When Tim Hjersted started the home-grown media project, Films for Action, he wanted to host one of the largest collections of films related to social change online with the goal of creating a more loving, just, sustainable, and democratic society. At first, Facebook was the biggest traffic driver for Films for Action, allowing Tim to not only run the site but pay two full-time staffers. But then, Facebook suddenly changed their algorithm. Despite reaching millions through native Facebook video, organic Facebook reach dropped and advertising revenue plummeted in 2017. Tim knew the website-traffic-dependent business model Films for Action had in place couldn’t be sustained without making some changes.
Tim decided to make the move to a community-funded model after being inspired by YouTubers who had seen success through Patreon.
“The Patreon model is ultimately more dependable than monthly ad revenue, and I'm excited about the freedom this will offer me no longer being dependent on web traffic.”
He began by gradually removing ads from the website, at first eliminating ads for anyone who contributed a dollar or more, then for everyone. “Our goal was, initially, to remove ads on the site for [patrons], and then everyone when we had reached one of our bigger funding milestones. But in August while we were doing a site redesign, we decided we didn't want to wait.”
By taking the plunge and removing ads completely, Films for Action became 100 percent community-supported and all patrons and visitors were able to have an ad-free experience. Tim also offered patrons who contributed $5 or more access to films normally available via pay-per-view.
When launching a new campaign, things are rarely perfect on the first try. For Tim, constantly optimizing the pitch to potential patrons by making small tweaks along the way is what ultimately made his launch successful.
One of the changes Tim made was based on posting performance. He noticed that when he posted only and specifically about Patreon, those posts didn’t perform as well as others. So, instead of posting directly about Patreon, he would simply add a comment about Patreon on posts that were already high performing. This attracted the attention of fans who were already commenting and following those posts, and Tim immediately saw an uptick in Patreon support. On top of that, Tim started sharing the progress of the Patreon campaign in the comments as well, keeping fans interested and engaged throughout the campaign. He also worked with a friend to tighten up the donation pitch and redesigned the banner at the top of the site so that it stood out more. The increase in support and engagement after those changes was, as Tim said, “like night and day.”
Despite the overall increase in support, he also realized that the initial goal he set may have been too ambitious. By scaling down and focusing on realistic goals, he was able to easily make more progress.
“Given the first nine months of pretty slow growth, I would have never imagined how things would take off. Persistence in this case really worked out.”
Even though the drop in traffic after Facebook’s algorithm change felt like a failure at the time, he credits it with helping him pull back from “the daily Facebook grind.” Instead of posting eight to ten times a day, he now posts between four and six times a day or only when he has something worthwhile to share. It’s also given him the confidence he needs to experiment with other social channels like YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest.
By switching to a community-supported model, Films for Action is able to connect with fans on a deeper level. It frees up time to find new, creative ways of engaging with those super fans, and also allows for a fresh approach to growing the business. For Tim, learning these tough lessons felt insurmountable at the time, but with persistence and patience, Films for Action came out on the other side with an invigorating new perspective... and a business model they can sustain.