Texting campaigns by news outlets are rising in popularity, as organizations look for more ways to connect with readers and build their subscription bases. Service media organizations like Outlier Media reach their audiences exclusively through short message service (SMS), while Advance Local’s Subtext platform allows news organizations to quickly build a custom texting campaign.
These services thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, when audiences were eager for up-to-date, trusted information. But news outlets have also developed creative uses for texting campaigns, from civic information to cookie recipes. And the people running these campaigns say they see a potential for SMS as a revenue source.
At Glacier Media in Vancouver, British Columbia, the COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus for jumping into texting campaigns. Audiences were desperate for information, so the outlet’s campaign focused on the day’s most important COVID related stories in British Columbia — data on new cases and death totals, vaccine updates, and travel-related information.
In the first week, with minimal promotion, 950 users signed up for the alerts and that number grew 150% month-over-month for the first quarter, with a 90% open rate, says Tereza Verenca, Glacier Media’s audience engagement editor. Today, Glacier has more than 9,300 active subscribers.
Texting has an intimacy usually reserved for family and friends, said Verenca, and readers were pleased to discover there were real people — not a robot — on the other side of their SMS campaigns. They were able to answer questions, such as “When am I eligible to get my second COVID-19 vaccine?”
“Our readers really appreciated when we took the time to respond to their questions,” Verenca said. “They were really happy to be kept informed in a timely manner. Some feedback we received was that our immediacy was more than what they were receiving from the government.”
For the San José Spotlight in California, a big part of the appeal of SMS was reaching potential audience members who don’t have regular access to computers. Josh Barousse, the site’s co-founder and director of development, said several readers find out about major news events only from the publication’s morning text messages featuring top stories and breaking news.
Barousse thinks SMS campaigns have potential as a revenue source.
“People already rely on text messaging to receive information, and when news organizations use this method to share stories and fundraising alerts with readers, they will hopefully see an increase in reader revenue,” he said.
For The Globe and Mail in Canada, the first foray into texting was an Advent calendar-style campaign featuring recipes for Christmas cookies throughout December. Programming editor Lori Fazari said part of the appeal was offering this new service for a light-hearted series, which the team hoped would draw in different types of readers.
“This fit in very well as an experiment, to show a different side of ourselves to maybe a new audience,” Fazari said. “We’re known for our business and politics and national news coverage. So [we wanted to] show a different, kind of lighter, side of ourselves in the pandemic, when we know we have a greater readership.”
Another part of the appeal was using an existing service to operate the texting, rather than building something in-house. That allowed the publication to hit the ground running; the team had aimed for 1,000 subscribers, but reached nearly 5,000 in the first few days.
Because of the interactive nature of the campaign, Fazari and her team were able to make adjustments to their output, including cookie recipes for specific dietary needs, like gluten-free, and altering the schedule to share more elaborate cookies on weekends and simpler recipes during the week. They also encouraged readers to send pictures of their completed cookies, creating a two-way dialogue that Fazari said users particularly loved.
Fazari says she sees certain types of SMS campaigns having a future as revenue generators, especially ones driven by marquee columnists. The feeling of a direct line to a personality or writer is very appealing at a time when receiving news and information can feel so overwhelming, she said.
For Andrew Weiler, a part-time employee at The Wahkiakum County Eagle in Washington state, SMS was an initial foray into improving the fortunes of the small-town publication, which still earns all of its revenue in print. Weiler capitalized on southwest Washington’s Bald Eagle Days, one of the biggest events of the year, featuring a parade, street vendors, live music and fireworks.
Weiler teamed up with the local Chamber of Commerce to provide text updates, via Subtext, about goings-on during Bald Eagle Days. The alerts were not directly from the newsroom, but each text, which featured information like event and emergency updates as well as discounts on retail and dining, was paid for and “powered by” The Eagle.
With promotion on Facebook and in print, 200 people signed up for the alerts in a county of approximately 4,000 people. He was able to share things like a Google Calendar with a layer of event locations and notifications of canceled events; as well as answering questions from readers.
Weiler says all feedback he received was positive.
“I think it’s a great tool to feel like there’s a personality that you’re subscribing to and getting information from, who you rely on and trust,” he said. “Texting is very personal”
At Newsday in Long Island, New York, social media editor Gabriella Vukelic and assistant web producer Erin Serpico also jumped into texting during the pandemic. The goal was to send daily texts that acted as a newsletter in SMS form, which they felt would allow them “to connect with our audience on a deeper and more personal level through this platform,” said Vukelic.
The first few months saw slow but steady growth, but in time, they realized that their audience was looking for key pandemic numbers and basic information. When the vaccines became available in late 2020, text usage numbers grew as readers turned to the paper for information on availability. As of March 2021, Newsday had more than 6,600 subscribers.
Vukelic said the team has heard from readers who subscribed to Newsday after participating in the text campaign. Others say they enjoy the personal nature of the campaigns, and they “now look at Newsday differently than just ‘the local paper,’” she said.
This kind of intimacy is why texting might have a future as a revenue stream.
“I definitely think SMS campaigns have a future as a revenue source for local news,” said Vukelic. “You’ll always open a text message to get rid of the notification on your phone, whereas that may not be the case if you are scrolling through a news app or social media platform. Therefore, you’ll be more likely to stop and read the text.”