Written by: Lizzy Hardison
Overhauling your website is one of the most significant projects you can undertake as a news organization. Whether you’re pursuing a cosmetic redesign or changing your name and identity, few initiatives will have a bigger impact on the way your readers experience your work and perceive your brand.
These projects can be stressful, time-intensive and expensive. But they can also help clarify your unique value as an organization and optimize your site for audience engagement and revenue growth.
This guide includes insights from News Revenue Hub staff members and clients who have managed newsroom rebrands. Our aim is to help you define priorities, balance competing demands among stakeholders, and preserve critical technology so that you can grow your audience and steward your volunteer donor base through this exciting transition.
Who this is for
We wrote this playbook for small to midsize news organizations who intend to rebrand their websites and want a high-level overview of how to manage the project.
If you’re reading this because you’re about to launch a rebrand, there’s a good chance that you’ve already done some work to arrive at your decision. Maybe you’ve conducted audience research, taken the matter up with your board, lined up funding or completed a vision exercise with your staff. We’re going to assume that anyone at this step is working with a digital agency to lead the creative work and technical implementation of the new site. (If you haven’t hired a vendor yet, we have tips below for how to choose one.)
If you’re considering a rebrand but haven’t committed to one yet, this guide won’t definitively tell you which course of action to take – that’s something only your staff, board and executive leaders can decide. We can, however, help you understand why a news organization might embark on a rebrand, and offer steps you can take to help you arrive at a decision. This guide will also sketch out the full scope of a rebrand effort and determine whether your organization has the bandwidth to commit to one.
The News Revenue Hub has helped more than 70 small and mid-size newsrooms launch and sustain reader revenue programs. Our clients run the gamut from century-old publications that survived digital transformation to brand-new startups that compete with legacy publications in local markets. In the six years we’ve been working with publishers, we’ve seen clients undertake rebrands for three chief reasons:
- A newsroom has outgrown its original niche and wants to reach new readers.
- A site looks dated, or it doesn’t support new storytelling forms or tools.
- A site doesn’t support calls-to-action or aggressive email acquisition, and it’s impeding fundraising efforts.
Don’t just take our word for it, though. The Hub interviewed leaders from two-nonprofit newsrooms to understand how they executed ambitious redesigns. Their advice informs many of the action items and insights in this playbook.
Case Study: San Antonio Report
Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle started The Rivard Report in 2012 as a hyperlocal publication covering city news in San Antonio, Texas. Eight years later, it had morphed into a 20-person newsroom with reporters covering city hall, education, arts and the economy.
As the site grew, “we needed to communicate the evolution of our organization so we could stand independently,” said San Antonio Report COO Jenna Mallette. The newsroom embarked on a board-led succession planning initiative as its eponymous founders prepared for retirement. (The effort also closely followed the site’s migration to Newspack, a WordPress-based Content Management System.) They adopted a new logo in 2018 – its first update from the original. The publication changed its name in 2020 to San Antonio Report, and adopted a new tagline and visual language to use across its site and marketing collateral.
Case Study: Grist
Founded in 1999 as a newsletter, Grist is now a 50-person nonprofit newsroom covering climate and the environment. By the time they embarked on a rebrand in 2020, the online publication was winning national awards, being cited in Congressional proceedings, and trying to convince readers of the gravity of the climate crisis. Their new look debuted in early 2021 after months of preparation.
Grist Editor-in-Chief Nikhil Swaminathan said the redesign was a way to telegraph Grist’s growing ambition as a publication. It was also the culmination of a five-year strategic shift to operate less like a blog and more like a digital magazine. They adopted a “more striking and serious” logo and optimized their pages for longer, in-depth writing instead of quick-hit blogs.
“Blog pages have a certain energy to them, and we tried to slow that down,” Swaminathan said. “What we were doing had evolved, and we needed the look to match that.”
Tips and insights
Phase 1: Getting Ready
Before anything else, define your priorities
We know that there are plenty of good and varied reasons to change your name or visual identity. But does your organization know its reasons for doing so? Would everyone on your team agree on what it is?
Regardless of why you’re pursuing a redesign, it’s important to have North Star goals to guide all the decisions you’ll have to make. Once you’ve defined those priorities, make them clear to your board, your staff, and especially to the digital agency you’ve hired to execute the project.
Defining your mission early will help you be consistent as you explain the rebrand to different stakeholder groups and get buy-in from skeptics. You’ll sharpen these points for when you eventually debut your site to your readers.
“It’s very important to have shared talking points,” said Jenna Mallette, the COO at San Antonio Report who managed the rebrand project. “You need to know why and how you will respond if someone has something negative to say about it.”
- ✅ Action item: Schedule a kick-off meeting with high-level stakeholders. You can discuss your objectives for the redesign, brainstorm a mission statement for the project, and develop a list of priorities, ranked highest to lowest, to guide your decisions.
Still deciding on a rebrand? Let your audience be the tie-breaker
Even if everyone at your organization agrees that a rebrand is in order, you can’t overlook the opinion of another major stakeholder group: your audience.
The Rivard Report learned this lesson in 2018 when it started to seriously discuss changing its name. The newsroom had ambitions to grow and serve a larger audience, and it believed that “San Antonio Report” would better reflect its role in the local community. But when they hired a firm to survey their readers, they found that many of them were against a change.
The company updated its logo and continued to publish as the Rivard Report. Mallette said that the team made the right call to tap the brakes on a name change. When they revisited the matter in 2020, they’d proven their value to readers with their COVID-19 coverage and knew it was time to align their name with their mission.
“Our vision [in 2018] was to be bigger, but we didn’t have a good reason at that time,” said chief operating officer Jenna Mallette. “By 2020, we were larger, we continued to grow and the name no longer fully reflected who we were or what we did.”
- ✅ Action item: If you’re even contemplating a name change, there’s an important step you can take to secure the future of your new brand: buy all versions of your new domain name immediately, including .com, .org. and .net domains. Keep all of your old domain names to use in redirects. Move quickly – you don’t want copycats to buy your domains and charge exorbitant prices to get them back.
Already decided? Time to identify your decision-makers
Congratulations! You’ve weighed the pros and cons, assessed your budget, and decided to embark on a rebrand. What comes next will be a crash-course in stakeholder management.
Your editorial staff, your audience and your members will all feel the effects of your new website. It’ll also be of great interest to your major donors and board. Each of these groups will want a say in major decisions – and your team will confront a whole slew of them as you reshape your identity.
While you might want to put those decisions to a consensus vote, or at least invite input from as many people as possible, seasoned newsroom leaders say you should appoint project managers to lead the redesign, and entrust decision-making to a select group of people.
That’s what San Antonio Report found as it cycled through new color schemes, logos and fonts during its rebrand in 2019. Graham Watson-Ringo, the then-managing editor who oversaw the technical implementation of the Report’s new brand, said it proved impossible to open up those decisions to staff-wide conversations.
“You want everyone involved, but at some point, someone has to make a decision,” Watson-Ringo said. “Be wary of [having] too many cooks in the kitchen. You’ll never get everyone to agree, and that can lead to frustration.”
Start by assigning a project lead. This will be the person who manages your budget, oversees the timeline, schedules meetings with vendors, and creates a process for collecting stakeholder input along the way.
From there, consider assembling a committee of people from all levels and departments of your organization, including your board. A committee approach will make different stakeholder groups feel like they have a voice in the final product, even if the committee members are the only ones making the final design decisions.
- ✅ Action item: Assemble your rebrand committee. Define the commitment and expectations for each member of the group before you identify and invite prospective members. Strive to have one representative from each department in your organization – including editorial, business, and technology – and at least one member of your board.
- Once you identify your stakeholders and roadmap your big decisions, consider plotting them on a RACI chart. These matrices are popular tools in project management, and they help you see who will be Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed in each decision. Learn more about how to use them here.
- When you give stakeholders a peek into the project, be clear what you want them to do. “Are you going to show staff logos to ask for [their] opinions, or are you just showing them as a courtesy?” Mallette said. “Not being clear will lead to discord, so be really deliberate in the way you involve the larger staff and get the work done.”
Choose an agency to work with
If you haven’t already hired a digital agency to lead this effort, you’ll need to start soon – few news organizations have the capability to do this kind of project in-house. Digital agencies will take care of the heavy technical lifting on your redesign, such as setting up redirects and migrating content to your new site. Depending on your needs, they might also be able to market your site or execute your launch campaign.
Start by deciding what services and expertise you want your agency to provide. In addition to designing and implementing the new site, do you want them to run a paid acquisition campaign or place digital ads? Once you’ve decided on a scope of work and collected bids, Mallette recommends getting client referrals to inform your final decision.
Phase Two: Managing the project
Protect your CTAs and email acquisition tools
As your agency gets to work executing your vision, keep in mind that they’re trying to balance aesthetics, functionality and competing project deadlines. You can help by setting constraints on the project and giving them non-negotiable elements that you want to preserve. The more you know your priorities, the easier it’ll be for your vendor to deliver a product that serves them.
One way to communicate your revenue priorities is to give your fundraising team a seat at the table with your agency. Developers may propose a design that demotes site optimizations that help with fundraising and audience growth. That’s what happened at Grist, which had a sophisticated suite of in-house, custom-built ads on its old site. The newsroom lost most of those assets by the end of the rebrand due to incompatibilities with the new one.
The team was able to rebuild their ads and regain much of the same functionality after finding a new lead generation software. But Grist membership director Jess Alvarado-Lepine said they did lose some of their control in targeted messaging. In retrospect, the team wishes it had made clear early on that the in-house ads were a priority – even if that meant sacrificing some aspects of the editorial product.
“The site we got is excellent, but we could have come in with a list of things that worked on the old site that needed to be preserved,” Shwaminathan said. “You almost want to ensure that your fundraising mechanisms are taken care of before the editorial product, because you are taking a bigger risk to your entire operation if you put obstacles in front of your fundraising team.”
- ✅ Action item: Identify existing optimizations that you want to preserve. If your site already has newsletter signups and donate buttons, tell your digital agency that you don’t want to demote those calls to action (CTAs) on the new site. In fact, this is a good opportunity to go bolder and promote your CTAs more prominently.
⭐️ Hub clients: Give the Hub a heads up if you plan on changing your CMS. Our tech should work seamlessly after the migration, but we do appreciate some advance notice if you need to update your checkout page with new logos and colors.
We also want to make sure you’re not going backward in critical functionality. Make sure you have the same ability to create CTAs and simple signups, and to integrate your site with Mailchimp. Ask your Hub Project Manager if you need help inventorying any of these features.
If you’re renaming your site, another decision you’ll have to make as a team is what to do with old references to your old name.
All of the content from the Rivard Report got a facelift when it migrated to the new San Antonio Report site, with updated fonts and resized photos to match the new stylesheet. But the staff chose not to replace any references of “Rivard Report” with “San Antonio Report.” We recommend following this example, which also could help lead traffic to your new site if people are searching for your former name.
“We felt it was important to keep the integrity,” Watson-Ringo said. “We did have the option to change it, but we didn’t want to erase the former references.”
Manage expectations among your editorial staff
Your editorial staff are a major stakeholder group in your redesign, and their criteria for its success might be radically different from that of the technology or business departments. Taking time to anticipate their concerns and respond to them in terms they understand will make it easier to manage expectations when the new site launches.
Here’s one tripwire you can flag for them early on: traffic may decline after the new site launches. Any time a website changes, Google has to reevaluate the new one and update the score that affects its search rankings. SEO experts say the decline will be anywhere from 5-to-7 percent of your average traffic and last for a few weeks following the launch of your new site. If you change the URL of your website, the traffic decline could last two or three months as Google works to reindex your site. You should consult an SEO expert if you see traffic declines that are more severe or long-lasting.
These temporary traffic declines are just one example of the short-term tradeoffs your newsroom may have to make to execute a big website redesign. In early days after your launch, you may also hear readers complain about usability or the ease of finding old content. You might find you can only give some of your editorial products prominence on your site and need to make tough choices about which ones you want to promote.
- ✅ Action item: Ahead of your launch, schedule a town hall meeting with editorial staffers to talk about ways that the new site will affect the display and discovery of their work. If you need to relay their questions to your tech team, schedule a follow up session so you can share the agency’s response.
- 🛠 Useful tool: Teams in tech chart “user journeys” to anticipate the ways that different users interact with their products. Do the same thing for staffers who will be interacting with your website regularly as users of its CMS and public interface.
⭐️ Hub clients: This tutorial has questions and brainstorm prompts that will help you build personas for different types of users in your company and identify pain points they might encounter with the new site.
Phase three: Launching your new look
The launch of your redesign will be a great time to reach new readers and execute an aggressive fundraising campaign. While it might be tempting to put these off until you’re close to debuting your new site, folks we spoke with don’t recommend it. San Antonio Report knew when it hired a digital agency that its work would include marketing around the launch. Swaminathan said that launch planning should happen in parallel to the redesign itself.
Prepare current readers for the change and market yourself to new ones
Your readers will encounter an entirely new product when they visit your new site for the first time. Prepare them for the change by teasing it regularly in newsletters ahead of the launch. This will make your loyal readers feel like stakeholders in the project, and also prime them to provide feedback after the new site goes live.
While it’s important to keep your existing audience front of mind during this transition, remember that launching a new site is also an excellent opportunity to expand your audience. We recommend hiring a professional marketing firm to help introduce your new brand to as many new readers as possible when you launch.
That’s what the San Antonio Report did as it prepared for its new site launch in 2019. Their team was concerned that shedding the name of their founder would cost them loyal readers and brand evangelists. By hiring marketing professionals – who helped tease the site on social media, plan a launch party and execute a paid acquisition campaign with advertising on Facebook and Google – they gained more readers than they lost when the new look debuted.
- ✅ Action item: Whether you hire a marketing firm or manage your launch in-house, make a roadmap for promoting your new site in each of the following channels:
- Your publication’s social accounts, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
- Newsletter products
- Paid acquisition (Facebook and Google Ads)
- ✅ Action item: Optimize your site for donations as you prepare for an influx of traffic. Make sure that each article has a donation and newsletter sign-up CTA with active links and Salesforce campaign IDs.
Execute a fundraising campaign to coincide with the launch
Don’t pass up the opportunity to execute a proper fundraising campaign around your new site. You’ve just spent months trying to align your visual brand with your editorial mission and audience needs. Explain your motivations to your readers. Tell them why you pursued the rebrand, what it will help you achieve, and how their support can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to be repetitive.
The team at Grist knows that the payoff can be valuable. Grist had a banner year for its membership program in 2021, with an influx of monthly donations following its new site launch. They made the case to readers that they were uniquely equipped to tell stories about existential threats of climate change, and their message resonated, Alvarado-Lepine said.
“We really [talked] about our mission and how it aligned with the environmental movement,” Alvarado-Lepine said. “We said, ‘this is our moment’ and people understood that it was a good time to support us.”
Keep in mind that your major donors should let them know about a rebrand well ahead of the public (some of them may already be in the loop if you’ve tried to solicit donations from them to fund the rebrand.) San Antonio Report wrote personalized letters to each of its major donors to tell them about the impending changes. They also held group Zoom conversations to let those donors ask questions and offer feedback (in-person meetings were out of the question due to the pandemic.) Grist gave its major members early access to the new site and enlisted some of them as brand ambassadors to trumpet the new look at its launch. Be sure to suppress major donors from any fundraising emails that you send out during the launch.
- ✅ Action item: Draw up your campaign roadmap for the launch. Your campaign can start with teaser messages before the launch and continue once the site is released to the general public. Enlist members of your executive team or your board to write campaign messages – this will show readers that this is a major event for your organization.
- ✅ Action item: Review your list of major donors and develop a strategy for notifying them ahead of the launch. You might want to consider a more personalized touch for institutional donors or foundations that support you, but your big-dollar members should at least get a personal note alerting them of the rebrand.
Steward your member base with surveys
Your readers deserve a chance to weigh in on your new look. You can embed a simple survey CTA on your site to collect feedback from anyone who visits, but your most valuable feedback will come from loyal readers who know your old look and brand. Consider setting up two surveys: one to go out to non-donors on your mailing list, and another to go out to your current members. The members-only survey should include a stewardship message thanking them for their support and loyalty.
- ✅ Action item: Design a survey for members and a survey for non-members.
⭐️ Hub clients: Your Hub project manager can help you write questions tailored to each group.
Prepare to take the keys of your new site
When you flip the switch on your new site, you may feel like you’ve crossed a finish line. With any luck, traffic is buzzing and donations and email signups are rolling in by the dozen!
Celebrate your successful launch, but know that your work isn’t over. As Swaminathan put it, your website is your core product, which means you should constantly be iterating and improving on it. Slick and shiny as your new site may be, it will come with new security needs, maintenance, and other costs that continue after the new look goes live. If you introduced new and complex functionalities during the redesign, you’ll also need to create a plan to maintain them.
Swaminathan compared a new website to a newly built house: it looks beautiful on move-in day and you’ll expect everything to work perfectly. As time goes on, you find that you want to swap out the builder-grade bath faucets or change the paint color to make it feel truly yours. The same will be true with your website. Even if it excels on every aesthetic measure, it’ll need new features and customizations to fit your team’s taste and workflows.
“You won’t end the engagement with a finished product,” Swaminathan said. “You end it with a new house that you have to make your own. Making changes to make it more engaging to visitors, or to drive fundraising more effectively – all of that is just part of its ongoing life.”