Why newsletters are key for habit formation

17 March 2021
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As we have seen subscriptions rise during the pandemic, publishers are making greater use of email to retain existing subscribers and convert new subscribers. The shift towards email newsletters in the industry has been seismic. Earlier this week in a Clubhouse talk about newsletter personalisation, we heard that Belgian publisher Mediafin now sends 1 million emails per day. Danish publisher Politiken has also increased its’ output from 1 to 18 newsletters in the past 4 years.

An effective newsletter strategy has never been more important. With a 45-to-1 return on investment, emails are back in full force and here to stay. But what are good newsletter strategies and what role do they play in habit formation? Today, we dive into some cases that address this question.

If you want to know even more about habit formation, read our guide!

“The Wrong Newsletter Strategy is not having a newsletter”

This point might sound simple, but it still rings true: If you haven’t yet taken advantage of sending newsletters, it’s time to start!

Many see newsletters as a case of very much going back to basics. Publishers, however, have found that email is a crucial tool for converting and retaining paid subscribers. Take The Economist as an example. They found that a potential subscriber who reads their weekly newsletters is 1.4 times more likely to subscribe. As for retention efforts, an existing subscriber who receives a newsletter is less likely to churn. We also heard in our Clubhouse talk that the team at The Economist have recently even introduced newsletters for which original content is being produced.

In the case of the French financial paper Les Echos, readers who visited their website through an email link remained more loyal than those who visited from search engines and social media. With regards to reader engagement and retention, having a newsletter really is a no brainer.

“While there are multiple ways to do newsletters, I have one very firm belief …: The wrong newsletter strategy is not having a newsletter.”

Jacob Cohen Donnelly, Author of Media Operator

Time consistency helps form habits

For a reader’s habit to develop, consistency is crucial. This is not consistency in terms of content, but in other areas that you can control. One big area that you can control is timing. Once you establish a distribution schedule for your newsletter subscribers, it is of paramount importance to stick to it.

Dan Oshinsky recently argued that the habits behind newsletter subscribers are similar to those of broadcast news audiences. Their loyal audience generate a relationship between themselves and the product. Much like an audience tuning in to watch their favourite anchor, newsletter subscribers know exactly when to visit their emails to see their favourite newsletter. This enables newspapers to have a direct role in the personal life of their subscribers.

In our yearlong email personalisation experiment as part of the JAMES project with The Times, we explored 5 models of sending time optimisation of newsletters. In spite of all the great work done by our AI and data teams, we found that in the case of a daily briefing, the best performance came from the baseline fixed time model of 7am. For publishers, this is great news! It highlights the importance of a routine sending time in habit creation as an essential part of recurring reading behaviour.  

Habit formation loop for newsletters

Timing plays an important role to ensure your newsletter fits into people’s everyday lives. It is important however to design products that help readers go through all different stages of the habit loop.

In our research on habit forming news products, we refer to the Habit Loop introduced by Nir Eyal. Eyal argues that a habit is formed when people go through the 4 different elements of the habit loop enough times. This period is 66 days according to research from Dr. Philippa Lally of University College of London. The 4 different elements are: trigger, action, variable reward and investment.

To drive recurring engagement with readers, newsletters should be designed keeping in mind the principles of habit formation. Here’s how your newsletter strategy can leverage the Habit Formation Loop:

  • Your newsletter appearing in the mailbox of readers is the trigger to initiate a habitual behaviour.
  • Optimising time and subject line is important to ensure the trigger is easily actionable.
  • After opening, it’s the content that offers the variable reward and drives the investment.
  • Readers invest their time and emotions by interacting with the email through clicks or other ways.

Habit formation is an essential part of the JAMES Launch Partner Program where we engage with publishers to experiment with personalised newsletter. We will discuss this more in next week’s webinar together with speakers from NRC and the Daily Mail. We hope you can join us.

Personalisation is Powerful

A recent study by Tracy Clark, a Reynold’s Journalism Institute fellow, discovered that personalised newsletters were read more than others. Not just were these newsletters subject to a better open rate, but subscribers were also more satisfied with the service that they provided. In our own research for the JAMES Project, we observed that churn on test cohorts was reduced by 49% amongst readers exposed to daily personalised newsletters.

Alongside personalisation though, it is important to remember that people come to newspapers for news. Therefore, finding the right balance between personalisation and popular stories is a must. In the JAMES project, we explored various models for content optimisation. After 9 months of exposing subscribers to a daily briefing, Twipe found that a hybrid algorithm was most effective for driving reader engagement. Whilst some may view personalisation as a narrowing of the day’s news, the hybrid model provides each reader with the right mix of relevant articles from each day’s content pool.

After the research project with The Times, we have further matured the JAMES Hybrid model together with our Launch Partners. The Hybrid v2 model is now in its second version and is currently being used to send highly engaging emails to more than 130.000 readers. If you’re interested to join the Launch Partner Program, get in touch with our team.

Finishability makes your audience happy

A final tip to consider is to design your newsletter with the audience in mind. Your newsletter must be designed to be finishable. Provide your audience with the core information or what interests them but try not to do more. By doing this, you provide your audience with the satisfying sense of finishability and the opportunity of reaching that magical moment of seeing your inbox hit zero!

“People really like newspapers because they have that finality. A good newsletter offers the same experience”

Elisabeth Goodridge, Editorial Director of Newsletters at The New York Times

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