How one legacy paper is experimenting to reach a Millennial audience

By Rachel Podnar
Ball State University

The Herald-Tribune group’s audience in Sarasota, Florida is very old, rich and white. 

Assistant managing editor Tony Elkins knew his newsroom could do better.

“We were missing this market, Millennials,” he said. “It was monolithic. How can we drill down and really serve? Who are we trying to serve?”

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Tony Elkins shares the history of the site unRavel, in a lesson on how to reach Millennials.

They looked into groups in the community and realized they wanted to reach specifically young professionals, who are engaged in the community, driven and want to know what’s going on in community.

“That’s the perfect customer. They want local news,” he said.

So Elkins invited them to a a hip art gallery, fed them lunch, and then asked them, “What do you want?”

“It was a little unnerving,” Elkins said. “They did not read the paper, they didn’t care about us.”

But they didn’t say that they don’t care about local journalism, they just don’t want it to be written for their grandparents – or come with a paywall.

His team left the meeting, went and designed a new product, with mobile design first.

But it didn’t work the first time.

“We screwed up,” Elkins said. “We reverted to newsroom thinking. We did this flashy site and did what a lot of legacy organizations do, we repackaged what we had in a shiny new format.”

When they brought the same group back together, it didn’t fly, because the product read like a newspaper.

They went back to the drawing board and came up with unRavel. 

Elkins has found the audience cares about reading about their friends, other young professionals who are doing cool things in the community; cheap events; and how news affects them.

“They’re interested in city council, but they don’t want to read a 30-inch story about city council,” he said.

UnRavel has given the young professionals of Sarasota a place to have their voices heard, and they’ve taken notice.

The Herald-Tribune group spring-boarded off of the focus group sessions to build an audience, used social media to connect with influencers, and then wrote stories about those with large social followings.

Advertisers have taken notice, too. Elkins said when the site launched with no fanfare, just a Facebook and Twitter account, an advertiser contacted them within three hours; wanting to advertise on the site.

“We’re not alone in trying to reach these groups,” he said. “Other legacy organizations have no idea how to reach these groups and they are actually looking to us to figure it out.”

Elkins stressed it’s the “wild west” out there, and unRaveled is an experiment in the works. They have to pull resources from their staff to make it work, but so far, it’s working.

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