EducationNC grew its audience by 142 percent — and published a playbook so you can, too

By Lucas Thomae, CISLM intern

At EducationNC, the hard work of audience engagement starts with Sergio Osnaya-Prieto‘s color-coded spreadsheet.

The education reporting nonprofit’s mission is to reach people in all parts of the state – not just the metropolitan areas of Raleigh and Charlotte. Osnaya-Prieto’s spreadsheet tracks the implementation of new tactics to reach that goal. Green signifies a tactic that has been successfully implemented. Red is a rejected tactic. Yellow, Osnaya-Prieto’s self-professed favorite of the colors, means the tactic is under evaluation.

“They sort of feel like puzzle pieces,” said Osnaya-Prieto, EdNC’s director of communications. “They might fit into what you’re doing, or they just might not.”

As EdNC’s team learned, engagement journalism all comes down to finding the right puzzle pieces: it increased its established audience by 142 percent in 2020 and continued to grow in 2021.

Now, EdNC is sharing its insights with the rest of the news industry. On Jan. 31, the outlet published a downloadable General Distribution and Engagement Playbook which details the tactics by which it grew its audience statewide. The playbook is unique in that it lays the groundwork for statewide engagement, as opposed to targeting a more niche audience.

Osnaya-Prieto is always excited to discover a new tool that could help EdNC in reaching its goals, but he maintains that it’s just as important to determine what doesn’t work for the organization.

“Audience engagement seems to be kind of like an ever-changing ecosystem,” Osnaya-Prieto said. “It’s easy to sort of get caught up in trends… but it’s really much more important to evaluate how those trends fit into your organization.”

In recent years, “engagement” has become somewhat of a buzzword in the journalism industry, especially as outlets have looked to grow their audience through social media and other forms of digital communication.

Engagement requires thinking of journalism as a service rather than a product, said Carrie Brown, director of the Engagement Journalism program at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism. As advertising revenue declines, news outlets must develop a closer relationship with their readers to remain viable.

“You really need to understand how to serve people better, because you’re asking them for their money or their attention, so that is a very different business proposition,” Brown said. “I think a lot of these newer digital outlets that are popping up, many of them do have engagement kind of baked into their DNA.”

EdNC’s Director of Growth Nation Hahn — a current UNC Table Stakes coach — realized early on that the newsroom staff was too small to reliably capture every voice from across the state. Instead, he proposed building the ambitious startup around what he called an “architecture of participation.”

In practice, that meant publishing what the site calls “perspectives” – columns and opinion pieces from a diverse array of voices in North Carolina. EdNC also highlighted these voices through podcasts and social media content.

“The concept was really built around answering a fundamental question,” Hahn said. “Which is, ‘how do we include more people in North Carolina in the conversation about education, present and future?’”

The site also developed its own suite of communication tools called Reach NC Voices to better reach its audience. Reach includes SMS-based outreach and data visualization tools which allows EdNC to easily survey educators from across the state and use that data to inform its reporting.

Reach Demo 2019 from EducationNC on Vimeo.

Reach powers EdNC’s question of the week, which asks polls readers on topics ranging from prayer in schools to state funding for school supplies. In 2020, EdNC also used Reach to survey over 8,000 community college students on how COVID-19 impacted their education.

However, the site still wasn’t reaching its intended audience of all of North Carolina, urban and rural alike. Instead, there were a disproportionate number of readers from urban centers.

As a result, EdNC developed what it called a 100-county strategy, meant to broaden its reach to every county in the state. CEO Mebane Rash pledged to visit all 100 North Carolina counties and meet with local residents in person, which she did even throughout the pandemic.

EdNC reporter Caroline Parker on the ground in Sparta to cover a summer 2020 literacy camp. Photo by Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC.

The ideas that drive the playbook came from consulting with well-respected engagement experts like Mary Alice Rose, a UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media graduate who primarily worked as a consultant for marketing firms. EdNC hired Osnaya-Prieto, a fellow Hussman graduate, in January 2021 to run a holistic engagement strategy for the site.

By the end of 2020, the results of EdNC’s engagement strategy were clear. EdNC’s audience had grown to include 1,171,164 individuals and 2,021,970 pageviews collectively in 2021.

EdNC’s strategy isn’t a one-size-fits-all for every outlet hoping to boost engagement. It’s tailored specifically to serve North Carolina and may not be completely generalizable to all regions.

“Communities might have developed their own channels of communication for their own members,” Osnaya-Prieto said. “That’s why, you know, a major part of this 100-county strategy is exploration and research and finding out what those tactics are.”

EdNC has had to tailor its outreach to best serve the needs of each specific community, learning through trial and error and the conversations it’s had during its in-person visits, Osnaya-Prieto said. This has cultivated an engagement strategy that’s unique to the organization.

Other outlets can draw from EdNC’s successes Osnaya-Prieto said, but proper audience engagement is all about finding the puzzle pieces that fit the organization.

By releasing its free-to-use playbook, EdNC hopes to foster collaboration among newsrooms so that they may grow together. Osnaya-Prieto said that in 2022, he’s most excited to share insights with other industry professionals.

“The media is in such an unstable place, for a ton of reasons, that we might as well just learn from each other and not gatekeep information,” Osnaya-Prieto said.