Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

How publishers are building habit with short-run newsletters

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The importance of newsletters in today’s media landscape comes as no surprise. French financial newspaper Les Echos found that readers who reached the website via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search, while The New Yorker found that the top sign a reader will become a paid subscriber is if they are a newsletter subscriber. More and more publishers are beginning to think of newsletters as a crucial step in their conversion funnel: instead of focusing their website on converting paid subscribers, they focus their website on encouraging readers to subscribe to a newsletter. Then the goal of the newsletter becomes developing a daily habit and converting readers into paid subscribers.

With newsletters becoming an important part of the reader journey, a host of interesting innovations have appeared in the field. One in particular is the emergence of short-run or pop-up newsletters: email series that have a set end date from the beginning, normally centered around an event, whether it be an election, a TV show, or something else. Join us as we explore what has been successful, how to build habit and reach new audiences, and what exactly to do after the newsletter has finished.

Success stories with short-run

After the success of a “Game of Thrones” newsletter (80k subscribers with a 60% open rate), The New York Timeshas continued to experiment with a variety of pop-up newsletters. Last year they launched ‘Summer in the City’, a pop-up newsletter offering ideas of what to do in New York City each weekend, which they brought back this summer as well. During this second run, they’re implementing some lessons they learned last summer, such as cutting the length from 2,200 words to 1,200. Readers had found last year’s newsletters difficult to scan and it was often cut off on mobile.

Pop-up newsletters can be even shorter than an entire season, such as CNN’s Hurricane Alerts newsletter for Hurricane Florence, which ran for only a few days. Since they were providing such targeted information, they were still able to grow their list to 40k subscribers in just two days. Quartz has also experimented with short-run newsletter tied to major events, such as Davos or SXSW. Quartz’s event newsletters have an average open rate of 50% which is higher than their daily brief newsletter (40%) or the industry benchmark for media newsletters (22%). The team attributes this high open rate to the highly-focused content and short time window, meaning subscribers remember why they signed up and are more likely to engage with the content.

We’re dealing with people who have chosen to subscribe to a specific pop-up. The pump is primed for them to engage in a big way.

Adam Pasick, former editor of Quartz’s push team to Digiday

Publishers can also create short-run newsletters with evergreen content, allowing readers to sign up for a time-limited series anytime during the year. Harvard Business Review has experimented with this idea, launching an 8-week email series on managing data science that they’ve been able to grow to 38k subscribers. The Washington Post has a 12-week series on cooking, while Vox has a five day series on giving to charity. Such newsletters are a great way for publishers to make use of their evergreen content and reach new readers.

Building habits and relationships

Short-run newsletters are a good way for publishers to experiment with content that reaches an audience outside of their current base. ‘Summer in the City’ has been successful in introducing The New York Times to the younger audience it wants to reach. Through content specifically targeted at the new audience, these readers are exposed to the high quality of journalism they can expect from other products in the Times’s digital offering. Such newsletters can also deepen already existing relationships with readers. The inbox is deeply personal, offering a place to have a one-to-one relationship between publisher and reader.

A good newsletter allows you to turn engaged readers into super-engaged readers.

Dan Silver, head of digital publishing for The Daily Telegraph at NewsRewired 

Short-run newsletters are particularly well adept at providing the right content when readers need it, using passion for a specific topic to trigger a habit cycle. To continue this success, publishers need to make sure they have the right tactics to leverage that habit and transfer the routine over to their other product offerings. Due to the heightened interest in such topics, short-run newsletters are well suited for encouraging casual readers to sign up. Then the routine developed by the newsletter can be transferred over to other content after the initial newsletter has finished. We know habit is key in retention, with research from Northwestern University in the US finding that frequency is more important for retention than extent or depth. This topic of creating habit forming news products will be explored at the upcoming Digital Growth Summit in Berlin.

Publishers can also use short-run newsletters as a trigger for news series that have a smaller group of dedicated readers who might otherwise miss the content. The Wall Street Journal does this for their “Unprepared” series, about how baby boomers are less prepared for retirement than previous generations. They encourage readers of the series to opt-in for a hybrid push notification/newsletter that alerts readers when a new article in the series is published. This has helped to develop a small but passionate audience while also identifying what type of readers are drawn to this reporting. They’ve had success with this because it doesn’t require readers to opt-in to emails for the rest of their lives, a fear which sometimes prevents people from subscribing to other newsletters.

What’s next?

After growing an audience and developing a habit, it’s important to transfer this over to other product offerings once the initial short-run newsletter is over. Megan Griffith-Greene, who led a royal wedding pop-newsletter at CBC, advises publishers considering their own pop-up newsletter to think through the next steps after the pop-up has ended. After spending time to nurture a community, it’s important to plan for how they can continue this going forward. CBC had a three part plan when winding down their pop-up. First they conducted a reader survey to better understand what had worked and what they could improve. Next they asked subscribers if they wanted to opt-in to stay on the list, as Canadian anti-spam laws would have only allowed them to email the list about that specific topic. Finally, subscribers were sent a list of five other CBC newsletters they might be interested in.

The New York Times also encourages subscribers of their pop-up newsletters to sign-up for other ongoing newsletters. For example with their World Cup pop-up newsletter, they encouraged subscribers to check out their weekly sports newsletter as well. The Washington Post also ran a World Cup pop-up newsletter that they used to introduce new readers to their content. For them, it was a way to reach a more international audience and introduce them to their reporting.

We’re hoping to use this as an entry point for a lot of new international readers to the Post, to help them understand our brand and help establish ourselves in the international sports world. At the end, we’ll try and transfer them over to an existing newsletter.

Tessa Muggeridge, newsletter and alerts editor at The Washington Post to Solution Set

Of course it’s also possible that there will be such sustained interest in a topic that the project can continue on in a different fashion. Looking further in the world of news pop-ups, two examples stand out. The New European, which was initially planned by Archant as a four-week newspaper pop-up in response to the Brexit vote, has now been operating for over three years. Across the Atlantic, The Daily podcast from The New York Times can be seen as a successor to their pop-up podcast focused on the 2016 election, The Run-Up.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

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