Simplifying the web, rebuilding daily habits, and monetizing a community
Once considered a dead medium, pushed to the junk folder of many a reader, the email newsletter has experienced a widespread resurgence amongst media outlets, big and small, looking to succeed in areas where other digital channels have struggled.
After countless initiatives to adapt to a fast-changing digital environment, from mobile apps and interactive storytelling formats to new subscription and advertising models — each yielding varying degrees of success — media is re-embracing newsletters to rebuild the daily habits that harken back to the days of print when it was still possible and enjoyable to read all of the content from start to finish.
The medium is the (email) message
Chief among the reasons cited for the resurrection of the newsletter is public fatigue for the incessant content that is churned out online every day. The simple and finite nature of what many have called the first aggregated platform provides a refreshing counterpoint to the endless news cycle on the web.
With newsletters’ limited selection of carefully-curated stories, readers can achieve a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after they’ve consumed the digestible content. This limitation may run counterintuitive to many new media organizations that emphasize live breaking news, but it works as a selling point for readers who want help sifting through a sea of content.
Unlike other methods of distribution where articles are blasted across social media with headlines optimized for search and sharing, newsletters are delivered directly to subscribers through prized opt-in email lists, cultivated carefully through promotion campaigns and existing networks. However, newsletters, inherently confined to the email inbox, are not conducive to the kind of viral sharing found on social networks and don’t reach the same level of impressions that social media can deliver.
But where newsletters may lose in reach of readership, they make up for in their higher potential for en- gagement and predictable traffic. When you email someone you know it reaches their inbox at the very least, where it will hopefully be seen by the reader, regardless if it is actually read.
On the flip side, for pages with 500,000+ likes, only ~2% (10,000) of their Facebook fans will ever see their posts. And publishers have little control over which of those followers make up that 2%. That’s not even taking into account the click-through rate of their posts — the newsletter equivalent of the open rate.
All due to a change in the newsfeed algorithm, 2016 saw an average decline of 52% in organic reach for publisher Facebook Pages which includes The New York Times, The
“I am not joking when I say: it is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The internet is never finished.”
Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic
Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast and Time Inc. With social media publishers remain vulnerable to the whims of Orwellian platform owners.
The newsletter has also become a de facto mobile distribution channel, simply by matter of email being the most used app on smartphones.
Email lets publishers send their news straight to the reader’s mobile inbox — a much better distribution channel than a publisher-owned app that will likely be forgotten and eventually deleted without regular usage. A 2016 study from Localytics found that about one in four users abandon an app after only one use.
The newsletter offers new opportunities for publishers to engage with their audience and become a part of their readers’ routines.
“I think we’ve been able to stand out and be in the top of people’s inbox, because people feel like The Skimm is a friend, and feel like that voice speaks to them.”
Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, cofounders of The Skimm
The Skimm has 3.5 million subscribers to its daily email covering the news of the day in a casually hip, and occasionally silly editorial voice where a pop lyric reference is not out of the ordinary. It’s targeted at a young, professional audience of women who reach for news as part of their regular morning routine. The Skimm boasts one of the largest followings from an independent outlet in the newsletter game with a massive open rate of 40% — an enviable metric founders attribute to the community they’ve built.
The Skimm adds a bit of personality and life to the newsletter; their friendly, Millennial tone and reader call-outs give their emails a personalized touch and help to make their audience feel like they’re a part of a greater collective. It starts with something as simple as birthday shout-outs to members, shared recipes, active and receptive feedback, and providing occasional giveaways for sponsored gifts and swag. The team atmosphere has resulted in the Skimm’bassador program — a 13,000-strong group of the publication’s most dedicated fans who promote the newsletter to their networks and receive Skimm goodies in appreciation.
Unlike social media and publisher websites, newsletters can quickly become part of a reader’s morning ritual through its reliable predictability. It typically reaches readers on their daily commute or when they first open emails at work, and acts to reengage the audience in a way few other channels can.
A Pew Research Center study found that news sources are remembered most when the link comes directly from the news organization in an email/text/alert, rather than from social media or family/friends.
“[The challenge] is finding new essentiality and then mastering the product development that’s going to bring it to a new level of habit to the new news consumer.”
News industry analyst and author of Newsonomics, Ken Doctor, said in a recent interview on the next frontier for journalism, “[The challenge] is finding new essentiality and then mastering the product development that’s going to bring it to a new level of habit to the new news consumer.”
It’s a challenge that The Skimm newsletter is already tackling head on, with lofty ambitions to replace morning television as the go-to daily source for all things newsworthy for their female-focused audience.
As with all new platforms and channels, the question comes down to monetization for publishers to decide if they should push into a new space. It’s no secret that mainstream media outlets are starting to look for new revenue streams as digital platforms siphon more and more dollars from their traditional advertising base.
While newsletters for most media outlets are best thought of as an ancillary revenue source, capitalizing on an additional channel to reach and engage with more readers, it would be foolish to underestimate the value of the vehicle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, advertising is the most common form of monetization for the newsletter. But where it stands out from traditional ad formats is the newsletter’s ability to deliver seamless, appealing ads to a captive target audience.
Quartz, a young mobile-first media outlet covering business and tech, hosts the Daily Brief, a popular newsletter wrapping up the most important and interesting news from the global economy for more than 250,000 subscribers. Their subscriber number, though impressively sizable, is not what commands their high ad rates. That would be the senior executives that comprise 47% of their total subscribers, making this a valued and profitable email list. Email newsletters have become the most popular news source among executives.
Similar to many newsletters, advertisers can sponsor one of their daily emails or buy a short, clearly labelled ad snippet that is integrated alongside the rest of the news on the Daily Brief. The native email ad unit has the advantage of dodging ad blockers and banner blindness that are the bane of display advertising today. Other newsletters, like the aforementioned Skimm, offer other kinds of sponsorship-like product endorsements in addition to native advertising.
Excluding advertising, the newsletter in its most basic form is monetized by driving web traffic and conversion to paid subscriptions. While The Washington Post does not give concrete stats on their newsletters, in the last year they’ve seen a 129% increase in traffic to their site from this email channel and have added more than 1 million subscribers to their 75+ newsletters. Rounding out their big year with a 145% increase in digital subscriptions year-over-year, suddenly a repeat performance of 2015, when they surpassed The New York Times in web traffic for two months, does not seem so far in the future.
“Readers that are enrolled in our newsletters consume an average of three times as much content as the average visitor to our site on a monthly basis,” — Beth Diaz, Vice President of Audience Development and Analytics at The Washington Post
The most experimental form of monetization — with possibly the most potential — is capitalizing off the relationships built off your newsletter community. What that often looks like is events. The Hustle,
a budding Millennial-targeted newsletter covering tech and general-interest, is profitable on advertising alone, but makes the big bucks on their industry events.
The company brought in US$473,675 in revenue between January and October 2016, with 81% of that coming from events. Just as impressive is the US$300,000 in funding they’ve raised from their community of readers, reflecting the relationship and value they provide to their subscribers. All of this off of 300,000 digital subscribers (and growing) gained in under a year.
Newsletters still face some challenges ahead with technological limitations which have no easy fixes. A big hurdle is the 102KB limit on emails set by Gmail, where any part of the message that goes over the limit is hidden behind a button to view the entire message. The problem with “clipping” the email is that it can break the open rate tracker, preventing publishers from knowing how many people read their newsletter to be able to sell to advertisers. The solution so far is for publishers to stay below the 102KB, but that can be an extremely restrictive limitation for media looking to include more imagery and creative features in their emails.
Cost is another big consideration when putting together a newsletter strategy, very much dependent on how many subscribers you have. Popular newsletter provider, MailChimp, offers their service for US$75/month for 10,000 subscribers and can scale upwards of 100,000 subscribers for a starting price of US$475/month. The larger expense is the editorial talent who will curate and write the emails, and it can be a full-time effort to sustain a roster of newsletters segmented for different audiences.
Dos and Don’ts
There are a few quick dos and don’ts across the industry that apply to most media newsletters.
1. Keep the text simple and streamlined. If the email is intended to wrap up stories and drive traffic to the main website, it’s great to lead with brief summaries and the occasional teaser, but stay away from lengthy paragraphs. Remember the purpose of your newsletter and the value it provides to the audience. They are looking for a one-pager on the top headlines of the day, not entire long-form articles. The same applies for images; pictures can make a newsletter more engaging but too many will clutter the text or even break the technical formatting.
2. Everything can and should be A/B tested. Subject lines especially need to be tested to find out what works best for your intended audience; some outlets find success in clickbait teasers, still others have achieved a strong open rate off of standardized subject lines that readers grow to depend on.
3. The newsletter should also be tested on different kinds of email clients and devices. Gmail can have entirely different display requirements from Outlook, and mobile can be a completely different experience from desktop. Your newsletter needs to work across the channels your audience uses most.
4. Don’t be afraid to include articles from sources other than your own on your newsletter. It may go against instinct to be linking to articles from other sites (and driving traffic elsewhere!), but think about the value to the reader and what they were looking for when they subscribed. If you are promising the top headlines of the day, that inevitably includes reporting outside of our own outlet. Your audience will know to go to your newsletter for an aggregate of the best coverage, because you are willing to put the user first and share all the top stories (even from other media).
“We put ourselves in the shoes of the busy reader that we serve, who may not want an app or a newsletter that’s just another marketing vehicle to keep people inside the walled garden. It’s about making our readers smarter. If that means linking out to other sources, we believe that will come back to us in terms of loyalty.”
Jay Lauf, president and publisher Quartz
Ultimately, the future for newsletters points toward increased personalization and automation. Most mainstream newsletters operate entirely manually, having editors and journalists make editorial decisions on what to include and how they should write about it. While much of the content is scalable out of their main publications, a newsletter still requires devoted resources that shrinking newsrooms may prefer to spend elsewhere.
An automated personalized newsletter would significantly lessen the workload and use reader data to develop a message that could still connect intimately in tone and subject matter with the audience. Preliminary studies have shown increased user engagement and The Washington Post reported click-through rates that are three times the average for such a newsletter. We are even seeing promising early results from the AI-edited newsletter, which auto-curates articles based on user preference, and it beat the human-edited newsletter in open rate, click-through rate and bounce rate, in a recent study by the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
Finally, shaking off its dodgy reputation with our spam filters, the email newsletter is coming of age at a time when publishers are keenly looking for a way to directly engage with readers, and audiences are asking for simplicity amongst information chaos. The renaissance of the newsletter adds to the revenue diversification publishers will need to stave off digital disruption, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops going into an uncertain future.