It’s OK if Your Project Fails; Try Again!

Posted on February 13, 2023

Blurred outside background. Hand in foreground holds a blue sticky note with typed words "every failure is a step to success."

This is Jessica VanderKolk, Communications Manager for the City of Battle Creek, Michigan. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

What I’m reading: Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, 25th Anniversary Edition

What I’m watching: Making A Murderer on Netflix

Who my pet is: The absolutely amazing Hush Puppy, a Pitbull mix, age 6

Brown and white pitbull mix sitting in front of a bakery case panting/smiling, wearing a black and white puffer coat. Person is standing next to him.

One of my big projects in 2022 failed. 

But it’s OK, I’m glad we tried it, and we are moving on to a different project to meet the same goals. This is the evolution of my city’s community newsletter.

The Background

Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, I sent our newsletter every other month in city utility bills. I was limited to one full sheet of paper, printed front and back. In 2020, we stopped for budgetary and staff reasons; the pandemic had started and I was working solo, with much of my time spent on the countywide pandemic response.

It turned out that was the right move anyway.

In these years we started offering e-billing, and those customers don’t receive the inserts (we’re working on that issue now with IT). You also might know that not all renters receive their utility bills directly, so they likely were not receiving our inserts either. Finally, one page, front and back, does not hold a lot of information.

The New Plan

In 2021 we started planning for a community newsletter comeback! I wanted a new format, so I considered a variety of factors that led me to the decision to buy the center spread of our weekly, free newspaper, and publish quarterly.

  • Our area school districts do this, and it seemed like a good way to get information out broadly.
  • The paper has a distribution of about 50,000 (our population is about 52,000 and we send about 20,000 utility bills).
  • This was cost-effective, at about $2,000 per issue.
  • We could still design it ourselves (using Canva, natch).

I was able to submit this project – and our City Commission approved it – as part of the list of city organization projects that received funding from our allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding.

So we did it! In 2022 we created and published quarterly issues of our newsletter in this format. It looked nice, seemed to work well, and didn’t cost a lot while we tried something new. 

The Statistics

I didn’t hear much feedback over the year, so in our final issue and via our other messaging channels, I asked for feedback. I only got a few dozen responses, but that, combined with some other information, told me this didn’t really work, and I needed a new strategy for 2023.

  • On the survey, over half said they never saw the newsletter. While nearly 60 percent said they liked the concept of the newspaper format, when asked about where they would prefer to see the newsletter, 26% said utility bills, 17% said website only, and 17% said direct mail.
  • Also in the survey, we received some comments that some people don’t receive the weekly paper consistently, and some people who receive it don’t read it.
  • On our 2022 National Community Survey, we asked how people get city information, and here are some results that really made me think about our methods:
    • City newsletter was equal between major, minor, and not a source of information. Social media results were the same, and so were utility bill inserts results.
    • A majority named direct mailings a top source – 85% called them a major or minor source (split almost equally).
  • When we asked about barriers that prevent people from engaging with the city, a majority (27 percent) said they don’t know how to get city information.

When all you do is work to share information, that’s hard to hear, isn’t it? But we ask for feedback to improve our services, and if what we’re doing doesn’t work for our communities, we head back to the drawing board.

The New NEW Plan

We have ARPA funds left for the newsletter project, and we have data telling us what our community needs. In 2023 we will direct mail our community newsletter quarterly, and we will post it on our website. 

In addition, we plan to start an email subscription, shorter news digest we will send monthly between those direct mailed newsletters. The email will include previews and roundups of City Commission agendas and actions, another information piece we want to bring to the community.

I believe in doing what we can to meet people where they are. I want people to get the information they need from us, and to learn and find interest in what we do. I feel optimistic and excited for a new NEW series of news pieces to do just that. 

Failure happens, and that’s OK. Ask questions, use your resources, and find new ways to try to meet your goals as a department and an organization.

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