Create meaning, not size, and people will support you.
We spent much of September and October working with partners at humansize to launch a membership program for Cleveland Scene, one of the country’s longest-running and most successful alt-weekly news outlets.
Membership/reader revenue work with a local news organization like Scene is a joy. There’s a deep connection between people in the community and the organization. Everyone, including readers, wants the organization to succeed. Our initial surveys and interviews surfaced a passion for Scene and the results of our campaign show that people will support local news when given the chance to do so.
Our work included research, content creation (email, social and news fundraising campaigns), massaging data and platforms (oh the joys of Stripe and CRMs and Mailchimp and Google Analytics and Meta, to name a few), and mentorship/teaching.
Membership (or reader revenue) is not an app you buy and attach to your website. It’s a practice you grow over time. You’re investing in people. You’re testing, learning and growing alongside your members and staff.
We would love to talk if you’d like to learn more about our work with Scene and other community and membership revenue projects.
Of note: The people of Cleveland (Scene readers at least) love their city! It’s fun to be part of that kind of community.
So Much Content. So Little Meaning.
Let’s talk about how people do (or don’t) connect to and find meaning your content. If you’re a community group, NGO or campaign your content should be as useful to (and valued by) your audience as any news article.
Content – all the emails, websites, articles and blog posts, social media posts, IG reels, TikToks, YouTube videos and on an on – is 90+ percent of how people find, learn about and engage in your organization.
Content should engage, of course. It should also drive fundraising and membership results. But too many organizations (and political campaigns) are churning out content but struggling with fundraising.
Chances are your comms, fundraising and digital teams will spend more time testing donation button amounts, colors and placement (should buttons be stacked or horizontal? hmm…) than it will talking to current and potential audiences about their needs.
The challenge – and its an existential one for your organization – is not simply creating content. That’s easy. The challenge is creating meaningful content that connects to individuals. That’s hard. Especially when we live and work in a context of growth and scale.
The Problem With Big
A decade ago Nicco Mele published The End of Big: How the Digital Revolution Makes David the New Goliath. Mele’s premise was that accessible and powerful communications and data tech gave individuals and small groups tools to be heard, organize, raise funds and generally catch up to or even overcome “Big” group power. We would see new entities reinventing business, politics, culture and more. “Radical connectivity” would shift power from big institutions.
Mele was right. We’ve seen new organizations grow and reshape whole sectors. Netflix and its peers didn’t just give us a new way to watch movies, they changed how movies and TV programs are written, produced and distributed. We’ve seen unknown politicians and political movements string together social and communications networks to take power from (or just take over) political parties (see Breitbart, Trump and the remaking of the GOP).
But Big didn’t end. Small groups often became big groups. And Big ones became Bigger.
Big groups could grow their email lists and social media followings at astonishing rates. You could send emails to your list weekly, daily, or multiple times per day and follow that up with Facebook and Twitter posts targeting people on your email list.
In The Great Social Media-News Collapse Charlie Warzel writes about how social media platforms grew global news consumption to great heights and then pulled back as quite nearly everyone accused (and continues to blame) Meta, Google, Twitter, TikTok and others for manipulating algorithms and news visibility.
This is a big shift, even a threat, to the news business and the public’s access to accurate information. Warzel writes:
It would be wrong to suggest that news—and especially commentary about the news— will vanish. But the future might very well look like slivers of the present, where individual influencers command large audiences, and social networking and text-based media take a back seat to video platforms with recommendation-forward algorithms, like TikTok’s. This seems likely to coincide with news organizations’ continued loss of cultural power and influence.
Buried beneath Warzel’s prediction that video beats text is the rise of individual influencers coming the cost of institutional power.
In practical terms, comms consultants will tell you to “be better on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram reels.” That’s necessary guidance, perhaps. But it isn’t sufficient for fundraising much less shifting and holding power.
Making Sense or Noise?
Charlie Warzel’s is describing the fracture of big news by big social platforms.
But the response to so much news (and noise) isn’t new. In the context of information, it’s a natural human response to noise. There is only so much auditory and visual stimulation a person can consume. There is only so much news and information the average person can make sense of (or even needs).
The intensity and scale of our information firehose has outpaced our brain’s capacity to learn and synthesize.
People need to make sense of the world to make meaning of it. More noise is more complexity. People don’t have time to synthesize complexity. So they simplify arguments, seek out simpler explanations, and trust clarity over nuance. Hence the power of a 60 second TikTok or a Trumpian sound bite.
But a retreat from complexity and noise shouldn’t find us abandoning progress in the fight against climate change or equality. And it shouldn’t hasten the seeming simplicity and security of authoritarianism.
When You Can’t Find a Tree in the Forest
At the risk of mangling a metaphor…perhaps we’re too busy building forests (all the news and info at scale) to help people see and appreciate the beauty of the trees (the discrete bits of news and context that solve problems and answer questions).
I’m in a lot of conversations (and read a lot of articles and LinkedIn posts) about using AI to create more (and more personalized) emails, optimizing donation forms and ad copy, direct response TV data, and search optimization.
These conversations have two goals: getting attention and selling something when you have attention. Or, in the case of nonprofit or political fundraising, soliciting donations.
Instead, let’s talk about the questions people have, the answers we can provide, and how we user our content and community resources (and even data and AI tools) to simplify, make sense and show the value of sensemaking and trust.
The world of TikTok and YouTube is full of sensemaking. There are countless people talking about the best places to eat and drink in [anywhere], the meaning of Taylor Swift concert song selection, and how to replace your car’s air filter or repaint your coffee table.
There are more meaningful sensemaking examples, too. Vox specializes in explainers. Instagram accounts like so.informed break down complex political and social issues. Hearken helps newsrooms and nonprofits engage their audiences by asking and answering questions. Hearken describes its approach as:
…we make it possible for people to fully participate in the organizations that serve them. We use the power of democratic practices to rectify the disconnection and disengagement that prevents systems from thriving.
Shifting to Meaning
A ideas for prioritizing connection instead of creation.
- Turn your content into audio and video segments for people who spend their time listening to podcasts or watching YouTube and TikTok. Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t “create a podcast.” Start by reading it, putting out there, letting people know and seeing if/how it gets picked up.
- View newsletters (and audio and video) as tools people may use to solve their problems, not self-promote everything you do.
- Ask people what they need and want to know. Have your team respond to inquiries. Show people that you’re answering questions.
- Put people in your work. Name the enemy. Name the good people. Name places. Talk about their hopes and dreams the value of your work, your supporter contributions.
- Talk with people as individuals, not as audiences.
- View acquisition as a long-term partnership, not a way to scale or address list churn. Frankly, most supporter acquisition approaches are too costly to not see partners.
I see and feel the intense pressure to find people and raise money from them (or sell to them). And to do it now. Many organizations are struggling and nobody wants to talk about community, content and meaning when there’s a fundraising deadline. (looks at calendar…sees that there is ALWAYS a fundraising deadline)
But an organization that is not creating meaning and value for supporters, which can be measured in part by their engagement and financial contributions, may have a broken business model.