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Email newsletters are resurging, says Reuters Institute

Email newsletters, once thought of as low-tech and unfashionable, are proving increasingly valuable to publishers looking to build strong direct relationships with audiences, says this year’s ​Reuters Institute Digital News Report​

This is because email helps build habit and loyalty, which is particularly important for new business models such as subscription and membership.

Noting “the resurgence and importance of email newsletters,” the research highlights a sharp increase in their production in recent years, both by ‘legacy’ print and newer digital media publishers. The trend mirrors the continued importance of email in daily life, and its widespread use in marketing, despite the emergence of more sophisticated digital tools.

Reuters Institute’s findings on the revival of the newsletter format, in brief:

  • Across countries, around 1 in 6 access news each week via email.
  • These users tend to be much more interested in news and have more disposable household income, making them a very attractive set of consumers for publishers.
  • Emails have proved effective in attracting potential new subscribers, as well as encouraging existing users to come back more frequently. 
  • In the United States 1 in 5 access a news email weekly, and for almost half of these it is their primary way of accessing news.
  • News organisations such as the New York Times and the Washington Post each offer almost 70 different scheduled emails, with the NYT’s popular morning briefing now reaching 17 million subscribers.
  • Across countries almost half say they read most of their news emails
  • The most popular news emails can get open rates of up to 80%, though industry averages tend to be closer to 30%.
  • Email is popular both with news lovers – those who have high interest and high frequency of access – as well as with daily briefers, who tend to access news at a number of set times each day.
  • Daily updates are the most popular type (60%) of email.
  • Beyond scheduled emails, 73% have also signed up for an email that is triggered by an event – such as a breaking news alert or one based on a specific subject or person that interests them. 
  • Emails tend to be most popular with more affluent, older age groups.
  • The most successful emails are treated as an editorial product hosted by a senior journalist who brings an informal tone and personal touch.
  • For subscription businesses email is often a critical weapon in reducing churn – the rate at which people stop paying for the service.
  • They are often appreciated for their simplicity, but also for how they can showcase journalism in a more personal way for specific groups of people. 
  • Many consumers appreciate morning and evening briefings because they are easy to skim and save time.

Resurgence of email newsletters: Highlights from the Digital News Report 2020

1 in 6 access news each week via email

Faced with the growing power of platforms, publishers have been working hard to build direct connections with consumers, and email is a very important component of this initiative. Across countries, around one in six (16%) access news each week via email, with most of these (60%) accessing a briefing of general or political news, often sent in the morning. But publishers have been extending the range of formats, increasingly offering ‘pop up emails’ on subjects like coronavirus and the 2020 presidential elections. 

Very attractive set of consumers for publishers

Only 16% across countries regularly use emails but these users tend to be much more interested in news and have more disposable household income. This makes them a very attractive set of consumers for publishers of all types.

Effective in attracting new subscribers

Emails have proved effective in attracting potential new subscribers, as well as encouraging existing users to come back more frequently

Newsletters tend to be free to all, allowing content to be sampled with the hope that engaged readers can then be converted into subscribers. But they can be equally valuable in providing regular prompts for existing customers to use the product more regularly. 

Primary way of accessing news, for almost half

There are surprising differences in the level of adoption across countries. In the United States one in five (21%) access a news email weekly, and for almost half of these it is their primary way of accessing news.

Northern European countries have been much slower to adopt email news channels, with only 10% using email news in Finland and 9% in the UK.

1 email, 17 million subscribers

News organisations such as the New York Times and the Washington Post each offer almost 70 different scheduled emails showcasing the work of different parts of the newsroom including business, technology, culture, and sport. Many have also developed ‘pop-up’ newsletters to provide depth on a big ongoing story like coronavirus or the 2020 US presidential election.

The New York Times’ popular morning briefing now reaches 17 million subscribers. The size and importance of this audience has meant an increased profile for flagship emails, with senior journalists appointed as hosts to help guide users through the news each day.

Popular both with news lovers and daily briefers

Email is popular both with news lovers – those who have high interest and high frequency of access – as well as with daily briefers, who tend to access news at a number of set times each day. 

Emails tend to be most popular with older age groups, with over-45s proportionally much more likely to receive them. Email is not a good way to engage casual users, who tend to favour channels where the news ‘comes to them’, such as television or social media. 

Almost half read most of their news emails

Across countries almost half say they read most of their news emails. 

People in the US get, on average, more emails from different news providers (4) than those in the UK (3). American email users are also twice as likely to receive politically focused emails (47%) compared with the average across countries (26%). 

Given the relatively high number of emails received, it is striking that on average across 21 countries almost half (44%) say they read most of their emails each day. A further 37% say they read some of their emails, with only 18% saying they read none or just a few. 

Emails can get open rates of up to 80%

Publisher data show that the most popular news emails can get open rates of up to 80%, though industry averages tend to be closer to 30%. The New York Times reports an open rate of around 60% for its morning update newsletter. 

Most popular type of email: Daily updates

Across 21 countries, daily updates are the most popular type (60%) of email. These editorial mails which are typically sent early in the morning provide a useful way for readers to cope with a growing information overload.

3 in 4 sign up for triggered emails 

Beyond scheduled emails, three-quarters (73%) have also signed up for an email that is triggered by an event – such as a breaking news alert or one based on a specific subject or person that interests them. These emails may come from publishers or from news aggregators like Google News or Nuzzel. 

Most successful emails are treated as an editorial product

Once just a series of automated links, the most successful emails are treated as an editorial product hosted by a senior journalist who brings an informal tone and personal touch which has often been lacking in digital media.

The New York Times recently appointed David Leonhardt as anchor of the morning briefing newsletter, which it also revealed has more than 17m subscribers. The use of the term ‘anchor’, a term borrowed from network TV, shows the value now placed on human curation; on guiding audiences through the news of the day. 

Critical weapon in reducing churn

For subscription businesses email is often a critical weapon in reducing churn – the rate at which people stop paying for the service. Publishers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times try to get new subscribers to take up email newsletters in the first few weeks because the data show that this increases engagement, which in turn reduces churn. 

In Belgium and the United States publishers have managed to get around four in ten (37%) digital or joint digital/print subscribers to use email newsletters. It seems there is much to learn from American and Belgian publishers on how they are driving more regular engagement through the number, quality, and focus of their emails

Showcases journalism in a more personal way

They are often appreciated for their simplicity, but also for how they can showcase journalism in a more personal way for specific groups of people. 

Many consumers appreciate morning and evening briefings because they are easy to skim and save time. Others like the tone of voice and humour that can be provided by a personality guiding people though the news every day – like a television anchor. Others still find email a more efficient way to keeping in touch with a specialist subject area than, for example, browsing through a website.

Emails function halfway between print and digital. Like articles in a newspaper, they cannot be corrected, updated, or easily modified once sent. They tend to use a constrained layout, which may provide some photographs and graphics alongside text, but rarely more sophisticated or dynamic content.

Email news is no silver bullet solution. It is still a minority activity that appeals mostly to older readers and the format can be restrictive. But despite its relative unsophistication, it does remain one of the most important tools available to publishers for building habit and attracting the type of customers that can help with monetisation (subscription or advertising). 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report​ 2020

With publishers stepping up email production there is a huge amount of choice for consumers, so it is more important than ever to create distinctive content that fills specific audience needs, the authors note.

While specific email formats continue to evolve over time, the characteristics of the most successful – simplicity, finish-ability, curation, and serendipity – are finding parallels in other forms of journalistic output and will be increasingly valuable over time in a world of information abundance and overload, the report concludes.


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