August 13, 2019

Poynter and the American Press Institute teamed up again this week to take a deeper look at what’s working in local news. Here, you can read how LAist rethought membership swag for a digital audience, and over at Better News, learn how the digital nonprofit newsroom used lessons from Table Stakes to build a loyal audience. 

For public media, member swag is a signature offering – coffee mugs, bumper stickers, magnets, T-shirts, umbrellas and yes, tote bags.

But what should online nonprofits offer to digital audiences?

How about a stress ball avocado, local art of iconic local places and a special batch of coffee?

“The stress ball avocado felt especially L.A. appropriate,” said Danny Sway, who headed up the membership campaign for the online nonprofit LAist, an online nonprofit newsroom inside public radio station KPCC.

You can read more about the digital media membership drive over at API’s Better News.

With a goal of 500 donations and $25,000, LAist ended the campaign with more than 585 donations and $40,949. About 30% of donors took one of the thank-you gifts, like the stress ball avocado.

Related: Why membership and subscription serve different goals

The campaign offers a few lessons on reaching audiences on the platforms they’re using and how to take the foundations of an old model and repurpose them.

Art by L.A. artist Cambria Guevara for LAist’s first membership campaign. (Courtesy LAist)

LAist used to be a digital for-profit newsroom. It was abruptly closed at the end of 2017, along with DCist, Gothamist and several other local publications. A few months later, public radio stations in New York City, D.C. and L.A. announced they acquired the local brands.

In Los Angeles, LAist relaunched in the KPCC newsroom. That meant it had the opportunity to reach a different audience than KPCC did and in a different way. For its first membership campaign since relaunching, LAist took the membership drive model that’s KPCC’s biggest source of funding and tweaked it.

The site gets more traffic, higher engagement and it has more Twitter followers than KPCC, Sway said. (LAist has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter. KPCC has more than 117,000.) So instead of an on-air campaign, the fundraising team used email, the site and social media for the spring fundraiser. And instead of the traditional public radio goodies, they created specifically local swag.

Using inspiration from a membership campaign at Gothamist, LAist started with the stress ball. Gothamist offered a cat-shaped one. The avocado felt like a great alternative to road rage, Sway said. It was offered as a bonus gift for any donation of any amount.

“We wanted every donor to feel important because their donation did make a big difference,” he said.

LAist offered a reusable straw set, a bamboo utensil set and worked with local artist Cambria Guevara to create a design for shirts, camping mugs and, yes, totes.

“We wanted to focus on iconic L.A. locations and destinations that real Angelinos would recognize, not just touristy landmarks,” Sway said. “The design is a bit of a scavenger hunt, so we took that and turned it into an engagement tool by posting the design on social media and asking followers to name as many landmarks as they could to receive a prize: an LAist bumper sticker.”

About 50 people responded, he said, including L.A.’s mayor.

Related: After sudden death, local public radio stations are bringing Gothamist, DCist and LAist back to life

“We also partnered with a great local coffee roaster, Go Get Em Tiger, who created a batch special just for us. We paired the coffee roast with the L.A. landmark design mug for a great combo pack,” Sway said. “During the ‘$5 Friday’ special day of the campaign, where each thank-you gift was available for only a $5/month donation, the coffee + mug combo was our most popular option.”

The goals of the campaign were to educate LAist’s audiences about its non-profit model, to engage with them and to raise money.

And the swag, while cool, was just a thank you for supporting local journalism, Sway said.

“Really what you’re doing is you’re giving a gift of local reporting to your community.”

But the stress ball avocados are a nice touch.

The totes were the second most-popular gift, behind the camping mug/coffee set. (Courtesy LAist)

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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