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Building trust from the start: How EducationNC set out to learn about and serve a prospective new audience

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As it expanded into the post-secondary beat, EdNC blitzed all 58 community colleges across North Carolina in one week to build relationships, surface issues, identify sources, and begin building a wholly new audience. You, too, can take the time to really get to know a targeted audience.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Mebane Rash, Nation Hahn, Nancy Rose, Molly Osborne, Analisa Sorrells, and Liz Bell from the EdNC team.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: In May 2018, EducationNC landed a two-year, $1 million investment from the John M. Belk Endowment, allowing us to expand our coverage to the whole education continuum from birth to career. For the first time in North Carolina, there will be daily coverage of the 58 community colleges across the state.

From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist. And in North Carolina, people generally only knew about their local community college, and coverage is often limited to changes in leadership and new buildings. Reporters don’t even show up for state board meetings.

This presented some opportunities and challenges our team had to figure out: How could we deliver targeted content to this targeted audience in a state that is 560 miles long?

Speed was also paramount: We could have spent two years visiting all 58 campuses. But to maximize the investment, we wanted to expedite that process and “get going.”

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: Our goal in the UNC contingent of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative is to transform from a source on K-12 education in North Carolina to the primary source of information on issues across the educational continuum from birth to career. Over the next two years, we will serve targeted content to targeted audiences, accelerate fundraising by diversifying investors, and use data to inform reflective practice and decision-making.

With this expansion, we believe North Carolina will be the most information-rich state in the nation on the issue of education. Organizationally, instead of being content driven, we are moving to being audience driven. The campus “blitz” allowed us to test our wings with this new orientation.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We went on a massive statewide “blitz” — visiting every single community college campus in the state, all 58 of them, in a single week.

This isn’t the first time we’ve met with our target audiences, but it’s the first time we’ve done it this way. When we launched EdNC in 2015, we traveled the state meeting with people while we built our platform, asking them what kinds of content they consumed, where they accessed content, how they consumed and shared information, etc. We used this playbook again to pilot our expansion into the post-secondary space. Six months before we received the grant from the Belk Endowment, our team started visiting community colleges, listening, creating content, testing consumption and communication patterns. This allowed us to build a glossary of terms for our team and our audience, build a rolodex of relationships, and better understand the ecosystem.

And that was key: We began to build trust with the leaders of our community college system. When we decided to go on the “blitz,” the community college system president sent emails to each school, gave us contact information for the presidents and the public information officers, and worked with us so we could understand from their vantage point the story of each college.

A few noteworthy tactics:

  • We were all in. We decided to use the entire team for this effort, as we fanned out across the state. Nation Hahn, our chief growth officer, contacted each president to request a specific date for our blitz visit. He connected the college presidents to the person on our team who would serve as lead for arranging the logistics of the visit. Molly Osborne and Analisa Sorrells then worked with colleges directly to craft agendas that would allow us to tell the story of the college and its role in the community.
  • We made the most of our time. If we were going to leverage the staff and financial resources to pull off the blitz, we needed to make sure our visits were rich. Most of the visits lasted at least half a day with the opportunity for us to meet college leadership, tour the campus, dive deep on particular programs, and meet students and faculty. Some colleges also arranged for local leaders and small business owners to meet our team. The shortest visit was two-and-half hours. The longest visit lasted closer to two days. During that visit, Sorrells visited four locations of Southwestern Community College, including Harrah’s Casino, where the college runs a table games training program and where Sorrells played blackjack with the president; a location housing art and outdoor leadership programs; and a location for police and park ranger programs. Our colleges exist in communities so, ahead of the blitz, Hahn created a list of the best places to eat near every community college. Our team stayed in notable local places from a house boat to a family farm. We had a team call at 5 p.m. each day to check in and make sure everyone was OK, but also to share highlights and figure out the best content for the next day.
  • We told stories along the way: On every visit, our team produced social-first content, including photos and video. They were tweeted by team members, retweeted by the community college system, the community college, and other influencers involved in the visit. In real time, quotes and photos were uploaded to a Slack channel for two team members running EdNC’s social media channels. We asked our team to begin work on long-form articles at night, upload photos with captions and tags (building in real time our stock photo library), and fill out a shared document that helped us understand where we should dive deeper with each college and the challenges and opportunities they face. We issued staff challenges for everything from the article with the most pageviews to the team member with the most impressions on Twitter.
  • We promoted the heck out of it: We purchased NPR ads on stations statewide. We worked with partners in legacy media to do an in-depth interview on Spectrum News, our statewide cable outlet. Peter Hans, the system president, was interviewed on Carolina Business Review, the most-watched public policy program in North and South Carolina, and we live tweeted the interview as it was taping.
  • We launched a new newsletter: We created a new email, Awake58, after first surveying our targeted audience to determine send time and date, and user testing content ideas.
  • We thanked people: Because we live in the South where hospitality is an art, we had a local artist design wooden coasters for the people we met along the way, and we followed up each visit with a handwritten thank you note.

Collectively, we drove 6,000 miles in one week across this state we all love.

Photo courtesy: EdNC staff

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: A few things:

  • Although we expected to surface issues, we didn’t expect leaders to be willing to go on the record on video on the toughest issues from their management flex cut to the residency determination system.
  • Teams of philanthropists joined our team on the blitz to better understand the colleges and communities where they make investments. This amplified our reach on social media by a lot.
  • Local media ran our articles and produced their own articles, which we didn’t expect.
  • The blitz was more of a team-building experience than we anticipated. Caroline Parker, our communications strategist, whose dog, Judge, accompanied her on the blitz, said, “It’s been a really fun week. I think even though we are not all together, we’re more of a team than ever.”

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We needed to manage expectations of the colleges better. We couldn’t roll out 58 articles in one week, and we should have explained to them that the articles would roll out over two months. In the pilot phase of our work, we sent teams to colleges, and we also should have explained better that the blitz visits would be conducted by individuals to avoid the “is it just you” reaction. Although leaders at the colleges knew who we were, many others at the colleges did not. We had business cards printed for all team members to hand out along the way, but it wasn’t quite enough to convey quickly who we were, why we were there, and what to expect.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: We have the benefit of having a team that is game. Once we put the strategy out there, the only question was execution. The key strategic decision in planning the blitz was our decision to tell colleges when we wanted to come visit versus asking them when we could come visit.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: When you have a community that has not been traditionally covered, reporters are scary. People asked us, ‘What’s your angle. What’s your story?’ We said, ‘Our story is your story. It is predicated on listening to you.’ And then we listened, which does actually make a difference.