Creating Subscriber Value Q&A with Sougata Mukherjee of the Triangle Business Journal

At Subtext, we’re fortunate to work with amazing partners across media, sports, entertainment, events, politics, and more. We love learning from our partners to highlight their great work and improve our offerings. With that, let’s get into our interview with Sougata Mukherjee, the Editor-in-Chief of the Triangle Business Journal.

Q: Can you give me a little background on who you are and what you do?

A: I have been in journalism since 1991. I joined American City Business Journal in 92, I think. I was here for a couple of years initially in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then I moved to Washington, D.C. to start our Washington Bureau. The American City Business Journal has 45 products across 45 cities. Four of them, I believe, are just online products. It's an online news service and 41 has a printed version as well, a weekly printed version business journal.

I started this tech service and I found it somewhat intriguing to connect with my readers in a way that could be very personal because of the mode of delivery, which is SMS. As you know, text can be very intrusive. We all get text, but we don't like text. I've talked to a behavioral scientist at UNC, who mentioned that it can be very invasive because we hold our texts near and dear to what we want to get.

We are a business journal, so my texts are almost always tied to business happenings. I try to keep it super newsy, things that people may not be aware of that have happened over the past 24 hours.  I'm hearing from a lot of my subscribers that they like it because number one, it's short, it takes them 10 seconds to read. Number two, I deal with three different facts every day and the third one, I call it a fun fact, can be about anything. They love that feature, go figure. I am trying to improve within the same character length every day, trying to understand what is the important thing that they should know at 9.30 to 10 o'clock. 

I read for a couple of hours in the morning, however, I did that before text anyway. Now I just pick and choose the things that I think my subscribers should be aware of. Sometimes that includes some local journalism we are working on as well. SMS has created this relationship that is further strengthening our bigger objective of keeping our subscribers growing, and expanding our tent, per se. This is just absolutely a fabulous way of doing it. I'm basically at the end of my first year now. On average, I put out I would say three or four texts a week.  I try to keep the timing the same between 9.30 and 10 a.m. I identify myself right on the top and off we go. Who knows where it'll grow, but so far the community feedback has been fantastic.

Q: It sounds like you weren't sure where it was going to go at first, but now it's fastened itself into being a resource to subscribers and you're becoming that resource, right?

A: Unlike a full-scale story, all someone has to do is read the SMS to understand. My text is only two lines. If they need more, obviously they have to do their research. But I think they feel some sense of empowerment through this tech service that allows them to bring up one of the elements in the text.

The loyalty factor is far, far greater than people subscribing to your journal or your newspaper because you become part of their routine. If I miss one day, I hear people saying like, “Where's my text? Just want to make sure it's still on.” It gives me a feeling that we're doing community service in this case, right? The community just happens to be the nation in this case. We are adding value to our base and that has helped us move forward, but we are still learning.

Q: What has been the challenge as far as finding the right cadence, the right rhythm, and the right balance in setting up those text messages, finding the content that makes sense, and delivering it to your audience?

A: To be successful with any type of product, you need to know your audience. When we started this service, I had no idea about the type of people that were joining the service.

The first thing that I thought was "I wonder what type of stuff they would read because I don't want this to be coming to their phone, only to click stop." That was challenge number one. I went past that as I started talking about very, very broad business issues. If they subscribe to the Business Journal tech service, we assume they are interested in business news.

I started the first three or four months of the service doing some really broad business news that has a broader economic impact across several sectors. And then I funneled it tighter and tighter based on my interaction with the audience. I started getting a sense as to what business they are in, and what types of things they are showing interest in.

It seemed like people love to hear about the Federal Reserve because it affects everybody and interest rates affect everybody. I just don't do the news. I also put my thoughts that have hit a nerve. I just want to make sure if I say something, I add that it's my view.

I don't know if you saw the text today about people who took COVID loans. I told them "The Treasury may be coming after you, get your papers in order." I know some of my subscribers took COVID disaster loans and maybe they're paying on time but I think they would like to know, “Okay, I'm paying on time, apparently a lot of people aren't. Well, they should be.” Just get the community conversation started. And that's how I break down those challenges. But don't get me wrong, we will always face challenges because of the delivery mechanism.

Q: That's such a great and refreshing way to think of texting. It's important to treat your subscribers with respect through your content. Have you noticed an uptick in any of the activity on your campaign based on certain events that are happening? When inflation was through the roof, were there more pings back on your end from subscribers like wanting to hear more about inflation-related numbers?

A: Yeah. I know there were a couple of instances late last year where there was a lot of interaction on the same subject line: unemployment, broader economy-related stuff. That made people respond to me through SMS. I leveraged it because I was writing a column for print anyway. 

I found that anytime you allow your subscribers to opine, you have a better chance of them opining. As you keep it tight, don't blabber and then say, “What do you think?” That does not work. Let them know how you feel and they will respond. But if you keep on going and then say, "What do you think?" Chances are they won't. It's just a learning process. 

Q: Can you talk about the goals?

A: I think the goal needs to be far bigger than the delivery mechanism. I think the goal for a media company needs to be how you can add to your subscriber base, and then, for your existing subscriber base, how you can make them stickier. To make them stickier, they need to start feeling that SMS gives them a whole new set of information that they're not getting from the local business newspaper. I think overall the goal is now when we get new subscribers, we are giving them the option to join the tech service. You're just totally building this and then when I talk in front of the subscribers, I tell them about it. And given the unsubscribed rate being so low, you just know that you're doing something right. The purpose needs to be far bigger than just offering this service. The purpose needs to be how you can make your entire company more valuable. This is just one of the tools, but it's a very, very powerful tool because of its delivery.

Q: How are you guys measuring that value? How are you measuring success outside of just subscriptions to the campaign?

A: That’s a work in progress. I wanted to build a base first. Now that we're there, how we can quantify success? One of the things that we've started doing is the business journal events that have like 400 people come in at any time. Maybe 50 of them have already got the service, and out of 350, 35 joined. So 10%. That's a very good return, right? Because you're asking them to join right away by having the QR code on the screen. The first one we did had a 10 or 12% opt-in rate.

We are hoping to increase the base of folks who do not subscribe but are paying to come to our events. Events sometimes cost anywhere from $100-125 dollars and I'm treating those people who are coming to our events as a subscriber. Once they get in, maybe they'll feel, “Man, this is good. I need to subscribe.” That's another $150 in value. We haven't calculated that last piece yet because I want us to do the events part for this year. That will give us the exact success rate that we can convert into new people that are not only coming to SMS, but also helping the broader media organization.

Q: If you can capture them again over SMS, you're retaining an audience that's tremendously valuable for how many months or years. It's a priceless thing, getting those messages in their view?

A: I'm a big fan because every host needs to understand it all depends upon that host's way of thinking. If they accept the fact that people's attitudes and interests are constantly evolving because of the advent of technology in our lives, they should put more effort into service like Subtext because that, I believe, has a lot of value.

It's a different way of communicating with your audience, beyond just the technology part. It opens up a lot of different areas,  that you can have a repeat customer spend more money with you. I'm treating Subtext as a mechanism to attract a customer base that I'm giving them more and more information, but I also subtly will demand them to bet more money on us. This is just a mechanism but you have to believe that. You cannot just say I want to do this, this is cool. I just don't think it works because I said, this can be a dangerous way of communicating.

Q: One last question, which is just a fun one. What or when or how, who, what was the best experience you've had on Subtext so far?

A: Oh, that's an easy one. It just happened a couple of months ago. I think I wrote about something on golf and they replied saying that they would like me to be the fourth to play with them at Piners number two and with the CEO of Cisco. And of course, this was back in November or December, it was super cold. I'm a fair-weather golfer. That hasn't happened yet, but we have kept in touch via email. But that was cool that it all came about because I talked about golf, how important golf has become in business, and how deals are being done. 

Thank you to Sougata and the Triangle Business Journal for taking the time to talk to us about your experience with Subtext. It’s been incredible watching you create such a meaningful resource for your audience. If you want to learn more about how to incorporate an SMS channel into existing membership benefits, schedule a time to book a demo with one of our SMS experts today.

See the full interview here:


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