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When “Junk Mail” Is Used for Good

Postcard news delivered to households using Postal Service program

By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D

Most of us have experienced it…opening your mailbox at the end of the day to supermarket fliers and other circulars designed to get us shopping. And like many of you, much of that “junk mail “ends up in my trash. But what if we could use “junk mail” for good – to target residents with local information and news to get them in action?

My experiment started with the desire to create inclusive communication innovations that could serve rural hamlets in SE Ohio, towns of 300 to 5,000 residents.

As part of the Media Seeds Project in SE Ohio supported by Journalism That Matters via the Jefferson Center and a grant from Democracy Fund, we experimented with the U.S. Postal Service EDDM or Every Door Direct Mail program as a way to reach media deserts, regions that lacked access to daily, local information. The Media Deserts Project examines the media ecosystem down to the ZIP code level, mapping the reach and penetration of existing daily and community newspapers in a region. The mapping helped identify areas in Ohio that lack a solid news and information ecosystem. Then, through the Media Seeds Project, we conducted additional digital, social and communication audit work to develop localized solutions with residents. Geospatial media analytics and the methodologies we developed under The Media Deserts Project allowed us to dive deeper into targeted regions and understand the media consumption and gaps in coverage.

The U.S. Postal Service EDDM program allows you to target communities down to the postal route level, selecting from the demographic data provided on the EDDM tool of number of people in household, income and other data (Figure 1). Select the routes you want and the calculator cranks out the postage required for your mailing. EDDM approved printers deliver your mailer via pallets directly to the post office, where they go out with letter carriers on the routes you’ve selected, to every household and business if you wish.

Figure 1. The U.S. Postal Service Every Door Direct Mail program allows you to target regions down to the postal route level. We used it to create pre- and post-surveys and localized content to reach media deserts in SE Ohio.

 

We developed a survey (Figure 1) to measure the media diet of our region and community wellbeing and connectedness and delivered it to every household in our target ZIP codes. The survey was distributed using the postcards and were designed with a postage-paid reply (Figure 2).

We received a 5-7 percent response rate, along with honest insights into how locals viewed media sources in the region from broadcast entities such as television and radio, to community newspapers and even some political ranting in the comment section we devised to get direct words from residents (Figure 3).

A sampling of the feedback we received about the local media environment:

  • “They (local newspaper) are one-sided, don't tell the whole truth. Old money in this area control all (This is from a person in business for 27 years in Pomeroy).”
  • “There is a dearth of information for rural Meigs County.”
  • “Interested in knowing how to reach people in my county about services, events offered by my employer.”

What we discovered is a patchwork of media entities from conservative radio broadcasts to local family-run newspapers. We heard and experienced the broadband woes of the region while navigating the geography. We also learned about the types of information residents were craving and used it to design our editorial mix and bring more transparency to local activities.

Next, we designed “news on a postcard” with QR codes and bit.ly links (Figure 4) to take readers from the headline news and excerpts directly to online, full stories about their region. The online portal we built for the region at ZIPit.news invites residents to join and post their own news and information to readers, adding user-generated content to our news mix.

Every household in our target area received the card. We designed additional cards with local information, featuring stories of local businesses and neighbors that we wanted to connect to each other. Our goal was to create a sustainable way to source information differently, using user-generated knowledge and provide an inclusive way to get the information to every household.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is Dean, School of Journalism & Graphic Communication, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and the principal investigator for The Media Deserts Project (www.mediadeserts.com) and the Media Seeds Project of SE Ohio. The research efforts were funded by the Democracy Fund and the Online News Association. Ferrier presented this postcard news program to media colleagues at the People-Powered Publishing Conference in Chicago on November 15, 2018. Conference in Chicago on November 15, 2018.

Mapping Information Ecosystems to Serve Local News Needs from Michelle Ferrier
 
Figure 2. The local survey included questions on the media consumption of residents as well as a community wellbeing scale.
 
Figure 3. The reply card made it easy for residents to fill out and put right back into their mailboxes.
 

Figure 4. While a comment section was built into the reply card, some

Figure 5. Content cards used QR codes and short links to direct readers to more online content.