Case study, using social media for social good: The Knight News Challenge 2008/09

The Knight News Challenge, a signature program of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, sponsors an international competition open to anyone who has an idea that can change the future of news and discourse in a local geographic community. Every year for the past 2 years (there are 5 years for which funds are committed), Knight has awarded $5MM to approximately 16 projects from around the world, paying out over a 2-year period.

Projects funded include Placeblogger, the world’s foremost local blog directory and aggregator, EveryBlock, a Django-based framework for RSS feeds that organized and presents data based on your zip code, Printcasting, a web to print application tool, and the Sochi Olympics Project, which will let the people of Sochi, the Russian resort city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, use the latest online tools to both discuss and influence the impact of the games
Program Objectives
For this year, 2008-09, the team wanted to improve the diversity of the applications, bringing in more from the tech and social media communities, as well as the online news area, improve awareness and grow international submissions, particularly in Asia. Two related goals were to increase awareness of the program, and to build community among the applicants.
To help meet these objectives, they retained me to act as the program manager and evangelist, in conjunction with Program Director Gary Kebbel, the program’ developer and owner, Knight Journalism Program Associate Jose Zamora, and Knight Community Manager Kristen Taylor, webmaster Robbie Adams and Marketing and Communications VP Marc Fest.

Working as a team, along with Heidi Miller, whom Knight hired as a social media coordinator, we crafted a strategy for raising awareness, recruiting participants, mentoring prospective applicants, and raising the quality of the applications. No one on the team worked on this 100%, but working against a well-crafted plan allowed us to maximize our time
Strategies for outreach
The Knight Foundation has well-established relationships with influential journalists, bloggers and educators in the online news and international online news arenas, and deep ties with journalism, new media, and communications programs at many universities. However, for this program, Knight wanted to reach beyond their core audience to connect with technologists, social media innovators, product developers and local organizers who might have innovative ideas for sharing news and information and supporting engagement and discussion in a specific geographic area.
To achieve this goal, we did an analysis that suggested using a suite of social media tools would not only be extremely effective for outreach, but would reinforce the message that we were innovative and cool. Our plan relied on using tools that had worked in previous years–web site, email, purchased ad words–but we put more emphasis on the new tools: blogging, video blogging, Twitter, seesmic, Flickr in particular
To communicate these messages, we created a three-month strategy to execute against

. Some of the tasks in the plan were to:
•    Create a means to have on-going events–digital and real-world that we could both blog about and have bloggers cover
•    Create a list of about 100 social media and Web 2.0 bloggers, entrepreneurs and technologists whose attention we could engage with these events
•    Send information about the 2008-09 Knight News Challenge to about 7,500 people on a mailing list, asking them to spread the word in their communities
•    Create a Twitter account and twit 3X a day with interesting news and updates to drive participation in the Knight News Challenge
•    Create a #hashtag--a tag that makes a phrase discoverable in a twitter search (– for the Knight News Challenge--#knc08–and promote it, making it possible for interested parties to track our efforts.
•    Interview past winners and post to the blog; have past winners do Seesmic videos we could promote
•    Conduct a strong email campaign to our constituent base of online journalists and educators and a wider pool of tech, social media and community influencers
At the same time as we mapped these ideas, we explored other ideas that would allow us to create more of an applicant community to spread the word and support one another.
Inspired by incubators like ycombinator and TechStars, we decided to create a Drupal site called the News Challenge Garage ( This would be a destination where prospective applicants could post ideas and projects, receive peer comments and request online mentoring before they submitted their applications for judging. The budget for this site was low, and we built it within 3 weeks
Finally, we also decided to create and execute a series of real world meet-ups, in addition to an online webinar. Knowing how effective the BarCamps have been, we decided to see if we could create low-cost equivalents for the KNC08, focusing on cities where Knight staff was already travelling.

To deliver on our international aspirations, we built an international outreach and marketing plan that relied on the support of Jose Zamora, our Journalism Program Associate, Joyce Barnathan and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), Professor Rosental Alves of The University of Texas at Austin, Global Voices, and other connections with good international contacts. This program was heavily email based, but also included a real world meet up.

In August, 2008, we started our program by updating the web site’s FAQ and call to action to broaden the appeal, then followed up with a press release and an email blast to about 7,500 influencers, friends of Knight, past applicants, journalism educations and bloggers. This was followed by the start of a Twitter campaign, the creation of the #KNC08 hashtag, and an ongoing series of blog posts on the Knight Foundation blog.

Very soon after, we launched the News Challenge Garage; we promoted its launch with an email blast to a broad target and individual outreach to the 100 influencers on our list.  The site generated great interest, and applicants began to immediately register. Bloggers also began to write about it, and about the program. We used Twitter to communicate with potential applicants and encouraged people to follow our twitstream; within a short period of time we had 300 followers on Twitter
To meet our goal of having fresh blog posts on the Knight blog and the Garage site, three times a week, we created an editorial schedule and assigned posts out for specific dates and themes to the team of 3 staffers. In addition, we did some podcasts with past winners, and asked some past winners to do Seesmic videos about the program.  This material generated page views, commentary and linking around the blogosphere, driving links and awareness way up (results date below).
At the same time that we were using the new tools, we also used the old ones. T
hree times during the application period we sent out email blasts; analysis showed that the email was extremely successful in driving applicants to the site, more so than advertising.

We planned the meet-ups so they could piggyback on travel and conferences already planned. We were able to do 9 meet ups–in New York, Boston, Miami, Washington, DC, Seattle, Vancouver, Austin, San Francisco, and Chicago. In many cases, we were able to also visit J-Schools and speak to students in the same trip, and to add meet-ups to other conferences, such as the Online News Association.  During a meet-up (typically 90 minutes long), we spent 20 minutes explaining the program, using a live web browser to show key URLs and examples, then used the rest of the time for discussion and Q&A. Meetings were generally well-attended, with 35-40 people as an average, but with some meetings have as any as 75 people.

To get the word out, we created Facebook groups for each meet up, listed them on, and blogged them. Interestingly, many people in the social media and online journalism communities treated them as important events, exhorting friends to attend (and apply for funding).  This drove awareness.

Finally, to execute on our international outreach we not only asked numerous international organizations to reach out on our behalf, we also sent about 200 emails to personal international contacts, asking them to spread the word in their communities. Finally, during the last three weeks of the program, we worked with the Knight Foundation Webmaster, Robertson Adams, to purchase keywords that could drive awareness in China, Korea, Japan and other part of Asia
Evaluating results
So, what were our outcomes like? Did we meet our goals? The short version would be yes.
•    Traffic to the Knight News Challenge site increased 47% compared to the same time the previous year. The site had an average of 2,930 visitors a day, during the course of the application timeframe.
•    On the final day of the contest, 17,000 people came to the site, a record high. Both these metrics were 50% higher than the previous year.
•    2,323 projects were submitted to the Knight News Challenge. 258 were invited to submit a full proposal, 70 became finalists for the funding are going through final review this February (results not yet released). The staff considers the quality to be extremely high.

•    In 2008, there were 224 independent blog posts about the Knight News Challenge, compared to 24 the previous year. Blog posts appeared in blogs published in European countries, the UK, Korea, China, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, Canada and Latin America as well as the US
•    The Knight News Challenge got major press during the program-we were written up in Valleywag in October
•    A post in the New York Times by “Freakonomics” author Steven J. Dubner, titled “Free Money” sent 1,442 visitors to the site.

•    1,600 people registered for the News Challenge Garage site (required to comment). 800 posted projects. 466 applied for a grant. Discussion of the Garage generated 10,000 links that Google indexed, 6,000 of which did not originate from the Garage site.

•    The 8 meet ups had 400 attendees, many of whom blogged, shot video and pictures and shared about the program. Roughly 50% of the meet up attendees applied to the program. There are 700 links to mentions of the events indexed in Google, 30 photos on Flickr tagged Knight News Challenge meet up, and 4 videos).

•    Google reported over 60,000 mentions of “Knight News Challenge” on non-Knight sites in 2008; this was a 110% increase from 2007.

Social media tools–combined with the usage of a web site, email campaign and webinar–vastly increased both the awareness of the Knight News Challenge and the diversity of the applications, particularly in the English-speaking world.  Marketing costs were applied to supporting a part-time social media manager, rather than to agency fees, and a greater return occurred. The innovative Garage site helped to brand the program as interested in innovation and drove ongoing awareness and discussion on the net, as did the real world meet ups.
Overall, we were able to create an interactive, virtuous circle or open loop, where our real world community, which we successfully targeted online and off, not only got our message but then went on to publicize it on our behalf. This created a bigger impact that we might have gotten otherwise and led to a lot of success with carefully measured resources.

Note, this is an excerpt from a much longer white paper with three case studies, written on using social media for social good. The paper is available here-
309Social media for social causes white paper.pdf

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