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JA Revisits: Ashoka and The Christian Science Monitor find “resonance”

Make Change / Christian Science Monitor

Checking in on an experiment: Ashoka and The Christian Science Monitor co-brand.

Journalism Accelerator

In the rich JA conversations earlier this year on collaboration in the news business, Keith Hammonds, director of Ashoka’s Knowledge Initiative, sketched out a “new sort of collaboration.” Soon after, Ashoka, an institution dedicated to innovative social change, and The Christian Science Monitor, a news organization committed to thoughtful, contextualized coverage, launched the project: a two week trial run of a cooperative effort designed to give Monitor readers the chance to actively respond to stories in ways that might change them. Or possibly the world.

So how did it turn out?

“People bit,” said Ashoka’s Keith Hammonds, in a recent conversation with Monitor’s business development manager Trevor Snorek-Yates and me. Both partners in the project were pleased with readers’ response to the trial run. “We believe that anyone can be inspired, equipped, prepared to identify social problems and change them,” said Hammonds. “Here we’re really road testing that.” Snorek-Yates says The Monitor tried this experiment to address a specific problem. “In the past, we’ve struggled with guiding readers who, at the end of an article, want to engage,” he said.

This is how the collaboration worked: Editors at The Monitor could add a button and banner to any story, inviting people to respond to what they’d read and “make change” by learning more, talking with others, or even starting a project.

The project focused on “empathy.” For two weeks this summer, links went on stories that somehow related to empathy, and sent readers to a co-branded page exploring what that concept means for people today.

The goals? Gauge reader interest, test-drive a collaborative relationship and create an example for potential sponsors.

About Keith Hammonds

Keith HammondsKeith Hammonds directs Ashoka’s Knowledge Initiative. He started his journalism career as a news clerk for The New York Times. He wrote for the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day, managed bureaus and edited for BusinessWeek in Boston and New York and spent eight years as the executive editor for Fast Company, where he started the Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards to honor top social entrepreneurs.

Measuring engagement

Both Hammonds and Snorek-Yates say their organizations set conservative goals based in part on past experience, and were pleasantly surprised. For example, they aimed for at least 100 click-throughs to the co-branded page from Monitor stories. Actual visits were 34 times higher. About 14% of the 45,000 people who get regular emails from The Monitor clicked to the project page from a note sent out by The Monitor’s publisher. Snorek-Yates says that was “quite good” relative to some other campaigns.

What was the draw? Both suspect the particular content appealed to the targeted audience. Snorek-Yates described Monitor readers as often “interested in exploring what people might think of as pretty heavy topics.” Hammonds said the conversation leaders were appealing too.

But neither knows exactly what brought people in. “I don’t think this was evidence we have a deliverable solution,” Hammonds said, “but it was evidence we have something here that has resonance.”

Exploring collaboration

They were also both were surprised at how well their organizations meshed.

The Monitor had struggled in the past to give readers a meaningful way to engage after reading articles.  But in early conversations, neither organization was sure exactly what they wanted to build. They kept exploring. Hammonds was hooked by The Monitor’s enthusiasm and willingness to take risks. “We got the sense that this was genuinely exciting for them. This was an opportunity to do something that had some intellectual appeal, this was not just another story,” he said.

Snorek-Yates said Ashoka was a good partner for Monitor because their interests were in synch. “We talked with OxFam, but at the end of the day, they have a pretty strong agenda,” he said, including a particular political path toward the larger aim of ending world hunger. Snorek-Yates said partnering with advocacy groups can be challenging for news organizations that prefer to stay away from supporting specific policies.

Trevor Snorek-Yates

Trevor Snorek-YatesTrevor Snorek-Yates rose to become business development manager for The Christian Science Monitor after nearly half a dozen years as an advertising sales manager. He’s been with the organization for 10 years. Prior to The Monitor, Trevor worked with Media News Group with one of its local newspaper affiliates in Vermont.

Producing a product

Will giving people a way to engage at a deeper level than sharing a link or posting a comment add value for readers? And will that value bring in revenue? Snorek-Yates said finding a sponsor is vital to continue this experiment on a larger scale. “We haven’t considered it as something we’d continue if it did not have revenue behind it,” he said. Hammonds says the value comes from the people who participate. “Our hope is we are actually creating something that has higher value to sponsors because we are connecting them not just to interested readers but to engaged changemakers – a more intimate, powerful relationship,” he said.

They are starting conversations with potential backers this fall.

Is there something you’ve seen on the JA you’d like to go deeper on? Feel free to send us your suggestions. Keith Hammonds, Trevor Snorek-Yates and I would also appreciate hearing about effective ways YOU engage your readers, or ideas you’d like to try.