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Texting Your Audience is a Really Good Idea

Sam Ward and Hannah Young on building audience relationships with SMS


The McNamara Alumni Center, where we’ll return for SRCCON 2018. (Erik Westra, 2016)

SRCCON 2018 is next week (!!), and as a preview, we’ve asked a handful of facilitators to tell us about their sessions. First up, it’s Sam Ward and Hannah Young, talking about Reveal’s SMS-based experiment in (non-creepy) ways to build audience relationships —Ed.

Q&A with Sam Ward & Hannah Young

Q. What’s the origin story for this SRCCON session? Why did you pitch this particular session, in this particular year?

For the past year, we’ve been experimenting with Amplify, an SMS platform we developed in collaboration with the Stanford d.school. Amplify has allowed us to connect with our radio and podcast listeners in a deeper, more intimate way than we had been able to with social media or email.

Reveal has launched Amplify across four podcasts since June of 2017: Misconceptions, Street fight, Inside Trump’s immigration crackdown, and The red line: Racial disparities in lending. We also launched The red line: Racial disparities in lending on our radio show, which goes out on 450+ public radio stations across the country. In total, we’ve sent nearly 138,000 messages to over 14,000 users.

Texting is a powerful tool to build a deeper, more personal relationship with our audience. As part of Reveal’s investigation into modern-day redlining, we connected Amplify with a database of 31 million Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records that allowed our listeners to text us their address to look up if lending disparities by race/ethnicity are happening where they live.

Since that episode came out, roughly 6,500 listeners have engaged with our reporting and data through Amplify. Of those, more than 2,000 posed questions they had about the issue. This opened up a new line of reporting for Reveal, including an article and podcast special that answered our audience’s most frequently asked questions.

We’ve learned a lot, and feel like we’ve only scratched the surface with what’s possible. We’re excited to share what we’ve learned with SRCCON. And we’re even more excited to learn what other folks have tried.

Q. Can you tell us a few surprising things or high-level takeaways about building relationships with an audience via SMS?

There are several key strengths for using SMS as the platform to deepen your relationship with your audience. First, you’re not reliant on the whims of any third-party algorithm, looking at you, Facebook. It is much more like email, where you have a direct connection to your audience. We’ve found people are eager engage with us—especially when they are listening to a podcast because they’re already on their phones.

Second, the platform is incredibly flexible. We’ve used it to send additional content to listeners to complement what they are hearing. This includes photographs, graphics, and documents. We’ve also used SMS as the front-end to a whole interactive database, where users can look up the racial disparity in home lending for any address in the country. But where it’s been really powerful is when we use it as a bridge between our audience and our reporters. On several campaigns, we’ve asked users what questions or experiences they have on issues including redlining, political protests, and immigration. Each time we ask, we see hundreds (and, one time, we saw thousands) of responses. We’ve used these responses to inform our reporting.

The third strength of SMS is its ability to facilitate personal interactions with listeners—an ability that we’ve not been able to replicate on any other technology platform. We often get questions, comments, and photos from our listeners telling us about where they’re listening, what they like about Reveal, and more. For example, we started one episode with a selfie from our host, Al Letson. People responded back with their own selfies and updates about what they were doing while they were listening—the same sorts of things you’d send to your friends and family.

Q. What are you most hoping that people will walk away with, after your session? What are you most looking forward to, in bringing this to SRCCON?

We hope people will come away from the session with a methodology for launching SMS campaigns that are authentic, personal, and substantive. We’ll explore finding the right voice, tone, and rhythm for a campaign, and then put it to the test by prototyping scripts right in the session, so participants walk away knowing what it feels like to run a SMS campaign. We’re excited to share our experiences with other news nerds, and learn from what others have tried.

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