Publishers experiment with delivering the news via text message

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As audiences look for immediate updates on key news events, some publishers have gone back to text messages as a way of delivering breaking news and daily bulletins.

The takeaways:
  • In March, The Arizona Republic started sending up to four texts on the pandemic each day, for free. Over 2,500 people have now signed up for the service. As a bonus, readers can respond, and any texts they send go directly to the reporters and editors in the newsroom.
  • BuzzFeed News journalist Mat Honan began texting readers the latest Covid-19 numbers and news in March to provide “a more immediate, engaging and interactive experience”. He had almost 1,000 recipients before recently having to pause the service due to organizational changes.
  • Indiana-based publication The New Paper has based its entire business model on text notifications. It charges $5 a month for a daily text that summarises the top stories into a concise message, and they have over 7,000 paying subscribers.

Behind the scenes: BuzzFeed News and The Arizona Republic both send their messages using a platform called Subtext. People receiving messages via Subtext grew 800% between March and April to 240,000 according to the company.

  • Text messages have a 98% open rate according to The New Paper. This is impressive when compared to email, which has on average just a 20% open rate.

Yes but: The financials and effort aren’t worth it for every publisher, especially larger ones.

  • The Arizona Republic said the texts weren’t providing a direct return on investment. They’re hoping for an indirect boost to paid newspaper subscriptions in the long run.
  • The New York Times experimented with texts in 2016 for updates on the Summer Olympics, and selected projects since then, but paused in 2017. Director of Interactive News at The Times, Ben Koski, said responding to the texts required more resources than expected. He also noted that texts work best for narrowly tailored subjects or particular moments.
Broad or narrow?

Despite the NYT’s assertions that texting is best suited to niche subjects, The New Paper’s experience would suggest that a model based on a much broader set of topics is indeed possible. Their daily texts cover a broad range of stories, including business, technology, finance, politics, and the economy.

Where’s WhatsApp? You’d think the popular messaging service would be a no-brainer for publishers looking to connect to audiences. But to crack down on “automated or bulk messaging, or non-personal news” on the platform, WhatsApp banned publishers from sending out newsletters in late 2019.

  • Although many publishers were in the early stages of sending out WhatsApp messages to subscribers, this hit German newspaper inFranken.de particularly hard. They had been sending WhatsApp messages to subscribers since 2014, with such good results that they’d discontinued their email newsletters.
  • The Telegraph had also been experimenting with ‘low tech’ audio briefings on WhatsApp. Users in this group were 12 times more likely to become paid subscribers. WhatsApp’s ban put an end to this promising service too.

SMS may sound like an old-fashioned technology, but publishers looking to build audiences on mobile would do well to look at it as a valuable two-way communication tool.

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