Engaging readers and subscribers and creating authentic, positive relationships can be challenging, especially with so many outlets and platforms competing for attention. For years, publishers and journalists have tried engaging readers and subscribers on social media and commenting platforms. Many have found it difficult to rise above the noise created by those platforms and their users to form and maintain productive relationships. Some publishers are trying a new tactic – a new text-based engagement platform, Subtext, to build subscriber relationships and to drive meaningful engagement with readers.
Subtext is an engagement platform that allows creators (media companies, publishers, journalists, businesses, brands, social influencers, politicians, etc.) to connect directly with their subscribers via text message. This helps publishers and other creators take back control of their audiences by opening up meaningful dialogue, free of social media clutter and away from traditional newsletters with low engagement rates. Instead of putting in intensive efforts to manage those audiences, publishers and personalities can communicate directly with the people most interested in their content, and they can monetize those relationships if they choose.
How Text-Based Engagement Works
Once a host signs up with the Subtext text-message engagement platform, they are given access to a dashboard from which they manage their accounts, and they retain complete control over the account; their subscribers and subscriber data; subscriptions, pricing and promotions; and their messages. Hosts type conversational messages that Subtext then sends to subscribers via text. The messages can include text, links, GIFs, images and videos. It is entirely up to the host to determine what type of content they want to send out.
Though messages are limited in character count, the Subtext engagement platform dashboard counts the characters and lets the host know when a text message will be split into multiple messages. The dashboard also provides a preview of the message, so the host can see what the text message will look like on the recipient’s phone.
Once a subscriber receives a message, they can reply directly to the host’s message to start a dialogue. A subscriber might reply with a comment, a question or even a news tip. The host has the option to reply directly to that subscriber through the dashboard, creating a unique, one-on-one relationship that is difficult to duplicate on other platforms.
Hosts can send messages live, or they can schedule them in advance, giving hosts flexibility in when messages go out. The dashboard also helps hosts manage subscribers. For example, hosts might subscribe or unsubscribe someone manually. Subscribers can unsubscribe at any time. If they have a paid account, the unsubscribe feature also handles any billing cancellations.
In addition, the dashboard provides analytics, so a host can see the engagement with their audiences. This can help a host determine what types of content resonated with their subscribers as well as trial conversions, percentage of messages a host responded to, and net subscriptions per day.
3 Ways Publishers Get Readers to Sign Up
To engage with readers, hosts such as publishers and columnists must get readers to sign up. There are three ways to do so:
- Subtext assigns a local phone number to a host. Publishers can share that phone number on social media or wherever they want. A prospective subscriber would text that number to get a link to complete the sign-up process.
- Subscribers can visit JoinSubtext.com where all the campaigns are hosted. A publisher or host can post that link on their website, on social, etc. to encourage readers to sign up.
- Subtext provides embeddable widgets for any of their hosts to use. (see sample at right)
How Text Messages Engage Audiences Differently
With social media platforms, many of the messages posted by creators are controlled by an algorithm, so publishers and creators never really know who sees their messages or when. With so many platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram to manage, it can be difficult to keep up with comments and questions. One of the biggest problems though is having messages read and then engaging directly with audiences. Engagement rates are often low, and trolls and other detractors can create a negative experience for all involved.
With text messages, however, subscribers receive them immediately, as they would a text from a friend or family member, and the open rate is above 90%, according to Subtext CEO Mike Donoghue. Why? Because people have chosen to subscribe to the content, and texts are an immediate form of communication. Unlike other platforms, the conversations via text tend to be more productive, Donoghue says. Of the 275,000 subscribers to 275 Subtext host accounts, they have only had to ban one user in more than a year.
“It is time we start investing in ourselves, our audiences and the platforms we control instead of building our businesses on other people’s land. That has not historically served us very well,” said Donoghue. “It is high time we focus on the atomic level of value exchange – interaction and exchange between media companies and journalists and the readers whose lives are impacted.”
Three Monetization Options for Publishers and Creators
Subtext offers three monetization options to hosts, whether they are publishers, creators or politicians.
- Pure subscription model: This model is an 80/20 revenue share model, with the host receiving 80% of subscription revenue and Subtext receiving 20%. There are no up-front costs to hosts or media companies. The hosts decide what to charge, including trial offers and promotions.
- Value-add for existing digital subscribers: Publishers pay for this option on a sliding scale. With this option, hosts are offering the text subscription to digital subscribers as an add-on to their other products and services. For example, let’s say Josie Johnson has a digital-only subscription to her favorite DIY magazine. That magazine might throw in a subscription to text messages from the editor-in-chief of that magazine who shares weekly insights with readers. As part of her digital subscription, Josie receives those text messages.
- Engagement campaigns: Like #2 above, publishers pay for this option on a sliding scale. A publisher might use this to provide free access to engaging content to attract readers. For example, BuzzFeed used this option about COVID-19 to get feedback for a Dear Abby style advice column. They made the subscription to this free, so they could get desired input. Mission Local, a Spanish-language news outlet in San Francisco, offers a free subscription to readers who want local updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Cleveland.com Uses Text Messages to Engage with Subscribers
Cleveland.com has been using the Subtext engagement platform since March 2019. Subtext was looking for a host to experiment with the platform. Chris Quinn, editor for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, was skeptical when he first heard about the tool, but he was willing to try it. Popular sports columnist Doug Lesmerises, who covers Ohio State Buckeyes football, was among the first to give it a go, and he has had great success, says Quinn.
“He started racking up subscribers right away. He basically brings readers along with him to interviews,” Quinn said. “This is not a one-way tool; it is an engagement tool. It is a conversation in an intimate way.”
Lesmerises charges $4 a month, and he marries his text messages with his sports podcast. He takes questions for his podcast only from subscribers. As a result, he has accumulated more than 600 subscribers, who stay subscribed even in the off season.
There was a learning curve to text messaging as an engagement platform though, Quinn explained. They had to decide how many texts were too many, and the host had to have the right voice to make the texts feel like an intimate conversation. He said Lesmerises was able to master the voice right away. It was also important to engage with subscribers by responding to their messages.
“If we did not respond to the messages coming back, it wouldn’t be as valuable to the subscribers. They are getting into the head of the writer they follow,” Quinn said.
Cleveland.com has also tried news-based Subtext accounts like city hall and the justice center that didn’t take off, but they continue to experiment. Another successful subscription they offered was a free coronavirus text alert account. They got the idea from an affiliate in New Jersey and decided to try it.
“I’ve never gotten more notes of thanks from subscribers,” Quinn said. “Readers told us, ‘we feel like someone is looking out for us. Thanks so much.’”
They have gotten more than 14,000 subscribers to that host account.
“We continue to grow that audience. It is a vital public source for the biggest story of our lives. The ache for information is still there. It is a very positive public service,” said Quinn.
Quinn himself is experimenting with a free weekday “from the editor” subscription. He started it around the end of February and has gotten about 600 subscribers, who now have a direct line to the editor of the website and the newspaper. Quinn said you have to make yourself a little bit vulnerable to let readers into your mind, but the responses are the opposite of what he typically sees on social media. He said all of the discussions are civil. They don’t always agree with each other, but he sees every comment. He gets story ideas, and he finds the experience enriching.
“We’ve tried so many forms of engagement, but there’s nothing like this one,” Quinn added.
How “Your Humble Narrator” Joe Eskenazi Uses Subtext
Joe Eskenazi, an editor for Mission Local and known as “your humble narrator,” started testing Subtext during the San Francisco mayor election of 2018. Charging $1 a week, Eskenazi has a host account where he does political reporting and analysis for subscribers. He sends out weekday texts to his 350 subscribers. Eskenazi says he could grow that number, but admits he is not a salesman.
Eskenazi likes the platform because he can be more personal with his readers than he would normally be in his columns. He covers a range of topics including pending legislation, political endorsements, and inside perspectives that aren’t getting fully covered in the mainstream media. He said he puts as much verve as he can into his texts to engage his subscribers and to do so in a fun way that goes right to people’s phones.
When selecting his daily content, Eskenazi considers what types of information people can easily read on their phones and what they might scroll through. Images sometimes cause messages to get rejected by spam filters, but he might link to a PDF or a PowerPoint presentation when appropriate. Eskenazi doesn’t always get responses from subscribers, but sometimes he gets questions and even news tips.
“It is all done in a professional and cordial way,” he added. “Subtext is a news delivery platform, but people get to know you a bit. It is a completely different thing than social media. It is not like you are oversharing.”
He compares Subtext to the value vitamins and supplements provide to nutrition. Subtext isn’t replacing news delivery platforms like newspapers, websites and apps, but it is supplementing the information readers find there, and it is doing so in a unique way.
“I think it’s a good service. You have a good rapport with people,” said Eskenazi. “It’s a different way of interacting with people and providing your own insight which can be valuable. You are signing up people who have an interest. I want people to know what I know.”