ProPublica, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism, found itself in the same predicament as many businesses did at the start of the pandemic. There was a schedule full of live events that turned into virtual ones, staffing was lean, and ProPublica needed to maintain its deep connection to local community advocates and policymakers who care about the issues that ProPublica was covering.

The solution: leverage online event registration pages to build richer reader profiles. Marigold Engage by Sailthru’s Allison Mezzafonte hosted a webinar with Celeste LeCompte, Vice President of Strategy and Operations, to learn how ProPublica tapped into the capabilities of its email service provider (ESP) to consolidate audience data and deliver the right content to each reader at precisely the right time.

ProPublica’s Celeste LeCompte

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

Hello Celeste and thank you for being here. I’d love to kick off by learning a little more about you, your background, and the work you do at ProPublica.

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

Thanks so much for having me, Allison. I’m Celeste LeCompte, Vice President of Strategy and Operations at ProPublica.

We are a nonprofit newsroom focused almost entirely on accountability and investigative journalism. We started about a dozen years ago, and we’re doing big investigations every day of the week. I’ve been with ProPublica for about six years, and the scope of my job primarily focuses on thinking about ways we extend the impact and the reach of our work to more audiences.

ProPublica’s mission is that our our investigative journalism is intended to drive real-world change, so every story we do we hope helps make the world a better place through our findings — whether it’s highlighting harm in the juvenile justice system or in the American tax code, we try to make sure it delivers results for the people who are impacted.

A lot of the ways we do that are through our various communications channels.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

Can you tell us a little more about your audience?

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

ProPublica has been around for a little over a dozen years, and we have always focused on our audiences for each one of our investigations as a kind of special community of people.  If we are looking at the criminal justice system in Tennessee, if we’re looking at the school system in the state of Illinois, if we’re looking at welfare in New Mexico, we’re always looking to build audiences for our stories that are focused on each particular issue.

In the last few years we’ve been trying to develop more of a community of readership among all of those different potential audiences. If you’re interested in one of the topics I mentioned earlier, you might be interested in another related topic. Maybe our juvenile justice coverage in Wisconsin is just as interesting as our coverage in Tennessee. How do we think about that?

We focus primarily on building an audience of highly engaged changemakers around the country. So we’re looking at people who are policy makers, who are advocates, who are the kinds of folks that show up and attend public meetings, who regularly go out and vote, and want to change things.

We also do a lot of work to try to build relationships with audiences who are impacted by the things we’re covering — whether that’s communities that are interacting with the welfare system in New Mexico, the subject of a story we published this morning, or if we’re looking at families who are impacted by the foster care system in North Carolina. Whatever it is, we always want to communicate with those people regularly so that they see us as a place they trust with their own stories and tell us about what other harms we should be investigating.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

Thinking about the role email plays in all of this and that you’re a Sailthru customer, how does this channel help you reach this broad audience that has varied interests across a ton of different topics covered? How are you working with Marigold Engage by Sailthru to enable that type of connection with your audience?

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

A lot of the ways many people interact with news is kind of a steady, regular source in their lives. You get up in the morning and you turn on the radio. You’re driving to work listening to the radio. Maybe you have the TV on in the evening while you’re making dinner, or you have The New York Times mobile app on your phone and you pop that open on the train.

We are not a daily news publisher, so our ability to build a real relationship with our readers depends on our ability to say “We’re not going to give you lots of stuff all the time and build a habit in that way, but when we have something really important we want to tell you about we want to make sure that we’re able to tell you.” And email is an incredibly important tool in helping us do that because of the pacing and the huge diversity of the things we’re covering.

Email gives us a channel to say “We know you’re out there, we know you’ve followed our juvenile justice coverage in the Midwest, and so now we’re going to introduce you to our juvenile justice coverage in the South.” Email allows us to send alerts to our customers regularly over time to our readers.

Also, using Marigold Engage by Sailthru, we’re able to understand what kind of things people are interested in through our ESP integration with the website, interaction with our emails, and our own content. So, we can say specifically that this person lives in Tennessee, has read our criminal justice coverage in this particular place, and we can deliver any coverage that overlaps.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

I think that that’s really it: the ability to build a profile about an individual not in a creepy, Big Brother way but in a “this is what this person is interested in, this is what they engage with, let’s make sure that we get this content in front of them any time we create it” way so nobody misses what you’re writing about.

Celeste, you and I met earlier this year at a virtual event and you brought up a very interesting use case that I had not heard before from any media company using Sailthru as an email platform. ProPublica is using Sailthru to manage your event registrations by putting attendees through our Lifecycle Optimizer and getting them into the registration flow so that you — like you do with content — build profiles and have a better idea of who’s attending what and what their interests are.

Can you tell us more about that? Because I thought that was the most genius thing which prompted our discussion today!

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

In the days before the pandemic, ProPublica was a national organization with a pretty tiny staff. We covered things all over the country, but we did a small number of very high-impact live events that were focused on individual investigations. And we had planned an events lineup for 2020 and were planning where we wanted to go, but the pandemic shut everything down and like many organizations with an events business we shifted everything online.

What we found is that they were actually great for us. Because our readers are all over the country, because many of the things we cover are localized but of national importance, we had people who wanted to attend these events from all over the country who were eager to participate. But the way that we were able to communicate with people was we could send them an email invitation, but then we’re sending them to Zoom’s webinar registration pages and that just didn’t look like the holistic experience of ProPublica.

For a lot of our work we intentionally work with partners because we’re going into places where we don’t have a long, sustained presence, so for us it’s also really important to think about how do we make sure people know this is a ProPublica experience that they’re having? They may have never read our investigation, they may just be interested in the topic or have heard about it through their community, so we wanted to think about ways to bring them into Propublica and introduce them to the broad spectrum of our work — not just a single experience.

We had an event listing section of our website, and we decided to really build it out as an actual onsite registration experience using Sailthru as the tool. Today, when you register for a Zoom webinar at you are taken through a registration experience where you submit all your information on our website, you are given the opportunity to opt into various email newsletters from us and our event partners, and then that is passed through into Sailthru as a kind of purchase record so that we have lots of information about what that moment of “purchase” was, what the topic of it was, what the format is, all of this other information about your engagement, and it’s actually integrated with the Zoom API so it registers people for the webinar in a hands-off way for our very small events management team so they’re not having to work across so many systems.

Now, they can use the same system for invitations, for managing registrations, for doing followup about attendance, etc. We put all of this information through Sailthru and we have a Lifecycle Optimizer that says “Somebody purchased an event registration (even though they’re all free),” and puts them through a series that says “Here’s when it’s happening,” before pulling all of that information out of their purchase record to make sure that they can attend the event. Including a personalized join link for the webinars.

It’s really seamless, and over time as we’ve expanded the kinds of events that we’re able to do, we’ve also been able to expand the Lifecycle Optimizer to track things like what language the event is in so we can send a different email flow for Spanish attendee registration.

We now have hybrid events that are live streamed where you can also attend in-person, and so we can ask people to tell us which format they’re attending in and we’ll send them the right information for the format they’re attending in and our events team doesn’t have to do anything other than set the website up correctly all inside the CMS we normally work in.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

 What are you able to do then with the data?

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

Let’s put it this way: a certain percentage of people who attend our events have never interacted with us in a way where they’ve given us their information. So then we have them on a list of previous event attendees who are customers. We know a lot about that event: what the topic of it was, when it was held, all these things. Once that happens, the person becomes visible in our system as somebody who’s interested in attending virtual events.

Then there are people in our system who we have communicated with before, who we are regular readers of our work, who have interacted with our website frequently, who may receive newsletters, etc. We’ll use all of that information to build customized event invitations lists, so we have incredibly high-performing event invitations.

Every single one we send out, while the rates have been a little crazy these days, has regularly seen a 50% improvement in engagement over other types of emails we’re sending — and we have a pretty high-performing email program overall — so that’s been great to see. We get thousands of click-throughs on these event invitations, we regularly register hundreds of people for events, and everyone I’ve spoken to in the virtual events space can’t believe the great turnout we get from that. We reliably have more than 40%-50% of the people that register for our events actually show up on the day of and stay for the entire thing.

We think we’re doing a really good job of targeting the right people with these invitations who really are interested in the topic. And whenever we send follow-up emails to the people who registered or attended, we get 70%-80% click-through rates on those emails from people wanting to follow up and send us feedback, take our surveys about the quality of the event, and watch the videos if they weren’t able to attend. All of which I think has created a very positive experience for us and our relationships with readers on the site.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

Are there things you’re not doing today around this event registration process in Marigold Engage by Sailthru that as we look into 2022 you’re excited to begin testing and implementing now that you have the time, capacity, ability to do so?

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

Celeste: Definitely! We have a lot of the tools in Marigold Engage by Sailthru to say “This is an event content item that we could be promoting more regularly to more people in ways that we’re not having to do that calculus ourselves.” The automation tools that exist in the platform could allow us to do more customized event invitations as part of our regular newsletter flows.

We could be doing a lot more to understand what someone’s event attendance means in terms of their relationship with us. We’ve been doing some analysis on what is the relationship between receiving an event invitation from us, actually attending an event, registering for an event, and whether that means you’re a more highly engaged user, you’re more likely to support ProPublica’s work financially, you’re likely to convert faster etc.

We’re still in the early days and don’t have enough information to know about that yet for sure, but so far we’re seeing some really promising signs that there’s actually a really strong relationship between event participation and a greater engagement with our organization overall. We see really high engagement levels in that particular audience.

We also host a lot of events through this system for donors so it can be a little hard for us to decipher some of that, but there are ways to look at that too and we want to do more of that next year.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

What role does email play in your donor program?

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

It’s enormously important to our donor program. When people hear about our work, they’re impressed by what we do. I’ve been here six years and am a big fan of ProPublica. We do important investigations that really do change people’s lives and people are grateful for that.

We get tons and tons of feedback, so email is a great channel for us to communicate regularly with people who have supported us in the past, to let readers know about the work we’re doing now, and to inform donors who want to support everything we do and not just one particular topic that’s near and dear to their heart. Being able to let them know about specific things they’re interested in when it’s relevant and also give them a broader view, email is a really great one-to-one channel.

Also, like every nonprofit organization, email is an important channel to use for our fundraising campaigns. We do them multiple times a year. Our membership team manages that, and so they want to make sure that our audience has a really great, strong relationship with ProPublica. We rely on email as a way to build those relationships and then to tell people that it’s their contributions that support us, so email runs through all of that. It’s how we build a base where we can fundraise and stay in touch with our existing donor base.

Allison Mezzafonte, Marigold Engage by Sailthru 

Celeste, this has been a terrific discussion. Thank you!

Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica 

Thank you Allison.

Watch the webinar here to see how you can get more out of your ESP and create deeper relationships with your audiences.