For at least the last 15 to 20 years, there has been constant speculation about the comeback of local news in Finnish journalism. Unfortunately, the reality is that it has gone in the opposite direction.
The economic depression of the early 2010s and changes in consumer behaviour challenged the structures of Finnish newspapers. Almost every media corporation was forced to radically cut back on its network of regional correspondents. Newsrooms withdrew to major cities. One could argue newspapers lost their connection with a major group of subscribers.
At the same time, social media was starting its own revolution and began to shape the media landscape all over the world. As the traditional media had lost its interest, social media stepped in. Local groups on Facebook and even apps like Jodel started gaining popularity. It became evident local and hyperlocal news was something most people regarded as interesting and important in their everyday consumption of social media.
One could argue that the local news never went out of fashion. Media corporations just didn’t have the tools to capitalise on it anymore.
But that has started to change in the last couple of years. As people went social, journalists and media had to follow. And as printed newspapers are in decline, media corporations have turned their eyes to digital. The whole idea of what’s worth reporting has changed, thanks to the Internet.
As all major global and domestic news is distributed at the same time on every digital media outlet, local news has become a new way to appeal to your audience. You have to be able to offer something others don’t. And as the Finnish newspaper industry is very region-based, that “something” is local news in your area.
A local starting point
That was the background of our project at Turun Sanomat. As we applied for the Facebook Accelerator programme, we wanted to find new tools to re-establish the connection with our local audiences in southwestern Finland.
We already created lots of quality content on the local and hyperlocal levels every day. We just needed to articulate that to our audiences. We had a strong brand in the regional capital of Turku, but there are also 26 other towns in our region.
With the Accelerator programme, we figured out that newsletters could be a smart and cost-effective way to reach local audiences — and to establish a connection between local communities and our journalists.
We ended up building six slightly different newsletters. Each of them was unique. The idea was to test, which visual outcome, style, headlines, what kind of stories, etc., works best in different newsletters.
Inside the methodology
First, we had to figure out the best way to launch a new newsletter for local people. We tested two approaches, direct and promotional. The first newsletter was sent to our former and existing customers with journalistic content only. The second letter was a pure promotional letter where we asked customers to sign up for future newsletters.
We noticed the sign-up rate with the promotional letter was 21% versus the sign-up rate of 2.9% with the journalistic content only. Mailing with marketing content only turned out to be a more effective way and this was chosen to attract potential newsletter subscribers.
In addition, we advertised newsletters on our Web site, on social media, and on local buses. We created a completely new targeted way to market our newsletters on our Web site. We created a “Subscribe to Newsletter” banner, which was automatically placed after the articles that had a specific community tag. These tagged banners performed better than other display ads.
Comparing different channels we learned e-mail was most effective for our existing customers. Paid social media brought the biggest number of newsletter subscribers among those who are not yet our customers.
We created this new process of producing newsletters combining the skills and knowledge of professionals from different departments. It’s been utilised in our general newsletter production.
Our online editor took the task to produce our local newsletters. She is also the face of our newsletter to customers. In this way, we wanted to offer more personal touch and create a recognisable connection between readers and us. Each newsletter contains the producer’s greeting words and brief background of stories in the newsletter.
6 things we learned
These are the six main conclusions we learned from this local newsletter project:
1. Local newsletters are deeply loved by readers. The opening rates are better than in our other newsletters. Opening rates higher than 70% have also made other newsrooms shout “wow.” Our click-through rates are also very high, at 18%-23%.
2. The local newsletter gives a longer tail to the local story. The story may have passed your eyes online or in print, but now it is served again in a targeted way.
3. Newsletters work primarily to retain readers. Most subscribers to local newsletters are already paying customers, but they want to consume more of us through the newsletters.
4. It requires patience to gain new paying customers through newsletters. We figured out that readers need to be exposed to interesting news and paywall several times before subscriptions start to flow in.
5. Content matters the most. If you put a scoop in a newsletter, it will raise your click rate. At the same time, the scoop serves as a token of appreciation to our loyal customers.
6. Is the time spent on hand-crafted newsletters worth it? We wanted to raise our news brand and offer an easy way for readers to connect with our journalists. It’s hard to measure these things, and results may be seen only years later.
Banner photo: Left to right: Johanna Käkönen, Hanna Hietarinta, Salli Koivunen, and Nina Alatalo work in different departments at Turun Sanomat but work together on the Facebook Acclerator project.