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How community-based initiatives helped The Keene Sentinel generate $140,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As the COVID-19 pandemic hit advertising, The Keene Sentinel of New Hampshire used its email database to generate additional revenue through a “grocery giveaway” sweepstakes and several other initiatives that served the public.

This is a series on Better News a) to 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 Terrence Williams, president and chief operating officer; Cecily Weisburgh, managing editor – digital; Anika Clark, managing editor – local news; Jessica Garcia, director of digital and design; and Michael Breshears, sales and marketing director, all of The Keene Sentinel. The Sentinel participated in the 2019-20 Poynter Local News Innovation Table Stakes cohort.

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

Answer: With the dramatic impact of the novel coronavirus on our local businesses — and, therefore, advertising — we at The Keene Sentinel are searching for ways to add revenue and better serve the public, which is reeling from COVID-19 fears and lost jobs.

The Keene Sentinel is located in the southwest corner of New Hampshire in the Monadnock Region. The Sentinel is the fifth-oldest continuously published newspaper in the country, having started in 1799. We’re locally owned and owner/publisher Tom Ewing occupies the corner office. Our six-day circulation averages about 6,000.

Before the pandemic escalated, we had achieved our budget goals for the first two months of the year, which are typically soft months. We had developed plans to grow our niche publications, events and digital revenue through various initiatives as we continue to diversify our revenue streams and become less reliant on print advertising.

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: This effort relates directly to Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We organized three cross-departmental teams focused on revenue, reader retention and audience engagement. Administration, news, sales, IT, operations, graphics, digital and specialty product teams were all represented. Some of us sat on two committees to ensure communication across the teams. A total of 20 staff members were involved. (We have a 12-member newsroom and an overall staff of 60 full- and part-time employees.)

Before the pandemic’s impact on advertising, one of our goals was to create $100,000 in new revenue, using data to find new opportunities or enhance current efforts, particularly event ticket sales.

We saw our email database, which we have kept clean and continue to grow, as a key component to that effort. The database was generated from a variety of sources, including those we have from our subscribers, business relationships, opt-in emails from newsletters and contests. We are careful about privacy.

The Pet Palooza Photo Contest generated $3,000 in sponsorships. (Illustration created by the Keene Sentinel)

When COVID-19 scrapped our in-person events, we turned to other uses of the email database, including a “grocery giveaway” sweepstakes, an online talent contest called Monadnock’s Got Talent and a pets photo contest. We also used the database in a crowdfunding effort (“Help Local Journalism Thrive”) to support our COVID-19 coverage.

Through these and other measures, we exceeded our goal by the end of June, raising $140,000 in new revenue, of which $88,000 came from email appeals to support our newsgathering efforts.

In this Better News piece, we’ll do a deep dive on the Great Grocery Giveaway, which was one of the most rewarding in terms of new email signups and community engagement.

Our sweepstakes platform, Second Street Lab, announced it was running a national grocery giveaway. Second Street Media is a vendor that specializes in promotions and contests that generate sponsorships and emails. They run a variety of contests, including “Best of” promotions.

We thought the “grocery giveaway” idea could work well locally, so, using the sweepstakes platform, we set up a contest for local residents. We ran the contest over 10 weeks with a weekly winner taking home $100 in free groceries.

Hannaford, a regional supermarket chain, agreed to sponsor the contest for $4,000 — including $1,000 in gift certificates that could be used at Hannaford stores in the region.

We did an email blast to our database of more than 25,000 email addresses, many gathered from past Second Street promotions. We ran ads in print and online. The response was significant with 7,200 entries.

We went to the local Hannaford store and took pictures of the weekly winners, which we posted on our Facebook page and in subsequent email blasts.

More than 1,300 participants in the contest opted into our digital News Updates newsletter, which is a key strategy for us in moving these readers “down the funnel” to become paying subscribers. That follows the Table Stakes principle that news organizations must funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists.

Nearly 2,600 participants said they want to receive future offers and invitations to contests.

Our team met (and continues to meet) weekly, regularly updating our goals. We had to work outside the newsroom teams to improve customer service and user experiences when signing up online for digital and print subscriptions. So we reached out and got help from our circulation and technical staff members.

Q: What worked?

 A: The Great Grocery Giveaway resulted in $4,000 in sponsorships (including $1,000 in gift certificates); 7,200 entries; 1,300 new newsletter subscribers; and 2,600 people willing to get future offers. Here are several other initiatives that led to additional revenue and grants:

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Our three teams encompassed about one-third of our staff, but the Table Stakes essentials from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and the Poynter Local News Innovation program are not yet broadly understood across the company. That is a major objective for the remainder of this year.

With the Great Grocery Giveaway, we struggled with the software and could have had many more participants had we fully understood some of the platform’s settings. Also, we failed to take advantage of the platform’s ability to survey participants during the entry process, which could have provided additional data.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We didn’t anticipate how quickly we could roll out projects tied to our goals. That was a pleasant surprise. As for unpleasant discoveries, we have learned that we have miles to go before we have the level of customer service we need to better retain subscribers.

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

A: We would engage more staff in the project, providing a fuller explanation of Table Stakes and how it aims to build reader revenue and engagement. That is now a major objective. In addition, we could probably charge more for sponsorships for these contests.

We would focus more on customer service as a company initiative from the beginning. We have recently developed a customer service team, an offshoot of our retention team, to fix delivery issues and create consistent policies on handling customer complaints. Our focus first was on the user experience, particularly for online subscription signups.

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

A: Build an email database that can be constantly updated and cleaned, import email lists from any trusted source you can find and purge the overall database of duplicates. Second Street is built for this and is a good engine on which to run this data; there may be others. Make certain, of course, to follow rules about email privacy and permission to receive offers. Few users unsubscribed from receiving regular communications, which may prove helpful to creating a membership model in time.

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

A: The Great Grocery Giveaway concept can lead to multiple ways to leverage an email database. Although revenue for the sweepstakes alone was not game-changing, we found other value in it:

  • Increased emails both for sending subscription offers and announcing future contests
  • Increased opt-ins for newsletter subscribers; these are good targets to convert to paying readers
  • New programs prompting new advertisers; this grocer does only inserts with us but now would like to consider a proposal for a contest centered on a store renovation
  • Quantifiable data that can be shared with an advertiser — entrants, emails, page views and open rates, among other metrics

Related: Read how The Post and Courier used a “mini-publisher” approach to create new revenue streams