This piece was written by Emily Roseman for Blue Engine Collaborative, a new consortium of independent consultants and advisers with deep experience in driving audience and revenue at for-profits and nonprofits, and includes input from Agnes Varnum, deputy director of the Texas Tribune’s Revenue Lab; Steve Shalit, Business Development Director at NJ Spotlight; and Chloe Kizer, a consultant on media operations and growth. It was published on August 7, 2020.
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Here are the four most important things you should know about why Madison365 has been so successful at generating earned revenue:
Madison365 leads with its mission in all its business dealings, that is: to produce coverage specifically for communities of color in Madison and Wisconsin at large. Diversity is vitally important from both a moral and business standpoint for Madison365. The business development team makes the tactical and ideological case for diversity clear in its work with clients and prospective clients — and makes sure those prospects align with that mission. In addition, the newsroom hires and maintains a diverse staff. (For more on why diversity is essential in newsrooms, despite most newsrooms continuing to under-represent communities of color, see this Nieman piece.)
The team prioritizes creating custom “membership” packages with business clients. The Madison365 team works with each client to craft a tailored package that directly addresses its client’s needs. This package could include a range of elements including “flat rate” advertising (as opposed to CPM-based advertising) and event sponsorship. This method of selling can be understood as “consultative selling,” or a sales process that prioritizes relationships and open dialogue to identify and provide solutions to a client’s specific needs. Early in Madison365’s history, the team decided to call financial support from businesses “membership” to emphasize that the business’ contribution makes them a part of Madison365’s mission and brand. (Note: when many nonprofit news organizations say “membership,” they typically mean a reader revenue relationship and not relationships with business clients. Although Madison365 accepts donations from companies and individuals, they do not offer a reader/consumer membership program.)
Madison365 values relationship-building with clients. The CEO explained how he rejects an old school journalist platitude that journalists shouldn’t be too close with the community they serve. “If you’re working at Madison365, you better know people in the community!”
The newsroom serves a specific set of audiences, which has enabled them to develop an engaged and rapidly growing readership. In January, Madison365’s site had about 61,363 unique users throughout the month. In July, they were up to 251,755 unique users. On social media, they went from one million impressions per month in January to three million impressions per month as of July.
Emily Roseman is a media researcher and newsroom consultant interested in the sustainability of high-quality journalism. Emily has researched and written for the Membership Puzzle Project, the Public Media Mergers Project, the Solutions Journalism Network and Harvard’s Belfer Center. Most recently, she has worked with Blue Engine Collaborative on materials for INN’s Ignite Sponsorship program. Previously, she served as the research project manager for a study at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center that analyzed how nonprofit, single-topic newsrooms can engage and grow audiences. She now works as INN’s Research Director and Editor.