In the summer of 2014, the San Francisco Public Press launched a street mobilization program to increase its visibility, expand its audience and grow the funnel of readers most likely to become paid member-subscribers.
For this outreach program, they deployed a crew of street hawker-canvassers to participate in public activities to increase engagement and raise revenue to support local public-interest journalism. They used the quarterly newspaper to spark conversations and engage directly with prospective readers in the communities they serve with in-depth investigative reporting.
Over the course of 12 months, this project expanded the Public Press’s visibility in the community, put the newspaper in the hands of thousands of readers and brought in donations from new supporters.
Outreach by the Numbers
Issue 14 (Summer 2014) at a glance
- Total distribution: 3,805
- Complimentary copies: 3,459
- Direct revenue: $365
- Email signups: ~140
Issue 15 (Fall 2014) at a glance
- Total distribution: 715
- Complimentary copies: 552
- Direct revenue: $348
- Email signups: ~50
The Winter 2015 edition (Issue 16) included a special insert: a 24-page tabloid commemorative tribute to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which closed in October 2014 after publishing weekly for 48 years. (The section was produced by the newspaper’s former staff, which raised more than $26,000 to fund the project through an IndieGoGo campaign.)
This high-visibility project contributed to a remarkable increase in retail sales for the Public Press: Most retailers accepted double their usual inventory, and two stores requested additional stock within 48 hours. They also saw a steady uptick in online payments for new memberships and orders for single copies. A high level of local interest in the Bay Guardian tribute helped street outreach teams promote the issue and expand our audience.
Issue 16 (Winter 2015) at a glance
- Total distribution: 2,985 (plus 649 back issues)
- Complimentary copies: 2,823
- Direct revenue: $301
- Email signups: 116
TOTAL PROGRAM OUTREACH — July 2014 through June 2015
- Total newspapers distributed by news ambassadors: 7,505
- Total complimentary copies: 6,834
- Direct revenue: $1,014
- Email signups: 306
Over the course of the year, the Public Press developed a repertoire of outreach tactics for various scenarios. At large public events where they focused on free distribution, they would stagger news ambassadors along a route; people who initially dismissed the offer of a free newspaper would often stop and grab a copy as they pass a second or third news ambassador.
They also learned how to manage situations where single-copy sales were difficult, but that offered opportunities to increase visibility, for example, in San Francisco’s Financial District.
Saturday mornings at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, where the Public Press typically sees steady sales for two or three Saturdays per issue, are good for both sales and visibility. They received numerous comments from people at other events who said they first saw them hawking papers at the Ferry Building — and that inspired them to buy a copy later on when they saw it for sale at a neighborhood store.
It took longer than the Public Press anticipated to recruit enough people to staff events consistently. They had a high rate of attrition and had to recruit new participants on an ongoing basis. Most news ambassadors were college students or freelancers juggling school and variable schedules for other part-time jobs, which meant they weren’t always available when we needed them.
The Public Press learned that it doesn’t make sense to pay people to do street outreach for long stretches most weekdays: There aren’t enough locals concentrated on the streets or in public open spaces beyond an extended lunch hour. Tourists buy single copies as souvenirs, but that does not further a long-term strategy for building audience and member base.
Finding people who were interested in street mobilization and had a knack for sales was challenging. In the end, the Public Press assembled a large enough team with the right mix of skills to fill shifts as needed.
Using the iPad Mini as a Sales and Engagement Tool
The iPad Mini came in handy when people asked about our coverage of specific topics — such as urban forests, or California’s cap-and-trade laws — at which point they were able to search for and display relevant articles on the Public Press website.
The iPad was most useful as a point-of-sale system — loaded with the Square app — at the Green Festival, where the Public Press used it to accept credit card payments for memberships and T-shirts.
They initially intended to use it for gathering emails while canvassing, but ultimately it was much easier to use simple pen-and-paper sign up sheets and enter the data into a spreadsheet back at the office.
The greatest benefit from this initiative was markedly higher brand recognition for the San Francisco Public Press. In some ways, this outreach program was most valuable for its marketing power.
Although it took longer than expected to fully develop this program, the Public Press gained a lot of insight from their early efforts. And by keeping their initial burn rate low, they were able to use the INNovation grant to fund continued street mobilization for much longer than originally proposed, and in a way that suited the metabolism of a small organization that values conservation of resources.
However, they might have underestimated the seasonal challenges of keeping this program active year round. Even though San Francisco’s climate is generally pleasant, attention during rainy winter months shifts rather predictably. From November through January, the city offers many fewer organized, leisurely outdoor events — the kinds that are most hospitable for street mobilization. In December, it was nearly impossible to sell, or even give away, newspapers to anyone involved in holiday shopping or related activities (i.e. approaching shoppers, people going ice skating or attending the tree lighting in Union Square was a total wash).
The Public Press plans to continue implementing the outreach strategies developed this year and employing members of the outreach team on a freelance basis. Although they did not reach the ambitious direct membership recruitment goals we proposed at the outset, they strongly believe that this extended year of outreach activities contributed directly and in a meaningful way to increasing the visibility of the Public Press and raising their profile in the community.
News ambassadors interacted with more than 7,000 individuals, a great many of whom they engaged in conversation about local issues addressed in the Public Press’s investigative reporting. They believe these interactions contributed indirectly to increased following of the Public Press on Facebook (8,447 likes) and Twitter (more than 10,600 followers), and they know that the combination of real world outreach and increased activity on social media contributed positively to web traffic on sfpublicpress.org and single copy sales among their local retailers.
Without a doubt, the San Francisco Public Press is recognized by a broader audience than it was when they launched this program.
Program Expenses Through June 2015
$14,075 program manager (outreach and office work): 345.5 hours @ $16/hour
$3,198 news ambassadors: 144 hours @ $13/hour
$4,800 extra printing of 4,000 copies each for Issues 14, 15, 16 and 17
$2,651 24,000 donation envelopes (plus shipping) for inserting in newspapers
$4,500 administrative expenses
$4,148 membership manager: 245.25 hours @ $16/hour
$290 iPad mini
$40 cover/carrying case for iPad mini
$240 12 months data service for iPad mini
$180 T-shirts for news ambassadors (@ $9 each)
$175 fees for participating in Mission Community Market ($25 per event)
$619 event booths at the Maker Faire ($450) and SF Pride Festival ($168.50)
$74 folding table
$65 large, durable rolling cart
$53 parking for outreach events
$40 office supplies for laminating signs
$39 banner for table