2 years, 800 members: BoiseDev builds community news, for its community
This month, BoiseDev hit a milestone of sorts.
The local, community-focused news site now has 800 paying members (and growing at a healthy rate).
This is a number I’ve kept mostly under wraps, but I thought this was a good time to say a few words about it.
Two years ago, I had this idea: That a community would support a news source if it was focused first on the readers. That meant forgoing a few things common to news sites:
- A paywall
- Heavy ad loads
- National news
- Mugshot galleries, crime, car crashes… even a weather report
At first, I thought of it as a bit of a disadvantage to not use a paywall. During my time as a JSK Fellow, I tried to come up with a way to incentivize membership without locking people out of content.
Paywalls have a couple of challenges. First, they create a poor user experience at the front. Particularly when paired with a clickbait or leading headline — they create what my friend Cory Bergman once called anticipointment. In that, you see something, anticipate it… then are disappointed. It creates a tough brand image.
Second, they keep communities who need information out of the process. Not everyone can or will pay for news. I of course think they should, and I personally pay for five different news subscriptions. But the train left the station long ago on scooping up everyone.
So how do you do it? To sustain a business, you need… well… money.
So I came up with something we call a time wall. It launched about 18 months ago. It features a selection of our stories are available to members first, but later to the greater public (usually within a few hours). This gives a tangible benefit to members without locking everyone else out. It also eliminates that anticipointment factor. The stories are invisible to non-members until they are released. We don’t do this on every — or even most- stories, but it adds value.
Along the way, I stumbled on something else. We send a daily newsletter with all of our stories each afternoon at 4pm. This time works great for folks who are wrapping up their days. The newsletter includes every story we published that day, plus a chatty preamble written by me. What has astounded me is the open rate: 70%. Day in, day out — the average number of folks who read the email sits at 70%. And over the course of a month, 94% of our members open at least one. (The rest read our stories through another avenue). This creates tremendous buy-in. People pay for the product — but more than that, they find it valuable and get contact from me at least four times per week. That drives another metric: churn rate. The percentage of folks who don’t renew their membership is in the low single digits.
Instead of leveraging readers, we serve readers as someone smart recently told me.
The business model, despite the large corps of paying members, still relies on advertising. But we’ve tried to do it a different way. Instead of endless ad trackers and programmatic ad units all over — every single ad on our site features a local advertiser, who I worked with directly. They include many top-line brands in our market. And each story page includes just four ad units.
We also tried something a little different — and offered a “presenting” sponsorship. I had this idea but held it back for quite a while until just the right partner came along. The reasons were two-fold: First, it had to be a brand or company that would not often be in our scope of coverage. Occasionally works of course (with a disclosure), but it could not be someone we write about frequently. Second, the commitment and buy-in level had to fit. Earlier this summer, with the folks at Stoltz Marketing Group, Regence Blue Shield of Idaho became that perfect fit. They join other great brands in our market, including TOK Commercial Real Estate, SERVPRO of Boise, Holland and Hart, Impact Radio Group/Wild 101, Boise Regional Realtors, Paddles Up Poke, Idaho Central Credit Union, Tamarack Resort, Sundance Co., Idaho AGC and others in supporting our independent journalism. And if you read that list from outside the area and went “I’ve never heard of any of these…” that’s exactly the point. Local news, locally owned, with local advertisers.
One more takeaway. For the first two formal years of BoiseDev (we did a hard launch in 2018, but started experimenting several years earlier), this was a solo effort. It was — and remains — a heck of a lot of work. But in recent months, I’ve added some wonderful folks. Gina Borud came on to help right as the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting Boise, helping improve our social media and polishing content. Next, we added Anna Daly Gamboa who hit the ground running as a reporter, in an innovative role. Then, with a grant from the Local Media Association and Facebook Journalism Project, we hired Autum Robertson, who will launch a new project next week that will further expand our editorial mission. And on her first week at work, she wrote a powerful essay that is the second most-viewed story of the whole year.
This would not be even remotely possible without my wife Kara — who supported this from the early days. Joe Jaszewski, JulieAnn McKellogg, and Michael Bolden’s smart insights keep me on track. Matt Davison and Scott McIntosh believed in it early, and the partnership with the Idaho Press is a secret weapon. Thanks also to J Bates and the team at Idaho News 6 as well as Gemma Gaudette, Samantha Wright, and Tom Michael at Boise State Radio.
Most importantly, this local news mission is driven by those 800 members — as well as members of the community who read our content and are not currently members. We work to bring them actionable, lively, exclusive stories day in and day out. Because every community deserves local news.