We take a look at publisher newsletter strategies in the latest of a series exploring new ways to make journalism pay. Previous articles have put a spotlight on membership, philanthropy, crowdfunding and how individual journalists use newsletters to connect with readers.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a major news publisher that’s not connecting with its readers through email newsletters – or that at least has not seriously considered it. Search for how to generate engagement, traffic and revenue and newsletters regularly feature among the top things on which to focus.
More than one in six people across 40 countries access news through newsletters each week according to the 2020 Reuters Digital News report. Numbers were even higher in places such as the US and Belgium.
Newsletters are also especially popular with older readers - the demographic that is also more likely to take out a paid subscription.
Newsletters are currently one of the most popular ways for publishers to sidestep Google and Facebook’s algorithms and connect directly with readers - an increasingly important revenue stream.
For newsrooms relying on reader revenue, engagement is key. Research by US non-profit, the Lenfest Institute shows a clear correlation between reader engagement (which it defines as active subscribers that log in to their accounts in a given month) and reader retention. The top 10% of publishers have almost 2.5 times the engagement rate as the bottom 10%. And newsletters, finds the Institute, are a key way of creating engagement.
Our research has found that for advertising-supported publishers such as Reach and The Evening Standard, newsletters play a key role in first-party data capture.
For others such as Axios and Morning Brew, advertising carried in newsletters is in itself an important revenue stream. For subscription-led businesses such as the Financial Times, exclusive content in newsletters is an important way of demonstrating the value of being a paid subscriber.
Publisher newsletter strategies: New York Times
One subscription-driven publisher for which newsletters are increasingly important is the New York Times. This summer, in a bid to increase the value of a subscription, the publisher made 19 of its newsletters subscriber-only, among them newsletters from well-known columnists Jamelle Bouie, Paul Krugman and Frank Bruni.
The publisher counts some 8 million subscribers and newsletters have played a key role in getting there. Although the NYT sent its first email newsletter some two decades ago, it’s been in the last few years that newsletters have really come into their own.
"Over the last three, four or five years the company's attention has really shifted towards subscription revenue and that was what kick-started this latest era for newsletters at the NYT," says Adam Pasick who oversees the publisher’s portfolio of newsletters. "We have a big, world-class advertising sales operation but newsletters are really seen as one of the best ways to habituate readers and move them down the path to being paying subscribers."
Its own research has revealed that subscribing to more than one newsletter is the biggest predictor of someone becoming a long-term subscriber.
"Subscription revenue is really driving the strategy for newsletters," says Pasick.
According to the NYT, 15 million people read one of its almost 60 newsletters every week which says Pasick share a goal of bringing "the best journalism to the inbox". Different newsletters can, however, play different roles in boosting the company's subscriber business.
Daily briefings such as the hugely successful The Morning (17m subscribers) help introduce readers to the NYT and establish a relationship with the publication.
"The Morning is our big top of the funnel briefing which we often use as a way to kind of introduce people to times journalism and get them used to reading every day," says Pasick.
Subscriber-only newsletters meanwhile offer deeper takes from subject experts on topics that subscribers care most about and the company has this year deepened its focus on developing the lower part of its “funnel” of readers.
"Our subscriber-only newsletter portfolio is designed to take people who are becoming habituated to The Times and used to reading us in the inbox and then really giving them more reason to subscribe and to retain their subscriptions by bringing them expert, interesting and provocative voices," says Pasick.
While the pandemic and an intense news cycle has helped the NYT to grow its newsletter subscriber list to 15 million people, large investments in newsletters have also paid off.
"The strategic insight that this is really going to move the needle in terms of subscriptions set the foundation for us to put much more resources in newsletters," he says. "Part of it is just that we're really putting some of our best journalists and some of our biggest journalistic firepower into newsletters now because we see it as such an audience opportunity and a business opportunity."
While in a newsroom of 1,700,a few dozen journalists working on newsletters is not a huge proportion of resources, Pasick says that the organisation has come a long way in elevating the importance of newsletters.
"I'm happy with how we're doing in terms of convincing colleagues inside The Times and outside that the inbox is a place where you can do interesting journalism. That hasn't always been the case," he says.
While not every publisher looking to boost subscriber numbers through newsletters has The NYT’s number of journalists, experts, and personalities (Opinion columnists in particular feature prominently in the publisher’s inbox offerings), the journalism says Pasick tends to be the best marketing for any publisher.
"Whatever you're doing - sending out marketing emails to your readers or to your prospective readers, it's much better to just send the journalism instead. We've found it just performs much better at all the things that you really care about," he says.
"But if you really want to make newsletters a central part of what you're doing, you have to put the resources behind it. You can't expect to assign maybe a few junior people in the newsroom or have it be 20% of somebody's time and get the same results you would as if someone was living and breathing this stuff," he adds.
Reach: deepening engagement with loyal readers
For Britain’s biggest commercial publisher Reach, which derives much of its income through digital advertising, newsletters started as a way to build registrations. They are now a key way to get users to come back to one of the publisher’s more than 80 online brands.
"Once someone registers with us, there's no point just having a registered user. We want to have ways to bring them back and newsletters are a key part of that," says Martin Little, Reach’s audience transformation director.
While bringing people to the publisher’s sites increases visibility for advertisers, striking the balance between driving traffic to the site and providing content that can be accessed from the inbox is important.
"We're trying to get the balance right - if we just spend all of our time trying to drive people through to the website that as a value proposition isn't always a positive one for the user," says Little.
Among the publisher’s stable of over 350 newsletters are those tied to one brand such as Manchester Evening News’ football newsletters as well as “brand agnostic” newsletters shared across the publisher’s network on popular topics such as Strictly Come Dancing and baking.
An important pillar of the company’s Customer Value Strategy which uses data to learn more about its readers, combined page views from Reach’s newsletters have more than doubled since the start of the year from 22.2 million in January to over 50 million thanks to both growing the mailing list and ensuring newsletters strike the right tone with the most loyal readers.
While newsletters have long been part of the publisher’s product mix, this year says Little has been a turning point.
“2021 is the year we really turned our focus to newsletters in a way that we hadn't before. This year is about the relationship we've got with our audience and we need to use that better,” he says.
Little’s role as head of audience transformation was newly created this year and is part of this outreach to its audience. The company also recently announced the hiring of 14 customer editors to help its UK newsrooms “live and breathe” its registrations strategy, a key part of which will be optimising Reach’s newsletters to help the company in meeting its goal of active registered users.
"It's one thing having a lot of registered users, but you want the activity levels of those people to be high," he says.
Testing send times, headlines and playing with frequency are all ways that the publisher uses to ensure that the activity levels for its newsletters are at a sufficiently high level.
Central to its newsletter strategy is identifying what works for what the company calls its "most loyal" readers - those who come back to its sites eight out of sixteen days in a given time period. Others looking to launch successful newsletters should also be closely studying the reading habits of their regular users, he says.
"Look at the content consumed most by loyal users as that is a guide to what your newsletters should be based around," advises Little. "Number two: build up your mailing list. Focus really hard on your mailing list and make sure it's quality as well. It’s not a case of buying users or a mailing list because their engagement levels will be low, you need to use your website’s inventory well. Again target loyal users - where are they visiting on your site? What sections? What pages? Optimise the inventory on your pages to get those people to sign up."