This progressive media company used crowdfunding to get off the ground

Passage is the liberal answer to right-wing Facebook pages in Canada.

Like a lot of people on the political Left, Geoff Sharpe grew frustrated by how successful conservatives were on Facebook. For years, he watched as right leaning conservative groups built huge Facebook followings, which allowed them to promote their highly partisan views to millions of Canadian citizens.

So Geoff and his colleagues decided to do something about it. They initially launched their own left-leaning Facebook page, growing it to hundreds of thousands of followers. But they then wanted to pivot to something even more ambitious: a standalone website that published original opinion content from leading progressive voices.

To do this, they launched a crowdfunding campaign, and over the last year they’ve rolled out a membership program that helps generate recurring revenue. I interviewed Geoff about why the political Right does so well on Facebook, how he designed the membership program, and what impact his site has had on Canadian politics.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Growing a successful Facebook page

Geoff spent a good portion of his career working in Canadian politics, mostly on the digital marketing side of things. He began to notice that conservative groups were highly effective at pushing their content on Facebook, which often allowed them to bypass the traditional media to communicate their partisan messaging. “The Right is creating a lot of really engaging content, and we had seen what had happened in the U.S. and were pretty concerned that there’d be a similar trajectory up here in Canada.”

So Geoff and some colleagues created North99, a donor-funded organization that mostly operated on social media. “We decided there's an opportunity here to create something on the progressive side that really tries to engage people beyond just serving them traditional news articles.” The group began circulating custom-made graphics and memes, eventually growing its Facebook page to over 140,000 followers. 

While growing the page, Geoff realized that the Right’s success on Facebook was due to its ability to deliver information in bite-sized chunks that could be consumed and shared quickly. “There's lots of information being thrown at you. Our thinking around it was: how do you take a piece of information and frame content around it in a way that will make a progressive audience really care? And because we had the ability to see shares, reach, likes, engagement, all the rest of that type of stuff over time, we figured out what our audience wanted and the issues they supported.”

Expanding beyond Facebook

Eventually, Facebook rolled out algorithm changes that reduced the reach of political pages within the Newsfeed. Geoff also wanted the chance to go deeper on issues that couldn’t be summed up in a single graphic or meme. “We surveyed our audience and asked what they might be interested in, and there was real interest in discussing ideas in a more in-depth way. So we set up a separate publication.” The site was called Passage, and its founders also simultaneously launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of funding the website for its first year. The campaign raised about $33,000. 

Passage primarily publishes opinion and analysis pieces. “We have an editor who runs the content side of things while we run the marketing side to engage audiences and build more of a sustainable publication.” It typically publishes about three opinion pieces a week. “We also have a daily newsletter that we run. We created three email courses with hopefully a fourth one coming soon. We have a podcast that we run that is basically just our articles converted into an audio format.” 

Building a membership base

While the crowdfunding campaign provided the initial funding for Passage, it’s now attempting to build a more sustainable model around paid memberships. Because the founders don’t want to lock anything behind a paywall, they have to constantly convince readers that the site’s mission is worth supporting. One of their biggest drivers of paid conversions is their online courses, since they require a deeper level of engagement. “Generally, after someone signs up for a course, they're presented with a message asking them to support our publication. What we see is the course basically pays for itself immediately after we launch it, because people are just so supportive of it, they're willing to become members. These courses last basically forever, and that's just a piece of content that you can use to engage with people, not just when they arrive on the site, but longer term. It just extends the value of the content in a really interesting way that an article itself might not.”

The courses don’t teach any particular skills, but rather dive deep on certain progressive issues. “We have one that talks about deepening democracy in Canada. We have another one called ‘How the Car Conquered the World’ and it looks at the rise of the car in cities and how lobbying helped shape that. And another one we have is called ‘Socialism Success Stories,’ and it looks at where we've seen socialism and democratic socialism be successful and breaks down some of those myths around socialism. What we do usually is ask our members what kind of course they want to see, and they get to vote on the topic that we'll do. And that’s a perk of being a member of Passage.”

Geoff doesn’t have any grand ambitions for turning the site into a thriving business; he just wants it to be able to sustain itself and maybe fund even more progressive writing. To do that, Passage needs to continue communicating its mission and convince its quickly growing audience that its content is worth paying for, even if it remains completely free to consume. But regardless of how big Passage gets, Geoff has been vindicated; with very little funding and virtually no institutional support, he and his colleagues proved they could counter the political Right’s messaging online.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.