How to reach thousands of families without Internet during COVID-19? Try snail mail

Stefanie Ritoper
May 13, 2020 · 7 min read
It’s a toy! It’s a game! It’s a vital resource during a pandemic! (Photo: Stefanie Ritoper/KPCC)

“If I work in a market, should my employer provide gloves and a mask?”

“I’m going to be homeless tomorrow and don’t have any money. What can be done financially for myself and others immediately in this situation?”

“If I need emergency shelter to leave domestic violence, can I take my dog with me?”

These are some of the more than 2,800 questions KPCC-LAist’s newsroom has received about the coronavirus since January. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a team working to answer each question personally. At one point we were receiving nearly 10 questions a minute. Still, as engagement producer for our early childhood coverage, I couldn’t help but think — who was missing?

In Los Angeles County, a quarter of all households with school-aged kids — roughly 250,000 families — do not have broadband internet and a computer. Though between KPCC’s airwaves and, we reach over 4 million people a month, the gap between the number of people who know us and the number of people who need information is enormous. I wondered, how were these families getting answers to their questions during this stay-at-home order?

At a meeting with parents for an upcoming photography project. Over the past year, we’ve prioritized in low-tech, high touch ways for people to get involved. (Photo: Sarah Pineda/KPCC)

At KPCC-LAist, we redesigned our education coverage to serve parents, caregivers, and educators where they are. Some of our most effective work so far has included building relationships in person, but that option was now off the table.

So, we decided to get creative and test using snail mail to reach some of these families. We’ve done some small-scale experiments sending out postcards about our reporting and live events, but this needed to happen on a larger scale. In a time when face-to-face services are limited, we wanted to ask, How will people respond to information that arrives at their doorsteps?

What to Send

So many people throw away mail they receive. Our goal was to create something that would make parents pause, decide to open, and hopefully keep.

Good design and kid-friendly activities were central to making the idea work. We teamed up with graphic designer Rosten Woo, who uses design to make complex concepts fun and easy to understand. Rosten and his colleague Tiffanie Tran proposed a design for an expandable guide using a french fold, which helps the content feel more robust in a smaller package. (See another one of Rosten’s projects that uses this fold.) They also pitched ideas for kid-friendly activities and ultimately created characters to color and cut out that draw from Los Angeles’s natural environment.

Testing ideas for cut-outs for kid-friendly activities. (Photo: Courtesy of Tiffanie Tran)

Curating resources turned out to be challenging. We were very familiar with the resources that have popped for financial assistance, testing, food, and other services during the pandemic. However, information on these resources and services change day to day. We also had limited design real estate, especially if we wanted the guide to prominently feature kid-friendly activities.

The process became a full team effort. We opted for a streamlined version of basic resources, choosing ones that would be able to credibly refer people to other sources if necessary. We tapped into the expertise of our reporting team and parents in the building to develop the content. Early childhood reporter Mariana Dale, engagement team member Caitlin Hernandez, and I drafted content. LAist associate editor Lisa Brenner, education editor Tony Marcano, and director of community engagement Ashley Alvarado all weighed in on key resources and engaging activities for children.

KPCC-LAist’s engagement team meeting over video chat. (Photo: Stefanie Ritoper/KPCC)

Once we had a prototype ready, we reached out to networks we had cultivated to get a gut check on our content. We asked several people who we knew had strong relationships with parents in the target zip codes to review the draft for anything we were missing. We then adjusted according to their feedback.

Call to Action: Text Us Questions

Since the mailer was headed to families who might have difficulty accessing an online platform, we wanted to drive people to a phone number through which they could text us their questions.

Typically, we use the Hearken engagement technology platform to allow community members to ask us questions online right from our website. Those who prefer text messages can generally text CORONA (VIRUS for Spanish) to 626–423–6777 for an answer. The GroundSource text-messaging platform allows us to track and field these questions as well as send users daily coronavirus news updates. (Learn more about our newsroom setup to answer coronavirus questions.)

For this project, we created unique texting keywords to track traffic from the mailers back to GroundSource. So far, more than 200 people have opted into text messaging organically through our site; this will serve as a baseline we can use to gauge the mailer’s success. The average rate of return on direct mail campaigns is generally 0.5 to 2 percent, so our goal is to have at least 2 percent of those who receive the mailer (about 250 people) text us.

Over the last two months, we’ve seen that people receiving text messages generally expect a quicker response time than those who email. Since we aim to personally answer each question, we knew we would need to step up our capacity to meet the demand for a quicker response time. We split our team into half-day shifts to prepare for the influx of texts, with the goal of a 24-hour turnaround to answering these questions.

Creating a Spanish Version

Since 38 percent of residents — roughly 3.3 million people — in Los Angeles County speak Spanish, it was clear to us that these mailers had to go out in Spanish, too.

Making the Spanish version was a reminder of the importance of newsroom diversity to effectively reach communities. (Photo: Stefanie Ritoper/KPCC)

When we translated the mailer, it wasn’t just the language that had to change. We revisited all the resources to make sure they were still relevant to Spanish speakers. Some links went to English-language sites that were not very relevant and needed to go. Others contained important information for families that might be Spanish dominant, but English speaking. We also added other information and resources that were relevant to Spanish-speaking communities, like Abriendo Puertas’ comprehensive and thoughtful coronavirus resource guide.

Many eyeballs reviewed and double-checked the language for style, context, and flow. These were a mix of colleagues and volunteers: Ashley Alvarado, Diana Montaño, José Haro, and Mara Zapiain. My colleague Nubia Perez painstakingly called each phone number and checked each website to make sure everything worked and that our instructions were correct.

The process reminded us how fortunate we are to have a linguistically and culturally diverse team. This diversity is a necessity for us, as a newsroom, to effectively reach communities that can directly benefit from our reporting.

Where to Send

Thanks to the research of Hernan Galperin and USC’s Connected Communities and Inclusive Growth project, we were able to identify zip codes where only 40–50 percent of households have access to a computer and fixed broadband. Hernan generously created a custom map for our newsroom that layered zip code boundaries over data about the digital divide in Los Angeles County.

Internet and Device Adoption by Zip Code in Los Angeles County

Source: Hernan Galperin, USC’s Connected Communities and Inclusive Growth project

We then worked with our printing company to generate a list of families with children 12 years old and younger. Though we originally estimated creating a run of 10,000 mailers, we upped our total to include all available addresses in our target zip codes.

The mailer should now be arriving at the homes of 12,670 families: 5,471 in English and 7,199 in Spanish.

Download It!

We’d love to share this resource with you, too. Print a copy for yourself:

Making sure all families have the information they need during this time is a huge and complicated endeavor. We hope this experiment is one small piece of the puzzle, and what we learn will help others across the country as we all try to take on this challenge.

We are now waiting to receive people’s questions and look forward to sharing the results as they come in.

Engagement at KPCC

Dispatches from Southern California Public Radio (KPCC +…

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