How Shaw Media’s Sauk Valley Media grew an opt-in list by 2,900% in two months


Coming into 2018, Shaw Media set a company-wide goal of expanding its portfolio of newsletters and their reach.

A natural place to start for the locally focused newspapers was high school sports, which they covered intently and which are followed passionately by their audiences.

Shaw’s Sauk Valley Media decided to take a two-pronged approach to the creating the newsletter: It would be rolled out with a new Athlete of the Week ballot initiative created on Second Street’s ballot platform.

“We had always had an athlete of the week, but it was someone picked by the sports (reporters and editors),” said John Sahly, senior digital editor for Shaw Media. “We thought there’s got to be a better way to engage the audience.”

An Athlete of the Week ballot, the Sauk Valley Media team reasoned, would tap the community enthusiasm for prep sports, and given them a voice in content. Reader choices would also offer an insight into the stories and subjects that most engaged the audience.

The ballot and newsletter—Sauk Valley Sports Update—kicked off at the start of this school year in August. The weekly ballot offers readers three or four nominees each for a top male and top female athlete of the week. The top athlete can be a star in all high school sports, from football to volleyball.

Each week, Sauk Valley Sports Update sends its subscribers a newsletter of Sauk Valley newspapers’ top prep sports content. Subscribers come from an opt-in on the Athlete of the Week ballot registration page.

The ballot and newsletter were immediate hits. In its first week, the ballot attracted more than 1,100 votes. And Sauk Valley Sports Update, which started with just 100 opt-ins, zoomed to more 3,000 after just seven weeks of running the Athlete of the Week ballot.

Sahly attributes the newsletter popularity to its convenience of delivery—and content that engages prep sports followers. Perhaps ironically, though, Sauk Valley doesn’t use the newsletter much to promote the Athlete of the Week ballot.

“We find that, really, the best way to reach (the prep sports audience) is through Twitter,” Sahly said.

For now the newsletter does not have sponsors or advertisers, but that will be the next step, Sahly said.