The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit nonpartisan digital media organization based in Austin, Texas.  In 2014, the Reynolds Journalism Institute funded a grant for the Tribune to hire a growth hacker.  The ideal candidate would have solid HTML, CSS, and JavaScript skills as well as a digital marketing acumen i.e. a coder with marketing sensibility.  Primarily, the growth hacker would work with the various content feeds and use A/B testing to spur new users and deepen engagement with existing users.

The duties of the job were to work individually as a team of one, test new ideas, be responsible for rapid deployment of multiple tests, ensure proper measurement of each test, and participate in weekly status updates with the executive team: the COO, CEO, CTO, Director of Marketing, and Director of Engineering Strategy.

Lindsey was awarded the grant and given the opportunity to propose, design, develop, and deploy multiple growth hacks, as well as analyze the A/B testing and generate a final report.



One of the first and most famous growth hacks was created by Hotmail (yes the e-mail service).  In 1996, Hotmail thought to its existing user base to attract more customers.  They added "Get Your Free E-mail at Hotmail" with a link to an email sign-up form on the footer of every e-mail sent through their email service.  The results were undeniablethe platform grew from 20,000 users to 1 million users in 6 months.

At the Texas Tribune, they were not utilizing an e-mail footer forwarding call-to-action.  Email subscriptions grew over 300% after implementing the customized email footer, "Build a smarter, better Texas.  Forward this email to a friend." 



The Texas Tribune RSS Feed Widget allows third-party organizations to highlight Texas's top political stories within a sidebar widget available in three standard sizes.  By integrating this widget, not only can content creators have access to political content without allocating additional resources, but also website visitors are able to be more informed about politics in Texas as well as the Texas Tribune brand.  There are a lot of expansion possibilities for this widget: build out other specified news widgets (Water, Education, etc.), create video widgets, or develop an audio widget.  

By giving third parties the ability to spread the brand of the Texas Tribune, new audiences can experience Tribune news through outlets they are already comfortable reading.  This widget creates an opportunity for the expansion of the Tribune's brand awareness. 

One of the biggest benefits of the RSS feed widget is that other media organizations could implement this hack easily.  One of the primary goals of the Growth Hacking grant was to provide boilerplate template hacks for other media organizations with limited budgets.  The code was generated with a free online tool that allows you to turn an RSS feed into a widget.  The kinds of partnerships that would likely be promising could be local bloggers (food, culture, entertainment), nonprofit organizations, or political groups.  There are many ways that this hack could benefit organizations with a $0 marketing budget.  

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Facebook tabs

Facebook Tabs are a feature of Facebook Pages that allow users to interact with photos, videos, and page information more easily (all contained within the Facebook web application).  Within the last few years, developers have created applications that have increased functionality within Facebook via web and mobile. 

The Tribune wants users to visit two pages: the join page and the donate page.  The join page is where visitors can choose to become members and receive special access.  The donate page allows visitors to contribute financially to the Texas Tribune.

The Become a Member tab integrates the http://www.texastribune.com/join page, which prompts users to become a member of the Tribune.  The Donate tab integrates the http://www.texastribune.com/donate page, which prompts users to donate to the Tribune.  Both tabs load an iframe window within the Facebook web and mobile application and allow Facebook users to become a member or donate without exiting the Facebook application.  A Facebook Tab may not be proven to exponentially increase user activity, but it certainly eases the process of becoming a member of or donating to the Tribune, which overall improves the relationship between the user and the Tribune.



The Texas Tribune was founded to help fill a gap in reporting on the important issues of state government, politics, and public policy.  Today, it proves that sustainability, and even outright growth, is possible for serious news organizations.  While the first two years focused on innovation, followed by two years of innovation in revenue, it makes sense that the next two years would be most focused on innovation in—and dedication to—audience.

The Reynolds Fellowship, generously funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, was seeking to explore the idea of growth hacking—low-cost innovative alternatives to traditional marketing—a particularly important technique for organizations like the Tribune, who have little or no marketing budget but are positioned for growth.

The question was that now that the media industry has finally embraced the role of the hybrid journalist-engineer, how could it be done the same on the business side?  The Reynolds Institutional fellowship allowed the Tribune to pilot an approach with a short-term contractor who had both coding skills and a marketing acumen.  The ideal development of this project was to deploy a handful of tactics that deliver measurable improvement in new audience growth from across Texas in order to share results with other news organizations that may not have large budgets allocated to paid marketing. 

As mentioned, Growth Hacking (GH) has been tremendously successful initializing rapid growth among companies such as AirBnB, Dropbox, and LinkedIn, and if similar methods were successful within media organizations, this could positively impact media growth, revenue, and overall readership.  If media organizations are able to implement low-cost marketing alternatives, this gives them a greater opportunity for organic growth as well as additional dollars available for other initiatives.  If successful, GH initiatives would be significant in the media marketing methodology because increasing readership and overall brand awareness could be as simple as refactoring social media tactics or creating meaningful referral programs.    

The idea of this engagement was to allow the contractor to prove or disprove whether a single person or small team can take an idea all the way from concept to execution.  There is plenty of heated debate about whether growth hacking is really any different than just smart, efficient digital marketing (or in AirBnB’s case—good product development).  The purpose of naming it growth hacking was only to establish the main focus as growth specifically.

The conclusion of this project is that despite the challenges of utilizing a small team or more specifically one individual to implement changes across an organization, with efficient communication and accountability, measurable increases in web traffic can occur for media organizations with small budgets.  Growth hacking could be effective, as a critical low-cost tool, within the realm of media organizations. 

The goal of the project was to initiate two to three real-world tests within a three-month period.  Two out of three tests were deployed; however, meaningful results were difficult to gather because both of the implemented projects were executed near the end of the engagement.  Technically the project met the requirements specified, but a longer tenure, a systematic implementation process, and more frequent growth hacking group meetings would most likely be necessary in order to yield more impressive results.   

The desired result was to reach a new audience in a systematic way, and the most useful outcome of the test pilot was that by implementing the email footer call-to-action, email subscriptions grew 300%.  Additionally, there will most likely be an increase in web traffic once the widgets are implemented within third-party sites, and it is possible that the Facebook Tab integration will increase donations and membership subscriptions.  One of the obvious conclusions is to recognize that growth hacking projects are difficult for a small team (or individual) to implement.  Ideally, this process would have yielded numerous tangible results so that there could be an exact conclusion on the effectiveness of growth hacking at large.  While that exact result was not achieved, three growth hacks have been built that can be utilized by the Tribune and other organizations, and future potential growth hacks have been recommended so that other technology team members can pursue improvements that could enhance growth.