How DoR doubled its community in six weeks

DoR (Decât o Revistă)
10 min readDec 14, 2020

Our most ambitious membership campaign to date included ambassadors, endorsers, new technology and a lot of advance planning.

The theme of our campaign was "Stories heal" ("Poveștile vindecă" in Romanian).

Since the first issue of DoR came out of the printers for the first time 11 years ago, the community of readers has been at the heart of the growth that followed: from a magazine that was meant to be a one-off in 2009 to a 42nd issue at the end of 2020; from print magazine journalism to digital storytelling in Romanian that reaches 100.000 readers online each month; from writing stories to producing podcasts, newsletters and bringing storytelling on stage in front of 1,000 people, as well as starting conversations about our journalism in schools, local communities and more recently, on Zoom.

The community has been there to support us since day one, from donating furniture for our first newsroom, to sharing our work and collaborating with us to add more depth to our stories — whether by answering our own calls for suggestions on particular subjects or proposing topics themselves.

Their financial support, as well as the encouragement, has been invaluable throughout the years. The number of paying subscribers had been slowly increasing before 2020, as DoR started formulating a clear strategy to rely more on reader-revenue to create a more sustainable business model.

As the pandemic shook up our plans for the year and eliminated several revenue-generating events from our calendar, the process of growing our community of paying subscribers had to accelerate in order for DoR to be able to continue its work.

Our goal was to double our community from 2,250 members to 4,500, and we were going to get there with the help of our current subscribers (at DoR, we use the words members and subscribers interchangeably — our relationship with our community has always included “memberful routines”, but we use the Romanian-language equivalent of subscriptions to refer to ways for readers to support DoR).

We achieved this goal in a campaign that lasted six weeks (1 Oct — 15 Nov), with the help of 565 ambassadors from our community. Our best day brought 208 new members. Our slowest day brought 13. This has been our most ambitious campaign to date, as before November 2020 DoR has never topped 3,000 subscribers.

Here’s what we learned from this campaign and what worked in the process.

Planning six weeks of campaigning

While a community-building effort of this size was new to us, there were several resources available to us to be able to prepare for what might come next — Zetland’s success in bringing additional members on board with the help of its existing community was an inspiration, among others.

We had heard of the “middle of the campaign” slump that strikes crowdfunders, where interest is hard to sustain throughout the entire period of the fundraising effort and there’s usually an inverted bell-curve with a strong start, a low middle, and, hopefully, a triumphant ending.

We anticipated this and built our communications efforts around it. However, we also risked more by choosing to campaign for six whole weeks, rather than three or four weeks as most organisations do. We chose to do this because we wanted to end the campaign on November 15, DoR’s anniversary.

This six-week run time worked well for us in the end.

The launch of the campaign was a strong push for endorsers (public figures with large follower counts on social media, who knew DoR and could recommend our journalism) and for ambassadors (members of our own community who volunteered to help) to share the word. The start was strong, with social media being a big traffic and conversion driver from the beginning.

We planned several types of content ahead of launch day, to make sure we had our key promotional material covered. We asked ambassadors to send us video testimonials about why they support us, which we published throughout the six weeks. DoR staff recorded their own video testimonials about their work at DoR, and wrote personal essays answering the question “Why I write”.

For our ambassadors, we prepared an “ambassador kit” that included visuals they could post to their own accounts, and a personalised URL would keep count of how many of their connections subscribed to DoR during the campaign — a gamification element that would then also reward ambassadors who brought 5, 10 or 15 members to the DoR community with surprises such as illustrations or workshops. (30 ambassadors reached the 5 members milestone, 6 ambassadors brought 10 members, and 3 brought over 15 new members.)

A counter in our community section on the website would show ambassadors how many new DoR members they brought on board.

The first couple of weeks of the campaign focused on announcing the launch and the core message: that stories heal.

The healing potential of journalism and storytelling is the thread that runs through many of our editorial decisions: the stories we publish are human-centred, following experiences that transform people as well as communities.

By showing the human experience at the centre of systemic issues (inequality, domestic violence, education reform, etc) or by highlighting how transformational our relationships can be, whether with our families and friends as well as with how we perceive ourselves, our journalism can have a direct impact in our readers lives. And more so during a global pandemic that has shaken many of our lives nearly to the core.

Some are prompted by our stories to reach out to friends and family they lost touch with. Some are faced with experiences that closely mirror their own and it’s perhaps the first time they see their feelings reflected back. Some are inspired to take action in their own communities to start or quicken the pace of change.

Under the Stories Heal messaging we transitioned into the middle two weeks of the campaign — where many fundraisers stall. Talking about our campaign target to bring in an additional 2,250 members took a step back, in favour of us focusing more on the impact of our storytelling, sharing links to archive pieces that made a difference and that were linked to the healing theme of the campaign — such as personal essays.

In a month where we published little new journalism after a busy start to the autumn, it was important to make sure our work, past and present, was known to our readers and that we could accurately communicate our mission.

We were overwhelmed during the campaign with kind public messages from our readers and collaborators about what DoR meant to them — a story that hit a note at just the right time; a first illustration job when they were trying to break into the industry, and more. Each support message our community posted during the campaign was a testament to our mission being on the right track.

The final two weeks of the campaign brought back the focus on numbers, with a daily countdown about how close to the target we were, with a new design, to drive home the urgency of the message.

We reached our target early, and exceeded it, bringing 2.550 new subscribers (1,386 annual, 1,164 monthly). As we’re publishing this in mid-December, we’re at 4,920.

Our Instagram feed became a mosaic of staff videos and countdown posts to the end of the campaign.

Organising the campaign team

Before there was even a campaign, there was a “pilot campaign team” that worked to establish the mission of the project, set some of the foundations of the process, identify the technology needs of the campaign, its targets and how success would be measured.

The campaign team that followed and worked together throughout the project was interdisciplinary and included five people filling in the following roles: project manager, communications manager, visual editor, product manager, newsroom manager, front-end developer, and community manager. Some roles were only needed for parts of the process, others were involved from beginning to end.

To enable the team to work together, those who were physically present in the newsroom worked on the same floor — at a suitable safe distance. Daily morning check-ins where members working from home could dial in helped keep the energy going, identify priorities for the day and analyse the efficiency of the previous day’s efforts.

Another meeting once every two weeks looked at the larger picture surrounding the campaign: what part of the narrative we were currently at, whether there was a need to generate new ideas and how to go about doing that. For this one, DoR founding editor Cristian Lupșa, who was not part of the core campaign team, fulfilled the role of an outsider with a fresh view, challenging the process.

Several spreadsheets helped the team keep track of the project timeline, a communications calendar and the sales targets. Breaking down the total number of new members we wished to bring on board into daily targets was a helpful figure to track progress — but we had to be mindful that the days where this target was not met did not have a negative impact on how the team perceived their work.

While not everyone in the organisation was part of the campaign team, all DoR staff pitched in: writing emails to subscribers to invite them to become ambassadors; posting about the campaign on their own social media channels; writing short essays about why they write, that were promoted as part of the campaign etc.

The two-pronged communications strategy

As the success of the campaign relied heavily on our ability to engage ambassadors, the communications manager and the project manager (who looked after the ties with the community) kept track of implementing separate outreach plans during the six weeks of active campaigning.

The first was the community-based communication, in which the wider team actively participated by inviting existing members to help. This side of communications included support with the ambassador mechanisms on the website, which were newly built to accommodate referral links; a weekly newsletter keeping the ambassadors up to date with the progress; updates in the dedicated Slack channel, and keeping track of videos our ambassadors recorded.

The other side of communications was public-facing, hoping to reach as many people as possible — some who have heard of us but were not yet subscribed or were past subscribers who didn’t renew; or new readers who were just discovering us.

We started the campaign with the deep belief that we couldn’t rely only on DoR’s social media channels for reaching potential readers — because our reach has been historically volatile. Our decision to get the community involved as well as to ask specific people with additional wide reach to become endorsers addressed this in part.

But of course these messages would only work if they reached people who were already familiar with our journalism, our past events and our mission. In order to showcase our commitment to conversation as an integral part of the editorial cycle (a journalist’s work on a subject doesn’t end upon publication), we hosted three free online events:

  • A conversation with Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski and journalist Ioana Burtea about telling personal stories;
  • A discussion with coach and trainer Paul Olteanu and newsletter host Nicoleta Rădăcină (who looks after DoR’s daily Concentrat newsletter that goes out to more than 8000 subscribers) about how the pandemic is shaping our minds and how our brains are shaping how we interpret what’s happening around us in these uncertain times;
  • A Fishy Zoom with journalist Lulu Miller, marking the launch of the Romanian translation of her Why Fish Don’t Exist book, with special guests Sophia Țigănaș, journalist, writer and high-school student, and Andrei Pacea, illustrator.

These three events were an opportunity to showcase the DoR universe. They mixed contextual, big-picture discussions with practical, what-you-can-do-tomorrow advice. They brought personal stories and solutions in the same space and were the interactive, live and breathing proof that stories do heal. Their wide reach, especially that of the conversation with Paul Olteanu, confirmed the need for journalism that offers tools and a space to be heard, beyond useful information.

At the end of the campaign, to mark DoR’s anniversary, we hosted an open newsroom during 11 hours on Zoom for our community, split into topic-specific sessions. While we organized it rather quickly and had little time to promote this, we still had between 10 and 20 attendees for each session, making these 11 hours on Zoom a valuable moment of connection, and an opportunity to gather feedback on our work.

What now?

We are in the extremely privileged position to have doubled our community in less than two months. This means our plan to rely increasingly on reader-revenue is working, and that readers see the value in the products we have built during our ongoing digital transformation and in the stories we have been telling since the first print issue in 2009.

But growing quickly from 2,250 members to nearly 5,000 poses a new set of challenges for us: how do we engage them all in our work? How do we keep as close to our community now as we did when we could recognise all their names at an event? How do we not only keep up with this change but build a process that can sustain change?

Going into 2021, we are faced with many challenges that others in the media will recognise: we need to equip and invest for growth while at the same time surviving tightening budgets. But now we know it’s not about doing more with less — it’s about identifying what makes our journalism impactful, and doing more of that together with our community.

Save this to your notes: Our campaign must-have list

  • Daily targets;
  • Daily morning check-ins with the team;
  • Meetings twice a month with a colleague who knows the plans for the campaign but who isn’t part of the main team — an outsider check;
  • A campaign calendar;
  • Direct outreach through email engaging our existing subscribers in the campaign;
  • A firm and direct call to action, telling members of our community that we need their help and what they can do to help;
  • Ambassadors’ kits and weekly newsletter;
  • Video testimonials about why you should support DoR, from team members and subscribers;
  • A new channel in our community Slack space with campaign updates;
  • Plan for the middle-of-the-campaign slump;
  • Collection of stories from the archive to help new readers discover DoR.
  • A stretch goal because we’re optimistic.

Article by Cătălina Albeanu, digital editor, and Carla Lunguți, community editor and campaign project manager.

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DoR (Decât o Revistă)

Quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania