Georges Media Group is Louisiana’s largest media organization, delivering 24/7 news coverage through NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune newspaper which has been published in New Orleans since 1837. The media group is no stranger to covering adverse weather events with The Times-Picayune picking up the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Fast forward to September 2021 and the region has been dealt another blow with Hurricane Ida barrelling in from the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane with 150mph winds – just 7mph short of the maximum Category 5. The hurricane left a million people without power as well as a trail of destruction and, tragically, 95 fatalities across the affected areas.
Such has been the damage, thousands of people are still without power in Louisiana, and Nola.com has been connecting with locals using SMS (text messaging) to share critical updates and answer important questions. Since launching the campaign last month, NOLA.com has acquired 19K+ new subscribers.
WNIP caught up with Kyle Whitfield, VP Consumer Revenue, at NOLA.com to find out how the publisher dealt with the hurricane, not least how it was able to continue communicating life-saving information to readers during the three-week period. As Digital Audience Director, Whitfield’s day-to-day focus is on strategies surrounding paid subscription acquisition and reader retention – he also leads NOLA’s product team that helps deploy software and tech to support its subscriptions strategy.
We started by asking whether the publisher already had its text messaging service in place before the hurricane hit. According to Whitfield, the service was something that was already in the planning stages, but once the hurricane made landfall, they knew they had to move sharply, “We were planning pre-Ida to launch a service that would send subscription messaging to our current subscribers. When Ida hit, we knew we needed to pivot quickly.”
We shared everything from power outage information, where to pick up supplies, information on the availability of running water, how people could apply for assistance from the U.S. government.Kyle Whitfield, VP Consumer Revenue, at NOLA.com
An immediate challenge the publisher faced was what information to convey at a time when readers were tackling challenges that were very much localized to their immediate vicinity. Whitfield replies that this was a major point of debate within the newsroom, “It was a big point of discussion for us. How do we balance giving updates to readers still without power vs. giving out information to those further along the road to recovery. Like much of everything else, we tried to strike a balance.”
“Before and immediately after Ida we were texting readers about 5 times per day, with our digital content editors working together to integrate texting into their existing cadence of tools such as NOLA’s website, social media, email newsletters and native app push notifications.”
“Readers were sending us questions and we tried to deploy updates based on the kinds of questions we received.”
- “We also asked readers what questions they had about recovery efforts and basic services. We reviewed their responses and found many people had similar questions about key issues — power, water, cable/internet, availability of gas and groceries, etc. So a reporter created a Q&A that asked and answered those questions. We then sent that Q&A back out to our text subscribers, who were grateful for the answers.”
“If we notice a trend in people asking why their area of town doesn’t have power but nearby places do, we can ask more specific questions.”
In disasters, people want information specifically about their neighborhood. We try our best and the texting helps.Kyle Whitfield, VP Consumer Revenue, at NOLA.com
Whitfield and the newsroom were subsequently surprised by the feedback they received from readers, “We were overwhelmed by the amount of folks who replied to texts to thank us for providing the service. That was probably the most rewarding part of it all.”
The texting initiative, using the Subtext platform*, has given NOLA’s newsroom confidence in their ability to quickly adapt to challenging situations, “The most valuable lesson we learned from the campaign was that we can quickly spin up new tools to help people get info they need at crucial times. It’s good to have traditional steps to launching new products. But when you need to move fast, it’s nice to have that kind of confirmation that you can pull it off.”
Results have backed this up, with 10-15% click-through rates on links. Whilst this has since tailed off it remains steady, with Whitfield adding, “Every message we send routinely gets dozens of responses, and we try to reply to those who have specific questions that we’re able to answer. The readers are grateful that someone is on the other end of the phone, so to speak.”
I can say that each text message results consistently in a handful of readers purchasing a subscription.Kyle Whitfield, VP Consumer Revenue, at NOLA.com
As for lessons for other publishers, Whitfield doesn’t hesitate to answer, “Don’t get bogged down in the “why this won’t work” instead look at “why this will work and people will appreciate it.”
And the future?
I think our next experiment is to see what kind of appetite people have to pay for a text messaging service. Is there something sports-related? Something food/dining-related?Kyle Whitfield, VP Consumer Revenue, at NOLA.com
* Facebook, before Hurricane Ida, awarded Georges Media Group a grant to use Subtext for several months. According to Whitfield, “It’s a continuation of Facebook’s support of our newsroom and Louisiana, which started when we participated in Facebook’s subscription accelerator program in January 2020. We wouldn’t have been able to launch Subtext so quickly during the storm mayhem without Facebook’s help, quite frankly.”