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How KXLY-TV reaches a busy audience with a handcrafted newsletter

Move beyond automated newsletters by writing a newsletter for a targeted audience that actually fits their needs.

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 Melissa Luck, news director of 4 News Now/KXLY-TV, which is based in Spokane, Wash., and also serves Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. KXLY participated in the Knight-ASU Tables Stakes program in 2018-19.

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

Answer: We’re a local news organization that is owned by a small, family-owned company that has been dedicated to community-minded journalism since the late 1800s. Our audience is most of eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Our focus has long been TV news, but we have been stretching into digital for years, and it is now a huge portion of our focus.

We have been trying to increase viewers in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic on TV for years. We have been in the second or third position across all dayparts and really wanted to focus our growth with this targeted audience.

Our initial goal was to grow the TV audience, but we’ve been trying to grow our digital audience, as well. Not only does loyalty to the brand typically extend across platforms — we really just wanted to get our journalism in front of the most people. We don’t believe TV and digital compete with each other, and when done right, the two complement each other. Growing our audience on one platform will likely help grow the audience on the other.

The 25-to-54 demographic has long been the most sought-after in TV news, but there’s a big difference between 25-year-olds and 54-year-olds. We decided to lean into one specific part of the audience by looking for ways to serve their needs. Women are more likely to be TV news viewers. And women are the most likely to make spending decisions and safety decisions for their families. For us, a natural targeted audience was born.

Through the Table Stakes program at Arizona State University, we homed in specifically on a persona — in our case, a woman in her late 30s, early 40s, who is a busy mom of kids. We made “Chelsea” the focus of our efforts on TV and digital.

We know that “Chelsea” is not always available to sit and watch the news, so we looked for other ways to connect with her throughout the day.

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 approach is related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content). We became an organization that thinks “audience first” across all dayparts and platforms.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Our Table Stakes team first focused on how to reach the “Chelsea” audience on TV and through traditional digital channels. That team consisted of myself, KXLY General Manager Teddie Gibbon, Morgan Murphy Media Vice President of News Colin Benedict and Morgan Murphy Media Director of Digital Operations Jill Shiroma. TV and digital in its more basic forms were our focus initially. But we always knew we wanted to do more. From a business standpoint, we wanted to grow our email database and wanted to increase TV news viewership with this audience. As the conversations grew surrounding our Chelsea project, our sales department was brought into the conversation and the entire project, and our goals were presented to the entire station.

Working together with our digital sales department, we have been working to grow our email database for years as a way to deliver targeted content, information about contests and promotions, etc. From the newsroom, we had several digital newsletters that really didn’t need much attention day to day.

For example, we have a couple of automated newsletters that go out daily. They feature headlines and link back to our website. Those newsletters provide some value for the consumer, but they are not a personalized, targeted experience.

Our Table Stakes core team always had a curated newsletter in mind but didn’t really have examples of any local news organizations doing that. We looked at the success of newsletters like The Skimm, then thought about how it related to our audience and our news content.

Then, the Daily Local was born. We wanted a newsletter that would reach these busy moms at a time that worked for them with content that actually pertained to their lives. We wanted it to have a voice that spoke just to them.

We considered what time of day this newsletter should be delivered to their inboxes. As any mom can tell you, she doesn’t have time to read another email at 8 a.m. She’s either getting kids out the door/online for school or just getting to work and finally able to check in.

So we thought about when “Chelsea” might wind down. We landed on 8 p.m. The day finally quiets down, we can grab our phones and check in on social media and with emails we can actually take the time to read.

Our producer for late news was the perfect person to spearhead the execution of this project. Though she’s not quite in the “Chelsea” age range, she consumes content in this way and did an excellent job creating a voice for the newsletter.

Now the newsletter is executed by the other members of our digital team. It walks through the big stories of the day and often includes some lighter/lifestyle content. It has a weather forecast tailored to her needs and typically ends with a Staff Pick, where someone from our news staff shares a restaurant they’ve tried, a book they like, a life hack, etc.

It’s a quick enough read with links, so we feel like we’ve caught “Chelsea” up without wasting her time.

Q: What worked?

This is an example of an ad campaign run as sponsored content in the Daily Local newsletter.

A: We grew our newsletter subscriptions quickly. When we set out, we had a modest goal of collecting 2,000 subscribers by the end of the first year. Three years in, we’ve passed 10,000 subscribers. About 28% of subscribers say they read the newsletter “often,” which is a good metric for us, considering it comes every day. Over the last year, our subscription rate has grown exponentially with an unsubscribe rate of less than 1%. People who signed up (even if they opted in from a contest or something unrelated) found it valuable enough to stay with it.

We found that the delivery time works. Most subscribers read it between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Some catch up in the morning, but that prime time bet paid off.

We’ve been able to sell sponsorships on the Daily Local as well, so it’s clear our advertisers understand that they are reaching that targeted demographic with this concept.

For example, a project Live Local NW was trying to increase awareness of local businesses that had suffered during the pandemic. Through a sponsorship in the Daily Local, they were able to put their mission in front of this “Chelsea” audience. They included an ad in the newsletter, through which they could share their mission and also a link to their website. Through a weeklong sponsorship, nearly 200 people clicked the link and were directed to that site.

Overall, the newsletter was so successful in driving pageviews and with a solid open rate that we expanded it to seven days a week. Although it’s hard to determine growth attributed specifically to the Daily Local, we’ve seen our pageviews grow by more than a million per year since launching the Daily Local. Much of that growth can be attributed to a more complete, targeted overall digital strategy and the thirst for news during the pandemic, but we do believe the Daily Local played a role because of the targeted audience and content.

This is an example of an ad campaign run as sponsored content in the Daily Local newsletter.

The newsletter has consistently had an open rate of around 16 percent. Sundays have the highest open rate of any day of the week, with an average of 20 to 25 percent.

We see the newsletter, first and foremost, as a way to deliver our content to this busy, targeted audience. We like them to click on links and get back to the website to increase pageviews. Most of our web traffic still comes from social media, and it will likely stay that way. But this newsletter is one more avenue for people to connect with our brand and our content and easily get to our website for more information about certain topics.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: I honestly can’t think of anything that didn’t work! Our workflow adjusted to be able to execute this new product without having to hire new people.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: I was surprised how quickly the subscribers grew. We promoted it heavily on TV, and we also included a sign-up link in some of our news stories. But I was shocked when just weeks after launching it, people were telling me, “Oh, I love the Daily Local.” Usually, it takes a lot longer for that buy-in to happen and for people to remember the name of the product.

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

A: We really flew by the seat of our pants when we launched this newsletter. We went by feel more than anything else.

Going back, we could have looked at more examples from newsletters that weren’t based on news content to get some best-practice ideas. What we’ve done well, though, is adapted when we see those new things. We’re a small enough team that it’s easy to communicate suggestions and changes and get them executed quickly. We also really believe in the “design-do” concept we learned through Table Stakes. Instead of waiting for things to be perfect, start the project and adjust along the way. Because we allowed ourselves to fail and make changes on the fly, we felt the freedom to launch without things being perfectly planned out. We could have planned forever; we were better off when we just set a date and launched, learning along the way.

I would have liked to explore the sales component of this product a little more before we started. When something is new to the market, it can be hard to convince advertisers that it’s worth their money.

I also really like what stations have done to create subscribers and “insiders” who get an even deeper level of content like this. KSAT and other Graham Media stations have done a wonderful job with this concept, offering things like exclusive content and access to events and promotions. I think that’s the next logical step for us. We think of that insider content as something only “premium” subscribers could get. It could be anything from deeper dives on local stories to events to access to tickets or contests. Ideally, those subscribers would see the content as so valuable, they’d be willing to pay for it, driving revenue for the station.

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

A: Just go for it. Trust that your audience will sign up for another email if you promise to make it worth it. We all receive a lot of emails. The new email has to cut through and be worth their time.

Before you do so, make sure the workflow is sustainable no matter who is in the position. Whoever writes the letter needs to understand that authentic voice and be able to execute that consistently. That voice is someone who speaks directly to the “Chelsea” audience. The voice needs to be different than the “voice of God” that typically shows up in news content. We need the type of voice that says, “We get it. You’re busy. Let’s break this down quickly and easily for you.”

The voice is something that has developed over time but is not always easy. None of the people who write for the Daily Local are in that “Chelsea” audience. All of them are under 30, and none of them has kids. So, the goal is to be genuine and write like you’re talking to your friend. Our digital staff has adapted well, especially as writing for “Chelsea” has become more of a priority.

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

A: It was our baby when we started the Table Stakes program. Traditionally, we would have focused all of our efforts on TV and traditional digital platforms and that would have been enough for us to chew on! This product gave us something to create on our own that we could really believe in. It has been incredibly rewarding to see it grow.

It has also been a powerful vehicle during the pandemic. Especially early on, I felt like we were bombarding our viewers with so much information about the pandemic. I know people were truly exhausted by all the news and information coming in. We told viewers on TV, if you need to get this information but need to do it on your time, just sign up for the Daily Local, and you can catch up when you’re ready. I think it really helped the viewers take back some control.

We’ve also done some special editions of the Daily Local. Here’s one that dropped the day before the election. We did a Back to School edition (pre-COVID) where we rounded up what parents needed to know to prepare for the chaos of late August. Recently, we did a vaccine edition. It’s a good way to focus content for the audience; it’s also a fresh way to promote the newsletter on TV to keep it fresh.

Related: Read how Newsday pairs newsletters and audience data to grow digital subscriptions