Personal connections rule – and other lessons from the Cronkite School’s first journalism crowdfunding campaign
When you think of crowdfunding, journalism may not immediately come to mind. Yet Pew Research Center reports a ready increase in journalism campaigns on Kickstarter, to a total of more than 4,000 as of December 2016. Clearly, as news organizations struggle to find new revenue models in the digital age, more are turning to crowdfunding.
Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication embarked on a crowdfunding journey of our own earlier last year. We have compiled what we did, how we did it and what other nonprofit news organizations can learn from our campaign.
A history of crowdfunding
A BBC story chronicled what may have been the start of digital crowdfunding in 1997 when British rock band Marillion raised $60,000 online to pay for its U.S. tour. A decade later, the rise a decade later of crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo sent interest skyrocketing.
Kickstarter says some $2.8 billion in donations have so far funded more than 117,000 projects. Journalism is the smallest category of funding, at $10.6 million. But it’s growing. From April to December of 2009, Pew Research Center reports, only 17 Kickstarter campaigns were journalism-related. In 2015, that number had multiplied by a factor of nearly 15 to hit 236 campaigns.
Most journalism funding appeals are made by individuals. Media organizations and institutions – including K-12 schools, colleges, nonprofits and for-profit businesses – use crowdfunding the least, at 22 and 7 percent, respectively.
Journalism schools rarely use crowdfunding for projects. Some notable exceptions include, Stony Brook University using Kickstarter to send 16 students to report on the Turkana region of Kenya and Emerson College using the site to fund print issues of its lifestyle magazine, Atlas. The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University has a program to support Kickstarter campaigns by individual students.
While the number of campaigns have increased, crowdfunding for journalism has not proven to be easy. A third of journalism campaigns on Kickstarter receive no pledges, and only 21.5 percent of the journalism campaigns succeed. That’s the second-lowest success rate of all Kickstarter categories. (Dance campaigns do about three times better, succeeding 62.6 percent of the time.)
In the past decade, journalism-focused crowdfunding platforms sprouted. The idea — to provide journalists a direct channel to appeal for funds — has faced challenges.
Beacon Reader, launched in 2013, helped fund public service journalism like The San Francisco Chronicle’s “The Faces Behind the H1-B Visa” and The Texas Tribune’s “Unholstered.” (Though many of its projects were successful, Beacon itself could not find a sustainable funding model. Taking a fee on each donation requires large numbers of donors. But journalism is still a niche market. Beacon tried subscriptions, then grants, but in the end quietly shut down in October 2016.)
Earlier, in 2008, Spot.us, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, pioneered digital crowdfunding of individual works of journalism. Among its early lessons: Some journalists do not like crowdfunding. When hundreds donated to a freelancer’s campaign to find and report on a giant garbage patch floating in the Pacific, the ensuing New York Times story spurred debate, some of it from traditionalists who felt this new way of paying for journalism somehow compromised the reporting.
American Public Media bought Spot.us in 2011, put it on hiatus in 2014 and shuttered it in 2015, deciding that the market for crowdfunding journalism was too small and that there were too few examples of “scaling and sustaining a crowdfunding platform.” The journalism-only platforms have faded (at least so far) but the popular crowdfunding platforms are going strong.
Immigration: Beacon’s last hurrah
In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle used crowdfunding to raise money for its H1-B visa project. Editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper told us the idea came about after she heard about Beacon’s matching campaigns for immigration coverage. At its launch, the Poynter Institute declared the Chronicle the first newspaper to crowdfund using Beacon.
“Chasing dreams and dollars: India and the H1-B visa” followed the stories of the more than 100,000 Indians who had completed or were going through the H1-B visa application process in order to work in the U.S. The visas are given to foreign workers with special skills; more recently, the majority of these visas are given to those working in technology. Some 67 percent of the visas in 2014 went to Indians – prompting the dedication of a Hindu temple in Hyderabad to praying for these visas.
While the paper was able to successfully raise $15,000, it received criticism from “homegrown” news organization SF Bay, which wrote the Chronicle and the New York-based Hearst Corporation, which owns the newspaper, should be “ashamed of crowdfunding.” The paper wrote that matching-fund “projects by media companies with multi-billion-dollar balance sheets kicks a double dose of dirt in the hardworking faces of independent journalists and community journalism organizations.”
Still, Cooper said the majority of the feedback the paper received was positive. “Our audience is super supportive of us doing excellent journalism,” she said. “At this point in media history, we need to try a lot of things — throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.”
While the campaign was successful, Cooper does not think the Chronicle should crowdfund too often, and only for the right projects.
Our question: Can journalism schools successfully crowdfund?
With a goal of learning to crowdfund effectively, the Cronkite School embarked on a project of our own in February of 2016. Immigration issues were an important part of the presidential election, the school pointed out, but the voices of those who live on the U.S.-Mexico border are not often covered. Crowdfunding could help Cronkite News substantially increase coverage of the border.
The campaign was successful, raising more than $50,000 to support Cronkite student journalists traveling to the border to interview U.S. and Mexican residents and discover untold stories. With additional support from Univision and The Dallas Morning News, we also conducted the first poll of border residents in 15 years, revealed the opinions of nearly 1,500 residents in 14 U.S. and Mexico cities on critical border and immigration issues.
The border poll got widespread attention across the country. It was cited by the Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Arizona Republic. The poll was published on the Cronkite News website and featured on the nightly Arizona PBS newscast, which reaches more than 1 million viewers weekly in Arizona. Coverage of the poll was extensive on the Spanish-language Univision, which reaches 94.1 million households across the country.
We used the Beacon crowdfunding platform. Beacon had experience raising money for immigration coverage and was able to match our funds, which meant we only had to raise $25,000 in order to receive $50,000 for our reporting.
With a grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News, we also are able to experiment with social media advertising and share the lessons we learned. For advertising, we utilized promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter to generate donations and share the completed border poll. The grant also funded this report.
Lesson 1: Personal connections make people more likely to donate.
A survey of our donors told us the majority were white indivduals older than 40 who had some link to ASU. For example, 23.7 percent of our donors either work or previously worked at the university. Some 21 percent were ASU alumni and 13.2 percent were related to an ASU alum.
On our Beacon campaign page, we used two different headlines during the campaign. One focused on helping students with their reporting and the other focused on amplifying the voices of the border. The messages focused on students resonated more with audiences than messages that focused on border issues. In fact, 78 percent of contributors surveyed said they donated to support the Cronkite School and its students. Only half said that they wanted to increase and improve border coverage. This suggests that future Cronkite crowdfunding projects should concentrate on the impact of donations on the educational mission of the school.
Lesson 2: Ask for money primarily through email.
To reach our goal, we sought donors in a number of ways.
We sent targeted emails to Cronkite School alumni, faculty and staff, parents of current Cronkite students and Arizona PBS donors. Since the Cronkite School is home to Arizona PBS, we were able to reach out to those donors as well.
In some cases, we contacted potential donors through personal phone calls. We also advertised on Facebook and Twitter. Finally, we directly contacted other media organizations, like The Dallas Morning News and Univision, who we thought might be interested in our border coverage.
Email proved by far to be the most successful way to reach people online. Sixty percent of our donors found out about the campaign via email. This finding is consistent with other campaigns. In its crowdfunding campaign guide, Indiegogo says the average conversion rate is 34 percent higher for email than other avenues.
We sent five waves of emails to those associated with ASU and only two to donors of Arizona PBS. Beacon also provided an email list of previous donors. We tailored messages in each email to appeal to each group. Personal emails to “friends and family” from campaign boosters were especially effective.
Lesson 3: Use social media for visibility, not for getting donations.
We also promoted the campaign through Facebook and Twitter advertisements. Our approach to social media was less about selling and more about building affinity with our audience. When donors shared the link to our Beacon page, most used social media. And on Facebook and Twitter, the dollars spent per donation were much higher than the dollars spent per click.
On Facebook, we targeted the ASU community, immigration lawyers, professional journalists, border town residents and followers of the Cronkite School page and Arizona PBS page. For each target group, we created customized messages. This approach generated thousands of page visits, but few donations. We reached into Mexico and Central America, but none of those south of the border who viewed our campaign donated.
Our results on Twitter were similar. We advertised less on Twitter because it’s harder to target to specific audiences or interest groups. Facebook allows you to target by location, demographics, interests and behaviors, while Twitter only allows you to target based on location and the information that users put in their bios. We targeted individuals who described themselves as journalists in their bios, and then by location. With journalists, we received 83,000 impressions but only 191 link clicks, making our click rate only 0.23 percent.
Lesson 4: Start with smaller projects with clear outcomes.
Our pitch to donors was probably too vague. We asked for help to “expand our coverage of immigration,” support student journalists and “amplify border voices.” We offered examples of past Cronkite News border coverage but were not specific in the types of stories we hoped to do, nor did we mention the still-percolating border poll. Meanwhile, successful Kickstarter campaigns by Kazoo magazine and Civil Eats described their platforms at length and each had 1,000 backers together contribute more than $100,000.
In addition, the success of our campaign relied on big-dollar donors who may not give again in the future. The majority of our donations were under $100, but the donations of over $1,000 made up the majority of the money we raised. The largest donations in our campaign came through direct appeals to Arizona PBS donors, Cronkite faculty members and others. Successful campaigns, Beacon told us, start fast, get tired in the middle, then sprint to the finish. One late-campaign email drew a $3,000 donation from a longtime PBS donor that put us over the top.
Our expectation was actually that most donors would give in the $51-100 range due to the fact we were giving away T-shirts to those contributing $95.
A key part of successful crowdfunding campaigns is the inclusion of “perks,” incentives given to donors. Perks can be anything from stickers, t-shirts or tickets to an event. The more a donor gives, the more valuable perks they receive. Indiegogo has found that a campaign offering perks raises 143 percent more money than those that do not.
At lower donation levels, perks incentivize donations. On its website, Indiegogo reports that the most popular perk level is between $25 and $30. Beacon advised us that we should give away T-shirts to those giving $95, the thinking was that this would be our most popular perk level. As it happened, our most popular perk level ended up being $25, for which donors received a thank-you note and “Cronkite swag,” which we later decided would be a Cronkite School luggage tag.
In a sense, we were lucky. The novelty of our experiment drew donors, some of whom said theirs was a one-time donation. This suggests that it is better to start small. While large crowdfunding campaigns might succeed for journalism schools if their own staff and faculty donate, that is not a sustainable model. If we do a future campaign, we think it should have a clear outcome and a smaller goal, with perks aimed at smaller donations.
Finally, we did not feel we had the room to fail. We were really counting on doing the border reporting and the poll. Because we were appealing to media partners, we felt we had an obligation to deliver. If our project had instead been ours alone, then our failure would have been our own.
Our Next Crowdfunding Experiment
One thing we should emphasize: This was a great project for students. They were involved in every stage — developing poll questions, traveling the border, writing, editing, filming, designing and presenting a major story package on the results of the border poll, and more. A graduate students analyzed the statistics and an undergraduate student prepared this report. For these reasons alone, it’s a great project for journalism educators to do. That is why individual professors, such as Dan Pacheco of Syracuse University, have been experimenting with crowdfunding across the country.
Is this kind of mega-campaign a good idea for a journalism school to do on a regular basis? No. Might it work on a rare occasion? Possibly. We feel far more certain about smaller projects. For us, projects in the $3,000 to $5,000 range seem doable. With over 67,000 successfully funded campaigns, Kickstarter’s $1,000 to $9,999 range has more successfully funded campaigns than all the other categories combined.
In a survey conducted after our campaign ended, our donors overwhelmingly said they would support a future campaign on just the types of topics Cronkite News covers: immigration was the most popular, with sustainability and education not far behind. That said, we would be far more specific about any future topics and how students would benefit. The story or stories should be ones that we do not absolutely have to do. An example might be a building a robot to get video from inside a captured drug tunnel on the border. Students would love to do it, but do not absolutely have to do it. In addition, involving students more deeply in the campaign design also will improve its educational value, whether it succeeds or fails. For example, we could include students in the designing of social media campaigns for our crowdfunding efforts.
We would also choose a platform that best fits our campaign. We heard from a couple of younger donors that a platform with more flexible giving options could have helped.
On Beacon or Kickstarter, donors are only able to use credit cards; meanwhile, Indiegogo allows donations through PayPal. The majority of people who looked at our page and donated used desktop computers. Overall, only about 12 percent of donors pledged to the project using mobile devices.
Younger donors are mobile and more spontaneous. According to Blackbaud’s Next Generation of American Giving report, 62 percent of millennials say they would give money using a mobile device. More than half of millennials say they are more likely to give spontaneously versus 72 percent of Baby Boomers who say their giving is more planned, according to The Future of Philanthropy report by Fidelity Charitable. If crowdfunding platforms were more intuitive and allowed alternative payment systems like Apple Pay or PayPal, rather than requiring donors to enter their credit card information, they could attract younger donors.
We might also look for a platform that would allow us to create custom landing pages for each target audience. Because we customized social media messages and emails for different groups, we would like the ability to make custom call-to-action pages as well. This would allow possible donors to feel that personal touch throughout the donation process, as opposed to receiving a customized plea and then being directed to a general giving page.
Crowdfunding may not “save” journalism. There is no single solution, and, journalism probably does not need to be saved, but rather rethought. A good crowdfunding campaign can be a worthwhile educational experience for students, and, if successful, the funding can help schools do more for the community. Still, you need a clear idea, the emails of your family and friends, and the mettle to ask strangers for money.
Journalism Crowdfunding Guidelines
Based on crowdfunding research, here are some tips to help you or your media organization reach your donation goal.
• Choose topics carefully
Consider your core audience and choose a topic you think is important for them to know about. You need their donations to get this reporting done.
• Email is king
Social media is much more about building a brand than about selling a product. Email is much better for getting donations, according to Indiegogo.
• $25 donations will be your sweet spot
You will most likely raise a mix of numerous smaller donations and few larger donations in order to reach your goal.
• Post updates to your page
Keep your audience engaged throughout the process and get them excited about the reporting that will come out of their donation.
• Keep campaigns to 30 days or fewer
Kickstarter says this is the best length.
• Make a pitch video
Even a 30 second video shot on your phone can generate interest in your project.
• Push hard at the beginning and at the end
Focus on starting strong. On Kickstarter, most journalism projects fail initially, but very few fail once 60 percent has been funded.
Credits: This report was written by Cronkite student Kaly Nasiff, with contributions from Cronkite faculty Rebecca Blatt, Joe Giordano, Eric Newton and Theresa Poulson and data analysis from ASU graduate student Rama Krishna Avinash Varma Kakarlapudi. Faculty working on Borderlands coverage and the border poll included Rebecca Blatt, Alfredo Corchado, Kevin Dale, Heather Lovett Dunn, Venita Hawthorne James, Angela Kocherga and Jessica Pucci. Students working on the border poll included Rian Bosse, Anna Copper, Kelsey DeGidio, Elizabeth Hansen, Courtney Pedroza, Justin Price and Christopher West. Borderlands reporters included Clara Benitez, Molly Bilker, Socorro Carrillo, Mauricio Casillas, Selena Makrides and Miguel Otárola. Public Insight Network Bureau students included Stacia Affelt, Hannah Bissell, Chris Caraveo, Alexandria Coleman, Maria Lopez, Jolene Martinez, Lindsay Robinson, David Robles, Gabriel Sandler, Samantha Shotzbarger and Keerthi Vedantam.