“Hi, this is Jonathan Lai.” Why texting continues to be a big opportunity for newsrooms to customize news and start a conversation with their audience.

Texting is an affordable, accessible and popular way to communicate, making it a great space to try out new journalism ideas.

Inquirer reporters Jonathan Lai and Christian Hetrick introduce themselves.

Text messaging gets overlooked in most local news strategies. Maybe it appears too simplistic. Maybe it seems too personal or intimate. Or maybe it just doesn’t seem like journalism. (Spoiler: it is.)

But the list of reasons why newsrooms should consider adding texts to their mix of products to reach and engage people is growing, and before we tell you how our experiment with went, here are just some of the top reasons to consider trying it yourself.

Nearly 2 trillion messages were exchanged in 2017 and texting is more accessible to audiences than most news sites and apps, which depend on expensive data plans and internet connections to use. Also text message “open rates” are much higher than email and annoying spam is much less common. There are also many low-cost platforms that make texting easy nowadays, including the one we used for this project, GroundSource, built by veteran journalist Andrew Haeg. Plus, there is proof that it works. We were inspired by the positive results of similar texting projects at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, Outlier Media in Detroit and City Bureau in Chicago and wanted to see what we could do here in Philadelphia.

So given the popularity, accessibility and affordability of texting, we decided to experiment with it for the recent midterm elections to see whether, according to Philadelphia Inquirer ME of Audience and Innovation Kim Fox, there was a “there, there”. As we’ll explain in this post, there was.


Where the idea came from

A journalist

The idea for this texting experiment started with an email from Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Lai to his editor that included a smart list of new midterm election coverage ideas. Here’s what he wrote about texting:

“The premise is that people are busy and voting can be complicated. With politics moving so quickly these days (and a new congressional map!) a service to proactively help people vote could put our work in front of people in a new way and also build an identity as a place to go for this kind of information.”

Exactly. These days, people are busy, elections are complicated, and news moves quickly. Journalists are exploring new ways to become the go-to information source for voters and texting seemed like a good fit to Jonathan. Texting also seemed like a way to allow people to pare down the constant stream of news to just the things that matter to them the most. It also gives people the opportunity to reach out directly to a journalist if they want to know more, or if any of their questions weren’t answered in an article.

It took a few weeks to build plans around Jonathan’s idea and launch the experiment, and you can read more here about our research and collaboration process to get there.

Below, we’ll share everything that happened once we launched the experiment, including how we promoted it, what the texts looked like, how they performed, and what we learned. Here we go…

The experiment’s basics

The text messages ran for just over three weeks and Jonathan usually sent one a day, each week breaking down a single issue at stake in the midterm election. He also highlighted some key races and gave people ways to dive deeper on the issues on the Inquirer site, other news sites, and public information sites.

We used the GroundSource platform to send the messages and people could sign up by texting the word “ELECTION” to 215–544–3038 or by entering their phone number into the GroundSource widget that appeared in the article promoting the service.

How we promoted the texts

We promoted the experiment primarily through Jonathan’s Philly.com article introducing the experiment. He let people know how they could sign up and what to expect from the texts. The Inquirer, the lab, and various reporters and editors shared the link through social media and the Inquirer included the link in its morning newsletter.

The experiment was also promoted on one side of the postcard below which was handed out at the Inquirer booth at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on October 12th.

Illustration by Jared Whalen

How it looked

Signup & welcome

People who signed up received a welcome message from Jonathan. He introduced himself, explained again what the texts would include, and offered a choice between Pennsylvania or New Jersey election news since the Inquirer covers politics in both states.

Steps 1, 2 & 3 of the welcome process.

In the last step of welcome process, we wanted to provide some extra value since we had people’s attention. We decided to include a few important state-specific reminders well in advance of Election Day — including its date and what offices were up for grabs in their state. We similarly customized the day-before and day-of voting information for Pennsylvania and New Jersey voters on November 6th since some details — such as voting hours — differed between states.

The daily texts

Jonathan “hosted” the texts with Inquirer colleagues who helped him break down the issues each week. The texts were mostly adapted from Inquirer articles about three key issues: health care, gun control, and the economy.

An additional article was written each week by Jonathan’s colleague, which answered questions he received from people throughout the week. Here are those articles:

The visuals

We had fun thinking of phone-friendly visuals to add to the texts. Below is a GIF of Inquirer economic policy reporter Christian Hetrick drafting responses to audience questions.

“Look at Christian go!”

We were also able to add in a mix of other GIFs, including this map of gun violence incidents in Philadelphia.

By Garland Potts and Jared Whalen

How the texts performed

Below is a summary of how the texts performed in terms of audience size and engagement, the value people received from the texts, and how it was directly monetized. The full analysis, completed by our partners at Hero Digital, is also here for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the metrics.

Audience size

  • 464 people signed up and less than 6% of them opted out (a third opted out after the election was over)
  • A majority requested PA over NJ political news
  • Many participants were existing Inquirer subscribers and have been politically active for a while

Engagement levels

  • 41% of people responded to our texts to either ask a question, introduce themselves or text Jonathan for more info
  • People who clicked through from the texts stayed twice as long on the site, visited more pages and bounced less than other mobile visitors to the same philly.com pages
  • The most appealing content was more information about the ballot questions and the articles published on Fridays that answered people’s questions from the week

Value of the experience

  • 77% of survey respondents said they felt more informed about how to vote in the election having received the texts
  • 83% of survey respondents said they’d like to receive more text messages from the Inquirer — the topics they’re most interested in are breaking news, investigative journalism and more election-related news (keep in mind this is a politics-friendly crowd, which should put these preferences in some context)
  • Of people who said they clicked on a link, 93% said they found the additional information at least somewhat useful.
  • Overall perceived usefulness of the experiment correlated with the amount of engagement the person had with Jonathan’s texts.

Monetization

  • 10% of people who clicked through to the Inquirer site hit the pay meter
  • We converted 3 paid subscriptions from a special offer link we sent via text the day after the election. This was significant given that many of the people who signed up were already subscribed to the Inquirer (97% of survey respondents said they were already subscribed in print or digital).

User feedback

We also sent out a survey after the experiment was over and received a range of feedback from people on the experience. A relevant sampling is below:

Positive

This was a great service. You earned my subscription. I have enjoyed the coverage, and I subscribed to online plus Sunday. All the best and thank for all your work to help voters.
I thought you did an amazing job and you covered everything I was concerned about with the candidates. Also as an added bonus I felt like you were actually there and I could just talk to you if I needed to. It was one of the best things I ever signed up for!!!
It was great to receive informative texts and were very easy to navigate for what I wanted to know.

Negative

It felt like information overload, because I also read the daily Philly.com emails and generally live my life on Twitter. But maybe that just means I wasn’t the ideal recipient of this campaign.
Reading the information on the phone was too tedious. It’s very hard to read. I would prefer email.
I wish you would have had more information than what I already saw on different news sites. Employment is my number 1 concern.

Key Insights

What we learned about adapting articles to text messages

Our plan from the beginning was to adapt the text messages from articles the Inquirer had written about key election issues. While there are some similarities between writing news copy and composing text messages, we learned about some important differences that mostly come in the form of additional constraints.

The first constraint is length. It’s unusual for a text message to be lengthier than the phone screen itself, which is a challenge when you’re attempting to summarize say, two candidates’ positions on a key issue. Also, many texting apps indent messages so you can parse what you send from what you receive, which further reduces the space you have to stay on one screen. Setting character count limits for yourself at the beginning and sticking to them can help you make best use of the texting platform.

The second constraint is scanability, especially if your text message is on the longer side. Thinking about ways to make data points and other details easy to read and scan on a small screen is important, and sometimes we used emoji to group pieces of information together in a small space.

The third constraint is making sure the content you’re adapting (if you have it) supports the features you offer. We offered a level of personalization in the text messages that wasn’t supported by the articles we were trying to adapt to texting. We let people select Pennsylvania or New Jersey election news but in some cases, we had to ask our colleagues to do additional reporting or do original reporting ourselves to support that level of personalization.

Speaking of personalization, if you allow people to sign up for one thing or another — in our case PA or NJ news — also consider letting people sign up for both if you can support it. (We found FOMO is real, even with politics news.) Just because someone lives in New Jersey doesn’t mean they’re not interested in Pennsylvania political news, and vice versa. If we were to do this again we might offer a third option, but given the timing and the size of our team, we stuck to the two options.

What we learned about having open dialogue with our readers

Keeping up with responses was doable. First and foremost we learned that dialogue between one reporter and a few hundred people about political news is doable. Even though it sometimes took a good part of the day for Jonathan, the lab and his colleagues to draft, edit and approve the text, as well as manage responses, the hope is that in a future project there would be more pre-work done, less sign-off needed and more familiarity with the platform which would reduce the number of hours needed to spend on the texts.

Two things made it possible to handle that dialogue with people: the platform (GroundSource) and the reasonable amount of responses. We received around ten to twelve questions or responses per week, and Jonathan, myself and our editorial director André Natta were usually able to respond right away or within about a day. People’s responses were, for the most part, genuine, respectful and even friendly. Here are just a few…

The results helped ease some of our fears that the responses would become overwhelming, and the GroundSource platform also made it relatively easy to see a text come in and type the response directly into the tool.

What we learned about the time and effort it takes

There’s no getting around it, this took a while each day to pull off. Despite our pre-planning, access to the GroundSource platform and a dedicated three-person team (Jonathan and André, and me), the process often took hours, or sometimes nearly a full day to complete. The time added up to draft the texts, edit them, debate ad-hoc strategies around things like the use of emoji, coordinate with other reporters and also get approvals from desk editors and managing editors.

Some days the time flew by because we had lots of new ideas. Sometimes the workflow dragged because we paused for approvals or tried to fit regular workday tasks in between the texting workflow. We’re confident though that with more use of the tool, more experience editing for text messages and more familiarity with the format, we could greatly reduce the amount of time it took each day to send texts.

You could further reduce the time it takes to send texts by reusing existing content, like push notifications, which wouldn’t require a lot of editorial reimagination in order to send. However, we found overall that texting, just like any new format — like newsletters, or social media — still requires focus to get it right.

If you’re thinking of running a similar project in your newsroom and you want to reduce the time it takes, you might consider a few things:

  1. Reduce the number of days or weeks you offer the texts
  2. Think about whether or not you need to offer personalization (which adds complexity)
  3. Consider how many people will need to sign off and approve the texts
  4. Be thoughtful about how much conversation you invite with readers since responding takes time
  5. Think about re-using existing content versus adapting it, as long as it feels appropriate for texting

What we would do better next time

It’s common for product development teams to have a meeting after an experiment to reflect on how things went. Sometimes they’re called a “retrospective” or a “post-mortem”. In the lab, we call them “burndowns” and we talk about three things: 1) What went well? 2) What didn’t? 3) What could we do better next time?

In case anyone reading this wants to give texting a try, here is a list of things we said we would do better next time that might give you and your team a head start:

  • Set clear expectations for each other. It’s important to create shared expectations for things like the number of sign-ups you each expect so you know how your team will measure the outcomes of your promotion and of the project as a whole.
  • Pick the right texting platform for the features you think you need. Make sure you know enough about the features you want your texts to handle when picking the platform you use. Do you need to be able to respond to people? Do you want GIF support? What type of analytics will you need to evaluate success?
  • Write texts farther in advance. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing shorter is easier. With texting your writing has to be clear, short, scannable, accurate and preferably visual all in one tiny screen. Having texts written and composed farther in advance will help your team work out tone and format and give you some extra time to test various lengths on your own phones.
  • Consider the structure of an article more before assuming it will translate to texting well. If you’re using existing content to adapt to texts, make sure they’re edited with the texts in mind. Consistency, length, topics — the framework needs to be consistent across both.
  • Plan farther ahead. Give yourself time to ask your audience what they would want from the texts you have in mind—a simple Google Form will do. The responses will help you refine your content strategy rather than trying to get it perfect on your own before launching something.

If your newsroom wants to give texting a try and wants to know anything else that we didn’t cover here, just reach out by sending an email to sarah@lenfestinstitute.org. We’d all be happy to hear from you.


The Lenfest Local Lab is a small, multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia, PA supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.