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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - December 2018

A look at The Correspondent's Crowdfunding Campaign

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As you probably already know, The Correspondent succeeded with their crowdfunding campaign to launch an international site. They set out to raise $2.5 million in 30 days, and by the end of the campaign, they had raised $2,672,070.

I'm extremely happy about this outcome, and I will get back to why in just a second, but it was also a very close call. If you just look at the data, they should not have made it. But they were saved by outside influence, and after that, everything changed in their favor, as you can clearly see in the graph below.

This is such an exciting story, because there are so many things that we can learn from this.

I am going to do four things in this 49-page article (20 of which are graphs):

So, all very exciting stuff.

Why is The Correspondent interesting?

Before we get into the numbers, let me explain a little bit about why I have been so excited about this campaign. It all has to do with the trends, and the challenges we face getting publishers to see those trends.

One of the reasons I followed The Correspondent's campaign as closely as I did was because we needed a win.

There have been so many negative stories throughout 2018, and generally speaking, I would define the media industry as a whole as being depressed.

There are exceptions, of course. Many of the largest newspapers, for instance, are reporting that they are winning with subscriptions, but as soon as you look outside that world, things become a lot more complicated very fast.

For instance, when Mic closed down, and as I mentioned in my recent newsletter, we started seeing tweets like these:

Everyone I am talking to has consensus on this: bottom is falling out of consumer digital media, and it is really really bad out there for venture backed (or even indie) online media cos. It seems to be coming apart faster than I've ever seen in my two decades of covering this.

And...

Where do we even start in a conversation about the digital media meltdown?

So, for me, a big part of my excitement for The Correspondent was that I hoped this would give us a win, and show people that things are not actually as bad as many seem to think.

The second reason I wanted The Correspondent to win was because they represented 'another way'.

One of my biggest challenges is to convince publishers that there are other ways to publish than the ways that everyone is talking about, and this has been a real uphill battle.

The media industry is stuck thinking of digital publishing in a few very simplistic ways. And what I have been trying to do all of 2017-2018, is to illustrate to publishers that there are so many other ways to win.

The real digital world is not just sites like Mic, the New York Times, or the few business-to-business niche verticals that everyone is talking about. There is a much bigger world of media outside of that, but one that acts in a non-traditional way. And The Correspondent was a way for me to illustrate that.

 

The third reason why I am excited about The Correspondent is specifically because of what they are doing, and the way they approach journalism.

One of the key macro trends that I see in the market is that people are worn out by the old ways of doing media. They have become fatigued.

This applies to all forms of media: social media, viral media, influencers, newspapers, magazines, blogs... and we are starting to see the same effect with newsletters and podcasts.

The way traditional media is approaching this is to just give people more, to further cut down the articles into tiny bits and basically turn everything into a never-ending stream of news.

The general problem here is that there is a lack of care for the audience. Often, it's like the audience isn't even there.

For instance, sometimes when I have a discussion about strategy with an editor or newspaper executive, at no point do they mention the audience, or talk about them as anything else than a business metric or a demographic.

As I tweeted a while back:

The traditional media model: Create one mostly unfocused product, for a very large group of random people, and optimize for metrics that reduce the audience to a 'view'.

The Correspondent is different, because everything they talk about is from the reader-first and solution-based focus, and it's so refreshing to hear.

My wish to see The Correspondent succeed came from a combination of all these things. I see them as proof that there is another way to be successful and that we can rethink what news is without causing people to become fatigued.

...and they did it. They had already done it in The Netherlands with De Correspondent. But now they have done it in the English-speaking market as well (or, at least succeeded taking the first big step).

But let's get back to the campaign itself, and talk about the numbers and the things they put into it.

Bring forth all the graphs!!

During their entire campaign, I was keeping a very close watch on their numbers, which they were posting for all to see on the website.

During the first week, I merely checked their site now and then and wrote down what the numbers were, but then I realized I needed something better. So, I wrote a very quick Python script (only five lines of code) that simply checked their site automatically every single hour.

This data was then pulled into Excel, where I could do all my analysis. And, if you are following me over at Twitter, you might have noticed that I published an update every few days.

For instance, on November 26, I tweeted this:

Of course, my analysis was far more detailed than what you see in this tweet, so let me now give you the full picture.

First of all, let's look at it as a whole.

Below is a graph, per day, illustrating how much money was raised through the 30 days that the campaign lasted.

As you can see, they managed to raise $500,000 just within the first couple of days, which was amazing, but then it quickly leveled out to a mere $20,000 per day, which was nowhere near enough for them to reach their goal (if it wasn't because of the push at the end, but I will get back to that in just a second).

We saw the same thing with the increase in members (not surprisingly). It was the same pattern of massive growth within the first couple of days, and then it settled on a slow trickle of people.

To put this into perspective, to reach their funding goal they needed to raise about $83,000 per day, or about 1,600 people/day. So for a long time, it looked like they wouldn't make it.

They basically ran out of steam within just the first week, and it was clear that their own marketing and influence just wasn't strong enough.

In many of my other articles, I talk about how important it is to build up momentum, and this was the perfect example of that. The Correspondent had the momentum to reach about 10,000 super-fans (the initial push), and another 10,000 casual fans (the number of people they would have reached 'organically').

What was interesting though, was that this trickle of new members didn't seem to slow down that much. After the first week the growth was very slow, but it was growing every day at about the same rate.

This is really interesting because it tells us that there is a market here, but they didn't have enough momentum, and a 30 day campaign was too short.

It's one of those critical things to understand about crowdfunding campaigns. When you define it as a campaign, you are limiting yourself by time, which you wouldn't be doing with a subscription plan where you can continue to build things up forever.

In The Correspondent's case, 30 days was too short for the momentum they had, but they might have made it with just their organic reach if the campaign had lasted for 90 days.

So keep this in mind if you are a publisher or a startup. We have seen many examples of startups that could have made it, but had to stop because they didn't reach their funding level within the initial deadline.

Of course, in this case, the entire discussion is irrelevant because something amazing happened on December 6, which was that Jay Rosen appeared on The Daily Show.

Here is the video:

 

This completely changed everything. And to show you how dramatic this change was, let me switch to the hourly data (starting from Nov 20), and instead of looking at the totals, let's look at increase per day.

Just look at this. This is crazy!

Not only did they see an increase in money raised that was just off the scale, in all the following days the rise kept going.

Before this happened, The Correspondent had roughly an $800 increase per hour (their organic growth level), but after they appeared on The Daily Show, they had a $12,000 increase per hour throughout the following week.

And, as you can also see, their appearance on The Daily Show wasn't the only thing that happened. They also featured on CNN during Brian Stelter's show 'Reliable Sources', which also had a noticeable effect. Later they appeared on The Young Turks channel, albeit with less of a defined effect.

We can have a long discussion about how much each of these channels really did. For instance, if you look at the graph, you will notice that the curve actually went down again quite rapidly until they also appeared on CNN.

The problem with calculating attribution, however, is that it doesn't work like this.

Even though we can see the immediate effect that The Daily Show had right after the show ended, it's entirely likely that what we are seeing later is a cumulative effect where it isn't just one thing that is causing it, but a large number of factors that come together and push people to convert.

For instance, it is also entirely likely that many people who might have been 'casual fans' or 'doubters' notice The Correspondent being mentioned on these big TV channels, and that was what caused them to decide to become a member.

The reality is that we will never really know for sure. But, one thing that is for sure is just how much influence these TV channels really have ... which is kind of ironic.

Note: Also keep this in mind the next time you hear someone talk about how big an influence Facebook has on elections. Facebook might be big, but it's low intent and very random. But when you see a big story show up on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the comedy shows ... that likely has a much more sustained and powerful effect on people.

Grassroots movement?

So far we have focused on the money, but another essential thing to dive into is to look at the people who have become members.

I have no idea about the demographics or even the source of the 45,888 people who have now signed up, but what is interesting to look at is whether this can be considered to be a grassroots movement, or whether most of the funding is just coming from a few very large donors?

Specifically, when The Correspondent was featured on The Daily Show was the uptick because of thousands of people, or because of a few wealthy 'activists'?

I have already kind of answered that question, because we can just look at the total money raised ($2,267,070) and divide that by the number of members (45,888).

The result is an average member price of about $49.

This does indeed tell us that The Correspondent is very much funded by just thousands of people each paying a relatively small amount. In fact, The Correspondent's CEO, Ernst Pfauth posted that the median pledge was $30.

But let's look at this in more detail.

First of all, here is the same graph as before, but this time showing new members instead of money. And as you can see, it shows the same uptick after The Daily Show exposure.

But more interesting, in the graph below, I have calculated the average member price, per hour (remember, I only have data per hour, so I can't show you what it is per reader alone).

Take a look at the big spike that you see at the beginning of the graph. This happened November 21, where, within just one hour, the amount of money raised jumped by about $25,000 coming from a single donation.

This, of course, was great, but it didn't really make that much of a difference. When we look at total money raised over time, that $25,000 barely shows up on the graph.

Again, this really does show us that The Correspondent is monetized by their actual readers, and not some big donors, which is exactly what they hoped to achieve.

But let's just zoom in and look at what happened to the rest of the funding:

As you can see, throughout the whole campaign, the 'average' kind of stayed in the $40-$50 range.

Yes, there were a few big spikes now and then when someone became a member and maybe paid $500. But even when they were featured on The Daily Show, the average didn't change that much (although more details about that below).

This is just amazing, because, again this clearly shows that they were people-driven.

The only weird thing is that spike at the end. This corresponded exactly to the point when they reached the $2.5 million funding goal, and for some reason, the average goes up quite a bit for several hours.

Why is that? What happened here? Did people become anxious at the very end, and then decide to give it an extra push by spending far more money? Did people fear that once the funding goal had been reached that they would no longer be able to become 'founding members'?

The reality is a lot more boring. It turns out that this spike was due to a backend update related to how they were handling 'gift memberships', where because of how that was handled, about 300 people weren't added correctly. So what happened here was that they added these 300 people over a couple of hours.

In other words, this spike isn't real, and there were a few examples in the data like this.

I show you this example because this is one of the very important things that you have to do when you work with data. If you see something weird, don't just accept it and jump to conclusions. Instead, dive into the details and check if the data looks right.

And we can see this when we look at the running average for the totals. What I'm doing here is simply looking at the total amount of money raised divided by the total number of members

What's interesting about this graph, however, is the big picture pattern that you see.

First of all, please note that the Y-axis doesn't start with zero, so I'm exaggerating the effect here for clarity. But notice how before they showed up on The Daily Show (Dec 6), the average was around $66 per person, but then after The Daily Show, it started dropping and ended up around $58 per member.

This is very interesting.

Again, the question is, why is this happening?

Is it because once they reached all those people via The Daily Show, they were not as committed as their core audience and chose a cheaper option?

Well, maybe ... but remember the graph I showed you earlier.

This is the much more detailed graph, and what we see here is that the baseline doesn't change that much.

So what is likely happening here is that, with the extra reach of The Daily Show, they simply converted more 'average people', which evened out the average.

Countries?

Another data point that The Correspondent had on their site was how many countries they had reached. By the end of the campaign, the number was 138 countries.

This certainly sounds impressive, and when I asked Ernst Pfauth about this, he told me that 46% of all members are from the US. And this shows that The Correspondent will have to focus on more than just the US market.

Mind you, in the months leading up to the campaign, most of the (US) press saw this as a US launch, with headlines like: "The Correspondent to launch in the US", but when I asked him about this, he said that the focus wasn't really to be a US-focused site, but to instead expand to the English language.

It was always our intention to launch a global platform. We're expanding to the English-language, not only the US. [...] We chose New York as the location for our campaign office because the US is the biggest English market.

This makes a lot of sense, and especially with these numbers.


So, these 12 graphs I have now showed you give us a good idea about how The Correspondent's campaign went, and it's very interesting.

As you can clearly see, it was scary ride.

If it hadn't been for the The Daily Show, they would have ended up somewhere in the $1.4 million range, well short of their goal, and that probably was too big a gap for some wealthy individual to come in and save them at the last moment.

But also, they would probably have made it with just their organic reach if the campaign had been longer, because the market is very clearly there. They just didn't have the reach by themselves.

But they were saved (by big media, ironically), and their future in 2019 and forward looks really good, because (again) the market is there. We can clearly see that.

The big challenge now is to prove what they preach, which is going to be a lot harder in the US than it was in the Netherlands ... or maybe it will be easier because of how tired people are with the news in the US. We just have to wait and see.

But now let me talk about simulations.

Let's simulate 'What if [this] happened?'

One of the key things is to understand how to do simulations, not just for looking at The Correspondent's campaign, but also in general as a publisher or as a brand.

The purpose of a simulation is to ask 'what if' questions and then use the data that you already have to 'simulate' what would happen in that scenario.

For instance, in the retail space, this would often be used to simulate what would happen if a brand decided to spend more or less on a specific channel, or what would happen to the purchasing rate over time if they started focusing more on new merchandising rather than on old stuff.

In this case I used simulation to try to predict what The Correspondent needed to do, and whether they would make it or not.

So, first of all, let's define the baseline.

Before they launched, they defined what their goal was, and they did this in two ways. First, they defined their revenue goal to be $2.5 million, but they also set their member goal to be 50,000 people.

And if we do a bit of math, this means that The Correspondent estimated that people would be willing to pay $50 on average.

This, in turn, means that they need to convert 1,667 people per day, giving them a daily funding rate of $83,333.

So, in theory, this was the trajectory that they hoped to achieve.

Okay, so as we know, things started out quite strong. In the first couple of days, they reached half a million, but then things slowed down a lot.

As you can see, while the initial push was amazing, after only a week, they were already catching up to the baseline, and it looked like they would fall behind their goal just two days later.

This was bad.

So, time for some simulations to predict where things would actually end up.

The first thing I did was to look at the average to see if the real-world average matched that of the baseline. And it turned out that the real-world members paid $65 on average, which was great because that meant that they only needed to convert 38,500 people instead of the initial 50,000 people.

That was a 23% decrease in how many people they needed to convert, which was a big deal.

Secondly, I looked at the slowdown that we were seeing, and, using the new average, I calculated where this would end up if that were to continue.

Which looked like this:

This looked really bad, because it seemed as if they would just reach a million, which was far from the 2.5 million they needed.

I ran another simulation, which was how much more growth they would need to achieve in order to get back on track.

And I then looked at the daily increase (from where they were at that point) to calculate how much growth they needed to achieve this.

The result was this:

So, as you can see, my simulation said that they would almost immediately need to increase their growth rate by 1.5 to 2 times what it was on the 21 November, but then over the next three weeks, they would need to boost that growth rate, every single day, until they reached about 5 times the initial growth rate.

This was what they needed to achieve to reach their funding goal, anything below this would fail.

So, think about this. How would they be able to do this?

I mean, imagine if you are working at a publisher, and the Editor in Chief calls everyone into a meeting where you are told that, over the next three weeks, you need to make the subscription rate five times higher ... otherwise they would have to fire everyone.

Would you be able to do that?

This was the situation that The Correspondent was in according to the simulations I was running after just one week.

After two weeks it didn't look any better. In fact, it looked like my simulations were pretty much spot on, although the slowdown was slightly less dramatic, putting them at $1.2 million at the end.

What was worse was that, because it had now been two weeks instead of one, the increase in growth rate went up to 5.6 times from where they were.

At this point, I was 100% sure that they were not going to make it. So I tweeted:

Updated numbers for the Correspondent. At the current trajectory, they are going to end up 1 million short of their goal, so something needs to happen.

After three weeks, things looked completely hopeless.

Not only did we not see any real difference in the overall trajectory, but the growth rate needed to get back on track was now close to 9 times of where they were... and they had just one week to do it.

I mean, this is game over ... right?

There is just no way anyone can achieve nine times the growth rate in just one week. That's just not possible.

But, on December 6, they appeared on The Daily Show, and everything changed. And not only did they make it, but they also reached $2,672,070.

Just... madness!

So, I reached out to Ernst Pfauth, the CEO of the Correspondent, and asked him:

Hi Ernst, I'm curious. When looking at the funding trajectory, it's pretty clear the exposure via The Daily Show, CNN etc completely changed this, but was this planned? I mean, were those interviews scheduled ahead of time or was it something that was arranged at a moment's notice to give the campaign a boost?

And the answer was that... well, no... it wasn't planned:

Our whole campaign was focused on earned media and grassroots support, because we didn't have the budget for paid media.

We've been pitching to The Daily Show since February, and got the final 'yes' last Tuesday (Dec 4). We were in touch with Brian Stelter the last couple of weeks (he broke the news of our campaign in his Nov 14 newsletter) and were invited to his show last Friday.

Oh. My. God!!!

Granted, The Correspondent did put quite a lot of effort into the 'press' efforts for the campaign. As Ernst told me, they had spent nine months just building that up, and it did work at the end ... or what he called:

Months of efforts and a hundred cups of coffee went into getting media attention.

But, can you imagine what kind of an emotional roller-coaster ride this must have been at The Correspondent's office? I don't know if they also ran the same simulations I did, but they could see where things were heading as well as the rest of us.

However, the lesson here is simple.

If you are a startup or a publisher, and you hope to launch something new, you need about 5-10 times more momentum than you think you need.

The campaign itself

Finally, let me examine the crowdfunding campaign itself, because it was brilliant.

I could write an entire report about crowdfunding, which I might do at some point, but Josh Stearns from Local News Lab and Democracy Fund has already written a pretty comprehensive guide. So, check that out.

But I will mention a few things that I specifically considered to be really great.

First of all, one of the things that I was generally impressed by was just how the site was designed and how product- and audience-focused it was.

One of the things I often talk about is that, when publishers try to sell themselves, they often present themselves as an institution. Meaning that they just show you random content and they put up a 'subscribe now' link to a payment page ... thinking that people will pay just because they are there.

Another element we often see is when publishers argue that the reason you should pay is because of them. Like when they say "trust in journalism is very important, so give us money".

In both cases, there is a complete lack of 'product', but also a complete lack of audience focus. They are not in any way trying to do something for you.

But The Correspondent understands they have to convince people to pay by fulfilling a specific and useful need that you, as a person, have.

You see this on every page, and very much so in the video they made.

 

So that was great.

Another thing that I loved, even more, was their email campaign, which was one of the best I have ever seen.

The email wasn't just a sales pitch telling you to subscribe, which was then sent out like any other spam email. Instead, they were very specifically writing emails that reflected what was happening at any given moment.

It started with an email introducing everything, called "Our movement starts today" (it was much longer than just this screenshot):

This was then followed up, almost every day, with an email updating you on the progress.

For instance, the next day, Zainab Shah emailed to say:

Well, that was a wild ride.

Yesterday, we launched our movement for unbreaking news. And in just 24 hours, 7,171 people from 68 countries have become founding members, raising $460,000 (and counting) towards our $2.5 million goal.

We haven't slept, and we're a little delirious, but what an amazing way to start!

A few days later there was a personal thank you from Ernst Pfauth, and then a few days after that, there was an email from Rob Wijnberg telling you how they were going to write the names on their wall for their founding members.

A few days later, on a Sunday, there was a fairly long email from Rob focusing on what he called the philosophy of The Correspondent.

Every Sunday during our campaign for unbreaking news, I'll share something about the philosophy behind The Correspondent. This week, I want to zoom in on an important part of that philosophy: our take on bias in media.

On November 28, when they reached a million, they sent out an email celebrating that.

On December 6, before The Daily Show was about to start, I received an email from Jay Rosen telling me this ( more):

I don't push products, or join campaigns.

But after 32 years as an observer and critic of the press, I'm breaking with that policy. I'm breaking it for The Correspondent.

And tonight, at 11pm ET, I will go on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to explain why.

Journalism is in a jam. I don't think better practices are enough. Better principles are needed too. These principles are visible in the design of The Correspondent, and in the crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $1 million, thanks to 17,000 members, over the last three weeks (you can join them right now).

That is what I will tell Trevor this evening.

A few days after, there was an email from Baratunde Thurston, who had something to tell as well, and it just went on and on.

It was, by far, one of the best email campaigns I have ever seen. And because of the way it was written, how it reflected on real things that were happening in real time, it never felt like spam.

I wish there was a way to just show you all these emails in full, because my brief description of them doesn't show how much they put into this.

Finally, there were also a lot of minor changes along the way which illustrated that they had both planned and were updating things during the process.

This was very much an active campaign at every level.

For instance, once they reached their funding goal, the goal changed to the 'stretch goal' of reaching 50,000 members instead.

This was planned from the very start, and they had built that into their site. So, they knew that if they reached their funding goal, the system would switch over to keep encouraging people to becoming members.

Another thing was that, when you paid, you were presented with a 'You' page, that gave you these options:

Notice the part about 'Gift a membership' and 'Share our message'. It's such a simple thing, but it's something so many other publishers forget.

Always ask 'Now what?'

We see the same thing at the bottom, where they had the option for people to 'give again'. Again, it's such a brilliant thing to do. Just because people have converted once doesn't mean you can't get them to convert again.

Don't end the conversion.

There were also changes that happened along the way. For instance, once it became clear just how big an impact Jay Rosen's appearance on The Daily Show had, they updated their site to show Jay up-front and center.

The front page had Jay Rosen as the first thing you saw. They added an "As seen on The Daily Show" graphic, and even the payment page changed.

Before it looked like this:

And after it looked like this, with Jay's picture ... and with an added $25 pricing option to hopefully convert even more people.

I have no idea how much difference this really made, but remember when people see something on TV, they can't just click on a link. So showing Jay Rosen on their site like this was a way to assure people that they were visiting the right site.

As Ernst Pfauth tweeted:

Because most people now find us through his Daily Show appearance, so we want to make sure they know they're at the right place.

Brilliant!

The only thing that wasn't so good was that there was no way to really see what The Correspondent would do. There were no articles, and no journalism to actually look at.

And this was a complaint that several people pointed out to me.

I completely agree, and I do think this was part of what was holding back their growth rate. But I also understand why they couldn't do it, considering that the actual site won't be launched until mid-2019.

One person suggested that they should simply translate some of the Dutch articles to English. Well, yeah... but... it's complicated.

As Ernst Pfauth told me:

We left out sample content by design, because articles are only the end point, it's the way those articles come to be (with reader interaction) which is also a crucial part of our offering. And you can't give an example of that in a campaign. Just showing articles is like publishing a sermon online, and leaving the whole community aspect of a church out of it.

The market was there

As you can see, this campaign was super exciting and there are so many things that we can learn from it.

The next step is, of course, to see what they will actually do in 2019, and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to grow once people see the real product.

But, right now, as we can clearly see from the graphs above, once they got the exposure, the market was there.

We often talk about how people react to the news, but from what I see here, the trend of people wanting something different is very much real.

We just have to find a way to make that happen.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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