There has been an immense amount of hemming and hawing over the state of the news industry of late. Print circulation is in general decline, digital advertising is still a nascent revenue stream for many, mobile traffic is growing at an alarming rate for publishers who haven't yet figured out how to monetize it effectively, video is in high demand but costly to produce, the paid vs. free debate is as fierce as ever, etc. etc. Responses from media outlets to these challenges have varied and are often multi-pronged efforts, and while there has been much focus on the estimated 500-plus newspapers worldwide that have begun charging for paid content online, others have turned to their readers, asking for their support through what is called crowdfunding.
At Worldcrunch, a young digital global news outfit based in Paris, we, too, have a multi-pronged approach to monetizing our site, which includes a metered paywall, display advertising, B2B subscription sales, and the syndication of our content to other news outlets. We also recently experimented with a crowdfunding campaign on the platform Kickstarter and raised more than $16,000 to launch a special initiative on "solutions journalism": Worldcrunch Impact.
Global news start-up Worldcrunch is raising money for what it calls a "solutions journalism" project. http://t.co/IogoGBn1jI
— Nieman Lab (@NiemanLab) May 29, 2013
Crowdfunding in journalism used to be a realm reserved for nonprofits and public media in the U.S. such as NPR and PBS, yet a handful of media projects have made headlines over the past year with this strategy, including Matter, a long-form science and technology publication that was recently purchased by the creators of Twitter. There are a number of resources available with advice on running Kickstarter campaigns in general terms; here are some of my tips from our successful experience with crowdfunding specifically for journalism.
Tip # 1 - Choose a project that has a natural fit with existing communitiesIn the case of Worldcrunch Impact, we had the basic concept formed before we chose to turn to crowdfunding, and the more we considered a Kickstarter campaign, the more it seemed like a good fit. In our campaign for potential backers, we described Worldcrunch Impact as: "Delivering top international journalism on one urgent issue each month -- not just the problems, but real solutions." We wanted to take our existing structure in a new direction, so in addition to our daily work that involves translating a hand-picked selection of top stories from leading foreign-language news outlets into English, we proposed to run a side-project focusing specifically on one urgent development issue each month, and to use our global network to uncover innovative solutions to these issues. We were increasingly convinced of the crowdfunding potential here because we saw an opportunity to tap into existing communities with highly passionate advocates: individuals who might be likely to support a journalism project that would further the discussion around topics they cared about. And so we chose to limit Worldcrunch Impact to an initial three topics, each dossier aimed at attracting a different group of potential backers.
- Education Innovation: how technology is improving learning
- Future Farming: the organic revolution and its benefits
- Smart Cities: innovative urban advances making our cities more livable
— Sree Sreenivasan (@sree) May 24, 2013
Defining the scope of the project allowed us to estimate our budget and set a target for of $15,000 for the campaign, and having a defined target audience for the campaign meant we were ready to begin forming our outreach strategy.
Tip # 2 - Build pre-launch momentum with a teaser and archive material
As with any initiative that involves readers handing over their money to a publisher, these things deserve careful preparation. The success of a Kickstarter campaign depends entirely on inspiring individuals to a) support your project, and then b) share it in an authentic way that attracts more backers. If a campaign doesn't reach its target funding within the set deadline (neither the target nor the deadline can be changed once a campaign goes live), then all money raised is returned to backers and the campaign fails. (NB: This is how Kickstarter operates; other crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo have different rules.)
So, building pre-launch momentum was of the essence for the Worldcrunch Impact project, as were our constant pushes through social media accounts to reach new audiences and recruit new backers. To begin with, we used an existing video about Worldcrunch and updated the voice-over to describe our project, then used it as the centerpiece of a pre-launch page we quickly built through the free service LaunchRock. This page was essentially a teaser for the project, and invited individuals to sign up with an email address for early updates.
When reaching out to those three communities we were targeting around education, organic farming, and urban development, we sent the pre-launch page and often included archive articles from Worldcrunch.com on the appropriate topic to illustrate the kind of journalism these people would be able to fund through supporting our project. This strategy allowed us to compile an email list that we used to announce the launch of the actual campaign and ensure that we would have a healthy amount of early activity to excite and attract new backers.
Tip # 3 - Define rewards that are authentic and meaningful
Crowdfunding results in a fundamentally different dynamic between "creator" and "backer" than the relationship between "publisher" and "subscriber" that comes with a paywall. Felix Salmon at Reuters described it as the difference between letting someone pay and making someone pay. So, when planning out how to reward our backers, we decided that the more someone pledged, the more opportunities they should get to help shape Worldcrunch Impact. The rewards ranged from being able to vote on which dossier topic we would work on first (for a pledge of $10+) all the way to being a guest editor for the dossier of their choice, complete with joining editorial meetings with the Worldcrunch team via Skype (for a pledge of $1,000).
By the end of the campaign, we had four individuals pledge $1,000 each for the guest editor reward -- one was a regular Worldcrunch reader (and already a subscriber) who had initially pledged a lower amount, then increased her pledge to $1,000. When we got in touch to thank her, she explained that she was going to give the guest editorship to her son as a gift because she thought he'd really enjoy the opportunity. Some papers such as The New York Times offer the ability to give a digital subscription as a gift, but we had never expected to see our crowdfunding campaign lead to the gifting of rewards in a similar way.
Insights from the data
The Kickstarter dashboard for project creators provides some very helpful metrics about their campaigns, but we also used the free service Kicktraq to monitor ongoing progress as it provided useful forecasts that allowed us to better gauge our chances of success.
When looking at how our backers discovered our campaign (with data provided by Kickstarter), we were pleasantly surprised to see that a full 28 percent of our backing came directly via the Kickstarter platform. However, closer inspection revealed that in fact, 20 percent of backers went to Kickstarter.com and found us via search (we assume this was backing with prior knowledge of our project), leaving only 8 percent who discovered us thanks to visibility on Kickstarter.com (i.e., appearance on the homepage, and in the "ending soon" and "Paris" categories). This means the vast majority of our backing came directly from our own marketing efforts (and those of our backers).
It was also interesting to see that more people chose to pledge $50 than to pledge $10. We had assumed that the lowest level reward of $10 would have the highest volume, however it was only third most popular after $25 and $50. We also had 53 percent of our total funding come from pledges of $300 or more, which resulted in an average pledge of about $96 per backer -- as an aside, that happens to be more than the cost of a year of premium access to Worldcrunch.com.
Crowdfunding as a solution
The need for experimentation and innovation is increasingly vital for publishers whose traditional ad-based business models are threatened. The liberty to experiment with minimal risk and minimal up-front costs is one of the most crucial benefits of crowdfunding for journalism. For Worldcrunch, it let us gauge whether there was a significant enough appetite for taking Worldcrunch in this new direction of global solutions journalism, and secured readers and resources before we had even produced a single piece of content.
Crowdfunding is unlikely to be the answer for publishers struggling to keep their businesses viable, however it presents an exciting, accessible new opportunity worth serious consideration for funding and launching innovative initiatives in a very social fashion.
Garrett Goodman handles Business Development and Innovation at Worldcrunch, a global news startup founded in Paris in 2010 by Jeff Israely and Irene Toporkoff. The Worldcrunch Impact campaign on Kickstarter finished on July 3 having reached 111% of its target funding. On September 17, the first dossier of Worldcrunch Impact - Education Innovation - was launched with an exclusive essay from the OECD's Deputy Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, as well as articles translated from Worldcrunch source partners Kommersant (Russia), El Espectador (Columbia) and Le Nouvel Observateur (France). The dossier can be read at www.bit.ly/EducationImpact