Few publishers have recognised how important newsletters can be to their digital strategy. Newsletter subscribers are more likely to become paid subscribers—something internal research has shown to be true at many publishers. The New Yorker found that the top sign a reader will become a paid subscriber is if they are a newsletter subscriber, while The New York Times found that newsletter subscribers are twice as likely to become paid subscribers. This holds true outside of the American market as well; French financial newspaper Les Echos found that readers reached via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search.
Naively, we thought that the newsletter was dead and that the future was more in the social network, homepage, and applications. But the more we worked around media with publishers, we learned that newsletters are one of the best ways to have a relationship with the readers.
Stéphane Cambon, Ownpage CEO
According to MailChimp, news/media newsletters have a 22% open rate—and the size of the publisher doesn’t dramatically affect this rate. That shows that newsletters can be beneficial for all publishers, small and big alike.
Own your audience
Newsletters are a good way to create an owned audience: no need to worry about Facebook’s latest newsfeed changes, publishers can reach their mailing list directly.
I thought newsletters were an outdated technology, something for old people. The Washington Post was quite popular on Facebook, but suddenly they changed their algorithms and we lost a lot of readers. I realised that I needed to find something where I can control the means of production. Newsletters were one way of doing it.
David Beard, director of digital content The Washington Post
They can also be a good way to draw more readers to your website. While some newsletters are designed to be read entirely in the subscriber’s inbox, others are used to give readers links to stories they may find interesting. The New Yorker follows the latter strategy, and as such newsletters are a significant referral source for them, representing around 12% of all traffic to their website.
More and more readers are turning to their inboxes as a source of news as well, with a Reuters report finding that 25% of Americans choose email as a starting point to read the news, while the French and Danes are close behind, at 21% and 24% respectively. Føljeton, a Danish news site, realised its readers were more interested in their newsletters so they even pivoted to become a newsletter company.
Find your niche
There are two main types of editorial newsletters: a niche topic newsletter for smaller, but deeply engaged audience or a daily news newsletter, with same mail for all readers. Most publishers get started with a daily news newsletter and later add on for their niche audiences–something The New York Times has taken to heart, with more than 50 weekly newsletters. Topics range from local news (NYT Australia) to educational (a weekly newsletter on the Vietnam War) to lifestyle (Cooking).
When deciding what topics to focus on in your newsletters, make use of the data you already have about your readers in order to create a newsletter that provides value to them. Email feels more personal than other platforms, so is it important to earn the trust of your readers.
Email is kind of like a living room. It’s a very personal space. You let in your friends, the coworkers you like, and a couple of brands you really trust.
Dan Oshinsky, head of newsletters at The New Yorker
Human vs automatic curation
One big choice to make when starting a newsletter is to have it be curated by humans or automated with artificial intelligence. The decision can depend on a variety of factors, including how many resources you have to put towards the newsletter, the size of your mailing list, and what your audience is looking for. You can also choose to do a mix of human curation and automatic selection, something The Washington Post has done, sending both topical newsletters created by humans as well as an automated newsletter of the five latest stories on the website each afternoon.
An experiment from Reynold’s Journalism Institute found that newsletters personalised automatically to each subscriber were opened twice as much as human curated newsletters. In this experiment, subscribers were sent either the same human curated newsletter or a newsletter with stories picked by an algorithm taking into account the user’s selection of categories.
Les Echos follows this personalisation strategy as well, with bi-weekly newsletters based on readers’ own reading habits. Using technology from French startup Ownpage, Les Echos sends newsletters with stories that the reader has not read yet but it detects will be interesting for them.
Just like what makes editions so great, your newsletter must be designed to be finishable. Give your readers what they need to know or what interests them, but not too much more. While a weekly newsletter can be longer, a daily newsletter should be shorter so that subscribers can easily fit it into their daily routine. After all, who doesn’t love reaching inbox zero?
People really like newspapers because they have that finality. A good newsletter offers the same experience.
Elisabeth Goodridge, editor at The New York Times
At Twipe, we are also strong believers in the power of editions. Editions fulfil fundamental needs of large groups of audiences, such as the 44% of news consumers identified by Reuters as ‘daily briefers’. These readers like to be briefed once a day, and appreciate the structure, completeness and depth of editions.
Newsletters are a great opportunity for A/B testing, so experiment to see which version works better. You can test anything from subject lines, to send times, to the content of the newsletters themselves. But be careful, make sure to look for statistical significance. You may need to grow your mailing list first before conducting A/B tests, and ensure you conduct multiple A/B tests before changing your strategy based on the results.
You can also use newsletters to test out a new concept, before investing more time or money into the idea. For example, Politico has used pop-up newsletters to test new European markets and verticals. In five week bursts, Politico tries new markets and topics to see what readers respond best to.
Starting your newsletter
Once you decide to create a newsletter, an important step is getting new subscribers. To do this, The New York Times promotes its newsletters on its website, with a twist. They promote their most popular newsletter, Morning Headlines, but if the newsletter signup widget detects that the reader is already subscribed, then it offers a different newsletter. Once it detects that the reader is already subscribed to a few newsletters, the widget doesn’t appear at all.
And if you are stuck for inspiration for your newsletter, Melody Kramer has 42 ideas for you–some favourites include:
- a newsletter for those who took a break from the news with links to the important stories they missed
- a newsletter with links that no one in your social circle has shared
- a newsletter with five things the newsroom learned while covering a specific topic
This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.