4 Friendly Takeaways from Successful Publisher Newsletter Programs

tips from successful newsletter programs

Facebook kicked off 2018 with a much-publicized move to deprioritize publisher content in favor of posts from friends and family. Eight months later, do users really feel that Facebook is more friendly?

Not really. According to a September 2018 Reuters Institute study, Facebook users deem the platform as unfriendly and spammy as ever. That could be why Pew recently found that 42% of users have curbed their Facebook usage, with 26% even deleting the app.

And Facebook hasn’t been any friendlier to publishers either.

Fortunately, while Parse.ly data shows that publisher traffic from Facebook has declined in 2018, the bright side is that publishers’ owned and operated channels now account for half of publisher traffic. One of those channels is email. The 2018 Digital News Report found earlier this year that email is an increasingly popular source of news, for publishers and their audiences alike.

As Facebook turns the cold shoulder to publishers, publishers have turned to email as a way to engage readers, fostering friendliness where Facebook has failed. Here are insights from four publishers making friends in the inbox.

The New Yorker’s “intense focus” on newsletters pays off.

Email presents a unique opportunity for publishers to connect meaningfully with their audience, as this article about The New Yorker’s revamped newsletter program points out:

“Email is kind of like a living room. It’s a very personal space. You let in your friends, the coworkers you like, and a couple of brands you really trust — like this one.”

And audiences really trust The New Yorker’s newsletters; email accounts for about 12% of their site traffic. Whether publishers drive revenue through advertising or subscriptions or both, that kind of email engagement pays off.

The New Yorker’s renewed focus on newsletters stems in part from their goal of driving paid subscriptions, another area where newsletters excel. Condé Nast’s data science team determined that whether readers subscribe to a newsletter is the top indicator of whether they will eventually convert to paid subscribers.

The New Yorker’s newsletter success comes down to quality: “The most successful newsletters nowadays treat email as its platform. They’re thinking about how people consume information in email.” Another one of those successful senders is The Economist.

The Economist takes a reader-centric approach at every step.

The Economist echoed The New Yorker’s newsletter sentiment in an August 2018 Q&A session:

“Over the past year, there was a clear shift in the way we think about newsletters: rather than treating them as another loudspeaker to distribute our content, we began a process to shape them into stand-alone products that serve the needs of readers.”

In fact, they start catering to the needs of their email readers before those readers even sign up for the newsletter.

“It doesn’t matter how great the product is, if readers don’t know what they are signing up for, they are less likely to get value out of it. Building excitement (and habits) for newsletters should start long before the first email lands in readers’ inbox.”

Newsletters are an important tool for building reader habits, and those reading habits begin with your newsletter signup process. Start with ensuring your email capture strategy follows best practices, then continue with a solid welcome email, where you can hammer that value home at the point when your newsletter subscribers are at their most engaged.

What’s next for The Economist? A way to supplement their newsletter operations with “additional CMS tools and developer resources to ease the day-to-day workflow and allow us to experiment and grow more quickly.” ESPs like PostUp integrate directly with WordPress, Drupal, and even in-house CMS technology, allowing publishers to customize their newsletter workflow and automate the more tedious parts of the newsletter process. That way, they can focus on their readers.

The New York Times goes niche.

Publishers like The New York Times and the Washington Post offer dozens of newsletters, from broad political newsletters to niche newsletters about certain TV shows. According to Elisabeth Goodridge, editorial director of newsletters at the New York Times:

“What I have realized, personally for me, is that I can be interested in 20 different topics because my life is so varied. I will subscribe to all of those newsletters because I am a member of those audiences. …So that’s the number one goal, for us, is optimizing these newsletters so we can make them amazing, and number two, launch newsletters people will open.”

Creating newsletters that cater to a variety of niche interests increases the likelihood that one of those newsletters will appeal to visitors. Like The New Yorker, that’s a critical first step in their subscriber journey: readers are twice as likely to pay for a New York Times subscription if they receive one of their newsletters. In the meantime, publishers can monetize their highly interested, highly engaged email audiences with targeted email advertising.

Of course, not every publisher has the newsletter resources that the Gray Lady has, but newsletter automation can help here as well. Automation gives publishers the ability to scale their email program and offer their readers additional newsletters with minimal effort.

Quartz gets their email audience involved.

“Smart, relevant, and well-written,” the daily Quartz Obsession newsletter has been the talk of the publishing town since it began one year ago. In fact, it even counts the NYT’s newsletter editor among its fans:

“…they really try to engage the audience asking questions about the content and then reporting back questions that they had asked in previous newsletters. That gets people habituated to come back and say hey, I felt the same way. And that they’ll open up the newsletter again and again.”

Obsession is a “digression into the most fascinating corners of the global economy” that deep-dives into a new topic each day, earning a 78% average open rate while covering everything from Cheetos to COBOL to CBD (their most-opened email ever).

Of course, for publishers looking to drive revenue with email, chasing incremental increases in open rates in and of themselves can lead to diminishing returns. Often, a more lucrative goal is to maximize total newsletter subscriptions, giving publishers additional opportunities to engage each member of their email list. Fortunately, Quartz’s newsletters are pretty good at that too:

“I think we misjudged how open the biggest fans of newsletters like the Quartz Daily Brief would be to new and different products, like the Quartz Obsession email, and our pop-up email products. There seems to be a common bond among our products that resonates with our most loyal fans.”

Your email audience is already familiar with the quality of your content, which gives you a perfect opportunity to cross-promote additional email content. Publishers can cross-promote newsletters within the email, offering subscribers the ability to receive another newsletter with a single click, or optimize onsite CTAs to offer your visitors from email the chance to subscribe to a different newsletter.

A Friendly Reminder

The “living room” nature of the email inbox makes it an ideal place to build lasting audience relationships. When Facebook is less friendly than ever, email is a win-win: publishers get a way to directly deliver content, and social-media-weary readers can get news without having to dodge the multilevel marketing aspirations of old high school acquaintances.

Just keep these four things in mind:

  • Connecting readers with your newsletters is a critical first step in building a relationship with them.
  • Start off the audience relationship right with an optimized newsletter signup process and an engaging welcome email.
  • Offering multiple newsletters maximizes the chances that your site visitors will find your newsletters relevant.
  • Cross-promoting your newsletters gives you additional opportunities to engage each member of your email audience.

Content Marketing Coordinator, PostUp