COVID-19 text messages build community, unique visits at Newsday
Ideas Blog | 07 July 2021
New York was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the second-highest death rate in the nation. From the beginning, Newsday worked tirelessly to deliver important news and updates about the virus to the people of Long Island.
As state and local officials held daily briefings, schools closed, and quarantine settled in, our journalists went inside hospitals, tracked data, documented how people were coping, and reported on the more than 6,000 Long Island residents who died.
With the news surrounding the virus changing so rapidly, we wanted to find ways to deliver it to our readers in a more personal way on the platform of their choice. So we did things like start a daily coronavirus newsletter and a data portal with the latest statistics. And we decided to try a daily SMS text.
Experimenting with a new approach
Working with Subtext, we launched a free texting campaign called Tracking the Coronavirus in May 2020. That was right around the time Long Island started slowly emerging from its initial peak of cases earlier in the spring, testing was ramping up, and schools and businesses were talking about reopening plans. The idea was to help people in our community more easily stay informed by getting a daily text from Newsday journalists with the key update and a link to the story.
We tracked metrics, monitored click-through rates, and experimented with the conversational tone, timing, and content of our texts as the pandemic evolved. We would introduce ourselves by name, follow up on messages, ask questions, engage with texters to get story ideas, and listen to what they were looking for.
For example, after many subscribers asked for the new daily virus case counts in the area, we started including Long Island’s numbers for the day in the text. When we started getting an influx of new subscribers, we initiated a “texting takeover” with one of our reporters who solicited questions and personally texted back more than 30 people with answers.
Pivoting when we needed to
Our content was well-received, but our subscriber growth was still slow. So we brainstormed ways to promote this product. By far, including a simple link to the sign-up page at the bottom of every coronavirus-related story online and in print helped us grow the most.
We also tried some things that didn’t work well for us. We found we had the most consistent click-through rates when we would text around the same time every day (generally around 5 p.m.) We noticed a pattern of double-digit unsubscribes if we texted on weekend mornings — we lost 55 people after a 9 a.m. text. And, we try to limit it to one text per day after losing subscribers on days we texted twice.
We ultimately saw success from evolving our strategy. We reached 1,000 subscribers in September, had more than 2,500 by the end of 2020, and in March 2021 have more than 6,500 after a large spike in sign-ups from our vaccine rollout coverage.
We’ve tried hard to give our audience more conversational, consistent content as well as answer questions and take their concerns into account. I even took a few days to research and write a resource guide of how to get vaccination appointments after getting many texts expressing frustration with the process. This guide has now received more than 147,000 unique visits to Newsday.com — I don’t know if we would’ve done it had we not been hearing from our audience all the time.
Through texts, we’ve also learned a new way to break down the barrier between reader and journalist during a time of uncertainty and when Long Islanders felt alone. It gave our audience an easy way to ask us questions and share ideas. And we were able to connect on a personal level with people in our own community.
By building ties with a growing audience on a new platform, we hoped to show them they can rely on Newsday. Texting people also allowed us to expand our reach in the coverage area, with more than 50 people becoming Newsday subscribers after getting our texts.