Free Livestream Meditations Boosted Donations to This Nonprofit Publisher During COVID-19
In the early days of the pandemic, the team at nonprofit media outlet, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, rallied to produce content that would help its audience during an anxious, uncertain time. Recognizing that people were spending more hours at home amid shelter-in-place orders, it decided to host a series of free livestream meditations and Buddhist teachings to aid individuals in their altered lives.
“We began offering these free teachings and, immediately, 25,000 people signed up — only 4,000 of whom were subscribers,” James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle said. “What we discovered is that although it was free, it drove donations, it drove subscription sales and it drove core sales.”
Tricycle’s business model depends more on earned revenue than on donations. Subscriptions (including digital and print magazine) generate 46% of the publisher’s revenue, while online courses generate 24% and donor contributions account for about 17%. During the free teachings streamed March 12 through April 16, 2020, Tricycle experienced a 120% increase in subscriptions, 84% increase in online course sign-ups and 662% increase in donations compared with the previous month.
In the following conversation, Shaheen discusses Tricycle’s mission and messaging, as well as shares further insight into how his team has altered content offerings during the pandemic.
Describe Tricycle to those who are unfamiliar with the brand and your mission.
We're a not-for-profit media company, founded in 1991. When we launched Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, we had a tripartite mission. The first was to make Buddhist teachings broadly accessible; the second was to provide a platform for Buddhists of all traditions; and the third was to engage the broader culture through the lens of Buddhism. We're not a religious organization; we're an educational organization. We're a 501(c)(3) with an educational charter. Half of our readers are not Buddhist, but they're interested in meditation or other Buddhist practices.
Can you share insight into your revenue model and how it's evolved over the years?
Newsstand is fading. Although at a certain point, you have to ask yourself, is newsstand a revenue stream, or is it a marketing expense? Advertising has remained steady — it's flat. What has grown is our online advertising, but when you have Google and Facebook, you're not going to compete there. What has really taken off are our online courses; they’ve surpassed advertising and newsstand. Our subscriptions have remained at the core of our business model because we charge $49 for a digital-only subscription and $59 for print-plus-digital. We want to keep print alive, and there is still a market for that, but digital subscriptions are really the bulk of our revenue, along with the courses.
How has your organization responded to the pandemic?
When COVID hit, there was some anxiety, especially among younger people in the office. They barely remember 9/11, some of them. They remember 2008, though through the eyes of children. So this was big — it was really big. To bring everyone into focus, I said, “We have to focus on serving our readership. What can we do?” Everyone mobilized and not a single person in the office was left out of the process, and we came up with a series of free livestream teachings.
We also put together a free package called “Practicing in the Pandemic.” We gave free access to all of these articles about COVID and practicing in the pandemic, and how to get through that. We also did short practices for relief and resilience, which were five- and 10-minute podcasts that offered a particular practice with COVID in mind. We knew that for the first time, a lot of people were going to be alone with nothing to do. And we asked ourselves, are they going to pick up new distractions, or are they going to use that time fruitfully? Are they going to pick up meditation? Are they going to learn what it's like to be with themselves without distraction?
You created these free offerings to serve your readers. How else did you alter your editorial strategy?
Well, that's interesting that you ask because we have think pieces, which are philosophical or historical pieces that academics provide, and I'd say about 16% to 20% of our readership read us because of that. But the vast majority of our readers want the teachings, and this illustrated for us a need to emphasize the teachings and, even in the magazine, build out more space for them — because they really sustained people during a very difficult time. Teachings on impermanence, on suffering, on this Buddhist approach to the notion of self. We would get emails from people saying, “I'm not Buddhist, but this really helped me.”
How do you get readers to contribute and support Tricycle?
We send two solicitations to the entire base each year. The year we have quarterly renewals, we send a quarterly renewal out. And we have an end-of-the-year effort, but it's all primarily online. I also raise money from the high end.
For people who can't afford an online course, since they're $129 or $159 a course, they can pay us what they like. So 10% take advantage of a scholarship or ask for some kind of assistance, either full or partial. We appeal to our base that way: give so that others who can't afford this can have it. When we first did it, I thought, is anyone going to pay? But they do.
We also did a Kickstarter campaign and raised $50,000 from that when we were building a microsite, “Buddhism for Beginners.” Getting money from the grassroots just felt more reliable than depending on a smaller number of high-end donors, so we built that through our email efforts.
What is your outlook for your business over the remainder of 2020?
We're thinking a lot about video, and we're building out our YouTube channel. Right now we've been talking about what's the next big thing. It was our website; it was our courses; it was “Buddhism for Beginners.” What will turn the flywheel, so to speak, and what will help us continue to build momentum? And there are a lot of ideas. I won't go into them now, but we're landing on a few that we hope will keep this momentum going.