News for Digital Journalists

September 07, 2010

Text messaging now popular with core news audience demographics

Text messaging isn’t just for kids. According to a Sept. 2 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Cell Phones and American Adults, 72% of US cell phone users age 18 and over now send and receive text messages—up from 65% a year ago.

This means that texting has become a mainstream communication/media channel for the core age demographic of most news audiences. That’s a strong reason why you should consider texting carefully as part of your mobile news strategy…

Not surprisingly, teens do tend to text far more frequently. Pew reports that adult texters typically send and receive 10 messages daily, while teen texters (12-17) typically send and receive about 50 messages per day.

The Pew report only examined patterns in voice calls and texting for personal communication. It did not cover text-based news or services (such as alerts from banks or transit, or updates from Twitter accounts), which also are quite popular.

So far, most news organizations do little more with texting than broadcast headlines of top stories or breaking news—something that tends to be somewhat useful, but minimally engaging.

It might be more interesting to experiment with offering more customized text-base services, such as alerts for particular news topics. Done well, customized texting services are not only popular—they can also generate revenue. A good example is Major League Baseball’s Team Alerts, available for a $3.99 monthly subscription plus carrier texting charges.

Text messaging is based on short bursts of information; it’s less friendly to sustained discourse, substantial content, or nuanced information. Therefore, don’t consider text messaging as a completely standalone news service. Rather, try to integrate it effectively with your other channels—especially e-mail and web. For instance, does your news site make it easy for people to share a story with a friend via text, like you can e-mail a story link?

Every text message your news org sends should offer some inherent value—but the greater potential of text messaging lies in its ability to extend audience engagement. Also, consider how people can effectively and easily interact with your news org via texting. And remember that during a major news event, when your web servers are slammed (or during a crisis when power and phones become unreliable), text messaging can be a crucial fallback news channel that can work even when voice calls aren’t getting through.

Of course, most cell phones can do much more than voice calls and text messaging. US adults are growing quite accustomed to using their phones for e-mail, web access, and app-based experiences. Many of these channels are available even on simpler, lower-cost feature phones—they’re not just for smartphone users. Earlier this summer Pew published a seminal report, Mobile Access 2010, which covered these topics extensively.

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