July 8, 2019

When it was looking to uncover ownership information about the notoriously opaque German housing market, Correctiv didn’t tell readers what its reporters had found upon publication. The non-profit German newsroom asked people to be involved much earlier, by doing things like sharing documents such as renter’s agreements and land property deeds via the research platform Crowdnewsroom.

The result: an informative investigation into housing market trends. The “Who owns Hamburg?” project featured contributions from 1,000 people.

Translated screenshot of Correctiv’s Who owns Hamburg? crowdsourced reporting project.

The “Who owns?” reporting approach has expanded to other cities across Germany. It continues a legacy of crowd-informed and crowdfunded investigative journalism by sites including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and ProPublica.

This trend of involvement in independent journalism continues to expand geographically and in new ways. Collaborative projects focus on the experiences of affected people and represent exciting changes. Inviting audience members’ involvement (through participation in live events, user experience testing, comment moderation and more) represents a more human way of working.

You can make the concept work for your organization by planning a study of your audiences, putting them in useful groups, reaching relevant audience members in meaningful ways, and developing relationships with them. Working directly and indirectly with your community members will better allow you to create journalism and news products to serve your users’ needs — and make money.

Here are 14 steps to put your organization on the road to effective and productive collaborations.


1. Pick your revenue model

We’ll start with the most common type of co-creation: financial support. There are three main ways that you can set up audience revenue programs, and they’re a natural fit for supporting engaged journalism. Let’s lay out a few distinctions between these models:

  • A donation model encourages people to give their time and/or money to an institution in support of a common cause or common values. Donation conveys a charitable relationship.
  • A subscription model has audience members pay money to get access to a product or service — it’s transactional. This model works well for many businesses, but it is fundamentally different from membership.
  • A membership model invites people to give their time, money, connections, professional expertise, distribution to their networks and/or ideas to support a cause they believe in. You might think of membership as a more committed relationship that is robust and active.

Sometimes these models are combined. If you host donation, subscription and membership programs alongside one another on your site, you need to be clear about what each features and how they differ.


2. Audience segmentation

How do you actually get people to act? You know you want people to participate beyond giving their money, and you know that in order to participate they have to receive something valuable in return. How will you know your efforts are working?

To encourage involvement and offer goods and services that are useful to people, you have to know your potential users. Hosting interviews and focus groups are valuable ways to meet them and understand their habits and needs. Surveys are useful for hearing from wider groups of current, prospective or canceled subscribers or members (consider them complementary to but different from conversations). The sentiments and preferences you gather become the raw data for developing strategies to reach them.

This matters because you have members of multiple audiences, not one faceless, monolithic audience. I urge you to avoid saying “the audience” or “our audience” (singular). (Jay Rosen has more to say about “the people formerly known as the audience” as it pertains to media.)

You want to identify these groups of people differently, not treat your most loyal and casual readers, viewers, and listeners in the same ways. This is audience segmentation: identifying who you need to sustain and grow. You will likely find that a few people will be very valuable to you, whether with their financial support, ideas, knowledge and/or time.


3. Group your users

To start segmenting, you can group people who you already know or want to find based on the characteristics they share.

  • Behaviors — What users do: You can use web and email analytics, event attendance, purchase history and survey and interview data to understand individuals’ patterns and propensities to pay.
  • Attitudes — What users think: The decisions, including lifestyle, career, brand affinity and activity choices that users make and that indicate what they care about. To learn about values and interests you can look at behavioral, survey and interview data alongside demographic information.
  • Demographics — Who users are: The most basic kind of audience background information, including age, life stage, relationship and family status, gender, ethnicity and income.
  • Geographies — Where users are: Where people live, work and travel. This is gathered through web analytics and geolocation data, app downloads and app usage information from mobile devices.

Know that any of these descriptors is incomplete on its own: Just because they share a birth year, all 30-year-olds don’t share the same affinities, ability to spend or life stages. The better you understand your current and prospective supporters, the better you can anticipate their needs.


4. Name and quantify audience segments

Next you’ll divide the groups based on individuals’ similarities or differences and name the segments.

BBC Media Action used audience segmentation in 2017 to plan the most appropriate strategies for reaching people in five different segments on a political engagement spectrum.

If you’ve got (or are) a data-driven person, you might size the segments using population and third-party research data sets. This will help you know the size of each segment to know how many possible people you might reach, one factor in determining which segments are highest priority.

Once you have your segments identified, named and shared within the organization, make sure they are stored and maintained in a central, well-protected place. You’ll want to link this information across marketing software and e-commerce and customer relationship management tools. Clearly and consistently tag the segments in MailChimp, Google Analytics and other commonly used platforms.

Moving forward, you can use this information to target different messages and special offers according to what you learn people in the segments prefer.

5. Think beyond the bell curve

Remember the bell curve from school math? It’s baaaack.

It’s back because when you think about your organization’s growth, it’s easy to talk about average monthly pageviews, average time spent on site and apps and other averages. But when it comes to understanding your population of possible supporters, the average won’t tell you a lot, especially when you want to learn about the people who are most loyal. Understanding what they need and want will help you design better for the other 90 or 99% of your visitors.

You will depend on some supporters more than others. In publishing, lifetime subscribers are worth much more than “one and done” single article viewers. It’s not a normal distribution and no one should assume that everyone who comes to the site will pay. A few people will be very valuable to you, whether with their financial support, knowledge, or time. “Average” won’t be a very useful metric. For more detail on distribution rates and your newsletter lists, including retaining, growing and monetizing people who open 80% or more often, I suggest the Email Benchmarking Tool report card from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.


6. Protect visitor data

Membership and contribution convey relationship, so you must always collect and handle people’s data carefully. I suggest doing an internal audit to know what’s available to you from the user data you have. You may find information that you can stop collecting if you don’t have an imperative, immediate reason for it.


7. Roadmap your reach

To make the segments actionable as part of your product and marketing roadmap, make a simple two-by-two matrix to identify how much work is needed to reach each segment (effort) compared to potential gain (value). People in segments who don’t currently access your products and services are hard to reach and may be expensive to convert, placing them in the bottom right.

Low effort / High value Highest priority Study what works with these people and why they turn to your organization: it can inform how you design for other segments High effort / High value Medium priority Low effort / Low value Lower priority High effort / Low value Lowest priority Out of scope to start

Focus your attention on people in segments in the high and medium visibility boxes. You’ll want to meet people in the highest priority segments to learn what features resonate with them, what they value and what they’re willing to pay for.

One last note on segmentation: You have different users with their own needs and price considerations. You should treat them as such, starting with how you describe them internally.


8. Measure what matters

Rina Tambo Jensen had a problem in the mid-2010s: As Mozilla’s Head of Service Design-Open Innovation, she and her colleagues didn’t know exactly how many contributions the global organization had or where they were coming from, literally and figuratively. They brought a rigorous approach to learning what motivated individuals’ contributions to the open source project and community and to counting them.

“Our processes of engaging with people were dependent on a few people. (To do this work) we need a lot of people — not thousands but tens of thousands. To make this work valuable we needed better systems,” said Jensen, whose team used its research to create four persona profiles: Independents, Leaders, Fixers, and Citizens. They mapped each persona against a journey map to show possible connection and pain points. This thought about supporters’ entire journeys with Mozilla and the need to have intuitive support systems from onboarding, retention, mastery, and more.

The team has a five-part experience model that starts with studying connection and orientation. They focus engagement opportunities around direct experience/interaction, then extended integration and recommending others. (Net Promoter Score is a useful metric for understanding the last bits, including whether users are satisfied, loyal and would refer others to your work.) Depending on the complexity of your offerings, you may have more steps to study and design for.

Laying out a journey with a finite number of steps like this, even if those steps change or evolve, can set expectations for all of the people involved.

Mozilla studied the motivations and experiences of supporters of its open source efforts. It created a journey map with five key interaction points:

Jensen continued, “It’s important to measure these contributions. Even saying ‘measure’ with community makes people think you are trying to measure their value. But you can’t do community without investment, and you need to make the case to the business side.”


9. Benchmarking

A quick note on the lifespan of the data you gather: These numbers are sometimes inexact and rarely evergreen. You need to spend time with metrics so you can establish a trend and learn enough to move toward a better one. 

Metrics and key performance indicators on the projects I study regularly monitor everything from changes in user behaviors and traffic sources to number and diversity of new community members engaged. There is high variance in what you will want to watch based on your project purpose, and it’s not always easy to know what to measure.

Again, I recommend not being too reliant on averages: When it comes to understanding your population of possible supporters, the average won’t tell you a lot. Long-time donors, members and subscribers are worth much more than “one and done” purchasers.

With any measurable approaches to digital marketing you’ll want to adopt a test-and-learn mentality. Know that poorly designed and executed tests will waste your time and can worsen your users’ experiences. Some of the areas where you might seek out more details on best practices include A/B testing; search, email and social media optimization; sales forecasting; and user data maintenance and analysis.


10. Reach out

Listening to and acting on supporters’ motivations can be both revenue-generating and money-saving. You may have members who can give their time and talent, but not their money. Whether individuals currently contribute financially to your work or not, these requests can present collaboration opportunities that make good use of staffers’ valuable time.

You will want to research what your own stakeholders’ want through conversation and surveys with them. You will see a range of options that account for different individuals’ abilities, lifestyles and limitations. When you know what your users’ motivations are, you can better encourage their involvement and loyalty.

Enabling such “public-powered” collaborations is the idea behind Hearken, the engagement and listening services company. Founder Jennifer Brandel said that many organizations simply involve members of the public too late. They rely exclusively on staff and freelancers early on, causing frustration on both sides. Instead, Hearken advocates working together from project inception.

As an example, a gun violence prevention site called The Trace employed Hearken’s user question software. The Trace encouraged its users to post questions and vote on topics they wanted to see investigated. These users were subsequently more likely to become loyal and paying supporters and to exemplify for other prospective donors how the organization is different from its competitors.

“Ask the Trace” provides a chance for The Trace’s users to post questions and vote on topics and concerns about American gun violence.

None of this means that you can treat supporters as free labor to be used and forgotten. Explore whether you might be able to fundraise or otherwise find money to pay supporters for their work.


11. Make the ask

You will need easy ways for people to be in touch with you in person (through regular casual gatherings and user research) and online (through email, social media and virtual gatherings like office hours). A few questions worth raising regularly through these channels include:

  • What can we help you do?
  • How can we get you what you need? (such as software, training, a buddy or mentor on staff or in the community, or physical space to work)
  • How can we be respectful of your time?
  • How do you want to be recognized?
  • If you want to go further, you might ask also ask: Why did you join? What did you get from us that you don’t find elsewhere? How might you want to help other supporters in the future?
  • You may have the opportunity to talk to former users, and this can be a valuable way to understand their dissatisfaction and areas for your organization’s improvement. You want to learn as much as you can about the reasons people have canceled, and when it comes to why they unsubscribed to your emails, don’t take “inbox too crowded” as a complete answer. When people cite “I’m too busy” as a reason, I take that to mean that they didn’t find enough value for the product to be indispensable to them every day or every week.

12. Solicit feedback

When you seek out the guidance of even casual users, it can help identify unmet needs that your audience members have. It can make your team less reliant on your own instincts. And it can help you avoid costly mistakes in developing things people don’t want or misrepresenting them and their needs.

The promise of such useful intel is why Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting hosts a group of “Reveal Insiders,” a virtual user panel to which it sends work-in-progress digital presentations for feedback. It’s why the Splice Newsroom co-founders conducted a poll in their Telegram group to solicit guidance on ticket pricing options for their first conference (they quickly heard that they were way off on how much participants could spend to participate and adjusted the cost).

An easy way to start is by describing or sketching the reactions and emotions you want your users to experience as a result of your work, then compare that with what they tell you they’ve felt in the past when interacting with your products. Points of difference are a great place to focus on to improve!

Regular usability testing and focus groups are other options you might pursue. Another option is a user panel: a standing group of people who have opted into being contacted and providing their thoughts at regular intervals.


13. Acknowledge contributions

Spanish language narrative show Radio Ambulante was the first podcast funded on Kickstarter, beating its initial goal and raising $46,000 in 2012. As staff tried to promote the idea of a show that would be like a “Spanish language ‘This American Life,’” Carolina Guerrero said that “crowdfunding became the best way to promote the show with no shame.”

“It gave a megaphone to the idea,” said Guererro, who has personally backed more than 90 crowdfunding projects and knows a thing or two about what resonates. In Latin America, there were people who wanted to give to the project but weren’t comfortable doing so through the site. Individual supporters helped with messengering: picking up checks and cash to add to the pool.

The team took a human-centered design approach into thinking about who it might reach beyond traditional tote-bag carrying public radio station fans in the US. “Who are those people who aren’t supporting public media but who want to give $1?” Guererro asked. Many of these people have continued to give, she said, and they’ve grown the original Kickstarter backer list to an email list of 14,000 people.

During and after Radio Ambulante’s campaign, Guerrero hand wrote 600 thank-you cards to backers. She said she didn’t anticipate the high cost of international postage and time involved, but I believe the physical signal of recognition stands out from slickly produced direct mail and emails. Find out how they’d like to be recognized, then deliver.

Just as you will be regularly asking for targeted help, get into the habit of authentically expressing gratitude and tying users’ involvement to the improvements and ideas they contribute to.


14. Synthesize what you learn

People who work in research for a living have a practical rule of thumb: You can figure that for every hour you’re out there gathering the data, you’ll need twice as long to understand and use it. I know this sounds like a huge investment, and it applies to all people accountable for the project, not just the primary owner. But poring over notes, reviewing results and feedback, and talking to teammates about observations and next steps will help you get the most value from the time you have already committed. It will make your presentations to stakeholders stronger, too.

The boutique firm Beacon Research taught me to split a sheet of large butcher paper or a whiteboard with a line down the middle. This exercise will you take your first stab at making sense of what your group heard while it’s recent. On the left, list and collect “Confirmations.” What did your team hear that validated your hypotheses?

An example of how to map out confirmations and ahas by New York Times researcher Julie Melton and me.

As facilitator of the conversation, you can list one idea per bullet or Post-It Note on the left side of the sheet. Listen and watch the group for places where there is high agreement. Then, on the right side, list “A-Ha!s”: surprising observations and learnings, as well as insights for further exploration. You now have two useful lists of your collaborators’ thoughts that you can use for future synthesis and reporting out.

Co-creation can sound scientific, and it does involve planning and rigorous organization. But you can break it down into approachable components, starting with considering or reconsidering the role your users might play in your organization’s revenue generation. You will learn about and listen to them using audience segmentation and outreach.

This research is imperative — if you must skip a step, don’t let it be this! — particularly if you’re planning to call on users and supporters to back your project with their money and knowledge in the future.

Want to go even more in-depth on how your news organization can create fruitful collaborations? Join Poynter’s News University and ProPublica editor Alexandra Zayas on August 1 at 2 p.m. for their webinar Building Successful News Partnerships.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

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  • I referred to The Trace as a gun violence prevention site, but a more accurate description is an independent nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence: https://www.thetrace.org/