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Grow your audience, repurpose content and increase brand awareness with city guides

Emilie Stooksbury of New2Knox and Ryan Willusz of the Scruffy Stuff podcasts recording at Five Thirty Lounge in Knoxville,Tenn. on Wednesday, August 2, 2023.

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: A first impression is important, and these strategies for city guides from Knox News can help turn newcomers into lifelong subscribers.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. 

This “win” comes from Areena Arora, data, investigative and education reporter; Joel Christopher, executive editor; Robin Gibson, people and trends editor; Ryan Wilusz, downtown growth and development reporter; all of Knox News, which participated in the UNC Table Stakes program in 2020-21 and 2022-23.

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

Answer: Knoxville, Tenn., is growing at impressive rates, with 80,000 people expected to move here by 2040. Moving is stressful. Buying a home, starting a job, getting new licenses and trying to make friends naturally take precedence over reading local news.

Plus, a local news source is not always the most obvious place for newcomers to find answers to everyday questions about their new community, especially for young professionals.

But how great would it be to make a first impression on these folks, especially before they even arrive here? We’re seeking to welcome them with open arms and to clearly show our value in a way that converts them to lifelong subscribers.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Enter, Knoxpedia. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a free digital guide to all things Knoxville. It’s targeted at “new” Knoxvillians, which could mean a variety of things.

Obviously, it’s for anyone who moves here. But it’s also designed for people entering new chapters in their lives that spur them to become more civically engaged.

First-time parent? There’s a section on schools and children’s issues. First-time voter? Knoxpedia tells you what’s on the ballot and how to register. Even for those just looking to make friends, there’s a section all about fun things to do in East Tennessee and connecting with others.

Here are some of the topic links:

Still, the question remains: How do you get people to know this resource exists? Partnerships, promotion and an intense focus on SEO trends.

Q: What worked?

A: Even if this all sounds great, you’re probably still wondering how to pull people through the audience funnel, especially when the guide is free. Linking and brevity are key. We wanted this guide to be practical and mobile-friendly considering our targeted audience is busy by virtue of being new.

Using a Q&A format, readers are able to get clear, concise answers to their questions. To dive deeper, they can click on a variety of inline links that lead to related stories — some still free, but mostly for subscribers.

We don’t want newcomers to feel cheated, but we do want them to see the expanse and detail of our coverage. Our hope is by experiencing the value we provide, new residents will be more likely to subscribe upon reaching these paywalls, especially during a time in which they most need information about their new community.

Which brings us to our next point: Populating the guide is easy if your newsroom already is doing the important day-to-day work. Most of the questions we identified for the guide (using SEO research and anecdotes from new-to-Knoxville reporters) were already answered somewhere in our daily coverage.

All we asked of reporters was to identify those stories, summarize the information to fit the Q&A format and link back to their work. The careful focus on SEO has paid off with our initial collection of seven guides drawing roughly 25% to 40% of their views from search in the first three months.

Additionally, even though the guides are always free to read without a subscription, they have been directly connected to more than a dozen new subscriptions since they went online.

The main guide, pictured in this screenshot, has brought in nearly 8,000 page views so far.

The main guide has 7,966 page views since launching and is responsible for 10 of those subscriptions. The housing guide has the second-most subscriptions, with five.

All sections have had a steady hum of daily traffic since the initial burst of interest when we first posted and promoted the sections all at once. We earned an additional subscription within just two days of launching and promoting our newest section, a comprehensive guide to downtown Knoxville.

But analytics and subscriptions aside, part of our goal with this project is creating brand awareness and loyalty by providing a resource no other local publication is producing. It shows we care about these people, we want them in our community, and we are accessible to answer any questions they might have upon moving here.

Even if they don’t initially subscribe upon reaching paywalled stories linked within the guides, we are still forming relationships with readers we haven’t previously reached. Perhaps, paying for a subscription as a newcomer doesn’t seem financially viable when considering moving expenses, but this brand awareness could lead to loyalty and subscriptions once they are settled.

Q: What didn’t work?

A:  The biggest setback was our original format, modeled after a guide created for another USA TODAY Network newsroom. The mobile-friendly format inspired a lot of the decisions we made in creating Knoxpedia as it let users click-to-scroll to the section that interested them.

But the files were maintained outside our CMS, and we soon realized the back-end work required the assistance of people outside our newsroom who might not be as invested in the project as we are.

Additionally, changes to the guide did not always publish the way we intended, making the format unreliable.

Lesson learned: Don’t fix what isn’t broken. We shifted gears to create the guide in our company CMS, which everyone in the newsroom knows how to use. This sudden change ended up being a blessing in disguise after we realized we would have to split the guide into different URLs for different sections to maximize SEO and narrow our promotion efforts.

Why is this so great? It allows us to promote each section of the guide individually on social media. If news breaks about the school system, we can promote the schools guide itself. Each guide has prominent links to other sections, so it’s still easy to navigate. The main difference is the versatility we now have in promotion.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Readers quickly became invested, even longtime residents who are just generally passionate about Knoxville. Within just a few hours of launching Knoxpedia with a robust social campaign, our core project team began receiving emails with questions to add to the guide (we created a Knoxpedia email that forwards messages to team members). Those questions will be added to emphasize Knoxpedia is a living, breathing document.

Additionally, we formed a partnership with a local group called New2Knox as part of this project. Staff at New2Knox, which started as a friend matchmaking service, quickly became some of the top influencers in East Tennessee thanks to their connections in the business community, their own business minds and a positive social media aesthetic that paints Knoxville as one of the most wonderful places to live.

We knew they would be great partners — they have the tone to reach an audience segment we’re looking for, while we have the reach and the resources to help populate their site and social media with the latest news happening around town.

What we did not realize was just how many opportunities a partnership like this can present. Knox News is now the official media partner of New2Knox, and we feature a weekly blurb from New2Knox in one of our newsletters. They are included in our Knoxpedia guide while we’re a partner in their guide to moving here.

New2Knox even tags along on assignments about new businesses opening to gather social media content, which they then share with links to our work. We’re now working on co-hosting an orientation-style event for newcomers soon.

Social and search have been big traffic drivers for Knoxpedia.

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

A: Work smarter, not harder. Before you begin, take inventory of the work you’ve already done and consider how it could be repurposed into the guide.

Additionally, do your research when it comes to SEO. Fewer and fewer people are coming directly to their favorite news site — they’re coming to you through the side doors of search and social.

We all know the importance of search, but it’s especially important when dealing with an audience that has no relationship with you (such as out-of-towners). Make sure the questions you present in subheds are asked the way people search for them.

Additionally, a project of this magnitude can sound scary for a newsroom. Anything new could translate to “more work” in a reporter’s mind no matter how much you tell them it won’t be. So we found it’s best for project updates and new tasks to be shared with the newsroom by reporters’ peers rather than coming from editors.

Having a core team of invested reporters acting on the project’s behalf encourages other reporters to get more involved and discourages them from slacking when they see their colleagues contributing to the project with passion.

Finally, this isn’t a one-and-done story. You have to remember new people are moving to your city every day and they haven’t seen your original promotion plan. They don’t even know who you are. So don’t be afraid to promote over and over again. You can always promote way more than you think without annoying your core audience — just be sure each round of promotion has something fresh for those who have seen it before.

The Knoxpedia team — Robin Gibson (from left), Ryan Wilusz and Areena Arora — have a little fun in the newsrom as they launch the city guide.

Q: What’s next for this work?

A: It’s worth saying again: Knoxpedia is a living, breathing document. So, any time a reasonable question is sent our way, we add it to the guide.

Our project team meets every two weeks to go over submitted questions or new topics drawn from online search traffic, create new social plans and come up with new ideas to increase the reach of Knoxpedia.

Up next, we are adding a downtown section. Down the road, we want to create a Knoxville dictionary of all the Knoxville words you need to know, what they mean and how to say them, including audio pronunciations from notable Knoxvillians.