally, this person should act as an intermediary between donors and the media outlet outside of the campaign.

3.) Place your bets on strategic alliances.

When you’re dealing with a small team, it’s worth considering making strategic alliances with creative agencies, video producers, artist’s collectives or other groups that might be able to contribute something to the campaign. Nevertheless, be careful not to generate such a large body of work that its difficult to manage. It’s also worth asking what are these allies gaining by linking themselves to the crowdfunding campaign?

4. Plan and organize the campaign.

While many crowdfunding campaigns are pulled off thanks to the motivation, energy and effort of a media team, it’s important to create a strategy to keep yourselves on-message both online and offline during the campaign. Otherwise, you run the risk of sending partial, contradictory or insubstantial information.

5. Make sure there are no technical difficulties on the donation platforms.

We’re about to enter the second decade of the 21st century and digital outlets are still battling with electronic payment platforms. It’s fundamental to pay attention to the technical part to make sure there are as few problems as possible when people donate. As Juan Esteban Lewis of Colombia’s La Silla Vacia said, “The most frustrating thing is when a person tries [to donate] one, two, three times, and due to technical problems, they can’t do it.”

6. Maintain an active relationship with your donors.

The context and motivations to donate can change year to year. What worked during one campaign isn’t guaranteed to work during the next one. That’s why it’s worth considering different strategies to attract new donors and keep those who’ve donated before.  This could involve giving repeat donors special benefits, so they feel as though they’re part of a select community.

This article was translated and republished with permission (see the original in Spanish here). It is part of a series on creating financially viable journalism by SembraMedia, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of news content available in Spanish.

SembraMedia’s founder and executive director is ICFJ Knight Fellow Janine Warner, who is an expert at helping digital media entrepreneurs implement sustainable business practices and generate new sources of revenue online. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Hamza Butt