The Minneapolis Star Tribune experimented with calendar invites to remind readers of important dates related to the midterm elections

My life revolves around the calendar app on my phone and laptop. Dentist appointments, work meetings, restaurant reservations, and more are all dutifully logged and color-coded so I can keep track of when and where I need to be.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who operates like this. And as publishers constantly talk about meeting readers where they are, news organizations are trying to share news in new places — including on readers’ calendars.

In the weeks leading up to last fall’s midterm elections, The Minneapolis Star Tribune experimented by sharing important stories and key election dates via calendar invite.

So mark your calendars: This week in Solution Set, we’re going to look at the Star Tribune’s experiment and learn more about how it built the calendar notifications, why it decided to use the platform, and how it was inspired by a similar project at The New York Times.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one clever thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

The Challenge: While at The New York Times, Chase Davis led the Interactive News team, which created a calendar of major space events readers could sync with their personal calendars. Now at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Davis wanted to recreate the project for the 2018 election.

The Strategy: The Star Tribune created Google, iOS, and Outlook calendars that highlighted major milestones — in addition to Star Tribune coverage — in the run-up to last November’s election.

The Numbers: “Hundreds” of readers installed the calendars. They only took a few hours to create.

The Lessons: The Star Tribune launched with a minimally viable product and made  an “exceedingly low investment” in the calendar. It also worked to understand the implications of publishing in such an intimate space.

The Future: The paper wants to try the calendar again for the next election.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about the Star Tribune’s reader-focused digital election coverage and also to read more about the Times’ space calendar.


The Challenge

Remember the eclipse? For one happy day in August 2017, seemingly everyone in the United States followed the celestial phenomenon as the path of totality stretched across the continental United States.

In the weeks leading up to the event, The New York Times debuted a new product: A space calendar that empowered readers to add astronomical events to their Google or iOS calendars.

Senior staff editor for Science Michael Roston came up with the idea and worked with developers Britt Binler and Sherman Hewitt on The New York Times Interactive team to build it out.

“Space and astronomy aficionados might keep an eye on another calendar already, or more than one,” Roston told Poynter last year. “But we’ve curated key events that I think more casual space fans will take an interest in, and where they’ll find value in getting an advanced notification that an event is coming. Maybe it’ll encourage them to look at the sky one night during a meteor shower, or tune into a livestream of a rocket launch or just learn about something wondrous that they might have forgotten about in their busy lives.”

In early 2018, Chase Davis, who led the Times interactive desk when it created the space calendar, left the paper to become senior digital editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his hometown newspaper.

As the paper was gearing up for the 2018 midterm elections, it began thinking about how it could create products and guides that would better serve readers and help them become more informed voters.

As part of that process, Davis engaged in a “shameless act of self-plagiarism.” The Star-Tribune decided to experiment with a calendar — inspired by the Times’ space calendar — which would remind readers of important election-related events.

“We were rethinking a lot of the ways that we were doing some of our digital election stuff and we wanted to throw in some odds and ends experiments,” Davis said. “And, frankly, doing a calendar around key election events was a really low effort way to see what the audience for something like this may be.”


The Strategy

The Star Tribune decided to rethink how it thought about its election preview coverage. It created a series it called Be a Better Voter over the course of six weeks leading up to Election Day. Every Tuesday, it published a new story that focused on different topics such as polling, how to register to vote, and various candidates positions.

The idea was to frame each post as a lesson that would help readers prepare to vote. The stories all shared other resources that let readers dive into topics that they wanted to learn more about.

Star Tribune digital projects editor Matt DeLong led the effort and wrote the posts. He said the series was produced with a particular set of readers in mind.

“From the beginning, we were specifically thinking about medium-information voters, those who vote every year and generally pay attention to the news but aren’t obsessive about politics and probably don’t have a ton of time to spend researching all the candidates for every race on their ballots,” DeLong wrote in a post on Better News. “We figured that the highest-information voters likely already had a good idea who they would support in the general election. Similarly, the lowest-information voters don’t really pay attention to the news and won’t seek out a lot of information before they vote.”

The Star Tribune created the election calendar as part of the Be a Better Voter project. Its goal was to provide a service to readers that could help them keep track of key dates on the election calendar.

It launched the product in summer 2018. And Star Tribune print, digital, and political editors began meeting last spring on a weekly basis to plot out their coverage plans.

“Part of that was trying to acknowledge that our print audience for this kind of stuff, which tends to consume more traditional stories told in classic 18-inch stories, is likely different than our digital audience, which responds to a different tone and may have more need for persistent utility stuff that they can come back to at the right time,” Davis said.

The calendar included entries for milestones such as the start of early and absentee voting, the deadline to register to vote, key campaign finance filing deadlines, debates and, of course, Election Day itself.

It also included an entry every Tuesday to remind readers about the latest Be a Better Voter post.

The calendar itself was fairly straightforward to build and only took “a couple hours of time” to create, Davis said.

“At the basic level, you just create a calendar in Google Calendar and then you find the right URLs that correspond to how that can be imported into common calendaring tools…From then on, you can go into Google Calendar and maintain it as you would any other calendar,” he said. “And then anyone who has installed the thing will see those changes trickle down.”

The Star Tribune supported Google Calendar, iOS calendars, and Outlook.

Readers could add the election calendar to their Google or iOS calendars with just one click or tap from a dedicated landing page. It was a little more complicated to add the calendar to Outlook, but the Star Tribune provided clear instructions for how to install the calendar on Outlook.

It created Bitly links for the iOS and Google calendar install buttons so it could track the number of people who installed the calendar. (That wasn’t possible with Outlook.)

One each of the calendars were set up, DeLong could just update the calendar by creating new events, just like he would if he were sending a meeting invite to a colleague.

 


The Numbers

A few hundred people installed the Google and iOS calendars, Davis said. The Star Tribune didn’t measure how many people used the Outlook calendar because “there’s no click-through for that. It’s just a sequence of things that users have to do.”

The Star Tribune was pleased with how many people actually utilized the calendar because it “didn’t really promote this at all,” Davis said.

“We had a bigger campaign around giving tools and things to medium-information voters as part of our Be a Better Voter project. We promoted this a few times for there. The actual calendar was up from the summer, so it accrued some search authority and people found it that way, but knowing where our audience is at and knowing how little we promoted it, I was kind of shocked that anybody installed the thing. I wouldn’t say it was a blockbuster, but it was certainly more folks than I would have expected.”

The New York Times and The Star Tribune, obviously, operate at different scales, but the Times’ space calendar had more than 80,000 subscribers as of February 2018. After the success of the space calendar, the Times launched a similar product for the Book Review, which covered significant dates in the literary world. (Speaking of books, we’re creating a Solution Set book club. Learn more and get notified when we launch here.)

“The production of each calendar is driven by providing utility and creating a meaningful experience for subscribers,” The Times’ Britt Binler told Poynter. “We avoid events connected to specific geographies in the Books Calendar. We don’t set event notifications.”


The Lessons

MVP! MVP! MVP!: The Star Tribune viewed the election calendar as an experiment, and as a result it essentially went to market with a minimally viable product.

The paper made an “exceedingly low investment” in creating the election calendar, and it only took a few hours to get it up and running.

There are things the Star Tribune could have done to make the calendar easier to access, but that would’ve required more resources than were worthwhile for the project.

“One thing that’s difficult from an interface perspective is that if you’re coming to the calendar page on your computer and you want to install it on your phone, in your Apple calendaring tool, you’ll need to remember to copy and paste the link and send it to yourself or to go to the page on your phone and install it from there,” Davis said. “The Times did a little bit of coding work so you could text yourself a link from the calendaring page on desktop to your phone so you could eliminate that friction, but we didn’t go that far with it. The infrastructure to do that is more complicated than the project is worth.

There are little things like that are wonky. Calendar tools can be tricky. We only supported iCal and Google Calendar and then with some more complex instructions for installing it on Outlook…But if you look at it as an experiment and if you figure that a lot of people use a couple of common tools and you’re not trying to reach everybody, the technical lift is pretty light.”

Experiments don’t need to be perfect. If you’re thinking about trying something out you should focus on creating an initial version of the product that you can get in front of readers and can then continue to iterate on as you get feedback.

• Actionable insights: Beyond the bit.ly links measuring click-throughs to the calendar, the Star Tribune wasn’t able to gather any metrics on who actually used the calendar. So, for example, it had no way of knowing if the people who used it were subscribers or if the calendar made them more likely to read the paper’s coverage or subscribe.

“We don’t really know who they are,” Davis said. “That’s one of the things with the calendaring. People can install the thing, but it’s not like we get a notification that someone has done it. We can engage with them by adding new events to the calendar, but that’s as far as it goes. One thing we could have done is at the end we could have added some type of event or something in there or attached it maybe to the events that were on the calendar that said, ‘Give us Feedback.’ We didn’t think to do that.”

While there were understandable challenges with gathering data around the calendar usage, it’s important for publications to glean actionable insights from experiments. It’s hard to make decisions about what’s working or not working without reliable data, which can include quantitative and qualitative metrics.  

• Understand the platform: Calendars are a very personal space. It’s where we all organize our lives and keep track of everything from work meetings to doctors appointments. If outlets are going to begin publishing via calendar invite, they need to understand the space in which they’re operating and not abuse the privilege of being invited into a reader’s space.

“It’s a way to insert yourself into a very intimate part of people’s lives,” Davis said. “If you subscribe to news alerts, you’ve chosen to download the app and chosen to accept some kind of incoming information from that app. At the same time, you’re never going to send a news alert that a new debate just got scheduled for next week. The threshold of being able to send something out for a news alert is that it has to have some amount of general interest.

But if you install a calendar, especially if you’re an avid user of a calendaring tool, that’s the same space that you use to organize life. So you have this space along someone’s work life or home life where you can occasionally gently nudge them about something that’s a little more specific. It’s a fascinating place to land in the daily flow of someone’s work and someone’s life. It’s not too often as a general interest news organization that you get to occupy that same space as you do with a calendar.”

News organizations are increasingly publishing in these intimate spaces with products such as SMS text messaging and email newsletters. These are places that are primarily used for small-scale conversations among friends and colleagues. So no matter how you’re planning to interact with readers, you need to be cognizant of the space you’re occupying.


The Future

The Star Tribune will likely bring the calendar back for the 2020 election, and Davis said it will apply “a little more rigor to see how people are using it rather than just counting click-throughs.”

“It’s the kind of thing that some slow Friday, if you’re just sitting around, you could spin it up for the entire next election season. We’ll probably try it again but will scale it up a little bit more.”

And while Davis stressed that there are no plans at this time to extend this type of calendar beyond the election, he brainstormed a few other possibilities for how the Star Tribune could utilize calendar invites as a publishing platform.

“Off the top of my head, gosh, you could do sports things, concert listings, and think about this as being a whole different way of aggregating things.”


Want to know more?

• To get more insight into the overall Be a Better Voter project, check out this story from Better News.

• For more insight into how The New York Times thought about its space calendar, you should dive into this detailed Poynter Q&A.

Digiday wrote about how the Times is using interactive tools — like the space calendar — to build loyalty.

• And if you want to see how another news org experimented around the election, check out this post from my Lenfest Lab colleagues about how they partnered with The Philadelphia Inquirer to experiment with an SMS-based voter guide. It’s super cool.


Anything to add?

Is your news org experimenting by publishing on any unique platforms? I want to hear about it! Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments, and I may feature them in a future issue of Solution Set.

A reminder also that you can get Solution Set delivered via text message by texting SOLUTION to (215) 544–3524.

See you next Thursday!


Creative Commons photo by Dafna Chalet. 

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