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EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

A holistic strategy for content distribution, audience growth, and engagement

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Early on in the pandemic, EdNC decided to show up in the classrooms and communities we serve even before a vaccine was available. In that first year, from March 2020-March 2021, we safely visited 45 school districts and 29 community colleges in person.

As we traveled, our audience increased by 142% in 2020 and kept growing in 2021, a year when interest in news declined and news engagement “fell off a cliff” for other outlets.

In 2021, our audience included 1,171,164 individuals with 2,021,970 pageviews collectively. The Assembly, a new digital magazine about North Carolina, calls our reach “an impressive number for a single-issue outlet.”

This is the story of how one news organization built an architecture of participation for its audience from the ground up using the strategy, tactics, and tools available to media outlets today.

From newsies to an “architecture of participation”

Back in the early 1900s, newsies were young kids who sat on street corners and sold newspapers to those passing by.

During the Great Depression, with the loss of advertiser revenue, newspapers iterated the model. Paperboys delivered the news to people’s homes each morning, throwing the paper right up to their front door.

But that shift didn’t just mark the beginning of delivering news directly to the people: it also marked the importance of building relationships with your audience. Paperboys sold the subscriptions and collected the money, too. More often than not, they were from the communities they served.

The model mostly worked for half a century. But as the new digital media age dawned, traditional newspapers struggled to maintain the carrier model and at the same time create new models for the deployment of digital content.

By the early 2000s, an industry pivot began, moving from news that sells subscriptions and ads to news that subscribers could use, followed by outlets providing content that moved subscribers to action. That pivot required newsmakers to rethink how to get information to people as well as how to engage them given the increase in sources of information as well as availability and confirmation bias.

EdNC didn’t enter the scene until early 2015. We had an audience of zero.

We wanted to be the best in the world at listening to our audience, but to listen we first had to be in relationship with them. And to be in relationship, people had to see our content and know we existed.

We learned the hard way that content distribution (search engines, social media, newsletters) is different from audience growth (users and pageviews), which is different from engagement (being in two-way communication with our audience).

A holistic strategy, tactics, and tools

From the beginning, EdNC has aligned impact with mission, and our distribution, growth, and engagement are designed to that end. Because of our commitment to equity — we want everyone to have access to all of our information — our model has never depended on our audience for revenue.

In the early years, we were struck that everyone who worked or consulted with us on distribution, growth, and engagement had a different theory regarding what works best for news organizations. Their theories were based on their own knowledge, their own experience, their own comfort level with particular tactics, the news organizations they had worked for, what was trending or of interest to foundations, and a variety of other factors.

We also realized that many of the existing tools, including the code being used for texting, didn’t work very well. So we needed to build our own tool for engagement, which we call Reach, now used by other newsrooms around the country.

In May 2020, we paused. EdNC’s strategy was suffering from organizational whiplash. Our strategy had been through too many iterations too quickly, and it didn’t always advance the best interests of the organization and those we serve. The pandemic — and our resulting audience growth — incented reactive strategies exacerbating the whiplash.

Nation Hahn brought the idea of an “architecture of participation” to EdNC early on, and it was time for us to bake it into our organizational operations. He had completed the Media Transformation Challenge under the guidance of our coach Tim Griggs, and we needed to integrate what he had learned into our day-to-day work.

We consulted with Mary Alice Rose, who had studied journalism and worked with marketing firms to implement these strategies for corporations, to assess and build a holistic strategy across all of the tactics available to distribute content, grow, and engage our audience, including:

  • The website.
  • Email, including newsletters.
  • Social media.
  • Reach, our suite of tech tools, including texting and surveys.
  • Fostering belonging, including donations and membership.
  • Events, including ours and others.
  • Brand building, including swag and sponsorships.
  • Offering content to other outlets and platforms.

For each of these tactics, we wanted to understand all of the tools available. For each tool, we needed to assess what we currently did, what we would like to do, whether we knew how to do it, whether we had the manpower to do it, how much it costs, and whether the tool was evolving to require ongoing upskilling, etc.

We also needed to understand return on investment for each of the tools. How much does it cost to implement each tool in hard costs and team time, and what is the upside of each tool in terms of growth, engagement, or mission? This would inform how we would prioritize implementation of the tools across the tactics.

Theoretically, our comprehensive strategy, the tactics, and the tools could be iterated for the work of any news organization taking into consideration whether they are for purpose or for profit, the size of the team, and the resources available.

In this deck — which we hope will be useful for others in the media industry, from startups to those looking for upskilling materials — you can see all of the tools we assessed, tactic by tactic.

The need for a director of communications

The next step was for us to prioritize our use of the tools across all of the tactics relative to ROI, our team’s capacity, and our mission.

We hired a director of communications, Sergio Osnaya-Prieto, to implement and run a holistic strategy for us consistently for one year based on our research.

Mary Alice had created three tiers — what we must do, what we should do, and a wish list.

Sergio then evaluated Mary Alice’s assessments regarding each tactic — why it was important to our strategy, the cadence of implementation (ongoing, daily, weekly, etc.), and who on the team would be responsible.

He developed a color coded strategy to allow us to easily see our progress in implementation across all tactics and tools: green means the tool has been successfully implemented; blue means implementation is in progress; yellow means implementation is next up relative to organizational capacity; white means we haven’t assessed the tool yet for implementation; and red means we can’t assess the tool for implementation.

Key takeaways and learnings

To me, this exercise in developing a playbook and building a holistic strategy was about fiduciary responsibility. It needed to be clear to our Board, our team, and the next people who lead EdNC why we do things the way we do them. That way, when people want to change things, they will be able to evaluate the consequences and the risk.

Search engines, newsletters, and social media pretty evenly drive our traffic and growth. A diversified strategy protects us from things out of our control, for instance Facebook — aka Meta — changing its algorithm. Given our mission, our traffic within North Carolina is an organizational priority. The playbook allows us to make decisions relative to those priorities.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a new trend in distribution, growth, and engagement that emerges almost daily. As ideas are surfaced at EdNC, the playbook gives us a process for evaluating promising practices.

Unless and until Bobby Blanchard can be cloned, a holistic strategy serves to stabilize day-to-day operations around audience. A strategy built around voice only works if you have a Bobby. Especially for small organizations, the search for that kind of voice is like searching for a unicorn.

Ultimately, human beings have to implement the tools day in and day out, so pain points have to be factored into the ROI and the strategy. We opted to hire BCom Solutions to do our paid media acquisition on Facebook because, quite simply, it was a pain in the ass for our team. And we spend an inordinate amount of team time growing our very small Instagram audience because it makes us happy.

A year in

For the CEOs of news organizations, time matters, and our time is the most expensive time. Moreover, time that is required reactively when things go wrong, versus proactively when things go right, comes at a premium in terms of both stress and the opportunity cost.

A year in, none of my time is reactively needed when it comes to audience growth or engagement. Our director of communications runs the playbook with fidelity and is supported seamlessly by other members of the EdNC team. We have a 5 p.m. call each day to go over content and audience concerns, and we meet longer as needed on Friday mornings.

Our three-month rolling average for audience points to a monthly audience of 99,283 individuals generating 160,964 pageviews. With investments in our list, we now are sending out 249,272 emails each week.

In the first four months of our partnership with BCom Solutions, the number of clicks to our website from Facebook more than doubled, increasing from 36,058 clicks from April through July to 81,793 clicks from August through November. For three consecutive months, our website has had a record number of link clicks from Facebook. Likewise, our click-through rate has gone from 2.21% to 5.02%.

We’re seeing that our Facebook audience is invested in our content, as the average amount of time spent on a page has increased by more than a minute. We’ve been able to experiment with paid distribution oriented toward moving our mission and also expanding our reach geographically. We are also experimenting with informational ad campaigns to build public awareness and understanding.

From this foundation, we have been able to iterate. Here are our playbook priorities for 2022:

We are also now in a position to push forward on a dream, moving toward broadening and deepening our reach in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. This pivot comes after a consultant helped us determine EdNC had permeated the education influencer space, meaning we could now focus on telling more local education stories, implementing our playbook strategy, tactics, and tools county by county in addition to statewide.

If there are other tactics or tools you use in your newsroom, please let us know as we continue to teach ourselves how to do this work with audience and an architecture for their participation in mind.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

Sergio Osnaya-Prieto

Sergio Osnaya-Prieto is a communications strategist at EducationNC.