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How Bridge Michigan’s focus on community engagement led to new member revenue

By Jennifer Mizgata 

July 13, 2023

“Good talent, good training, good news environment, good luck,” said John Bebow, publisher of Bridge Michigan, when asked how the news organization has garnered significant support from local readers through memberships.

Bridge’s three-year-old membership program has seen exponential growth, with thousands of new members paying to support the nonprofit newsroom. The program’s success, as Bebow notes, is due to a number of factors, but it’s strongly linked to the investments that the leadership team has made into staff, training and supporting new ways of working. 

About Bridge Michigan 
Founded in 2011, Bridge Michigan is a nonpartisan news service published by the Center of Michigan. The largest nonprofit news service in the state, Bridge Michigan describes their work as “honest, fact-driven journalism and engagement opportunities on the state’s diverse people, politics, and economy.” With a focus on transparency and accountability, Bridge approaches news as a public service that is community-centered and locally accountable. Key focus areas for the outlet include politics, health, education, environment, business and demographics. 

Over the years, the nonprofit newsroom has evolved its relationships with readers, which has impacted both editorial and business strategy. At its inception over 10 years ago, Bridge created watchdog journalism that was primarily supported by philanthropic funders. Over time, Bridge shifted from focusing solely on quality reporting to engaging more deeply with audiences, devoting staff time and resources to actualize this shift. The team prioritized listening to constituents’ needs, going so far as to buy a van that they drove around the state to reach Michiganders where they lived, then built on their listening work to develop the engagement strategy. 

As Bridge formed deeper relationships with readers through responsive coverage and popular events, the team saw the opportunity to focus on individual giving. In 2019 they created a membership program, which has been incredibly successful to date: Bridge raised nearly $1 million from over 8,000 individual donors in 2021, and contributions under $2,500 made up 24% of the organization’s revenue.  

Support and direction from leadership were key to Bridge’s strategy, which included investing in training, staff promotions and new hires, as well as fostering a collaborative environment between editorial, audience, business and leadership teams. As Bridge developed more capacity for responding to audience needs, the team was learning to convert readers to members. When COVID-19 affected Michiganders, more people than ever turned to Bridge, and the membership program was ready to engage them in a meaningful way: membership increased sharply in 2020, and continued to rise in 2021 and 2022, even after the site traffic decreased from peak pandemic levels. The year-over-year growth of memberships demonstrates that this is a robust and sustainable revenue stream for the organization.

Who they are 

Bridge Michigan was founded in 2011 as Bridge Magazine, a digital-only outlet with one editor and reporter. It published weekly, policy-oriented output with a focus on explanatory reporting around issues impacting Michigan residents. The outlet is a publication of Center for Michigan,” a 501(c)3 nonprofit and nonpartisan ‘think-and-do’ tank,” and the startup funding was provided by a founding family that gives a recurring $1 million annual gift. 

Bridge continues to operate as a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on policy issues and holding lawmakers accountable. Over time, the publishing cadence increased, as well as the staff size. After steady growth over the past 10 years, with a new staffer added each year between 2015 and 2020, Bridge added four new staff in 2021 and three in 2022. Today it has 22 employees, including 16 in editorial, four focused on growth, engagement and membership, and two on the leadership team. 

Screenshot from Bridge Michigan’s 2022 annual report. Bridge totals 25 staffers as of 2023. 

The organization now has an annual budget of $3.79 million and publishes six days a week. Memberships have become a key source of the revenue mix, which includes major donors, grants and sponsorships. Any individual donor who gives to Bridge receives a membership.  

An evolution of the nonprofit model: cultivating an audience-oriented mindset

When Bridge Michigan launched in 2011 (as Bridge Magazine), the operation was funded by the Power family, who founded the Center for Michigan. Founder Philip Power committed $1 million dollars a year and asked Bebow to match that by finding other philanthropic donors. This model found success — leadership focused on raising money through foundation support, which grew over time and now exceeds what the Powers give annually. According to the INN Index, foundations contributed $1,517,667 to Bridge in 2021. 

In the early years, Bridge was already creating impactful civic reporting, with a small team of editors and reporters winning numerous awards for their work. But Bebow worried what would happen if the foundation funding dried up. His experience in commercial news in the 1990s had instilled in him the belief that Bridge still needed to find an audience and “get eyeballs” on the reporting — not just produce journalism for the sake of good journalism. 

“The future is really about the audience. It’s about finding that intersection between in-depth journalism and a much bigger group of people that we think want to read it.”

john BeboW, Publisher of bridge michigan

Bebow started taking steps toward a culture change, and in 2017 he hired consultants to help assess how to grow Bridge’s audience. The report from the consultants was met with hesitancy by some staff, who feared that a new strategy might take Bridge away from the deeply reported news. Bebow worked internally to reassure staff that he wasn’t looking to compromise their mission, while exploring how the team could better understand how to reach new people. “The future is really about the audience,” Bebow said. “It’s about finding that intersection between in-depth journalism and a much bigger group of people that we think want to read it.”

Not only did the consultants point to a culture shift within the newsroom, they also helped Bridge create a database to track donations and taught the team what a member program could look like in the future. They also recommended investing in people power — at that point, the organization didn’t have a full-time staff member focused on reader donations, membership or fundraising strategy. As the team developed a new approach, they started where they’d already been investing time and staff energy: engaging Michigan residents, expanding their event strategy and connecting that work back to their journalism. 

Deepening connections with readers 

INN spoke to Amber DeLind, membership and engagement director, to understand how the event strategy has evolved since 2015, when she was the engagement director. With early events, the organization hosted town hall-style meetings to listen to the concerns of citizens and bring awareness to policy issues important to local residents. 

“The previous model was to fill a journalistic need. We were out there trying to understand what the public cares about, so that we could report that back to our team, but also to deliver this nonpartisan report to state legislators that don’t do as much of that [listening] work anymore,” DeLind said. “We were always nonprofit, so we were never lobbying, but we were doing a lot of issue education.”

Based on the guidance from the consultants, DeLind’s job expanded to include development work. In addition to her online and in-person engagement work, she became the person who reached out to individuals in hopes that they would donate to Bridge. 

“From 2015 through 2018, we did basically two campaigns a year: a spring and a year-end. We weren’t super sophisticated about things,” she said. “It was kind of another hat that was on top of my public engagement role. It wasn’t anyone on the team’s full-time job.” 

With staff juggling other work, the fundraising could get deprioritized, but as time went on, the need to build deeper relationships took on a new sense of urgency. 

“2017 was sort of the publication’s first year of like, ‘Oh my God, are we sustainable?’ because audience sort of plateaued and we weren’t seeing a lot of growth,” DeLind said. “Our donations were kind of similar to the previous year. It felt like a moment where we just weren’t quite sure where we were headed as a publication.”  

That crisis led to new outcomes in 2018, which was also a gubernatorial election year in Michigan. Bridge created a more frequent publishing cadence and started posting news stories daily. It also became clear that, for a more audience-centric culture, Bridge would need to shift the event strategy and invest more staff time to connect with local readers. 

After tabling at local events and getting relatively low engagement through staff armed with clipboards, the team embraced a new tactic: Bridge got a dog (Coney Dog, named after a Michigan culinary favorite) and a van and took their “Truth Tour” on the road, connecting with citizens about local policy issues. Bridge created two publications to help facilitate conversations along the way, the Michigan Facts and Issues Guide, with 100 “carefully researched and unquestionable facts” about Michigan, and a guide helping citizens spot misinformation and fake news.

The Truth Tour made more than 100 stops around the state and connected Bridge with thousands of readers.

It was an important moment for the Bridge team as they continued to deepen their engagement strategy, showing them how many people were interested in their work — their online audience nearly doubled in 2018 — and giving them new ideas about how they could leverage that interest. 

Investing in staff and training 

In addition to the ambitious engagement project around the state, the leadership at Bridge made two other significant staff investments in 2018: they hired a Growth Strategy Director Bill Emkow, and created a full-time role for a membership director, ultimately promoting DeLind to this role. Emkow and DeLind shared ideas and helped inform each other’s work, forming a strong partnership that continues to guide Bridge’s strategy.

Investing in staff also meant investing in training and networking. Notably, Emkow and Bebow attended the Facebook Journalism Project Accelerator (now called the Meta Journalism Project Accelerator) in 2018, which provided training and coaching on building more sustainable revenue streams for local news organizations. Emkow, who had a background in growth strategy and attracting new readers but hadn’t worked in a nonprofit newsroom before, learned new tactics which led Bridge more firmly toward recruiting and retaining paid members. 

Emkow developed new ways for the organization to better understand who was visiting the site, what they were reading and when they were returning. He developed charts and presentations to help the newsroom better understand the “funnel,” or how readers deepen their relationship with Bridge over time, and what activities are a part of it. The funnel, which looks like an upside-down pyramid, visualizes a larger group of people who have one touch point with Bridge (such as a first visit to the website or attending an event); then a slightly smaller group with multiple touch points to the website; and so on. As they move down the funnel, people share their email addresses via newsletter signup, eventually engaging as loyal readers who understand the value of Bridge and may in turn become one-time donors and, finally, sustaining members. 

Bridge Michigan’s funnel visualizes their audience cultivation strategy

Meanwhile, by talking to news organizations from around the country, both in the accelerator and at journalism conferences, Bebow got more perspective on Bridge’s new strategy. 

“I think about halfway through the program, John [Bebow] had this aha moment where it’s like, ‘If we’re going to do this, we need to truly invest in it.’ We, to that point, had never had anyone who is fully dedicated to fundraising on staff,” DeLind said, when discussing how meaningful the 2018 accelerator was to shifting Bridge’s strategy. 

“It was just such a moment of realization that we were so fortunate to have so much philanthropic support from the beginning, but that if we truly wanted to become sustainable, that this was the obvious way to do it. We had to decide to do it for real, like actually put a person in place, dedicate time and talent to doing this.” DeLind became that person in January 2019.

In addition to investing in staff, Bridge also invested in new tech tools. In 2019, Bridge became a client of News Revenue Hub, which provides technology and strategy for launching membership programs, then officially launched the program in March of that year. 

Payoff: membership as an expression of engagement

Bridge quickly saw meaningful returns on the investment, both with increased engagement and monthly revenue. In 2019, the first year of the membership program, Bridge had 3,173 members, an increase of 28% over the 2,475 individuals who had donated in 2018. Email signups, an indicator that people are engaging more deeply (and moving down the funnel), increased significantly — net gains grew by 13,374 in 2019 from 8,401 in 2018, a 59% increase. And monthly donors went up a whopping 90%, with growth of 637 at the end of the year, up from 336 in 2018.   

“This is going to sound easy, but I really do think [engagement] is kind of the secret sauce as to how we were able to get off the ground with membership so quickly, and how we’ve been able to continue to grow,” DeLind said. “We sort of had that muscle memory, that institutional knowledge, of how to make people know that you care about them — that you’re interested in their feedback and their ideas, and that membership is really just the ultimate expression of engagement with your organization. You care so much about this thing, this organization that provides you news that you can get for free, that you are deciding to spend your money and just support it.”

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Bridge saw a massive spike in site traffic, as Michiganders sought to understand what the virus was and how it was impacting their daily lives. Bridge went into overdrive, producing content and answering hundreds of reader questions. Multiple staff members spoke to INN about how the organization was primed to respond to community information needs based on how much they’d invested in creating a culture of engagement with readers. Their reporting on critical issues caught the attention of people looking for localized information, repeatedly drawing in new readers from search engines. 

“This is going to sound easy, but I really do think [engagement] is kind of the secret sauce as to how we were able to get off the ground with membership so quickly, and how we’ve been able to continue to grow.”

amber delind,
Membership & Engagement Director

In 2020, that traffic explosion from COVID-19 was one of the main drivers for increased membership. In fact, March and April’s site users added together were more than the previous five years of annual site users combined. Emkow hypothesized that, as new readers came back for multiple sessions, they saw the value in what Bridge was offering and wanted to contribute. 

Overall, membership (both monthly and one-time donors) increased to 8,662 in 2020 from 3,173 in 2019, increasing by 173%. Monthly donors increased by 259%, growing to 2,284 in 2020 from 637 in 2019. And email signups saw a 239% increase, as they gained 45,282 email subscribers in 2020, up from 13,374 in 2019. 

Notably, in 2021, Bridge continued to gain monthly donors, email signups and monthly revenue from members at a rate that exceeds the pre-pandemic numbers, even as traffic has gone down from the peak in 2020. They gained 26,841 emails in 2021 — 40% fewer than the amount of emails they gained in 2020, an exceptional year, but 101% higher than 2019. The 2,371 monthly donors in 2021 can be seen as a 4% increase over 2020’s monthly donors or, more significantly, as a 272% increase over 2019. 

Emkow believes that the continued growth demonstrates how Bridge continues to meet readers’ needs — the engagement strategy is working.

Refining membership tiers and offerings

Bridge’s team has continued to refine their membership and engagement strategy since launching the program. Whereas the organization previously separated donors into “individual” for donations of less than $2,500 and “mid- and major giving” for donations of more than $2,500, it has rolled out new membership tiers for individuals and organizations. 

Bridge now defines “individual membership” as a person or household giving $1,000 or less, and there are three tiers: gold, silver, and bronze. The bronze members include anyone who gives between a dollar and $99 in the previous year. Silver members give $100 to $499 and gold members give $500 or more in a year. In 2022, the organization started a program to reach major and mid-level donors, named the Power Circle, with the Pleasant Peninsula Circle ($5,000 and up), the Blue Waters Circle ($2,500-$4,999) and the White Pine Circle ($1,000-$2,499). Power Circle members receive additional benefits, including a virtual events series with Bebow and Bridge team members, as well as reserved seating at in-person Bridge events.

Bridge continues to build out new benefits and ways to draw in potential members. Events are a pipeline to membership: while events are free, DeLind sees feedback from new members that events draw them in and motivate them to donate to Bridge. A bimonthly book club featuring local Michigan authors has been especially popular, bringing in new readers and converting readers to paying members. In 2021, Bridge hosted 17 events with 32 different speakers. Six of those were book club events and 11 were part of a virtual lunch-and-learn issues series, which covered topics including government transparency, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, redistricting in Michigan, and elder care. The team has applied the lessons they learned in 2018 and 2019, and now focuses events around Bridge’s coverage. DeLind can link events to membership, both connecting with current members and garnering interest from casual readers. 

Looking ahead

Bridge Michigan has firmly established the membership program in less than three years, thanks to a culture of connecting with local readers and demonstrating the value of Bridge’s reporting work to communities in Michigan. 

Going forward, they’re hoping to expand their reach, without losing the current audience or funders. They’re looking to connect with younger audiences and more people of color in Michigan, as well as those with lower household income. In 2022, an election year in Michigan, Bridge’s newsroom was well-equipped to cover the issues. This was a significant opportunity to engage readers casually looking for election information. 

Together, the growth strategy, membership and reporting teams leveraged the election cycle’s conclusion with a two-week fall membership campaign focused on election coverage. October 2022 saw readership at Bridge Michigan grow to more than 1.1 million unique views (an 89% increase from monthly average readership for the first nine months of the year). As October closed, membership donations neared $100,000 and were over 40% higher than average monthly donations for the nine months prior. 

Bridge Michigan is primed to iterate the membership strategy because of investing in exceptional staff and collaborating across the organization on engagement.  

“There’s been exponential growth because we assembled a team that is audience and market focused and that’s what they do all day,” Bebow said. “We assembled a lot of great training and we’re going to continue to do as much training as we can to just get better.”

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