When I first stumbled on the paid acquisition tactics being used by fast-moving digital-first publishers back in 2008, I had a lightbulb moment: if a publisher could take a newsletter subscriber from casual reader to rabid fan to paying supporter to ambassador, there was a case for paid acquisition of that subscriber. It was really that simple.
Over the last 10 years, I've been obsessed with the topic of paid acquisition for newsrooms. I’ve worked with publishers to implement it. I’ve produced research and given presentations on it. I co-host a Slack channel for people in newsrooms who are experimenting with it. And it’s at the core of the curriculum for the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co.’s workshops and boot camps.
In that time, I've advocated for one important concept that continues to surprise publishers when I mention it: a "boosted post" on Facebook and Instagram is not paid acquisition, it's paid promotion. There's a subtle but important difference here, and I want to ensure it's clear to everyone (as contentious as this idea might be). Let me explain:
With boosted posts, publishers are simply paying to reach an audience they've already built, but without the opportunity to take that relationship back from the platform and own it directly. Paid acquisition, on the other hand, is a concerted effort to re-establish a direct relationship with your current audience (via email, SMS, or what-have-you), as well as working to create that direct relationship with new audiences.
Examples of paid acquisition in newsrooms
Let’s dive into this further using the dozen paid acquisitions examples from across the local and national news spectrum presented below.
One quick caveat: I am not aiming to promote Facebook exclusively here in any way. These techniques can be used on other platforms. However, because Facebook has an Ad Library – even though it’s terribly broken and frustrating to use – it’s a bit easier to catalogue these examples retrospectively.
All of the examples here, except where explicitly noted, are Facebook “Lead Generation” ads. If you don’t yet know the difference between lead generation ads and other types of Facebook ads, it’s time to read up. Here’s a good starting point.
This example is from a Bay Area favorite, Berkeleyside. Especially in this time where Northern California seems to be on fire constantly, these kinds of public safely messages are probably quite effective. This ad has been running for a month, so we can assume it is working to deliver low-cost newsletter subscribers.
Same publisher, but different messaging and different product. This time food and dining, a perennially great topic for lead acquisition.
Here we can see the LA Times taking a similar approach with their “Tasting Notes” newsletter.
Sports is another subject that works well for paid acquisition, as seen in this lead generation ad from the Houston Chronicle.
And here, again, over at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s lead generation ads are unique, however, because they use a pseudo “gated content” tactic pioneered by Keywee, a company that helps publishers with “content distribution and performance measurement.”
More on Keywee in the next installment of this series. Don't miss it! Sign-up for our weekly newsletter now.
Another example from Philadelphia is public radio station WHYY’s use of lead generation ads in the format of a ticket giveaway. This is really smart.
Here are two national examples targeting younger readers from TheSkimm and The Hustle. Both generate new top-of-funnel email subscribers using lead generation ads. Subscriptions on Facebook are instant – the new subscriber doesn’t need to leave Facebook to subscribe.
Mother Jones was an early adopter of paid acquisition tactics to grow their newsletter lists. They believe this is an important part of their strategy to reach $25M in support from individuals.
Don’t miss the next installment of this series, featuring case studies with publishers from across the U.S. Get notified when it's out!
This example from The Information is near-and-dear to my heart (well, as much as a social ad could possibly be!) because I believe the tactic of offering “episodic content” is greatly underutilized by publishers that have deep reporting on narrow beats. All of the content in this “Micromobility 101” was from existing articles that The Information had published.
Last but certainly not least (and not a lead generation ad), I always look to The New Yorker for creative uses of new advertising formats. Shown here is a recent Instagram Story ad promoting a time-limited subscription offer.
The time to start experimenting with paid acquisition is now
Here’s the simple truth about paid acquisition that I tried to summarize earlier this year:
"It has never been easier, or less expensive, to reach potential fans. This is a game-changer for forward-thinking, digitally savvy journalism enterprises. The same techniques used by micro-brands make it possible for anyone — not just the big brands or big newsrooms — to reach precisely who they want with highly targeted messages for very little cost."
There are now almost 150 people in the #PaidAcquisition channel of the Let's Gather Slack community. People working in newsrooms across the US who are activity experimenting with these techniques and using them grow their publication’s audience and membership funnel. And it’s entirely possible for you to do this too.
Not only is it possible, but – if you’re just starting out as a small, digital news startup – I believe it’s critical. In any new venture, there’s a limited window of time to reach “escape velocity,” which is achieving the scale necessary for your vision of financial viability before running out of money.
If your focus is on putting out great journalism – as it should be! – it’s going to be hard to also find time to put in the sweat needed to succeed at organic growth. This is where paid acquisition comes in: It enables you to keep the audience of the publication growing in a cost-effective way while you focus on the reporting and storytelling.
If you’re a news startup, I believe you almost have an obligation to do this. I’ve talked to many forward-thinking news startup founders, and they agree: organic growth is often not enough in the startup phase.
As the Chinese proverb states, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.”
Have a look at the examples above and ask yourself: Is my newsroom doing paid acquisition right? If you’re a founder, ask yourself: Have I found a way to prioritize at least investigating paid acquisition as a way to grow? If not, today is the day to start.
When you’re ready to dig in, check out these great, free resources:
- Investing in paid lead acquisition to grow membership
- Loyalty is membership’s North Star. Here’s how news sites & advocacy groups measure it.
- Setting up your audience subscription revenue funnel
P.S. What examples have you seen of lead ads from news organizations that caught your attention? Feel free to share them with me directly. While you're at it, sign up for infrequent updates on my personal work.