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Shaking the trees: How 15 newsrooms grew sponsorship revenue by 250%

March 15, 2022

The challenges to earning revenue from businesses were varied and significant for the 15 news organizations that joined the second cohort of the Sponsorship Lab from Google News Initiative (GNI) and the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). Reaching out within a rural community where businesses are limited. Getting staff to understand the difference between transactional selling and solutions-based selling. Lacking experience to confidently price ads and event sponsorships. Simply not knowing where to start.

Thanks to a seven-month GNI-INN Lab with the business strategy experts at Blue Engine Collaborative, however, these 15 media outlets – including 6 nonprofit INN members – dramatically grew their revenue from business sources last year. Their year over year numbers for the same period, before and after the program, jumped by 32% for advertising, 250% for sponsorship (underwriting or sponsored content) and 1485% for events. 

“The Lab was an eye-opener and put my team on notice, so-to-speak,” said Candi Richardson, sales and marketing director for INN member Mississippi Today. “It forced us to reevaluate pretty much everything and to make some immediate changes that were very impactful to business.”

Richardson and her team grew advertising from $5,000 to almost $17,000 during the Lab and earned $6,500 from events compared with $0 the previous year. 

“There’s a common misconception that nonprofit news organizations can’t take advertising,” said Sue Cross, executive director of INN. “INN data showed that our members were earning significant revenue when they dedicated resources to sponsorship and sales. We saw that as a growth opportunity for the nonprofit news field.”

INN worked to identify key components that other news organizations could emulate and partnered with GNI and Blue Engine to launch the first Lab in 2020.

How it works

The key to success, Blue Engine says, was that the Sponsorship Lab is not a lecture series. It’s a real-time process of learning and doing, designed to optimize results throughout the program, which included group training sessions (live and video on demand), 1:1 coaching, and an asynchronous community where they can exchange learning with their peers.

Moreover, the coaches modified their approach from the first Lab to accommodate more publishers and a greater variety of outlets – a mix of nonprofit and for-profit, and three publishers based in Latin America. And they continued to make the sessions highly interactive with an emphasis on peer-to-peer sharing – which they continued to encourage between sessions in a Slack that remains active. 

The program kicked off with monthly training sessions over four months, focusing on topics from how to optimize newsletters and events to how to price offerings and to build a pipeline of prospects. Beginning with session two, the coaches asked the participants to present updates on: one thing they had tried, outcomes and what they learned since the prior session. Every session also included breakouts where publishers could learn from their peers and trade tips in engaging with the curricular materials.

In between these live sessions, the participants received individual coaching from Blue Engine and communicated with each other over Slack on everything from job descriptions to rate packages.

The second cohort of the Sponsorship Lab from GNI and INN meet for their final session.

In the first few months of the program, Sahan Journal, an INN member dedicated to covering immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota, made specific changes to how they approached potential sponsors. They more clearly defined the outlet’s unique value proposition and carried it across all departments. In the media kit, they included this updated messaging and made it easier for their target audience of “businesses that want to work with us” to get what they need to start the relationship. Sahan Journal also made the decision to raise the newsletter sponsorship rate from $550 to $800. 

The result: a 565% increase in revenue for the same period, June – September, over the previous year. 

“No one has all the answers, but by building a community of publishers we can create a rising tide that lifts all boats,” said Ryan Tuck, a partner at Blue Engine Collaborative, a consortium of experienced, mission-first experts that has run programming for both GNI-INN Sponsorship Labs, among other revenue-centered programs around the globe. “We persistently asked all of these publishers to take an insight, an idea, a learning and to try something. They’ll either make a sale or they won’t, but they’ll learn something with every attempt.”

For the second half of the program, Blue Engine made available three on-demand videos that participants could watch before scheduling “ask me anything” office hours. The focus was always on: what is working and what could we test?

Another factor in the success of these organizations was that the cross-functional selection committee consisting of INN, Google and Blue Engine chose them out of a pool of 300 applicants for their readiness to grow. While everyone has to start somewhere, earning revenue requires a sustained effort and dedicated staff capacity, so all of these publishers committed some resources (existing or new) to sell.

John Bebow, president of Bridge Detroit and Bridge Michigan, said that while Bridge would benefit from a “high-level relationships expert who can really work markets every day to grow a larger sponsorship market,” his staff created a new institutional membership program after the Lab – and it already has been wildly successful. 

“With Blue Engine’s teachings, we’re executing on our intended funnel approach to sponsorship,” said Bebow. “In December, we launched our Bridge Builders institutional membership program and have 20 confirmed members, $30,000 in revenue so far and many active leads. We’re expecting to surpass $100,000 in institutional membership/sponsorship revenue this year. And we started with $0.”

“The GNI Sponsorship Lab showed tremendous success for news organizations growing their digital sustainability,” said Ben Monnie, Director of Global News Partnerships Solutions. “We built on the previous Sponsorship Lab’s success to include a wider range of publishers, including in Latin America, and look forward to scaling these learnings to even more partners in 2022.”

About the program

All of the organizations selected for participation in the GNI-INN Sponsorship Lab have a public service focus. From the INN network, they were Bridge Detroit / Bridge Michigan, El Paso Matters, Minnesota-based Sahan Journal, Mississippi Today, Spotlight PA and The Forward, a national publication based in New York City. The other participating U.S. outlets were Atlanta Black Star, The Atlanta Voice and El Mundo Boston. From Canada,  The Discourse and Energetic City participated. From Latin America, it was Projecto Colabora in Brazil, Mutante in Colombia and Confidencial in Nicaragua. 

The coaching team at Blue Engine included Steve Shalit, director of business development for INN member NJ Spotlight News, Fran Scarlett, who joined Blue Engine after serving as INN’s chief knowledge officer, and Diego Carvajal, a digital communications, growth and transformation expert. 

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