How to Develop Newsletters That Readers Actually Want
I’m not sure if ‘Inbox Zero’ is still a thing, and I’ve certainly never gotten anywhere close to achieving it, but I absolutely get the desire to free yourself from the unrelenting tyranny of email. And given the flurry of email-management apps and self-help books out there, I’m not alone.
If a tweet I came across recently captures the zeitgeist in any meaningful way, publishers should be worried. It proclaims ‘2017 has been the year of unsubscribing from unwanted email subscriptions’. That’s a scary sentiment for a publisher to see -- we’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the years building lists that we can send unwanted emails to. If subscribers are finally starting to wise up, we’re in trouble.
Of course, that’s the hyper-cynical view of how our industry handles email and only a dumb publisher would still abuse their own email lists. Right?
However much publishing has raised the bar on email best practice, we can still do better and turn the threat of email subscription purges to our advantage. Just like every problem is an opportunity in disguise – every unwanted email subscription ditched means a little more engagement for those that survive.
The trick is to make sure your emails stay on the most-wanted list.
Surviving the Purge
In my first Publishing Executive post of the New Year I wrote, ‘Getting noticed is tougher and getting people to remember to come back regularly is the toughest…’. Of all the publishing platforms available today, email is high on the list for ticking both those boxes – but only if your email newsletters survive the purge.
One of the most important things any publisher can do to guarantee their newsletters don’t get dropped is to make sure that the right readers sign up in the first place. That takes a mix of careful promotions and increasingly, expanding choice.
The Economist is leveraging its enormous social reach – 40 million followers across 10 platforms – to introduce prospective subscribers to its content. Paid subscriptions are the ultimate goal, but as an interim step, readers who have been invited to sample Economist content through social media are encouraged to sign up for email newsletters.
At its simplest, The Economist is leveraging some of its best-performing content to expand its subscriber prospect base. Content used in the promotions is hosted in a separate hub and when it is shared socially, the reader is taken back to the hub where, using retargeting technology, messaging can be tailored to encourage registration or enable further content sampling.
The publisher sees this ‘enhanced sampling’ experience as a way to warm audiences to direct response advertising, building a relationship based on a real knowledge of the product.
Ramping up Relevancy
Already offering readers over 60 newsletters, The Washington Post has just launched Today’s Worldview - the paper’s first international product - to introduce readers outside the U.S. to its journalism.
The Post confirmed its commitment to email newsletters with the development of its own newsletter management platform last year. The Paloma platform makes it easier to create newsletters, embed content from social networks and avoid spam filters.
Few publishers can develop their own email management software, but it’s telling that The Washington Post, which will rent Paloma to third-parties, is careful to point out that the system is not ‘ground-breaking.’ The key is that it tries to deal with some of the issues publishers encounter when they cobble together a range of third-party software solutions. Publishers without a Bezos development budget just need to make sure the email management software they use delivers the metrics to support commercial and content optimization, ease of newsletter design and update, and effective distribution.
Improving relevancy by offering readers more options is a tried and tested tool for reducing churn, increasing open rates, and acquiring subscribers. The New York Times was one of the first out of the blocks with a diversified newsletter strategy. Late last year, when it had a portfolio of 50 newsletters, it was reporting that website visitors were twice as likely to become paying subscribers if they signed up for a newsletter first.
Prospective newsletter subscribers need to able to see the value in their subscriptions, whether that is exclusive information, access to premium content, or deals and discounts.
De Correspondent, the Dutch news site I mentioned last post, uses email newsletters to grow subscriptions, but also as a vehicle for involving readers with its content creation process. Individual writers use their own email newsletters like notebooks to update readers on the progress of reports, but also to call for expert opinion and insight from the reader community.
Return on Effort
Once subscribers are on board, publishers also need to be careful about keeping their lists clean. An email list of one million dormant names is a lot less valuable than a list of 100,000 engaged subscribers. Regular requalification matters.
Proactive list management, 50 newsletters worth of content, and regular audience engagement all sounds like a lot of effort. But publishers that get the email newsletter formula right can expect real returns. “It reaches audiences, brings people back to the site, and distributes our content,” said Buzzfeed director of newsletter Dan Oshinsky in a Reuters Institute working paper on editorial email newsletters published in November last year.
Possibly the biggest benefit for publishers that can keep readers engaged with their newsletters is the reinvigoration of direct relationships weakened by off-platform distribution. Stealing readers back from Facebook, especially having used the platform’s reach to sign them up, is a clear win – anonymous social views become verifiable audience metrics.
And once you have that reader back inside your distribution system, while you’re not in control of the relationship, you can take steps to start building it. You’re back in control of the content push -- frequency, timing, and context. That in turn gives you the opportunity to begin developing regular reading habits, tailoring packages to reflect reader preferences, and even personalizing the content or offers delivered.
On a straight commercial basis, email newsletters also bring traffic back to your own web pages and sets up the opportunity for direct monetization through (so-far) un-blocklable email advertising.
4 Tips to Improve Your Newsletter Program
Email newsletters are not perfect. The tech is often clunky; the scale of email can’t compete with social media; and there is a lot of competing noise in inboxes. But by leveraging social reach for sign-ups and engaging readers with relevant content, email newsletters can bring revenue and relationships back to publishers.
If your email program is languishing, here are a few things you can do now to start delivering newsletters that your readers will want, and keep your subscription counts up in 2017:
- Treat email as a proper publishing channel. Too many email newsletters are seen as an afterthought. Look at what’s working and what’s not and put some proper resources behind fixing the bad and doing more of the good. Focus on optimizing the newsletter’s editorial, marketing, and sales.
- Expand your offering. Modern media is all about relevancy. Firing out a single email to 50,000 readers once a week guarantees that your newsletter won’t be the most relevant thing to hit your audience’s inboxes. Identify audience segments and topics that will let you develop niche, premium content.
- Clean up your lists. How much do you really know about the names on your email lists? Find out more, and use it to target content and advertising. Requalify names that are not engaging. It really is better to have 100,000 engaged subscribers than 1 million zombie names.
- Get the good word out. Don’t assume that your readers know that you publish email newsletters. Promote your email newsletter program across all the channels you publish on and make it easy for them to get to a sign-up page. Market your newsletters the way you would a paid subscription – remember The New York Times found visitors to its website are twice as likely to become paying subscribers if they signed up for a newsletter first.
Related story: Strategies for Increasing Email & Newsletter Revenue
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers identify and dismantle the barriers between print and digital content. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing conference and judges a number of magazine awards. He was formerly editor at large for themediabriefing.com and group content director for Advanstar Communications, Life Sciences.