In 2018, Allied Media Project took a chrysalis year. They recently emerged with a re-commitment to cultivate media for liberation, a commitment we share. They inspired us to think about what chrysalis looks like for GroundSource. This piece and the actions it describes is the result.
When I started GroundSource 6+ years ago, I dreamt of putting technology to work to spread the value of empathy and listening throughout journalism.
So much has happened since. But in building a service that now serves 45 organizations, having worked with at least three times that many over our short life span, and now processing close to a million outbound and inbound text messages per month between news organizations and their audiences and communities, it’s remarkable how much of that original vision we have delivered on.
Here are just a few of the recent inspiring applications of GroundSource.
The Seattle Times has built a thriving community around its ongoing coverage of orca whales (which was recently honored by the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and won the National Headliner Award for journalistic innovation).
100 Days in Appalachia listened to the historically ignored perspectives of young people in West Virginia to reveal the nuances of their political beliefs and much more.
El Tímpano is building a community-driven media service from the ground up in Oakland, California.
And the podcast Sold in America built an engaged texting community of more than 18,000 around the topic of sex trafficking in the US—gathering enough content through texts and voice memos to produce two entire bonus episodes.
This is just a fraction of the work our platform and service have helped enable.
We have more than delivered on the vision of spreading empathy and listening throughout journalism.
We have also linked arms with pioneering platforms and organizations including Hearken, The Coral Project, the Listening Post Collective, Gather, the Local Lab, the The Membership Puzzle Project; as well as funders including the Lenfest Institute, the News Integrity Initiative, the Democracy Fund, and the Knight Foundation to build capacity for listening and engagement throughout journalism through the Community Listening and Engagement Fund. Our brand is recognized globally, our work is considered part of the vanguard helping to change journalism, and our technology is as or more leading edge than platforms that have raised millions in venture capital.
We are deeply proud of this work. We are also proud of how much progress we’ve made with very little external investment — and without playing the VC scratch-off game (which, in our space, leads inevitably to surveillance-as-a-service businesses). We’ve earned real money from day one, and plowed every last dollar of it back into building and sustaining the business. We’ve stuck with it because we believe so deeply that what we’re building doesn’t just solve a problem — it can leave the world better than when we found it.
But here’s the thing about build a listening company: We are bound by the very principles and values that we work so hard to develop with our clients. That means we embrace a culture of continuous feedback and listening — to what our clients say, and to what our moment and our business demands of us.
But here’s the thing about build a listening company: we are bound by the very principles and values that we work so hard to develop with our clients.
That listening is leading us to make some changes. We started as a journalism technology company, with the potential (albeit abstract) to also help news organizations’ bottom lines. Over time, we realized that we were really good at helping newsrooms become better marketers.
What started as straightforward technology onboarding sessions became (through constant tweaking and reiteration by our Customer Success Lead, Simon Galperin) probing discussions about who a newsroom is serving, how to reach them, why they want to be reached, and how to effectively build compelling products people want to engage with. When we got it right, newsrooms found that their “textletters” and texting clubs grew consistently with astoundingly high (90-plus percent) retention rates, and activated people (to respond, to click, to show up at events) at rates exceeding 20 and 30 percent. For reference: Email open rates hover around 20–30 percent.
Meanwhile, all around us the signs of disruption multiplied. The stream of newsroom layoffs continued unabated, Internet media darlings went under, toxic tribalism continued to spread on social, and the click bubble continued to deflate. But there were also signs of positive change: membership models multiplied, podcasts exploded, subscription models spread, and news startups and established outfits increasingly put building relationships with their audiences at the heart of their business models.
Just enabling “engagement” (however you define it) in newsrooms without linking it directly to revenue was not only not enough, but it was starting to border on malpractice.
All of this suggested that, for GroundSource, just enabling “engagement” (however you define it) in newsrooms without linking it directly to revenue was not only not enough, but it was starting to border on malpractice. After all: if there’s no one in a newsroom to engage and listen, then none of this work matters.
Meanwhile, outside of journalism, marketers and brands began asking some of the same questions and confronting some of the same problems that news organizations were. At a time when the average person scrolls through 300 feet of feeds a day (the height of the Statue of Liberty), even companies with deep pockets began to struggle to earn and hold people’s attention.
A loyalty engine
Listening to all of these signals: We realized that what we had built, what we are building, is a loyalty engine. Done well, messaging products give a news organization’s fans and fans-to-be an experience of personal connection with a brand they trust. They’re also unparalleled in sustaining that connection, and activating (or to use the current parlance, funneling) people towards an end — whether it’s becoming a subscriber or a member, showing up at an event, or sharing feedback to demonstrate impact.
The connection between engagement, loyalty and financial sustainability outside of the news business is clear. Here’s a sampling of stats: Engaged consumers buy 90% more frequently, spend 60% more per transaction, and are five times more likely to be “brand loyal.” Engaged customers are four times likelier to appreciate a brand contacting them and seven times more likely to respond. 94% of highly engaged consumers state they are loyal vs. only 19% of others.
For all of these reasons, from here forward we will be building and spreading GroundSource as a service for helping earn and keep the loyalty of fans and audiences.
Unlike the traditional modes of broadcasting and distribution, loyalty is a two-way street. Loyalty isn’t transactional, it’s relational. Earning it requires listening — to data, feedback, and stories. Keeping it requires living up to your promises, being consistent, delivering something of value, and acting with a spirit of hospitality. We will be helping media and brands do all of these things by cultivating and sustaining conversations with those they serve.
Evolving into a company that helps organizations build trust and awareness with their audiences and fans isn’t just good for media companies, it’s good for the broader commercial and mission-driven sectors of society.
Some of these brands we will be working with will be in media, but they will also be breweries, sports teams, park systems, libraries, and more. What our ideal customers will all have in common is:
- an obsession with building loyalty by serving and listening to their fans
- a business model built on hospitality
- a commitment to giving back to the communities where they live and work
To make this leap, we are raising a seed investment round of $500k. We have one commitment already (and we’re close to another), and are looking for mission and strategy-aligned investors to close the round. If you know of investors who see opportunity at the intersection of media and brand work, please send them to us. The funding will allow us to finish off work on the next version of our platform (which is already 85 percent complete), and rapidly build new features and tools to enable:
- listening at scale (including some machine learning and natural language processing)
- automation of key loyalty tasks such as segmentation and scheduling
- integration with the many tools our clients are using and will use to understand who their fans are and how best to serve them
We will also be amping up our sales and marketing efforts (which, to date, has consisted of us writing smart stuff, showing up at conferences, and increasingly our customers doing that work for us) inside and outside of the news business.
We would not have gotten this far were it not for the web of support that has lifted us up and caught us from time to time. Our team, customers, collaborators, funders, friends, families, and you, dear readers — all we hope for at the end of the day is to make something useful for all of you. That is quite literally all we care about. I hope you stay with us as we embark on this new phase of our journey.
P.S. A parting thought. A good friend and collaborator shared a poem with me recently, intuiting (rightly so) that we were in the middle of a moment of reckoning. So, I’m not sure who needs this today, but I share it because it helped me embrace the hard, patient work of solving big problems.
Grooks of Piet Hein
prove their worth
by hitting back.
Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time.