Digital Publishing Top Stories
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Lessons from Three Publishers: Effective Use of Newsletters

Over the past two years publishers have realised that they shouldn’t take their audiences for granted. Research around loyalty and brand recognition on social platforms found that consumers were less engaged with publishers on those channels than had been assumed. Suddenly, publishers’ place as the intermediary between brand advertisers and the audiences they wish to reach was no longer assured.

As competition for digital ad-spend increased, publishers started looking for a panacea to that issue. That meant transitioning from the scale-based publishing strategies that led to those issues on social to a strategy that prioritised engagement above all else, that put the publisher back at the heart of the value chain.

Publishers as disparate as the fashion and lifestyle site Refinery29, the business site Quartz, and the New York Times (no introduction needed) believe they’ve found a way to deepen engagement with an audience through clever use of one of the oldest marketing tools of the digital age: The email newsletter.

The reappraisal of the newsletter has been driven by a few different factors, from audiences’ desire for a finite regular source of content amid the endless feeds of information to improvements in newsletter technology.

Rebuilding a Direct Relationship

The first factor is publisher recognition that becoming a regular fixture in their audiences’ daily content consumption necessarily strengthens the relationship between the two. The opt-in nature of a newsletter and the means of its delivery ensures that the publisher itself is central to the product, avoiding the issue of brand erasure that we’ve seen happen on social channels. An audience habituated to a branded email in their inbox is a more engaged – and therefore more valuable – audience.

As a lifestyle and entertainment publisher, Refinery29 is extremely susceptible to disruption of its role in the centre of the brand-audience relationship. It has ameliorated that issue by using newsletters to become an integral part of its audience’s daily schedule, achieving open rates of over 60 percent for its flagship newsletter, Refinery29 Everywhere.

Speaking to Digiday about its newsletter strategy last year, Digiday’s chief content officer Amy Emmerich explained:

“They really built the brand’s audience with newsletters. At this point, the newsletter is just an extension of our [owned and operated properties].”

As a result, Refinery29 is able to use its direct relationship with audiences as a selling point that strengthens its advertising proposition. I interviewed Refinery29’s VP of sales and brand partnerships in Europe Jacqui Kavanagh earlier this year, and she was clear that its greatest strength was that direct relationship, the foundation of which is predicated on its smart newsletter strategy.

The Potential of Personalization

The second is a growing audience desire for personalised content: The opt-in nature of a newsletter that made it such an appealing marketing tool also offers the consumer the opportunity to tailor the sort of articles they consume, rather than drown in the vast array of content out there.

Most obviously that means that consumers can choose when the newsletter arrives, but there is another level of personalisation possible with modern email newsletters: A study last year from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that newsletters whose contents had been personalised by the reader enjoyed almost double the open rate of a more generic email, the contents of which had been dictated by an editor. The technology that enables publishers to do that is more widely available now, though not all publications will have the resources or manpower available to take advantage of it.

One publication with its eye firmly on the personalisation ball is Quartz, the business-focused spin-off of The Atlantic. After its traffic from LinkedIn was “cut off at the knees” in 2013, the site realised the futility of relying on social platforms before the majority of the industry. Its efforts since have been focused instead of launching products that engage with the audience on a personal level, from its news app to its growing stable of newsletters. Personalisation and user feedback are at the heart of that strategy, as the editor of its Quartz Obsession product Jessanne Collins explains:

“Interactivity is core to the email. We want to get deeper into reader suggestions of topics. It’s reflected in the scope of what we cover and that feedback loop.”

As a result, it is selling campaigns to advertisers on the basis of a more engaged segments of an already extremely valuable audience. Personalisation is driving profit.

A new editorial product

The third factor in the revival of the newsletter is that, as a result of experiments on other platforms, publishers have realised that newsletters are more than simply direct marketing messages. Instead, just like any medium or platform a publisher chooses to use, they can be an extension of an existing editorial direction.

Some of the best email newsletters contain original editorial content, not simply repackaged copy from the article to which they link. Often that might be curated explanations from an editor about why the articles that are curated within the newsletter are of interest to the audience, but for subscription-based analysis sites that don’t rely on driving traffic back to site they can often be the entire article in and of itself.

One of the most prominent – and most successful email newsletter of this type is The New York Times’ Morning Briefing, which has been celebrated for its open rate of between 50 and 60%. A complementary service to the news published in its print and digital products, the newsletters act as a bulletin that caters to its audience’s need for a finishable, digestible news round-up. While the paper has a bevy of other, more specific newsletters with open rates of over 80%, its flagship is a perfect example of how even a general newsletter can succeed through being an extension of the title’s editorial mission.

Crucially, the newsletters also act in support of the Times’ subscription model, with subscribers to Times’s free newsletters twice as likely to become paying subscribers as the general public.

Considerations for Publishers

Given the benefits of an email newsletter that caters to an engaged audience, and the relatively low cost of entry for a basic newsletter campaign, it’s small wonder that so many publications are launching them.

But a successful newsletter requires a solid base from which to spring, enough of a reason for existence separate from the pre-existing editorial content and a strong USP to distinguish it from the slew of other newsletters on the market.

As a result, publishers looking for success from a newsletter should bear the following in mind:

  • Newsletters offer unparalleled opportunities for iteration and experimentation. Between A/B testing and the modular nature of many newsletter platforms, it’s on the publisher to find a format that works for the audience. Quartz’s associate product manager Eva Scazzero explains: “The most important key performance indicator is the total number of active subscribers we have per newsletter. We measure engagement based on a user’s open rate… This metric comes from a belief that our content is worthy of being opened, and if it’s not we force ourselves to think about how we might improve.”
  • The email newsletter is a product in and of itself, but it can be used to push other services, as The New York Times’ Morning Briefing does for its subscriptions.
  • Newsletters offer an antidote to the constant churn of content to which audiences are exposed, and which is responsible in part for the sublimation of publishers’ brands on social channels. Where once they were seen as primarily a marketing tool, they are now as vital a part of a publisher’s attempts to engage an audience as anything else they put out.