Short Takes: Lessons from a failed newsletter in how to engage with your audience
Short Takes is an occasional series that captures interesting work by Missouri School of Journalism students.
As part of my RJI Student Innovation Fellowship with the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colorado, a co-worker and I were given the task to start and grow a paid subscription newsletter, The Playbook, that covered rural prep sports in Northern Colorado.
After five short months, the Tribune’s management ended the newsletter because we failed to get enough subscribers, causing the company to lose money.
I may have learned far more about audience engagement through the struggles than I would have if the newsletter succeeded.
I was forced to get creative, to do whatever I had to lure and keep the audience engaged and coming back for more. In some ways, we did just that, even though we ran out of time.
One of the things I learned is that audiences love lists, so here are three ways to engage with your audience.
1. Give the audience what they want
The most important aspect of any journalism is understanding who your audience is and what your audience wants.
This seems self-explanatory but this idea gets lost on journalists, as many create content they would want rather than thinking about their audience. We fell into this trap.
The Playbook covered 11 small schools across Northern Colorado, and when it first started, we covered about two schools per issue with long, in-depth featured stories. This meant that we were leaving out nine other schools and their communities, which added up to be about 500 potential subscribers.
So we realized we needed to create shorter sections with a wider variety of schools in each issue. We tried to never leave a school out.
These new sections included highlighting players of the day and giving fun facts about each school in the league all while still maintaining the main feature story in the newsletter.
2. Interact with your audience
Once we changed the format of The Playbook, we turned our attention to the big question — how do we keep and bring in new subscribers?
We came up with strategies for interaction. Readers will come back if they are personally invested in the content and have a say in some of the sections.
We added special sections, such as trivia questions about the high school league, and contests, where we asked the subscribers their predictions of a certain games and kept a running leaderboard.
We also asked subscribers for submissions of videos or photos of sporting events to include in the newsletter, hoping that it would create more interaction between us and our readers.
The problem was this newsletter covered such a specific niche that we didn’t have many subscribers in the first place, which affected how many people actually interacted with us. The strategy was sound, but it would have been more effective with a bigger base.
3. Take advantage of social media
We had more than double the number of followers on our social media accounts than subscribers to the newsletter, which helped spread the word of the newsletter more than we could have done by word of mouth. The Playbook quickly gained recognition and was beginning to grow.
This was in large part due to another new section we added to the newsletter. Every Monday, we compiled the top four male and female athletes and created a Twitter poll for the community to vote on the athlete of the week.
It was interesting to see how much support these athletes received from their communities. It became a competition between schools to vote their athletes to the top of the poll. Many of these Twitter polls would receive 300-500 votes and have numerous interactions between athletes and school communities.
Near the end of the newsletter, schools were tweeting to our account about score updates or sports news, which goes to show how much social media can be used to grow a publication or even a brand in a short amount of time.
Quinn Ritzdorf is a convergence journalism student at the University of Missouri. During Spring 2019, he worked at the Greeley Tribune on a prep sports newsletter that covered 11 schools in Northern Colorado. Previously he has created multimedia stories for KBIA, KOMU, Missouri Business Alert and the Columbia Missourian. Follow him on Twitter @QRitz7.
If your news organization could benefit from having a group of talented students work on a new product, service or other innovation, contact RJI Associate Director Mike McKean to explore the options.