A look back at preparing to launch a neighborhood newsletter

The eight steps we took—from choosing a neighborhood and a name to gathering news sources and picking a send time—before launching a weekly newsletter to the residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood called Fishtown.

In August of last year, the Lenfest Local Lab and The Philadelphia Inquirer launched the first in a series of hyperlocal newsletters. The project, supported by Google’s GNI Innovation Challenge, is a collaborative experiment exploring smart ways that a publisher could scale hyperlocal newsletters across a region by using elements of curation, automation, collaboration and monetization at a neighborhood level.

Today many regional local news organizations, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, tend to focus coverage on citywide issues, often leaving locals without a good way to find consistent and in-depth coverage on things like neighborhood street closures, construction and services. Armed with data showing that Inquirer.com visitors from the Philly area are four times more likely to subscribe than those from outside the area, the Inquirer was interested in seeing if readers would value more hyperlocal information and if it would increase their likelihood to subscribe and read the Inquirer.

The first newsletter — The Hook — is a weekly newsletter for Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. Before we launched we undertook the same series of steps we do for each experiment, which is a period of research and analysis followed by development and design. We started with a framework for choosing a neighborhood and then moved into interviewing residents about how they currently got news about the community and if they were satisfied. From there we gathered content sources and reached out to potential collaborators. Finally we applied our research and analysis to the design and development of the newsletter, and planned out how we would let residents know how to sign up. Here’s a look back at the work we did before it hit inboxes.

Step 1: Choosing a neighborhood

We launched in Fishtown in part because Sarah Schmalbach, the lab’s product director, is a resident and her lived experience could help get our research process off the ground quickly. Fishtown was also an ideal place to test out key elements of the experiment, including collaboration with various community groups, curation from existing neighborhood news sources and automated data visualization techniques made from available public data. Also there would be an active and growing network of neighborhood businesses to approach about advertising and other business models for the newsletter. With the conditions in place to test out these concepts, we knew we could launch something in Fishtown quickly while continuing to research another Philadelphia-area neighborhood to serve.

Step 2: Conducting research in the neighborhood

In previous posts, the lab’s UX designer Faye Teng explained the steps of our user experience research process for this project, including the exploreevaluate and iterate (and iterate again) phases, in preparation for launch.

During the “explore” phase we collected survey responses from residents and conducted usability testing of prototypes with potential subscribers. The responses helped us understand how residents seek out news and information, what types of information was most useful to them and how we could put it all together in a newsletter.

After several months of user experience research and incorporating the insights into our planning, we spent the summer finding sources, connecting with community stakeholders and branding and launching the newsletter.

Step 3: Gathering content sources

Our user experience research gave us a sense of the types of news, information and public data residents said they would find useful and interesting in a community newsletter, so I started by parsing through what was available to fill those needs.

We wanted to prioritize information sources that matched people’s interests which included walking, going to local parks and getting out to eat and drink. Residents also said they were interested in news about neighborhood construction, local projects and nearby events — specifically with art and design themes. Most respondents also said they were interested in public data about locally grown food and construction-related issues.

Most of the work to gather content sources entailed making a list of local and regional media outlets whose coverage area included Fishtown, searching on social media for accounts associated with community groups, local businesses and local elected officials, and finding public datasets that align with what residents said they were interested in survey responses.

Traditional media sources

First, we scanned several media outlets, from hyperlocal to regional, to get a better understanding of what type of news was often reported about Fishtown. Our newsletter design included room to highlight three or four articles from these sources in the “neighborhood news” section.

The Star: The Star is a neighborhood newspaper serving Fishtown and other parts of the Riverwards and is an important source for curation because they provide reporting that is relevant to residents’ daily lives.

WHYY (PlanPhilly and Billy Penn): I also scanned several news sites that report on topics that residents said they find interesting, including WHYY’s PlanPhilly, a news site about local urban design and planning, transportation and development and another WHYY site, Billy Penn, which covers a variety of topics, such as breaking news, food, education, and entertainment on a hyperlocal level.

The Philadelphia Inquirer: Finally The Philadelphia Inquirer is a major regional newspaper and our partner on the project. Prior to launch we reviewed a year’s worth of Inquirer stories about the neighborhood, revealing that The Inquirer frequently reports on Fishtown, oftentimes about food, restaurants and local business.

Social media sources: It was important to curate information from social media because so many respondents said it was their main avenue for accessing neighborhood information. Here is a list of the accounts I browse each week while putting the newsletter together: Also this work happened while many parts of neighborhood-life were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elected Officials: Fishtown’s Philadelphia City Council Representative Mark Squilla and other elected state and federal officials, etc.

Businesses: Harriett’s BookshopCheu Fishtownthe Fillmore, and many more.

Community organizations: Friends of Fishtown at Palmer ParkFriends of Penn Treaty ParkPalmer Doggie Depot, and more.

Facebook groups for Fishtown residents: Fishtown Is AwesomeRiverwards L&I Coalition19125 Neighbors Collective, and more.

👆A note about Facebook: Joining groups have been helpful to influence the direction of our neighborhood work, but is less often a source we directly curate from each week. What’s posted there has helped me understand what people are interested in on a weekly basis and what questions they have so I can help answer them in the newsletter. For example, a few Facebook users in the “Fishtown is Awesome” group were discussing where to get a COVID-19 test in Fishtown and so in several editions I’ve included local COVID-19 testing information, local COVID-19 financial resources and more.

Step 4: Adapting those content sources for the pandemic and civil unrest

Since the initial survey responses we received from residents came in before the outbreak of the pandemic and civil unrest across the county, we sent out another neighborhood survey over the summer to understand if news and information interests and habits had changed. You can get more details in Faye’s full write-up here, but these are the results highlights.

While most of the insights from residents didn’t change, a handful did and we took them into account:

  1. Respondents were spending less time at neighborhood events
  2. News and data about the impact of the pandemic was of interest
  3. There was more interest in local arts and culture, the local economy and local politics

Step 5: Incorporating and automating public data

In addition to scanning for neighborhood news sources, I also searched for the types of public data that residents said they would find useful. I searched the state’s public data portal, along with OpenDataPhilly for relevant, up-to-date datasets to pull in.

Datasets

  • 311 Service and Information requests
  • Licenses and Inspections violations data
  • Historical voting data
  • COVID-19 data

Step 6: Meet with community stakeholders and hyperlocal news sources

Another important aspect of this experiment is collaborating with hyperlocal community groups and neighborhood news and information sources to meet the needs of residents. In Fishtown there are several well-established community organizations and also a neighborhood newspaper covering Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Kensington.

We reached out to a handful of these community stakeholders to discuss the goals of the project and ask what they wanted to see in a curated neighborhood newsletter. We also discussed how news and information would be presented in the newsletter, how to credit sources and how the newsletter could be additive and complementary to ways they already were serving the neighborhood with news.

Many thanks to everyone who spent time speaking with us before launch, including Jon Geeting, Fishtown resident, community organizer and president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association; Tom Beck, associate editor at Star News; and Randi Sherwood, president at local ad agency Red Door Advertising and representative of the Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District. These conversations remain ongoing as we continue to send out the newsletter.

Step 7: Newsletter Designing, Branding and Marketing

Designing the newsletter

To start the visual design process for the newsletter, Faye pulled together color palettes, font choices and layout options for our team to review. The color palettes were informed by images of buildings, murals, shops and signage in and around Fishtown. They also happened to match some of the colors from our partner, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s style guide.

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A color palette and branding images for the neighborhood newsletter by Faye Teng.

In addition to picking an Inquirer-friendly color palette, Faye also aligned the design with the Inquirer’s new modular, card-style layout. Each “module” in the newsletter was designed to contain a different type of content, such as a weather report, local events, news headlines and more. The style is minimal and clean, allowing readers to scan easily and know where each module will appear.

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An initial visual design of the neighborhood newsletter by Faye Teng.

Branding the newsletter

To keep things moving quickly, the lab informally brainstormed branding ideas on our own. We discussed how important it was for the name and branding to scale to more than one neighborhood. To help us decide we developed two approaches to naming the product — first a generic and scalable name such as, “Your Week, Fishtown” or “The Fishtown Review”. In these names, Fishtown could be swapped out for any other neighborhood.

The second set of ideas we generated were custom to the neighborhood’s unique characteristics, including “The Hook”, “The Net” and “The Fishtown Reel.” To make a final decision we sent both sets of naming ideas to a handful of residents for feedback. In the end, we settled on “The Hook” based on user feedback and a general good feeling among the group.

Marketing the newsletter

Once the name and design of the newsletter were finalized, we explored ways to market it to residents.

Since this is an experiment and there are only about 30,000 residents of Fishtown (depending on the boundaries you chose), our audience goals are modest. Most important is that we attract an audience large enough to gain valuable insights about the value of the product.

Facebook Ads

Conversations with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s marketing team about our budget and audience size goals helped guide us towards our main marketing strategy — a zip-code targeted Facebook ad to promote signups. These lead generation ads were relatively low cost and allowed us to target residents in the three zip codes we identified as the heart of Fishtown — 19122, 19123, and 19125. The ad ran for two weeks in August.

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The Hook’s Facebook lead generation advertisements.

Here is a breakdown of the ad’s performance:

  • Total cost: $359.16
  • Cost per ad result: $1.43 per result
  • Reach: 14,500 Facebook users (number of people who saw the ad)
  • Impressions: 31,310 (number of times the ad appeared on a screen)
  • Subscriptions: 367

We also created a Facebook page for The Hook, which is required to launch a lead generation Facebook ad. The page doubled as a way to share information about launching the newsletter.

We may use the Facebook page for other types of engagement in the future and we recommend it as a smart marketing strategy if your product is targeted towards a neighborhood or set of neighborhoods. The promotion was relatively simple and gave us a good foundation of subscribers.

Collaborator Support

Now that we had named, designed and set a marketing strategy for The Hook, we created a simple sign-up page, featuring photography from a local artist Jaime Alvarez. Thanks to the relationships we set up with local community groups, the Fishtown Neighbors Association included a link to the sign-up page and a write-up about the project in its own newsletter.

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The Fishtown Neighbors Association’s promotion of The Hook in its newsletter on Aug. 10, 2020.

As of today, we have just over a thousand subscribers coming from a combination of help from our collaborators, the Facebook ad and word of mouth.

Step 8: Creating and Sending a Newsletter

The frequency, day and time a newsletter is sent can significantly impact engagement, and we wanted to ground our decision about when to send the newsletter in best practices, but also with respect to what might help residents engage easily with news and information about the neighborhood.

Frequency | Weekly

We eventually settled on sending the newsletter once a week for several reasons including the amount of resources our team could dedicate to the newsletter each week and also the frequency with which local news and information was published about the neighborhood.

Day of Week | Monday

Sending the newsletter on Mondays was informed by our discussions about how the newsletter might help residents have a better week in Fishtown. Could we assist residents in finding an upcoming community meeting or event listing in the upcoming week?

Time of Day | Around 9 a.m.

We landed on 9 a.m. to allow people to start their week with us. At the same time, we acknowledged that people could receive a handful of email newsletters in the morning, especially on Mondays. However during a conversation with an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer we agreed that a hyperlocal newsletter doesn’t really “compete” with other morning newsletters because of its unique offerings. Plus, any competing weekly or daily ‘news’ newsletters would likely be sent earlier in the morning between 7 and 8 a.m. The Hook doesn’t typically land in inboxes until 9 or 10 a.m.

What’s coming up

In all, we’ve sent 30 editions of The Hook, and you can view past editions here. Stay tuned for more insights as we continue iterating throughout this project, including a post about our CMS and also what it’s like to put the newsletter together each week.

If you have feedback, questions or ideas, definitely send me a note at [email protected]

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