5 Ways Digital Publishers Connect with Their Email Audience

digital publishers email newsletters

With digital publishers embracing premium business models, audience development and subscription-selling have never been more important. Email is great at both, allowing connections with the readers that other content delivery methods don’t. But when there are zillions of newsletters out there, you have to make sure yours justify their place in the inbox.

One of the best ways to make sure readers open your newsletters is to build relationships through personal touches and conversational tone. There’s no shortage of news aggregator emails that do this well. The Skimm, The Hustle, and NextDraft (my personal favorite) all cover the news in a way that sounds like you’re talking to a funny friend who maybe watches a little too much news.

Then again, consuming that much news almost requires a sense of humor these days.

But what about more serious news publishers? Can they inject a dash of personality into their messaging without abandoning their brand? Sometimes publishers connect with audiences through subtle touches. Other times, they use the personal nature of the inbox to kick back and let loose in a controlled space. Either way, the most successful publisher newsletters recognize the importance of reaching out to their readers.

Ready to take your newsletters (and audience relationships) to the next level? Here are a few ideas for connecting with your email audience, all currently used by some of the biggest names in the digital publishing & media space.

1) Spice up your subject line.

Often a deciding factor in whether readers open your email, the subject line is an opportunity to be informative, friendly, or even funny. A good subject invites the reader inside, and it convinces them not to skip your email, even when there are a dozen other newsletters waiting in the inbox.

For some publishers, injecting humor into the subject line is as simple as recycling an article title. The Onion’s notorious satirists and the irreverent business reporters at Dealbreaker consistently churn out articles with titles that could double as hilarious subjects that demand to be opened. Here’s a typical Dealbreaker article title that they’ve also used as a subject line:

dealbreaker email newsletter subject line Goldman Basically Handing Out Partnerships to Anyone With A Pulse At This Point

Many publishers (such as Vox, The Atlantic, and Slate) send punny subject lines, but think twice before sending what you think is a brilliant play on the day’s events. No, literally think twice, because the most obvious pun to you is also going to be the most obvious pun to everyone else. More evenings than not, my inbox looks a bit like this:

Of course, it’s not a big deal to tell the same joke as everyone else — what else would we use Twitter for? — but coming up with your own angle can make your emails stand out.

2) Make the friendly from a bit more friendly.

Even so, as important as subject lines are, they can only do so much to get readers to notice your newsletters. In fact, readers report that the subject line is only the second-biggest deciding factor in whether they open the email. The biggest? Who sent the email.

Some digital publishers are adding a personal touch in their friendly froms by using an individual journalist’s name in the “from" line instead of the publisher. As publishers move to strengthen relationships with their audiences, it’s important to note that readers aren’t just loyal to publications; they feel connected to individual journalists too. Social media has gone a long way to foster these connections, but email can help too.

Politico readers who sign up for the daily Playbook newsletter receive an email each morning from a trio of journalists whose names they might recognize from their reporting on the site (Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, and Daniel Lippman). The connection seems to work, as the newsletter has seen a 35% increase in subscribers in a single year (even with meticulous list hygiene — another good lesson to learn!). By building these reader relationships at a personal level, Politico increases engagement, builds loyalty, and maybe even increases the likelihood that the reader will buy a Politico Pro subscription.

3) Provide a comprehensive, exclusive overview of the day’s events…

With a near-infinite number of news sources out there (and a seemingly-infinite number of news stories these days!), staying informed can feel like more trouble than it’s worth. As much fun as it can be to keep up with the 29th breaking news story of the hour, news junkies and gluttons for punishment everywhere understandably seek out ways to simplify their sources.

Vox’s Sentences newsletter aims to be just that: a way for readers to quickly catch up with all the news without having to leave the inbox, or even that individual email. Rather than just a digest of links, the conversational copy is exclusive to the newsletter and provides the main details of each story within the email. Then, if readers can stomach more, the newsletter links to multiple features about each main headline.

One thing readers might notice is that the majority of links don’t lead readers to Vox’s site but rather other digital publishers with a reputation for quality reporting. The newsletter isn’t focused solely on driving traffic directly to the site. Instead, it’s more about keeping their readers informed by linking to original reporting or articles with the best summaries of today’s issues. Vox still benefits from the brand recognition and the more informed reader base, and when their subscribers want to venture out into the internet for news, they’ll keep Vox’s website in mind.

4) …or maybe just the basics!

Some audiences can’t get enough news. Others want to get it over with as quickly as possible. With this in mind, some media companies offer bite-sized newsletters that readers can swallow down quickly without leaving too much of a bad taste. Slate’s flagship newsletter, The Angle, aims to put a spoonful of sugar in your inbox each day.

Each evening, Slate compiles its most compelling content of the day in a single place, no matter the topic. The result is an often-funny, always-brief newsletter where heady political analysis hangs out alongside stories about professional wrestling or jokes on Twitter.

(Click to view the full newsletter.)

While the stories in the email might be serious, the email itself is highly conversational. It might not be an approach that every publisher can take, but it definitely connects with the Slate audience. It’s smart, it’s savvy, and it sounds like an email that could be written to you by a friend. The friends you have time to hang out with because you don’t have to spend all your time tracking down the news.

5) Throw out a personal recommendation.

Sometimes the best way to make a personal connection is just to put a bit of yourself into your newsletters. Until July 2017, Politico’s Morning Media newsletter included a song of the day handpicked by newsletter author Joe Pompeo. Sometimes the song was a sly, subtle dig at the news of the day. Other times it might have just been a song he had on his mind. At any rate, it was always a great song to throw in your playlist for the morning commute.

email newsletter with music recommendation

The Soundtrack feature was a hit with readers, often drumming up a continued conversation on his personal Twitter. From Sonic Youth to Superchunk, the songs allowed Politico to foster deeper connections with their audience. Even if the daily song didn’t provide a direct link back to the Politico site, it encouraged organic, easygoing engagement with the people behind Politico.

(Plus, it resulted in a lot of guaranteed email opens from music fans. Or maybe that was just me.)

With Pompeo moving to Vanity Fair, Hadas Gold has taken over the newsletter, and while she doesn’t include a great classic alternative or post-punk song in each newsletter, she does throw a couple of more lighthearted articles in the mix. It can be as simple as that: breaking up a deep-dive newsletter with something a bit more fun. Readers might appreciate it, especially when your newsletter hits their inbox at 5:30am every day.

5 more ways to connect are coming next week.

Email audiences tend to be among a publisher’s most engaged audiences, and while an automated daily digest can work wonders for engagement, sometimes it’s nice to go one step further. Join us next week, when we’ll show you 5 more ways publishers are keeping the inbox friendly.

Editor, PostUp PlayBook