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How I ran an NPR-style pledge drive to grow my newsletter
Public radio perfected the art of asking listeners for money. I stole some of its tactics.
Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:
Over the past few years I’ve encountered various cases in which publishers attempted to drive subscriptions/memberships by running what could be described as NPR-style pledge drives.
The specific strategies can vary, but in most cases the publisher, for some period of time ranging anywhere from a week to a month, will cut its subscription prices while simultaneously bombarding the audience with a large volume of messages encouraging them to subscribe.
Why do this? Because a lot of potential subscribers aren’t all that eager to hand over their credit card information, and a concentrated nudge that only occurs once or twice a year can be just enough to tip them over the edge.
The idea always made logical sense to me, and a few months ago I began to think about what a pledge drive would look like for me. I launched a paid version of this newsletter on February 19, and I decided I wanted to launch the drive at the six-month mark, which was almost exactly a month ago.
So how did I design the pledge month? And more important, what kind of results did I see from it? I’ll dive into all of that below.
Deciding on a discount
Almost all subscription drives lead with some kind of discount; in a lot of cases, they’ll slash prices by 50% or more. I’ve always been a lot more conservative on this front. In my view, you can actually devalue your work by cutting prices too low, and I also don’t have the cash runway that would allow me to make huge upfront bets that subscribers will stick around once the discount ends.
In a normal month, I offer a 10% discount for the first year, so for the pledge month I doubled it to 20%. It’s big enough to generate real savings while at the same not so steep as to create sticker shock when it reverts back to the full price after the first year.
Opening up about my process
When you look at actual public radio pledge drives, you’ll notice they spend a significant amount of time talking about what goes on behind the scenes at the radio stations. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that it establishes a more personal relationship between the listener and the station employees. You’re more likely to buy a membership if you care about the people who are drawing a salary from that membership.
This approach also helps the listener understand what their membership dollars are actually going toward. It can be easy for the average news consumer to forget that producing high quality journalism is expensive, so that’s why pledge drive hosts spend a lot of time talking about the high impact journalism the station has broadcast over the previous 12 months.
I did my own version of this by spacing out three articles over the course of the month. The first was titled “The exact time commitment it takes to run a paid newsletter.” For this one I focused on detailing all the work that goes into researching and creating the free and paid newsletters, as well as my weekly podcast. My hope was to communicate to readers that this newsletter isn’t just a casual side gig; it’s actually a huge time commitment that required me to sacrifice monthly income in order to make it a reality. This article was actually my most successful for the month. It made it to the front page of Hacker News, driving over 10,000 impressions and dozens of free signups.
My second article was titled “4 lessons I've learned while running a paid newsletter.” For this one I wanted to provide some concrete takeaways for my audience to utilize in their own content businesses while also opening up more about my newsletter business. This one didn’t get shared as widely on social media as the first one, but I received several email replies from people who indicated they planned to test out several of the strategies I outlined.
My third article is the one you’re reading right now. I figured my pledge drive experiment was substantial enough that it warranted its own article, and I also thought it would be a good way to close out the pledge month. So if you’ve been annoyed by how much Simon Owens-focused content you’ve received lately, don’t worry because it’s about to be drastically reduced.
Social media calls to action
I’ve never been one to beg on social media for people to subscribe to my newsletter. I always figured the better -- and less annoying -- tactic would be to simply lead with my content and let that drive conversions. But for the pledge month I decided to increase the amount of messaging on Twitter that encouraged people to sign up.
First I created a spreadsheet of every Twitter user who encouraged their followers to sign up for my newsletter. Then, once a day I would screen capture one of those tweets and then share it on Twitter. I also threaded the tweets so people could scroll through all the recommendations all at once. Finally, I made sure to tag each user with their recommendation, which more often than not resulted in them retweeting me.
It’s hard to say how many signups this strategy drove, but those tweets collectively generated over 20,000 impressions, which is fairly significant.
Social media ads
I’ve read a few dozen case studies about how publishers drove newsletter signups by purchasing targeted social media ads promoting their individual articles. I didn’t have a huge budget for this kind of promotion, but I figured that, given the right level of targeting, I could see some decent traction without spending too much money.
I chose four articles that had already performed well on social media -- one for each week of the month. I then would buy a promoted tweet optimized for website clicks, spending $50 on each article. I targeted these tweets based solely on the lookalike audiences for several prominent media reporters who cover my same beat.
This strategy performed surprisingly well. Not only did the ads drive decent click-through -- which lowered my cost-per-click significantly -- but they also led to organic retweets from some blue checkmark accounts. In fact, my very last Twitter ad led to retweets from two separate accounts with over 100,000 followers each. That was definitely $200 well spent.
So those were all the steps I took this month to turbocharge my newsletter growth. So what results did I see?
Let’s start with free signups to my newsletter. I saw an 11.6% increase to my total number. It was easily my biggest month since launching my newsletter back in 2014, and while most of those didn’t convert into paying subscribers, my hope is that many will in the coming weeks.
The jump in paid subscriptions was much more significant: 30%. It seems like my suspicions were correct that I had a bunch of potential subscribers waiting on the sidelines who just needed a little nudge.
So does that mean I’d rate the experiment a success? I think I’ll have a better handle on that in the next few months, since my hope was that this pledge drive would generate some momentum that I could continue to ride after it ended. In two months or so I’ll be able to look back and see whether my newsletter growth rates returned to what they were prior to the pledge month, or if they picked up speed.
But I’m definitely encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far, enough to where I’d consider attempting another pledge drive in another six months or so.
As I mentioned, this article marks the end of this month’s pledge drive. If you’ve stuck around this long and haven’t yet become a subscriber, consider this my last appeal for you to do so. You can still get access to my 20% discount at the link below. Subscribing not only gets you access to case study interviews that’ll help you in your career, but you’ll also be supporting the work of an independent journalist who’s passionate about the industry he covers. Namely, me.
Anyway, thanks for sticking around and for continuing to read my newsletter each week. I really love producing this thing, and I can’t wait until it’s my full-time job.
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