Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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8 steps to strengthen your newsletter strategy

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a myriad of changes for publishers. Alongside the financial downturn and the advent of home working for many personnel, we have also seen the emergence of a range of coronavirus products; chiefly dedicated newsletters and podcasts.

Back in 2016, Digiday proclaimed “Newsletter editors are the new important person in newsrooms,” analysis which seems even more pertinent today. 

Based on an analysis of more than 20 newsletters (including several COVID-19 focused products), here are eight recommendations to slay your newsletter strategy.

1: Consistency of publication

Although reading habits, and open rates, vary, there’s a strong argument for consistency. 

Publishing at consistent times of day, and to a regular schedule (e.g. Friday morning, every day etc.) makes it more likely that this will become part of my daily routine. Or, that I’ll store them up to read in batches. 

Inconsistent publishing, means the opposite. Inconsistent reading. 

“Newsletters are the new “Sunday papers,”” the Nordic based investor Neil S W Murray has argued

“…These days I no longer have the time or the same need (due to the 24/7 news cycle) to buy a Sunday newspaper and haven’t done so for years. Yet, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to spend my Sunday’s reading, fuelling my curiosity and satisfying my thirst for new knowledge. It’s just that I changed to a medium that better suits my requirements, newsletters.”

2: Whose voice is it anyway?

Should newsletters be anonymous, or have a voice – and identity – linked to specific people? 

Benedict Evans’ weekly media and tech newsletter, which has 140,000+ subscribers, not only curates interesting reads, but also features pithy summaries from Ben – an independent analyst who previously worked for Ender Analysis, NBC Universal and Andreessen Horowitz (known as “a16z”​) a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley – on what makes these articles, or stats, interesting. 

Broadly speaking, newspapers have adopted a more “corporate” or anonymous voice, although that may be changing. 

The New York Times recently announced that it will be rebranding its popular morning newsletter “The Morning Briefing” as The Morning. As part of this rebrand, which launches on May 4th, the newsletter, which has “more than 17 million subscribers,” will see the journalist David Leonhardt “become the new writer, host and anchor” of the publication. 

“Look at that title,” writes Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental; morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses.”

3: Include a Call to Action

In 2018, the American Press Institute identified nine distinct “paths to subscriptions,” while also touching on wider issues of conversion, engagement and retention. 

Newsletters have long been seen as an important gateway to potential subscribers. 

As WAN-IFRA’s Brian Vesling, has explained, The Washington Post uses newsletters as ”lead generation tools, which they market and promote on social media channels and by email to registered users.” 

Newsletters ”give readers an opportunity to enroll with The Post without necessarily becoming a paid subscriber. But that means the paper then has an opportunity to be in constant contact with them, and through the articles hopefully puts them on the path to a paid subscription.”

Coronavirus themed products are making that link – and that ask – more explicit than ever. 

The New York Times is one of a number of publishers to have launched specific newsletters providing regular updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. Within this, there’s a specific call to action to support their journalism. It’s a tactic others are also deploying.

The New York Times’ newsletter CTA

4: Unlock the power of your archive

News fatigue is a very real issue for publishers to contend with. That’s especially true in the age of COVD-19 where an initial surge of news consumption appears to be the wane. 

“Overall traffic and engagement are down week-over-week,” wrote Chartbeat’s Jill Nicholson in early April, “and COVID-19 articles are trending down much faster than other articles.” 

A month on that trend may be even more pronounced.

Image via Chartbeat

What this demonstrates for publishers is the need for a broad content mix, including an opportunity for non-coronarius related stories, including strategies to harness evergreen content. 

This material, the gift that keeps on giving, helps with SEO as well as creating continuity, authority and  what Kim Kosaka, Director of Marketing at Alexa, describes as “lasting, compounding value.”

“The more you can use the content you create, the more valuable it becomes. With evergreen content, you produce a piece of content once that provides use for years to come. And, unlike a timely blog post that has a traffic spike that occurs right after publishing, evergreen traffic grows and continues to increase over time,” she explains.

This approach will also stand publishers in good stead down the line. 

Chartbeat’s Nicolson argues that media companies also need to prepare “for a return to pre-coronavirus audience engagement trends.”

“When that time comes,” she advises, “content creators should be prepared to make optimizations such as homepage adjustments, [as well as] the re-promotion of strong content that was overshadowed by coronavirus news…”

5: Make it skimmable

Often one of the most depressing statistics for any journalist is to see the amount of time spent on an article you’ve written. In many cases, work that you’ve spent hours (or longer) slaving over is consumed in a very short period of time by your audience. 

Catering for digital readers means paying close attention to your format. Sign-posting different sections, clearly indicating key points though use of bold, hyperlinks, different colours etc. all help. Especially when it comes to newsletters.

Among my journalism students, the POLITICO Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition, is an example of a newsletter which many of them say does this effectively. 

Image for PhRMA from the POLITICO Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition

Worth noting here is also a reminder of the opportunities for sponsorship and additional direct revenue that newsletters can unlock. 

POLITICO’s Coronavirus newsletter is sponsored by PhRMA, The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a body which “represents the country’s leading biopharmaceutical research companies and supports the search for new treatments and cures.”

6: Think B2B not just B2C

Many of the examples here are focused on reaching news media consumers. However, given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on multiple industries, opportunities also exist for more business oriented products.

Atlantic 57, The Atlantic’s brand agency, is hoping to tap into this potential through Altered, which it describes as “a new platform designed to help brands and marketers navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead.”

Adweek shares that the move is part of a wider repositioning by Atlantic 57 “as a full-service brand evolution firm.” 

Alongside articles written by the team, the new initiative also includes a weekly newsletter.

7: Ask questions

Now, more than ever, it’s important for journalists and publishers to be responsive to the needs of their audiences. 

At a time of considerable unease and uncertainty, one way to do this is to encourage audiences to submit questions on topics which matters to them, and to address them. 

In a recent webinar hosted by the Center for Health Journalism, Ashley Alvarado, director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio (KPCC + LAist), revealed that – using tools like Hearken, GroundSource (text) and email – they have received 2,100 questions from their audience and answered 1,800 of them. 

Diya Chacko, an audience engagement editor for the Los Angeles Times Metro desk, is also specifically asking for questions from audiences as part of the updates she provides in the LA Times’ Coronavirus Today newsletter.

8: Work with what you have

As we previously highlighted, in November 2018, Esquire launched a “micro-membership” programme for their politics writer Charles Pierce

“There was an obscene amount of people, like 60,000 per day, that were visiting his stories,” editor-in-chief  Michael Sebastian told Digiday. “It got us thinking that we should build the membership program around Charlie.” 

A year on, 10,000 subscribers were paying $17.99/year, or $1.99 a month, to gain access to all of his stories (Pierce publishes several times a day), which includes a weekly newsletter. 

“Esquire does not have a paywall across its site,” The Idea explains, “so by unbundling its site into different offerings, it is trying to capitalize on user loyalty for a subset of content and experiment with consumer revenue while minimizing the risk to ad revenue.”

Rethinking material you already have, including in newsletter form, is also part of the strategy at LAist, where the site recently launched a twice daily coronavirus newsletter. With an open rate of nearly 60%, the new morning edition involved repurposing existing content send within the newsroom and/or posted online. 

“We took something that was an easy lift,” Ashley Alvarado says, “making the best use of material we already have” and “making it available to a broader audience.” 


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