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Newsletters: make them good and keep them relevant

With a rising tide of online disinformation, trivia and trolling, the dedicated email newsletter is being seen in a new light. The key to formulating the right newsletter strategy is to focus on quality and relevance (and not forgetting, metrics).

By Peter Houston

Newsletters: make them good and keep them relevant

Writing in June this year, freelancer Erica Buist identified 2018 as the year of the personal newsletter. Unfortunately, she named 2019 as the year of “inboxes crammed with newsletters we just don’t have time to read and can’t bring ourselves to unsubscribe to.”

Calling for an end to the fad for personal newsletters, she wrote on Medium: “No one needs more shit to read”.

No Erica they don’t, and I have huge sympathy for your views on the narcissistic confessionals, advisories and streams of consciousness missives fired out by un-or-under employed journalists. No one needs more shit to read.

But well-crafted email newsletters – well considered, serving a purpose, adding value, informing, educating and entertaining – those are an entirely different thing. And strategies for developing those types of newsletters are what publishers need to be focusing on.

It wasn’t that long ago that email looked like it had had its day.

Why are there so many newsletters?

The personal newsletter trend is a patchy subset of a much bigger phenomenon – a phenomenon that someone less cynical than me might call the pivot to newsletters.

It wasn’t that long ago that email looked like it had had its day. Predictions of its impending doom accompanied every story trumpeting the inexorable rise of social media. Spam, ridiculously busy inboxes and the relentless flow of marginally relevant office communications meant email was tolerated but unloved.

But as social media developed into a torrent of irrelevant fluff at best and toxic trolling at worst, a digital communications channel invented in the 1970s has moved up the digital-media popularity list. And just as the smartphone catapulted social media into everyday life, it has done the same for email – according to a 2018 IBM customer-engagement survey, 49% of emails are read on mobile.

For publishers sick of ceding control of their audiences to fickle social media platforms, jaded by frequently unfulfilled promises that social reach can be monetised, the resurgence of email has offered a welcome return of control. It has also developed into a strategic tool for rebuilding fractured reader relationships.

Email lists offer a direct route to readers in direct contrast to the social melee of Facebook et al. And as social timelines are increasingly taken over by advertising algorithms and saturated with sponsored posts, newsletter have provided publishers with the opportunity to offer audiences the safe haven of regular, trusted content.

Marianne Jones, editor of the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine, has highlighted the trust placed in branded newsletters by readers. Speaking at the launch of a daily newsletter for Stella last year, she said one of the advantages of a newsletter for readers is that they are getting content from a trusted source in a world filled with ‘fake news’.

Email lists offer a direct route to readers in direct contrast to the social melee of Facebook et al.

Choosing email

Jones identified trust in the brand as a strong reason for readers to choose to register for a newsletter. And the ability to choose whether to receive an email newsletter or not marks it as a different kind of communication from social media channels, never-ending, un-moderated stream versus fixed-frequency, self-contained and permission based (if you’re doing it right).

Email is also direct, delivering content straight to your audience. It lands in their inbox and stays there until it is read or deleted, it doesn’t float off on a current of cat gifs and prosecco-party posts or get swamped by adverts for the last thing you bought on Amazon.

Rishad Patel of Singapore-based Splice Media describes it as intimate – “you’re speaking directly to someone, in their inbox,” he wrote in a recent article for What’s New in Publishing. And, he explains, with a good email newsletter, you have earned the right to interrupt their day by providing something useful, or at least interesting.

Former newsletter producer Rusty Foster told Vanity Fair how he compares email newsletters to the most intimate form of modern media, podcasts. The creator of the Today in Tabs newsletter, once syndicated by Newsweek magazine, explained that just as podcasts sound like someone is talking directly into your ear, newsletters are like someone is sending you an email.

Claire Landsbaum, author of the Vanity Fair piece Foster was interviewed in – ‘We’re at Peak Newsletter, and I Feel Fine’ – says she never begrudges a new newsletter landing in her inbox. That’s partly down to an emotional connection, “the feeling of a one-on-one interaction, even one I know is false.”

But she also notes that it’s in part due to the “inordinate amount of control” over what newsletters she gets. “These are people whose work I have explicitly solicited, and who deliver it to me in (mostly) predictable dispatches. If I decide I don’t want it, I can unsubscribe.”

Once an afterthought, email newsletters are now being treated as an important player in the publishing portfolio.

The power of unsubscribe

The unsubscribe button is a powerful tool for newsletter audiences and should be a constant motivation for publishers to make sure they bring their A-Game to their newsletter programmes.

Once an afterthought, email newsletters are now being treated as an important player in the publishing portfolio. Once a chore to be handled by the sales and marketing department, publishers are now building dedicated newsletter teams with some taking on full-time newsletter editors.

Not every publisher has the resources, or the inclination, to staff a newsletter department; The Telegraph’s Stella daily is produced by the magazine team. But even where existing staff are doubling up, newsletter content calendars and publishing schedules are becoming much more intentional.

And publishers are keeping an eye on some very specific success metrics. As with all well-considered publishing enterprises, the secret, above all, is to be relevant to your audience. For email, relevancy can be measured by engagement, and although there are many ways to slice and dice email engagement data, there are four key metrics to pay attention to:

  • Open rates: the number of opens as a percentage of the number of emails in your list
  • Click-to-open rates: the number of clicks made from within your newsletter as a percentage of the total number of emails opened
  • Subscriber rates: the number of new people choosing to receive your newsletter content
  • Unsubscribe rates: the number of people who decide that you’re not delivering on the promises you made when they signed up

Looking at these together and over time, if people are signing up for your newsletter and if they continue to open it and take the time to click through to additional content, you can be fairly sure that you’re on the right track.

Like a magazine or a website, the newsletter needs a mission, a position and a regular calendar.

Content that matters

Metrics are never everything, however. Patel at Splice says that publishers should be asking themselves some searching questions about how much the newsletters they produce really matter to their audience. What problems does your audience have that your email might solve? What stories or articles do you think they would be interested in?

Patel invites publishers to contrast the automated social feeds they are competing against with their hand-curated email communications: “What fresh thing could you bring them that they haven’t already had flung in their faces because of some gratuitous retargeting algorithm?”

That doesn’t mean that there is no place for automation or algorithms in email newsletter strategy.

The Times, with a $1.2 million grant from Google, has developed an AI-powered newsletter that personalises the content for each newsletter subscriber and decides on the optimum delivery time. Over a nine-month trial period, The Times trialled the AI-driven newsletter with almost 120,000 paying subscribers and found cancellations fell almost 50%.

Regardless of the reader requirements and your aims, the days of newsletters as an afterthought are over.

Show me the money

If you were looking for a rationale for producing email newsletters, you could quite happily tick ‘All of the above’ on your email newsletter strategy questionnaire. But what about the bottom line? Like every other publisher pivot, the last question to be asked, and answered, is usually ‘where’s the money?’

Unlike too many other pivot-worthy publishing endeavours, there actually is money in newsletters, both direct and indirect. Sponsorship is common in even the most niche newsletters, with companies paying for the direct exposure they get from newsletter banners.

Programmatic advertising is also possible inside email, although reach, either owned or networked, is crucial to make that pay. And newsletters can also help with website monetisation, filtering newsletter subscribers regularly to web content. Refinery29’s newsletters drive 20% of their site traffic and Vox says newsletter subscribers spend twice as much time on their site.

More recently, email newsletters have been used effectively in digital subscription development efforts, with publishers from Condé Nast to News UK seeing newsletter subscribers as a prime source of reader revenue.

For many publishers, newsletters are actually replacing websites as the main focus for the subscriber acquisition funnel and soliciting newsletter sign-ups has become a top priority for many websites. The New Yorker has noted that the leading indicator that someone will become a paid subscriber is if they are a newsletter subscriber.

Wired’s director of audience development Indu Chandrasekhar told Nieman Lab that, on average, newsletters converted seven-times more sign-ups than the website last year and 24,000 subscriptions in December alone.

And the loyalty of newsletter readers is the key to conversion. “Odds are, if you read and engage with our newsletters, you’re much more aware of everything that Wired does,” said Chandrasekhar. “If you only follow us on Facebook or Twitter, those platforms show that the average user only sees 5-10 percent of your posts.”

For a publisher like Wired, with a reasonably new paywall, pushing readers to more content with regular newsletters means they will hit the paywall and hopefully subscribe sooner.

Shaping a newsletter strategy

Every publisher’s newsletter strategy needs to reflect the information needs of their audience and their objectives. But regardless of the reader requirements and your aims, the days of newsletters as an afterthought are over. Like a magazine or a website, the newsletter needs a mission, a position and a regular calendar. It needs financial targets, or at the very least, audience-based success metrics.

If you don’t have a newsletter in place already, start small. Create one and send it to a small group of staff, friendly advertisers and a select group of ‘beta-testing’ readers. Ask them what they think and how your prototype could be better. Iterate and improve before you release it to your full audience and sign-ups will come significantly faster than if you were to put the unfinished article out.

Think about frequency. Too often and you’ll annoy people, not often enough and you risk being irrelevant. The secret is to deliver content that is habit forming, that your readers anticipate. Part of that may be a level of personalisation or content targeting if your technology can support it. If it doesn’t, regularity, routine and relevancy are crucial.

Longer term, keep your list clean. Renew registrations for users that haven’t opened your emails for a number of weeks. Create messages to get their attention and rekindle the interest that made them sign up in the first place. But if you can’t get them back on board, better to let them go than let their lack of interest drag down your open rates.

After all, no one needs more shit to read!

Peter is writing an InPublishing guide to newsletter strategies, to be published in the new year.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.