Advice from four experts who successfully funded their journalism initiatives with the help of their communities
It’s the year of crowdfunding for journalism: Recent examples like The Correspondent or Tortoise show how it has increasingly become a tool for journalists and newsrooms to finance their ventures.
Yet, orchestrating a successful campaign seems like a complex and demanding task to many. What needs to be considered before taking the leap?
Through our programmes like the News Impact Academy and the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, we got to talk with four news innovators who have already successfully executed their own crowdfunding campaigns.
Sophie Lacroix Guignard helped heidi.news to raise 120.000 USD before the media’s sale started. Sean Dagan Wood and his team at Positive News ran the #OwnTheMedia campaign, becoming the first global media co-operative to be established through crowdfunding. Krautreporter’s editor Sebastian Esser and his colleagues launched their advertisement free outlet with the help of 15.000 supporters. Clara Jiménez Cruz is the co-founder of Maldita.es, an independent, community-funded non-profit organisation that fights disinformation.
Here is their advice for everyone looking to start their own crowdfunding campaign.
Crowdfunding is a tricky and complex endeavour and not a solution for every newsroom. Consider alternatives to crowdfunding first to make sure that this method really fits your needs, plans and current situation.
Sean: “It’s always worth looking at all the options for how to raise finance, from equity to grants to crowdfunding and everything in between, and ensure that crowdfunding makes the most sense for your particular circumstances. But if you’re creating independent journalism, crowdfunding could be well suited because you can appeal to the fact that raising money from the community fits with your values and protects your credibility and accountability.”
Clara: “If you’re thinking of crowdfunding each year, I would say you should try a membership or subscription model since you’re aspiring to get funded by a community you need to take care of.”
Sebastian: “Remember that one-off crowdfunding also has disadvantages: It’s a funding method, an investment by your community in you and your work. It is not a business model. Once you’ve spent all the money, it’ll be gone. So what’s your plan for after you’ve spent the money? How can you turn your journalism into a sustainable way of earning regular income?
How can your crowdfunding become an investment into something sustainable instead of a straw fire?
One fairly new path that is becoming more and more common, especially in Europe: membership. Turn your fans into monthly paying members and use the crowdfunding as a kick-off campaign to build something lasting and sustainable. You can use membership platforms like Patreon, Memberful or my company, Steady, which is made for independent publishers in Europe.”
Most likely, you consider crowdfunding to generate more funding. The hard truth is though: Before you can start collecting money, you will need to invest both financially and time-wise into your campaign to get the help you need and ensure your project’s success.
Clara: “Hire someone to take care of the overall crowdfunding. Trust me, it’s worth it. You have to put a huge effort and time into it; you get exhausted and you’re probably not doing a good enough job.”
Sean: “Identify what you’re good at (which might be creating content, for example) and what you’re not good at, but which is needed to pull off an effective campaign. Find a way to bring in or pay for that expertise. The return on your investment will be well worth it. A successful campaign is dependent upon continued momentum and needs a lot of project management expertise and resource, so be cautious about spreading yourself or your team too thin.
Otherwise, you won’t be able to generate the necessary ongoing engagement to convert people to support. We are a very small team so we hired a full-time campaign manager on a commission to bolster our team in both the planning and execution stages of the campaign, and worked with a couple of additional freelancers and consultants too.”
A successful campaign usually requires months of planning. If you pin down all logistics before you go live, your campaign becomes more trustworthy and you are more likely to succeed.
Sean: “We began planning our new structure as a ‘community benefit society’ and our new business strategy years in advance and starting priming our established audience for the crowdfunding campaign a few months before launch. Hitting the ground running with our core audience piling in to buy shares created a crucial start — and because of effective planning, we were ready to then maintain that momentum through our constant marketing and PR activity.”
Many crowdfunding campaigns sink because people launch a campaign and think the work starts there.
Sebastian: “Do the maths. 5% of your community will give you around 5 Euros on average if you ask them 5 times. So if you need 1.000 Euros, you’ll need 200 people who pay (the 5%) or 4.000 people including those who don’t pay (the 95%). Now: how can you reach 4.000 people 5 times? Email, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube? Partners, events, PR? Play with the numbers until it sounds doable to yourself.”
Clara: “You need to think about what you are and what you’re offering: if you have a committed community you probably don’t need to think of great material rewards and you have to encourage the message of feeling part of that community; if people don’t know you and you haven’t ‘done anything’ for them they’re probably going to want something in exchange and therefore you will be spending more on rewards.”
A clear vision that draws your readers in is just as important as figuring out the logistics of your campaign.
Sebastian: “Be clear about your mission. You are not only asking people for money, but you are also asking them to join your movement. What is your movement? You have less than 10 seconds to convince somebody with a crystal clear pitch, that is inspiring and easy to understand. Sanity check: Does your pitch tell the world mainly why you need the money (not good)? Or does it tell people why they should join your movement (good)?”
Sophie: “Take enough time to work on your argument and make your case: Why should people support something they have not seen yet? What are the reasons people should support you at this stage? In the case of heidi.news, we drew a list of 5 arguments (available in English on the page heidi.news/en). Try to put yourselves in their shoes, and understand their expectations.”
When you are asking your readers to become your partners and support you financially, you need to be able to answer their questions on your processes, finances and goals.
Sean: “If there is integrity behind what you want to achieve (ie. you’re in it for the journalism, not just the money) then be transparent in your communications and this will give you the ability to make bold and clear asks for support. Look at how others achieved what they achieved but ensure you’re speaking to your community in a voice that is real for you.”
Sebastian: “Be painfully transparent. What is the money for? What will you do with it? Why can’t you pay it yourself? Why does it have to be that much?”
To reach as many people as possible, you should give some thought into how you want to communicate during the different phases of your campaign.
Clara: “You need to constantly tell people that you’re crowdfunding and why you’re crowdfunding.
“Create a clear narrative around why you’re doing what you’re doing, which engages people’s head and heart.
Continue developing the story at all stages during (and after the campaign), regularly marking milestones in the campaign and bringing out the drama of it.
Create tension between the progress of the campaign and the chance it could fail. All the while, connect people back to why your project is special and needed: the core purpose. Be able to sum up that purpose in one phrase and hammer it throughout the campaign.”
Sebastian: “Pro tip: People don’t want to pay your salary. If you tell them: “I want to get paid” it’s not going to work (it’s unfair, I know).”
Clara: “Bear in mind what rewards you’re giving: Mugs are cool but they have high mailing costs and often break on the way.”
Sophie: “Don’t leave too much time between the campaign and the launch. People get impatient. Make sure you are able to deliver quickly afterwards.”
Sean: “No one likes a boring video with cheesy music. Don’t be vague about why you’re running your crowdfunding campaign, and don’t communicate with desperation (a ‘confident urgency’ is better).”