A number of publishers are experimenting with texting readers. They are looking into how they can use the opportunity of the highly personalized interaction it allows, to build engagement, revenue and eventually, subscriptions.
The Tampa Bay Times is one of them. It offered users the option to stay updated about the US election via text messages. The initiative was popular enough for the publisher to continue with it. Now it’s using texting to keep readers updated on issues lawmakers are addressing during Florida’s 2021 legislative session.
The Times uses Subtext, a subscription messaging platform. The subscription process is very simple. All readers need to do is enter their mobile number in a signup form and then confirm their number via text to start receiving text updates.
Alternatively, they can text “context” to (813) 212-2598 to get started. Readers are also able to respond to the texts with comments or questions. Journalists at the other end respond through a browser-based CMS.
Engage “in a way new to our audience”
This initiative is a part of the Times’ digital transformation. It was, as with many other publishers, accelerated by the pandemic. The restrictions enforced to contain the pandemic led the publisher to reduce print publishing to two days per week. This in turn drove it to double down on its digital offerings.
We’ve found the same sorts of challenges with reader engagement that other outlets have experienced and have prioritized discovering new ways to bring readers into the fold by helping them feel a sense of ownership and develop a reliance on their Tampa Bay Times.Joshua Gillin, Senior Editor, Engagement Tampa Bay Times
One of these ways is using text messages to keep readers updated. The idea was buoyed by the fact that traffic from mobile devices is increasing steadily. In October 2020, 70% of the readers visited tampabay.com via mobile. “It only made sense that we aim to engage our readers on their mobile devices in a way new to our audience,” comments Gillin.
The publisher used two styles of messaging: a generic voice for links, deadlines and information and personalized notes and responses from their political editor Steve Contorno. Both were popular with subscribers according to Gillin.
“Signups increased steadily through the first three and a half weeks of our campaign, distributed primarily through our social media accounts,” he adds. “We saw a further increase once we promoted the platform on our e-newspaper and print newspaper—ultimately, we exceeded 500 verified subscribers by Election Day. Unsubscribe rates have held steady at about 5% of users.”
“More immediate, engaging and interactive experience”
Although not common, several publishers, including The New York Times, Gannett, BuzzFeed, and The Telegraph among others have used texting to engage their readers. According to The Wall Street Journal’s Ann-Marie Alcántara, BuzzFeed and other publishers covering the coronavirus pandemic used “testing texting to provide a more immediate, engaging and interactive experience.”
“When BuzzFeed News journalist Mat Honan began texting readers the latest Covid-19 numbers and news in March, readers quickly proved that texting is a two-way street,” adds Alcántara. “Their replies have included photos from the travels of a long-haul trucker and a message from someone confronting an eating disorder while sheltering in place.”
The Arizona Republic’s Director of Audience Innovation, P. Kim Bui has also found texting to be a source of ideas. Readers used the service to tell her what mattered most to them, such as Covid-19 recovery rates in Arizona. She also gave advice to people who texted for help with difficulties such as accessing unemployment benefits, says Alcántara.
I’ve viewed this from the get-go like a form of service journalism, and an interesting way to both give and receive information.Mat Honan, Executive Editor, Tech and Society, BuzzFeed News
The broken promise of social media
Subtext is popular among such publishers. “News outlets are using Subtext in several different ways,” writes Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez. “BuzzFeed News used it as a pop-up feature, but other news outlets, like NPR, use it to inform their podcasts. Podcast fans can text the hosts with their feedback and let them know what they’d like to hear in the next episode.”
“The Globe and Mail uses Subtext to send out recipes. The Dallas Morning News offers a mix of paid and free texting subscriptions — users can get roundups of the day’s headlines for free, or pay $3.99 per month to text with the paper’s Dallas Cowboys reporters,” adds Tameez.
“The relationship between media companies and their audiences is fundamentally broken,” says Mike Donoghue, CEO & Founder, Alpha Group told WNiP. “The initial promise was that social media would provide unprecedented access to the people and information that audiences care about most.
“Unfortunately, what was intended to be an empowering shared experience, has devolved into a noisy and caustic environment where the most outrageous voices have outstripped influence and normal users are apprehensive to open up an earnest dialogue.”
Media companies were investing a huge amount of time, money, and effort in building out these huge audiences on social media…but at the end of the day, they’re renting those audiences from social media [companies], as opposed to owning those relationships.Mike Donoghue, Co-founder and CEO, Subtext
“A lot of news and information is now ubiquitous and devalued, private conversations with the people that have their finger on the pulse of what is going on are extremely valuable,” said Donoghue. “With this in mind, many publishers are now looking to expand consumer revenue offerings to open up a more personalized channel of communication that can foster greater loyalty while also being financially self-sustaining.”
“We looked at the newsletter ecosystem, like Substack or Revue or Tinyletter. [But] we wanted to make sure that the dialogue here was bilateral,” he told Nieman Lab. “We didn’t want to create another platform where a media company or a journalist is just kind of talking at their audience. We wanted to make it participatory and we wanted to make it simple to use. We decided that SMS was actually a really, really good medium.”
With an open rate of about 90%, text messaging is a natural communication tool for quick and meaningful conversations that provides subscribers with the insights, information, and access to the personalities and brands they are most interested in.Mike Donoghue, CEO & Founder, Alpha Group
Testament to the personal connection
“The privacy of texting means users don’t experience the same toxicity or endless doomscrolling that you would on social media, making it a friendlier and healthier interaction,” writes Tameez.
“It also allows users to get to know and form a bond with the journalist or personality on the other end of the line. The bond can be strong enough that some people feel bad unsubscribing, she adds.
“I can’t tell you how many emails we get, that are like, ‘Hey, I have to unsubscribe but please don’t tell the host,’” Donoghue said. “I think it’s a testament to the personal connection that people are making here.” This benefits newsrooms as well, which have a “direct line to their subscribers in a way that was not previously possible through newsletters or comment sections.”
I think that texts have the potential to kind of mirror what newsletters can give you, but in a way that is even more personal than a newsletter.Blair Hickman, Managing Editor, Vox
Bui also sees the potential of texting to indirectly boost paid subscriptions to the newspaper in the long run. “The more that we can do to show people that we are not a faceless newspaper that lands in their driveway every day, said Bui, “but are here, we live in the same community, we face the same issues, we have the same worries, and we want to answer their questions, and we’re here to listen to them, I think the more people will subscribe.”