Your cellphone dings.
That could be your dentist reminding you about your appointment next week. Maybe your DoorDash delivery guy dropped your burrito off on your doorstep. Perhaps Old Navy sent you the latest discount codes to use on its website.
Maybe it could be your local news outlet.
Mass texting is used to build new audiences and even generate revenue for media organizations. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters — fires, storms and more — texts have also become a lifeline for those organizations.
In June 2020, Glacier Media launched its coronavirus text line in Canada, led by audience engagement editor Tereza Verenca. Her publications started sending out texts five days a week, hoping to cut through the “inundation” of information their audience was receiving about the coronavirus. With the COVID-19 pandemic now on the downswing, their strategy is evolving: Texts are now two days a week, and it feels a little like a break-up, according to Verenca.
“It felt like we were breaking up with our audience,” she said. “They sent us all the love, saying ‘You guys are doing a great job, keep it up’ or ‘Don’t go down to twice a week.’”
For other media organizations, different disasters inspired the move to text messaging.
As winter storms rolled into Texas, the Texas Tribune made the jump in 24 hours, according to Bobby Blanchard, director for audience. For his team, sending out texts allowed them to circumvent the challenges that those experiencing harsh weather may have faced, including lack of power, internet outages and conserving cell phone battery.
If your media organization is starting to use texting for audience engagement, here are some things to consider.
Identify a platform
Texting campaigns can be run through any number of existing platforms, including Subtext (which Glacier Media and Texas Tribune use) or GroundSource. Unlike a Facebook messenger bot or customer service-type line, these platforms allow journalists to “own” their audience and encourage 2-way engagement, according to Subtext’s co-founder David Cohn.
But getting started can be costly, especially for smaller media organizations or independent journalists. Texting can be more expensive than email or social media as an audience engagement strategy.
Will a team or just one person take on texting and potential replies? Whether your publication is interested in developing a subscription service (like the Los Angeles Times’ Full-Court Text) or pushing vital public service texts during an emergency, it is important to consider who can take over.
“It wasn’t like we sent out a text and that was it,” Verenca said of Glacier Media’s messaging.
In some cases, readers may text back.
“People ask us questions, and we try to answer them if we can,” Blanchard said. We don’t respond to every single message because we just can’t, and not all of them need a response either. But we do try to monitor what is being said back at us.” When they can, the team at the Tribune responds. During the winter storms, this translated to directing people to drinkable water.
In your own newsroom, who will be tasked with answering texts back, in addition to sending them out?
Consider your audience
Texting is an accessible medium: Nearly all phones have texting capability. According to Pew Research Center, text messaging is the most widely and frequently used smartphone feature.
Because of this accessibility, text messaging can also reach audiences that have been left out of the conversation, according to Andrew Haeg, CEO and founder of GroundSource.
For the Texas Tribune, the engagement team is not necessarily driven to get their audience to their website. Instead, they are interested in “(helping) our readers and (building) loyalty and engagement.”
“It’s a decision: Does this news moment rise to the occasion of us wanting to text our readers? Texting an audience is an incredibly invasive and intimate conversation,” Blanchard said.
“Be very intentional and deliberate about who you’re trying to reach through texting and why,” Haeg said. “Not from, ‘Everyone is texting, so let’s start doing that.’”
Since the winter storms, the Texas Tribune has been sending texts but with a modified strategy. “Our approach to our audience that signs up for text messaging is we send them crucial information that changes how they live their lives,” Blanchard said. “If shit got bad for lack of a better phrase, we were ready to keep utilizing that audience.”
“Be transparent with your audience about what the text line is for,” Blanchard said. “If you’re launching a text line and your goal is to give people daily news updates, tell them it is going to be daily news updates.”
Blanchard recommends making it clear what the frequency, cadence and topics of the text updates will be. “That way people won’t be disappointed or frustrated when it’s not what they expected it to be.”
How will you acquire subscribers?
During the winter storms, the Texas Tribune posted to social media as well as on its website.
Outreach to new audiences doesn’t have to be completely digital, though.
“The call to action could be as simple as a phone number printed on a flyer, shared during a town hall meeting or another in-person event,” Haeg said. “We’ve actually worked in some communities to acquire lists of phone numbers.” One project even sent out postcards in the mail, according to Haeg.
Develop a style
Just like when texting a friend, texts are short and conversational. Generally, they should include easy to understand language.
“We had to find the balance between using the right language and encompassing all of our audiences.” Verenca said. Using “inoculation” instead of “vaccination” caused some confusion in Glacier Media’s case. Avoiding potentially hard to understand acronyms, such as ICYMI instead of “in case you missed it” and other words is key. Tone and emojis are also things to consider when crafting a text.
Blanchard estimates that a normal text is about 600 characters, or two to three long tweets. Before sending a text, the team at the Texas Tribune also tests any links and adds appropriate tags to track how much traffic comes to the site from these texts.
ONA 21: “When Crisis Strikes: Texting Updates to Help Your Local Community,” an ONA21 session from 10:30–11:15 a.m. ET on Friday, June 25.