Audience Engagement Digital Innovation Top Stories
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How the SF Chronicle is keeping locals updated amid record wildfires

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

TLDR: With hundreds of wildfires raging throughout the summer, the San Francisco Chronicle has focused on text messaging as a key means of notifying its audience, with interesting results. The key to such an intimate medium is to use it sparingly and to carefully select the messaging.

This summer has witnessed the largest number of wildfires ever recorded in Northern California, with the hills around Lake Tahoe glowing amber red over many weeks. For the region’s biggest news publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the issue has been how to keep readers’ informed not just with end-of-day developments but also live data that could, for some people, mean the difference between safety and imminent peril.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jess Marmor Shaw – a Bay Area native whose career has included managing The Wall Street Journal’s night desk – the challenge has led to the news organization setting up a text messaging ‘experiment’ so it can inform readers immediately of critical fire developments and risks.

Speaking to WNIP, Marmor Shaw, who is the SF Chronicle’s Director of Audience, says, “Text is still very much an experiment for us. Our texting service is designed to make it easy for people, including those who might rely on their mobile phones when fires break out, to get the latest and most important news.”

Whether it’s breaking news from the fire frontlines, evacuation orders, air quality alerts, updates on PG&E, or stories about how the state is managing this crisis, we’re seeking to answer our reader’s questions and to provide them with accurate, clear information on fires breaking out across the state.

Jessica Marmor Shaw, Director of Audience, San Francisco Chronicle

Publishers have long trialed text messaging since the medium’s breakthrough circa 2000, but the fact remains it is a deeply personal medium, and text messages need to be perfectly calibrated to their audience – there’s nothing worse than scrabbling for your phone to read a text that is ill-timed or, worse, irrelevant. For that reason alone, publishers have remained wary of the medium.

The SF Chronicle is no exception and has tread very carefully in its use of text messaging, as Marmor Shaw explains, “We wanted to start with our most loyal readers, and see what the responses would be to this type of engagement and service. We’ll only send one to two updates per week with the latest developments on California’s fire season, and we ensure we keep the text messages focused on critical information. 

“If and when news breaks, we’ll send daily critical news alerts and regular digests of what’s happening around the state. If there are red flag warnings, power outages, air quality issues, or other events that come up around the Bay Area, we’ll keep readers updated.”

Right now, our text frequency is still 1-4 times per week depending on the news. If the Bay Area were to begin to be directly impacted by fires or smoke, we would likely aim to up the frequency to one per day.

Jessica Marmor Shaw, Director of Audience, San Francisco Chronicle

For Marmor Shaw, who oversees the SF Chronicle’s analytics, newsletter, social and reader engagement strategy, as well as a team of editors and reporters covering breaking news, the text initiative is part of a wider strategy aimed at retaining paying members.

As Marmor Shaw explains, “We’re constantly looking for ways to bring more value to our members, and initiatives that would help us retain them not just for a few months or a year but for the long-term. We know that retention depends on creating ever more touch-points with our subscribers, and that the more we can become a habitual part of their day, the more we can bring our news to them instead of relying on them coming to our website, the more likely we are to create loyal relationships that last years and years.

“Texting is an intimate connection, and data shows that open rates for texts are pretty much as high as they get across any platform. We’re hoping that experimenting and growing in this space will teach us even more about how to create loyal reader relationships, what the right voice and messaging tactics are for SMS vs. other spaces, and what kind of text product could become a key part of our audience strategy going forward.”

The tech platform the SF Chronicle uses for its text initiatives is Subtext, an award-winning texting platform that Marmor Shaw chose partly because there is “zero technical work on our part”.

Having Subtext handle the platform side of the process allows us to focus on the most important thing: the strategy and the messaging. There, too, though we have found the Subtext team incredibly helpful and knowledgeable as to best SMS practices, great case studies, and how to approach engagement through text.

Jessica Marmor Shaw, Director of Audience, San Francisco Chronicle

Currently, the text messages are written by Marmor Shaw herself, “At this point, it’s been mostly me sending the texts and thinking through the strategy. As we go forward, and certainly if we had a huge fire break out locally, I have trained the Engagement Editor on my team, as well as one reporter, into sending the texts and given them background into the initiative. All of the news we text comes from our reporting. 

“My biggest lesson so far is simply that I need to ensure resourcing and headspace for this channel if and when news begins to truly heat up. It’s also been interesting trying to truly put as much information as possible into the text messages, without linking people to our coverage. Even though the texters are all subscribers, and so should not hit a paywall, we want to make as much information available in the texts as possible, and not force them to click. So balancing all of that is a challenge.”

As for the response from subscribers, initial feedback has been encouraging, “We have received many questions from the text subscribers, and messages of thanks. In one text, we noted that we were sending a team of reporters and photographers to the fire lines, and letting people into our newsroom a bit yielded many messages of appreciation for their efforts.

“We also received several Qs on air purifiers, and fortunately we had just reported an article on that, so we shared the top insights from that article and linked them all to it. We also got a lot of Qs on funding for firefighting, and there again, we had done a fair bit of reporting on that already, so I was able to round that up and make it very simple and clear for the texters.”

The promotion has still been very targeted to some of our most active digital subscribers, so we have yet to see the kind of demand I expect when we do bigger pushes and, again, if fire season were to come to the Bay Area.

Jessica Marmor Shaw, Director of Audience, San Francisco Chronicle

As for advice to other publishers looking to venture into text messaging, Marmor Shaw says that setting the goal is crucial at the outset, “Defining the goal of the campaign is very important, especially for a new platform. At the same time, experimentation is part of that goal, and so being fluid and not immediately going into a templated manner of approaching it has been something on my mind. But if you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve going in, then it becomes much easier to execute from there.”

For Marmor Shaw, and the SF Chronicle, the text messaging initiative has played an important role in helping their readers navigate some of the severest Californian wildfires on record. For that reason alone Marmor Shaw considers it a success. Membership retention is just a side benefit.