Sim­pli­fy­ing the web, re­build­ing daily habits, and mon­e­tiz­ing a com­mu­nity

The Insider - - PUBLISHING - By the PressReader Team

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.

News­let­ter Chal­lenges

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

What’s next?

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.

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