If you were to travel back in time about a half decade and inform news publishers that, within a few short years, they’d be pouring significant resources into growing their email newsletters, many wouldn’t believe you. Back then, the media industry was still benefiting from Facebook’s generous distribution of news content, and the running assumption was that social media would provide the unlimited scale publishers needed to overcome the harsh economics of internet advertising.
By the time Mark Zuckerberg announced, in early 2018, that Facebook was shifting away from news, many publishers had already seen the writing on the wall and had renewed their efforts in growing their newsletters, but Zuckerberg’s statement only accelerated this pivot to email. Virtually overnight, we saw media companies post dozens of jobs listings for dedicated newsletter positions. Whereas in the past newsletters were operated out of the marketing department, now publishers were building out entirely new roles for full-time newsletter editors.
And this pivot was justified. While newsletters aren’t completely immune to algorithms — just ask anyone who’s seen an email get buried in subscribers’ spam folders or Gmail’s promotions tab — the decentralized nature of the inbox guarantees that no one platform can control email distribution. As one publisher put it to me about his decision to move his publishing operations to email, “They can’t touch me here. Twitter and Facebook cannot get to us.”
Even though email subscriptions grow at a much slower pace and aren’t subject to the same level of virality that you can experience with Facebook pages, publishers have found that newsletter subscribers are more loyal and drive more revenue. The New York Times, for instance, discovered that subscribers to its free newsletters were twice as likely than non-email subscribers to convert into paying members. Conde Nast’s data team found that whether someone subscribed to a New Yorker email newsletter was the No 1 indicator that they’d eventually pay for the magazine’s content. And Seattle Times email subscribers are 25 times more likely to convert to paid members than Facebook subscribers.
But while the email newsletter dates back to the 90s as a mode of distribution, this doesn’t mean publishers aren’t continuing to develop new innovations with the medium. In fact, news outlets are constantly experimenting with editorial formats, design interfaces, and machine learning algorithms to derive more and more value from their email operations.
Take Quartz as an example. The business-focused publisher has launched standalone newsletter products like Quartz Obsession, a daily email that dives deep on a single topic and can be consumed in its entirety within the inbox. Quartz’s tech staff has built out a number of interactive features for the product that allow its editors to quiz subscribers and run polls. This resulted in an open rate of about 78 percent, a level of engagement that’s pretty much unheard of (average open rates hover in the low 20s).
For years, newsletter editors have possessed the ability to perform a/b testing with their email subject lines; you send versions of the newsletter with two different subjects to a small percentage of your followers, and then blast the full subscriber list with the subject that drove the most opens. But a/b testing merely appeals to the whims of the majority, and it’s limited in its ability to cater to individual user preferences.
Increasingly, publishers are leveraging personalization software that’s long been available in the consumer product and B2B space. This technology tailors each individual email to the recipient’s content tastes, and there’s strong evidence that it leads to increased engagement for publishers.
Take The New York Times as an example. It’s rolled out dynamic email signup forms that steer you to newsletters that you’re not currently subscribed to; that way you’re not prompted to sign up for a parenting newsletter you already read every day. The Times has also integrated a machine learning algorithm into its Your Weekly Edition email. “We algorithmically select the articles we hope will be most interesting to you, based on articles you have read as well as stories that other Times readers found interesting,” the Times wrote in its June 2018 announcement.
The Washington Post has applied machine learning to “pop-up newsletters,” which are sent to a subset of its larger subscriber base to highlight individual stories. Rather than promoting an array of article headlines, these pop-up newsletters will only link to a single story that’s likely to appeal to that particular subscriber. “Click-through rates for the personalized newsletters are three times the average and the overall open rate is double that of the average for the Post’s newsletters,” reported Nieman Lab.
Some publishers are prompting readers to manually input their content preferences when subscribing to a newsletter. The Austin American-Statesman built a tool that allowed users to choose from hundreds of content keywords, and it deployed an algorithm to recommend newsletter stories based on those tags. It then ran a test comparing the engagement rates of its personalized newsletter against another newsletter curated by a human editor. “Aggregate engagement data below show that [the personalized newsletter] outperformed the [human-edited newsletter] on all variables except unsubscribe rate during the test period,” wrote Tracy Clark, who helped develop the product. “Daily emails from [the personalized newsletter] were nearly twice as likely to be opened and almost three times more likely to have a story actually read by a subscriber.”
These personalized emails don’t just generate more engagement, they’re also more likely to drive reader revenue. The UK newspaper The Times, with the help of a $1.2 million grant from Google, developed an AI-powered newsletter that not only personalized content selections for each individual user, but also delivered the newsletter at the time you were most likely to open it. For a nine-month period, The Times delivered this personalized email to 117,000 randomly chosen paying subscribers, and it found that subscriber cancellations fell by 49 percent in this test group. “[The newsletter] created habits among the lowest engaged groups which are the hardest groups for us to retain,” said Mike Migliore, head of customer value at the newspaper.
Of course, newsletters are only one of many distribution methods that can be personalized. Publishers are experimenting with personalizing everything from home pages to mobile push alerts. Often, this technology is best at increasing loyalty among more casual readers, the ones who don’t dedicate as much time browsing through a publisher’s content searching for the stories they find most appealing. With so much riding now on paid subscription business models, publishers need ways to serve their least-engaged users. Generating paid subscriptions is only half the battle; the real struggle is retaining the subscribers you already have.
Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.
Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.