What We’ve Learned From Aldertrack (Part One)

November 25, 2014


In early October, Jimm Dispensa and I launched the third and newest version of Aldertrack, a quadrennial Chicago politics reporting service that focuses on the Chicago municipal elections. It’s changed quite a bit as we’ve learned how to run over the years what I’m calling a “hobby vertical news service.”

The first version, for the 2007 elections, was an all-text website operated entirely by Jimm that aimed to gather every last article and tidbit about Chicago’s elections, then sort it all out by ward. In a proto-Twitter/Facebook world, the free website still managed to go viral among Chicago’s biggest politics junkies with it’s total devotion to Chicago’s arcane political process and election minutia.

Then, I joined up with Jimm for the second version in 2011 after convincing him that we should team up with a “real” news outlet and create a subscription political news service. All of Jimm’s work, I argued, should be paid for by the people spending big money on Chicago campaigns. And with Chicago’s first open-mayoral election in decades, there would be lots of interested people.

To Jimm’s credit, he was game for my crazy scheme.

After talking with a few different news outlets in town, we teamed up with the non-profit Chicago News Cooperative to create Early & Often. With Jimm’s obsession with detail, CNC’s great reporting and my marketing efforts, we set a low target of a thousand subscriptions, hopes for maybe three thousand subscribers and a price of $150 a head.

Things didn’t go as planned. Our free weekday email topped out at about 5,000 people, while only about 250 people purchased subscriptions. Without significant revenue Early & Often petered out after the election and so did the Chicago News Cooperative soon thereafter, their assets going to The Chicago Sun Times which later reinvigorated Early & Often as its own political news brand.

This Election Season’s Experiment

Racing Form front pageFor 2014/15 Jimm and I decided to do something that would fall between the 2007 and 2011 efforts. Jimm envisioned distributing a document, an incredibly detailed Chicago Racing Form  about every aldermanic candidate (there’s 250+) to be sold as a paper and a PDF edition. The paper edition would be sold for $7 in Chicago neighborhood taverns where folks tend to hang out and talk politics. The PDF would be sold online for $5. We’d promote everything to our old Aldertrack email list of politicos and politics junkies, as well as some new people we scraped from City of Chicago lobbyist declaration forms.

We knew from the beginning that Jimm’s Chicago Racing Form was going to be an insane bargain. The amount of detail Jimm planned was staggering–probably worth hundreds of dollars a copy. But we wanted to create something that anyone could afford, with a low enough barrier to purchase so that we could find out just how many people in Chicago are willing to pay something, anything, for Chicago political news. We decided to conduct a social/economic experiment.

aldertrack-2014-salesWe had a great launch day on Tuesday, October 7. That day we sold 60 copies online of the Chicago Racing Form. However, sales plummeted after the launch and we only sold about 120 in total. It was still early in the game though, since the federal/state elections hadn’t been held yet. The chief buyers we figured, were true hard-core politics junkies. We figured the next big surge would be when candidate ballot petitions became due, November 17.

Paper copies were another story. Sales were anemic, only a few dozen copies, as barkeeps lost track of the copies, actual sales and we offered no point-of-sale marketing. Admittedly, we had planned poorly. The worst part was the printing cost–just under $600 for 500 copies of a 56 page 8.5×11 document. It was was fun to handout and sell tangible, paper copies, but for us it was a total wash.

As we watched digital sales flatten out after launch, we remembered that in 2010 interest in the upcoming Chicago elections kicked up as petitions to get on the ballot were filed, so we decided to create a Second Edition with even more detail and daily updates at a slightly higher price: $10.

In Illinois, “the race before the race” is the effort to file ballot petitions and stay on the ballot. Every candidate needs to file a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters in their district to get on the ballot. “Valid” is the key word. After candidates file their petitions, opponents (or any citizen) can pull copies of petitions and then compare names and signatures to voter registration records on file with the Chicago Board of Elections. Then, if the opponent finds enough “invalid” signatures, they can file a legal objection with the Board to knock the candidate off the ballot.

Lots of unwary and unprepared candidates get knocked off the ballot. The process is tricky and very little of the law governing it is codified, mostly existing as obscure case law. Only about a dozen Illinois attorneys practice in this area and political bosses maintain crews of petition scrubbing experts to keep ballots clean of people they don’t want to deal with on election day.

This is exactly the kind of insider event that Aldertrack was built for. Jimm decided he would check in at the Board of Elections multiple times each day during filing week On the first and last days of filing he’d basically camp out at the Board, tweeting out candidate filings and some pictures while I’d retweet what candidates and the media put out.

We gained 400 Twitter followers in a week and sold 149 copies of the Racing Form during that time. Not bad. But have we penetrated the majority of the market? We’ll see if we do better down the line.

Here, so far, are the conclusions I think we can draw from the process so far.

1. The audience for Chicago politics isn’t actually that big. In 2011 we were backed by a trusted news brand, the Chicago News Cooperative, and ultimately gathered about 250 paid monthly subscriptions. This year, with a $10 flat fee, we’ve only gotten about 150 purchases. That number will probably increase, maybe even triple, but it’s far from on track to sustain a news organization.

2. Politics junkies aren’t interested in reporting and analysis, they’re interested in raw information and data. Most people interested and invested in political outcomes already know most of the rumors and have figured out the available chess table moves. What they really want to know is where the chess pieces are so they can understand if there are new moves to make. Thus, information scarcity is what drives people to pay for political coverage, not the insight and analysis political reporters love to talk about.

3. It takes a lot of effort and inside knowledge to produce a high quality product for junkies. From a reporter’s perspective, political insiders already know much more than they do. A strong news business is in the information arbitrage business, telling readers what they don’t know already. Finding reporters that can just have an intelligent conversation with political insiders, often talking in a very local, hyper-specific context, so they can understand available arbitrage points is very difficult. But if your news organization isn’t able to do that, your information product will not be valuable to insiders.

4. Traditional advertising doesn’t do much to increase penetration among junkies. We spent about $100 on Facebook and Twitter ads and they did nothing. Granted, what wasn’t very much money, but our potential audience isn’t very big. Instead we spent our efforts building our email list and creating a sales funnel: Twitter > Email > Racing Form purchase. Inbound email marketing for the win!

5. Facebook is useless for small audiences. The social network’s throttling of free posts to your audience makes it hard to demonstrate value to the audience and thus increase it. Our Facebook follower audience stalled at around 200 while our Twitter audience has surged with every big news event to close to 700. And our Tweets promoting the Racing Form has converted into sales. Facebook never has.

6. No matter how simple the purchase process, someone will always have a problem. We built a super simple front-page button purchase process that keeps buyers on the same page. Once you buy, you’re automatically directed to the download page. We’ve had problems with people downloading, clicking the purchase button multiple times (making multiple charges) and having ultra-low 800x600px screen resolution so they can’t see the whole purchase form. I’ve tried to provide within-the-hour customer service response to emails by taking orders over the phone, emailing files, etc. But even so, we’ve probably lost about 3% of our sales to technical issues.

7. Unless it delivers some specific value, print is dead as a medium for small runs. Our attempt to sell print editions was a total bust. Granted, we used non-traditional venues rather than bookstores or newsstands, but we found those difficult to negotiate and either way we had no point-of-sale marketing, which would have made a difference, but another sunken cost. I don’t think we’ll do another print version unless we start turning out tens of thousands of copies.

8. WordPress is the bomb. The development costs of our operation were laughably low.
Hosting – $50/mo
Wordpress – Free
Site design/ThemeForest – $12
Secure download code/CodeCanyon – $8
Member management/Wishlist Member – $79
Mailchimp – $50/mo
Stripe – 2.9% + 30¢ per transaction

Before our first sale, we paid about $200 to launch the digital operation. That’s the kind of thing anyone could do.

Stay tuned for another update further down the line on what we’ve learned so far.