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Give people stuff they can use
Or why funders should invest in content for audience and revenue growth
Substack announced this week that newsletters hosted by the platform had over 20 million active subscribers and 2 million paid subscriptions.
Some folks think there is money to be made in email.
Given the financial structures needed to host, send and manage email, the culture of email is more commerce than community. Every morning your inbox has 97 new unread messages from companies and candidates that you’ll probably delete or ignore.
This is largely true in the nonprofit sector as well. Our metrics - and benchmarks - focus on response rates, donations and revenue. These metrics are at best awkward proxies for supporter satisfaction and value that email and other communications provide members, donors and others in our networks.
A commerce (or fundraising) role for email is essential for most groups. Nonprofits need money. More than once, I’ve advised organizations to build donation asks into their new subscriber welcome series. People want to give. Get them used to it. But a fundraising focus limits the scope of what’s possible with our content and community strategies.
Many people, including those creating emails in organizations, complain about email. It’s all dollars, doom and dashed hopes.
Candidates: My opponent is a bad dude who will do bad things. I’m good. Donate before tonight’s reporting deadline.
Organizations: The future is at risk. Click here to send an email to your congressional rep. Or click here to make your 5X match donation.
Companies: Everything is on sale. Click now! (person clicking: well, only the purple camo print joggers in size 6 are on sale. WTF?)
Too often we train our community to expect the least from our organizations.
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Think bigger about email, content and community
If we expect more from our community could we design content strategies, including email programs, that meet those expectations?
Perhaps our metrics could be optimized for friendship or other relation-driven measures. Does this person volunteer? Does this person come to an event or invite a new supporter to an event? Does this person contribute an idea, photo or comment to a document, web page or report?
What if we viewed our advocacy and fundraising campaigns as products, like a shirt or a book, or services like visiting a restaurant or hiring a plumber? We could invite feedback and reviews. We could ask: “did this event, fundraising campaign or online action meet your expectations?” Or: “Would you recommend this campaign to a friend?”
These ideas are hypothetical. They’re a search for more informative metrics. But this product/service approach seems possible.
Most organizations occasionally send a survey to supporters asking for feedback on newsletters or other communications. But these are one-offs that reach only your most engaged supporters. Surveys don’t offer much insight into the impact or value of your ongoing email and other communications.
Content that helps people get things done
I’m most interested in how organizations are using email and other content to solve problems, meet their needs and otherwise get things done.
Email, especially when combined with hosted assets like video (and charts, maps, etc.), is a great teaching tool. Most organizations have loads of knowledge in their resource libraries, toolkits, and staff member brains. Many groups use webinars or trainings to teach volunteers. But these are events. They require someone to be there to engage in them. We’ve all registered for webinars knowing we won’t make it and will watch later but, realistically, we rarely “watch later.”
The New York Times has grown its email newsletter options. You can get morning or evening updates and email newsletters from your favorite writers or columnists. But the real growth in content (and revenue) has been in non-news email that is useful to people (Cooking and Wirecutter) or entertaining (Games and the Athletic). As Poynter wrote about last November, its about a bundle of information:
…the Times is heavily pushing what it calls internally “the bundle.” That is an all-access product that also includes Games and Cooking verticals, audio, the Wirecutter product information site and now The Athletic, which the Times purchased for $550 million in January.
CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said that the bundle costs roughly 50% more than a news-only digital subscription. Beginning this quarter, she added, the company plans to increase the price of single-product subs to news or other products, hoping to “compel people to take the bundle.”
The New York Times is a newspaper. But most people today call it a “media company” and, well, a media company produces all kinds of media, not just reporting. We can debate the pros/cons here (I have many arguments for and against this) but it seems that:
It’s hard/impossible to fund journalism with subscriptions and advertisements.
It’s hard/impossible to fund nonprofits with donations and/or membership fees. Most organizations need more diverse revenue streams.
People are willing to pay for good information and entertainment which helps fund journalism.
People will pay for info, goods and services they need. Payments to organizations for information, training and other services could help fund programs.
Info/entertainment opens the door to new audiences.
Many (most?) organizations are not centered in a community. Their audience may be local, state, national or global in scope but its most likely virtual in nature. Lead generation limited to specific issues unnecessarily limits growth .
Most organizations aren’t media companies with the content depth or deep pockets of a New York Times. But they don’t need to be. A one off series of emails that dives into the insights from case studies and reports sounds dry (for real) but could have an audience. It may be possible to turn a staff or volunteer training series into a set of online videos paired with emails and other content for a self-paced training series open to broader audiences.
Given the breadth and scale of nonprofits out there the options are endless. I’d love to see a funder or seven experimenting, testing and reporting back on content aimed at audience and revenue growth. And, of course, funding such work.
The case for hanging out by Dan Kois in Slate.
Ruth Taylor writes for Common Cause Foundation about the role of culture and culture/civic groups in societal imagination.
Learn how to turn anger into energy. Good work from Mindworks though they owe Johnny Lydon some credit for the tagline.
A useful if sometimes confusing explainer of Narrative Observatory. Give yourself time with it. Harmony Labs has been building and testing the tools and methodology of its Narrative Observatory for a few years. Their approach now used by numerous progressive campaigns to identify and sort audiences, do narrative landscaping and test campaign messaging.
Hierarchy can kill you. So can assholes. But rest is essential. Check out these and other lessons on human behavior in crisis situations that a former CIA manager gleaned from air crash documentaries. Note: people want to do their best (but are fallible) so position them for success. ht @eekim.
Doing any work with housing affordability, community organizing or narrative in general? Check out the Housing Justice Toolkit put together by Policy Link.
For my consulting and freelance friends, particularly those working with social change organizations: Calibrate How Much You Care. Good advice from David C. Baker. Been there myself.
If you can read one thing check out this story by Denverite reporter Nathaniel Minor who, along with photographer Kevin J. Beaty, rode Denver’s light rail and buses for 20 hours on a cold, snowy February day. Minor and Beaty tell the story of people who rely on buses and trains for a warm place to rest, even sleep, as RTD (Denver’s transportation authority) contemplates making it illegal to stay on transit. Here’s a twitter thread version for those who do that sort of thing.
These seem to be slow times for jobs at the intersection of communications, community and content. But here are few interesting roles in that general area.