One summer afternoon in the mailroom of a U.S. Senator I started a Tumblr blog called Purple Politics. I was still in college and had achieved full political-nerd status with my friends, who would use me as their news source in lieu of reading the news themselves. I’d get texts all the time, like:
Purple Politics was going to be my place to write the same things I was saying out loud to my friends: explainers on complex politics and policy issues that break things down in a digestible, balanced (hence the Purple) way.
This soon became my passion. I’d spend hours writing content and it didn’t feel like work at all, I loved it. After going to journalism school I built out the website with my friend (now cofounder) David.
The interesting thing was, those text messages didn’t stop. My friends still preferred to interact with me and get the same information in a more conversational format.
David and I were talking about these texts one day and it hit us. Why were we trying to write traditional digital pieces and distribute that content on noisy platforms like Twitter and Facebook when the answer was right in front of us? Messaging. If our friends liked interacting with their de facto news source (aka us) via text messaging, maybe other people would too.
We raced home to do an experiment. We set up a Google Voice number on my phone and got 50 people from our newsletter to sign up to receive text messages from me during the Republican primary debate that night. I’d text them highlights and fact checks in real time, and they could text me and ask any questions.
The experiment was a success. People loved it, the engagement we saw was unbelievable, and the group quickly grew from 50 to 100 people by word of mouth. This was our lightbulb moment.
In the afterglow of our Google Voice experiment, we quickly built our own system that allowed us to send one-to-many messages on SMS, and engage in one-to-one conversations with users who messaged us. Soon those 100 users turned into 3,000. 3,000 strangers that I began interacting with as if we were friends. They even started sharing content and information with me.
We quickly expanded from SMS to Facebook Messenger in July 2016, and continued covering what was the most shocking, interesting, and confusing election we’d ever witnessed.
The biggest flaws of the media industry were put under a bright light and a microscope during this election. Public trust in media had eroded to a dangerously low point that made chipping away at that trust an easy endeavor. We used to have these trusted gatekeepers of information back in the day that we could all rely on as legit news sources. But the democratization of content creation brought on by the internet, combined with a business model that incentivized clicks and eyeballs, became a perfect storm that made it very difficult for people to be informed, and easy for people to be uninformed.
We reflected on this after the election and thought about how powerful messaging had proven to be in creating trust and loyalty between an audience and a writer.
The next step was clear: build out our platform so that other journalists, academics, and subject-matter-experts could leverage messaging to engage with an audience. We wanted to break down the wall that separates the public from the arbiters of information in a big way.
There were 2 key insights that we gained from our SMS/Messenger-Election experience.
People connect more naturally with other people, rather than faceless sources.
When you engage with people the same way you’d engage with your friends, it creates incredibly high levels of trust and loyalty.
Let’s talk about insight #1 first. When I was sending messages out to my subscribers as “Rebecca”, rather than as “Purple” or the “Purple bot”, engagement and retention went up. People started messaging me and talking to me as if they knew me. When we surveyed our power users, 96% of them said they trusted the information I sent them. When asked why, the most common answer was something along the lines of “She’s a real person and not a bot. If I have a question about something she sent out, I can ask about it and she’ll actually respond.”
We see a big shift in the media industry away from big brands and towards the individual. Just look at Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Kara Swisher, Bill Simmons, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, Jamelle Bouie, Jake Tapper, Ben Thompson, and Tim Urban. The list goes on. These individual content creators have extremely loyal followings who come to their respective media organizations to read or watch them.
As this shift continues, finding noise-free channels of communication with their audience of superfans is going to be extremely important for journalists with strong personal brands.
Ok, on to insight #2. This is one that is particularly uncomfortable for traditional media. It involves making yourself vulnerable and transparent. But as we know, the more vulnerable you make yourself to your audience, the more they feel they can relate to you. And if we are going to start rebuilding the trust between the public and journalistic institutions, understanding how to create better trust with your audience is key.
It’s incredibly important to make yourself vulnerable and transparent to your audience. Make yourself human. And talk to them like you’re a human!
Whenever I’d send out a message to my subscribers, I’d write it exactly how I’d write that text to one of my friends. My voice came through as genuine to who I am, and felt truly human. This was also a powerful contributing factor to creating a close, personal relationship with my audience.
The question I am most often asked is “How can you respond to people? Doesn’t that get overwhelming? And isn’t it totally unscalable?”. My answer begins with what I think people underestimate the most: the power of the positive feedback loop.
When subscribers responded to my text and had a one-to-one conversations with me, it was invigorating and exciting. It told me that they were actually reading and caring about the information I was sending out. It gave me ideas for content, especially when someone would ask me to explain something in the news they didn’t understand. It became a contributor network, because subscribers would often send articles, podcasts, and videos that they wanted me to share with the rest of the community following me.
There is no substitute for the feeling that people appreciate your work and are engaging with it beyond just a “like” or retweet.
There’s no way around it: the ad-model underlying the media industry is crumbling. It incentivizes quantity over quality. Eyeballs and clicks over good journalism. Listicles over contextual explanations that make the most important issues easier to digest. In other words, it’s a system with a ridiculously misaligned incentive structure that favors scale and shareability at all costs.
We want to create a new model that realigns the incentive structure. Where quality voices with highly-engaged audiences are empowered, and don’t feel like they have to shout through the noise of Twitter and Facebook.
That includes a new business model for media that makes it much easier for content creators to monetize sustainably, directly from their audience. It’s a myth that people aren’t willing to pay for content. They are, as long as the content is high-quality, unique, and speaks to them. They’re even more willing to support it if they have a strong relationship with the content creator.
Messaging is an incredibly powerful channel for developing that kind of audience relationship.
But it’s going to require people who want to deliver value over volume to their readers. People who believe in service over content. People who want to reach their audience on a personal, human level. It’s going to require bravery on the part of content creators. To go boldly against the grain of the system that currently exists and actively try to build a new one.