How Tortoise Media crowdfunded half a million pounds by promising to be more inclusive

Focusing their campaign on organised listening and deep reporting helped raise £539,000 from 2,530 backers

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In a nutshell

A combination of three and five-year memberships and packs for people under 30, alongside clear stretch goals and well-known supporters, helped Tortoise quadruple its initial Kickstarter target in December 2018.

Background

  • Tortoise is an independent media company that was founded in 2018 with the mission to report on the forces driving the news, not just the news. Its tagline is ‘Slow down. Wise up.’
  • It was conceived by three experienced media names: James Harding (former BBC head of news), Katie Vanneck-Smith (former president of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal) and Matthew Barzun (former US ambassador to Sweden and the UK).
  • It has since attracted a number of high profile UK journalists to its team, including Ceri Thomas (BBC R4 Today programme editor), Merope Mills (The Guardian), Giles Whittell (The Times) and Chris Cook (BBC Newsnight), and has 30 staff members based in London.
  • The team ran a crowdfunding campaign in November 2018 using Kickstarter, aiming to raise over half a million pounds and attract over 2,800 founding members.
  • Tortoise runs daily ThinkIns (open editorial conferences) in London and other UK cities as part of its goal to ‘open up journalism’ and bring others into to the process.
  • It began publishing stories in beta in January via its website and mobile app. Tortoise started publishing five stories a day and recently introduced its News Angles to address live or moving stories that it hasn’t got round to doing deep reporting on.


Founders of Tortoise Media, James Harding, Katie Vanneck-Smith, Matthew Barzun
James Harding, Katie Vanneck-Smith and Matthew Barzun (credit: Tortoise Media)

How did they do it?

Campaign planning

  • In the summer, the team decided to do a crowdfunding campaign primarily as a way to gain new members. The funding was a bonus because they had already raised money from a few investors so the campaign became about finding a group of people to test this slower, more considered form of journalism on.
  • The campaign team, which was led by Greg Halfacre, decided to use Kickstarter because of its reputation for publishing and journalism projects and because it is well-known in the UK, where Tortoise is based.
  • The campaign goal was set at £75,000. This was low but it’s something that is recommended by most crowdfunding platforms because hitting the target generates momentum and publicity. The team also made plans for reaching £150,000, £250,000 and £500,000.
  • The campaign launched with 12 membership packages that ranged from Supporter (minimum contribution of £1 with a shout-out in print edition) to Patron (£8,000 for a lifetime membership, a special ThinkIn dinner with 25 guests, recognition of thanks in all ThinkIns on Tour).
  • Most packs included tickets for ThinkIns and the more expensive ones included being able to meet the editors, although they were conscious of allowing anyone to buy access to the team.
  • A number of packs were designed to lock members in for three or five years in order to give the editorial product a chance to mature before members were asked to renew.
  • There was an emphasis on packages for under 30s and early-bird packages (Founding member) because they wanted to send a message that they were targeting a new audience. The more expensive packs were designed to offset the cheaper memberships.
  • Greg reached out to Kickstarter before the campaign went live to let them know what they were planning. They were able to help with placement on the homepage and also mentions via Kickstarters email newsletter and social media to boost awareness.

Campaign execution

  • The team arranged for a number of media outlets to cover the launch of the campaign (Press Gazette, Journalism.co.uk) and this helped them break the £75,000 target on day one, which in turn created a second round of stories.
  • Like The Correspondent campaign, Tortoise’s targeted people in media who were critical of traditional coverage and supported the Tortoise idea that ‘news is noise’. Actor Stephen Mangan, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and others subsequently promoted the campaign on social media.
  • Each day during the campaign, several Tortoise staff would meet and discuss how the campaign was going. Greg and Katie Vanneck-Smith, publisher of Tortoise, tracked the number of donors and brainstormed ideas to increase the number of individuals donating. Every week the wider team was briefed with a new backer recruitment focus around the theme of the week.
  • During the 30 days, the team sent 11 emails, updating backers with news about the campaign or including fresh incentives or merchandise. The emails came from Katie or James, Tortoise’s editor, and had a personal, friendly tone to help backers get to know the team.
  • One of the tools Kickstarter provides is a link tracker to be able to see the number of pledges and total value of pledges directly from that link. Each journalist was given a specific link and Greg was able to see who drove the most donors.
  • During the campaign, some packages ran out (The Ultimate Member experience, Lifetime member, Patron) and were brought back.The team also released new packs based on feedback and suggestions from members, such as the Beta member (three months for £24) and the Tortoise and Hare, £150 for two one-year memberships.
  • In the end, the campaign raised £539,000 and recruited 2,500 backers and 2,800 members (accounting for backers that bought packs with more than one membership)

What did they learn?

  • Generating buzz ahead of the campaign launch is good wherever possible. Tortoise was able to do so after Chris Cook, a BBC Newsnight journalist with a significant social media following, announced that he was joining Tortoise. When people found out, they wanted to know what this new organisation was. Greg believes Chris’ impromptu announcement contributed to a successful first day.
  • The important parts of the campaign are the first week and the last few days. 76% of funding and 72% of donors came in these two periods. Little happened in between.


  • It wasn’t just one person’s job to ensure the target was reached. Everyone on the team used their contacts, including sending the campaign to as many friends and family as possible.
  • The under 30 packs were most popular, with 40% of members taking up the one-year or five-year offer. Other popular packs were the early bird and the three-year membership for £150. They would utilise the early-bird again in future campaigns.



  • However, the under 30 price point was also divisive and they received feedback from backers asking why the step up was so steep. The team responded by pointing out that there had to be a cut-off somewhere and that other organisations do under 30 pricing.
  • It’s important to keep momentum up during the campaign. The public nature of the campaign means that it’s easy for the team to lose energy. Building in activity throughout the 30 days can counter this.

In their own words

Greg Halfacre, membership lead, Tortoise Media

“[Kickstarter] was a great way to bring people in on an interesting price point. It was a case of getting them to trust us. You have to go all in. I was in marketing for seven years and this was the most stressful project I’ve worked on."

How would you improve it?

"I wouldn’t do 30 days again. The two weeks in the middle are such a grind. 75% of the money comes at the start and at the end. It’s better to really condense it.”

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