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The top five reasons to accept reader donations

29/08/21 by Tara Hayes

It’s gospel. Across industries, around the world – “content is king”. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard this said and seen it written. And I don’t think we’re even close to peak usage of this phrase.

But it does ring true. For many businesses, great content is the primary driver of improved brand awareness, customer growth and profit. “Content is king” is their mantra for success.

For others, like publishers, it’s a reminder that the secret is out. Anyone can be a creator and build an audience, and many, without anywhere near the same level of expertise, resources or funding as a publisher, seem to do it better.

How can publishers better monetise their content?

For anyone who’s read a feature article on a news site or in a magazine recently, we know talented writers exist and important information is there to be shared. But the way we’re all consuming content is different. Our attention spans are shorter - something the global pandemic has only exacerbated. And somewhere along the way, a lot of us got used to consuming content for free, not really appreciating the time, energy and cost that goes into its creation.

One avenue publishers are taking to reduce the shortfall is to specifically ask their readership for donations. It works, as case studies around the world have shown, and add much needed revenue for publishers to continue creating great and important content for us all to access.

Here are the five reasons publishers should ask for donations from their audiences:

1. Generate new revenue

It seems pretty obvious to anyone who has ever worked in media that good journalism comes at a cost. But here’s the thing – not everyone understands that behind each headline is most certainly an individual, sometimes a team of people who helped research, write and review what you read. And those people rarely work for free. It used to be that advertising, classifieds or subscriptions more than covered the cost of delivering this content. However, those margins aren’t what they used to be.

The first time I saw an open request for funding from a publisher was on stuff.co.nz, New Zealand’s equivalent of news.com.au; a freemium news site. The request was simple and polite while appealing to a person’s sense of equity and fairness; values that journalists pledge to uphold in society. It said: “No matter where you were born, who you love or what abilities you have, Stuff wants to tell your story. Our charter commits us to guarding against racism, privilege and other inequitable practices in our organisation and our journalism. If those values resonate with you, please become a Stuff supporter today.”

Other examples from further afield include The Tampa Bay Times, which raised US$213,000 from 2,620 donations, The New Orleans Advocate, which raised about US$66,000, and The Anchorage Daily News, which raised over US$48,000 from more than 500 donors.

2. Increase the value of your content

People value what they pay for, even if it’s a voluntary donation. The small act of asking raises awareness for those who would otherwise be ignorant to the business side of reporting and the associated costs of providing content. Once someone has made a donation, how they value your content will change for the better.

The Guardian’s reader funded business model has attracted donations from more than 1.5 million readers across 180 countries, including over 170,000 from Australia alone. As it states on The Guardian website: “Our supporters tell us that they deeply value the approach we have chosen – where everyone can access our journalism, regardless of where they live, what they earn, or how they like to consume the news. We believe this is important so we are better placed to foster inclusivity, diversity, make space for debate and inspire conversation – so more people, across the world, have access to accurate information.”

3. Increase engagement with your audience

Coming back to the example of stuff.co.nz, I was motivated and did end up donating. My contact details were recorded and I receive emails every now and then from the publisher on stories of interest. It’s deepened my relationship with a publication I used to only visit casually to catch up on news across the ditch and my hometown. I feel part of that reading community in a way I didn’t before.

The Conversation is a unique collaboration between academics and journalists that started in 2011 and in the 10 years since has become the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. Their purpose is to inform public debate with knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence. As a not-for-profit organisation, all their funding comes from donations. So as to maintain their independence, they are careful to only obtain non-partisan sponsorship from education, government and private partners. Advertising on their site is minimal, so readers are able to concentrate on the article with minimal distractions.

4. Measure the value of content to your audience

At the moment, you probably measure what articles receive the most hits and how long, on average, people are spending reading that article. If you set up a donation option on every piece of content you post, very soon, you’d have a fairly good picture on the types of stories that are prompting people to donate. What is the one piece of news that motivates them to donate; what is it they like about that article, how have you told it in a way different to other news outlets, what assumptions can you make about your readers based on the articles they are reading? These are all valuable questions that you’ll be able to start answering based on where they choose to make that donation.

5. Be proud of what you create and start valuing your own content

This seems flippant, but there really is nothing to lose. It’s not compulsory for people to donate so only those really motivated to do so will. You may end up discovering a brand new revenue stream or you may not – but either way it will give you a good sense of how people value the content you share and help you realise its value too.

The Anchorage Daily News is one such publisher in the US that turned to their readership for support after taking a financial hit during the pandemic. “What we found is that if we ask, some part of the community is happy to support us,” said David Hulen, editor of The Anchorage Daily News. “All you have to do is ask. What we found here with our own experience is that there’s lots of potential for that.”

Spotpass is helping publishers all over the world accept donations and contributions directly from their readers. Are you a publisher or content creator? Enter your details below and we’ll be in touch to discuss how Spotpass can work for you.




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