Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

“Publishers get anywhere between 30% to 70% of their traffic from newsletters,” the unsung hero of subscriptions and traffic acquisition


It’s been 42 years since Ray Tomlinson sent the first-ever email, but it would be another 25year until Hotmail launched the first web-based service and emailing really went mainstream.

Fast forward to 2020 and e-newsletters are a  decades-old technology that is not exactly thrilling the industry. Every publisher has them, most of us read them but nobody is excited about them. Since their development they have hardly evolved,  still wedded to an images and javascript format. However, this unsung hero is experiencing a little bit of a revival and publishers should pay attention. An investor in Subtrack, a newly launched platform for writers to create and monetise their own newsletters direct to their readers went as far as to describe the “intimacy-leveraging subscription model” as the future!

For publishers, at a most basic level, e-newsletters are simply a modern way of delivering their content to someone’s doorstep – except that with the evolution of the smartphone it goes beyond the doorstep and to wherever their reader might be. When you consider that 80% of smartphone users check their phone before even getting out of the bed, it does not get much more intimate than that!

However today while most publishers have newsletters, they don’t have dedicated newsletter teams,  and yet newsletter can be the most effective subscriptions strategy and free audience acquisition for publishers. They must take back this space.

In 2020, publishers are grappling with ways to find new revenue models and better engage their audiences. Newsletters not only give publishers an additional touchpoint with their readers which can help them stay top of mind in an increasingly competitive environment, but they also deliver the most engaged users i.e the highest revenue-generating users.

They are loyal, repeat customers that consume lots of page views. From a subscription point of view, they have gone as far as to share their email address,  and thus are most likely to take the next step towards a paid subscription. According to a 2019 research study, newsletters are the highest performing content tent for securing, nurturing and converting leads. A great publisher example of this is Newsweeks’ The Daily Beast  who in 2019 1 in 5 subscriptions came from their newsletter subscribers.

From a traffic acquisition point of view, publishers get anywhere between 30% to 70% of their traffic from newsletters, depending on their type of audience. According to the Daily Beast’s CRO Mia Libby, they have “five newsletters, the most popular being the twice-daily Cheat Sheet newsletter, with 234,000 subscribers and a 50 percent open rate among its loyal users, who are those who visit the site five or more times a month”.  Newsletters are by far the best free audience acquisition source compared to any other channel.

Despite all of this, publisher newsletters are still archaic in their format and technology, personalization is basic at best, and rarely do publishers have specific teams dedicated to this medium. They have social teams, but no newsletter teams.

Publishers partner with technology partners like us at Outbrain to manage their feed,  a combination of organic content and advertiser content and all the data that surrounds it. The same should be the case for newsletters. With a simple cookie sync and email address, publishers would be able to deliver a 100% personalized experience to their users inbox. Take it one step further and combine a personalized content experience with personalized native ads, and now publishers have an incremental revenue stream while engaging their most high value users.

Why publishers should invest in newsletters? Well quite simply, everyone has an email address. For too long, newsletters have been the unsung hero of subscriptions and traffic acquisition. And yet, there are so many examples of modern digital publishers who have built a successful business with newsletter. Mike Allens ‘Daily Playbook’, a daily email newsletter put Politico on the map. Back in 2017 it reached an audience of 100,000 political insiders every day and a weekly sponsorship of Playbook cost between $50,000 and $60,000.

They have disrupted the traditional publisher model and yet the lesson has been overlooked.

Publishers can also look outside of publishing for inspiration. Take for instance, the French online retailer that pioneered the model of online flash sales through it’s members-only site. Ironically based in a former print plant for Le Monde newspaper, they deliver sales updates directly to their members’ inbox.  For them, newsletters were a “strategic form of communication used to develop the vente-privee reputation, branding and business”. By 2015 40 percent of sales came directly from emails sent to their customers.

From acquiring users, to retention and ultimately converting  them into super users that generate even more ad revenue, a smart newsletter strategy is what publishers should start investing in. Going back to The Daily Beast example, Mia Libby was further quoted saying “we find that once readers become members, they spend more time on the site—21% more time on the site actually. Once they’ve paid up and made that value exchange, they are coming back more and more often, which is great for deepening the digital ad revenue stream.”

When it comes to personalisation in a cookieless world, newsletters offer a unique opportunity for publishers. When users sign up for newsletters, they can select their preferences, i.e., a first layer of personalisation. Add to that 1st party data and email addresses, and now publishers and do user matching and deliver a further layer of personalisation to their newsletters. A personalised and relevant content and ad experience for the end user is better for everyone – i.e., publishers, advertisers and ultimately the reader.

However, on a more cautious note, let’s not replicate mistakes from the past. User experience and brand safety are not just buzz words, they are an absolute must if publishers want to successfully engage their users and deliver a quality ad experience for both their subscribers and advertisers. Let’s not replicate the mistakes of Display and erode user trust with intrusive and irrelevant advertising experience. The cost will be much higher! An “unsubscribe” is far more permanent than an adblock and as a publisher, you will be losing your most valuable customer.

By Victor Charpin, Head of Platfoms at Outbrain

About: Outbrain is the world’s foremost discovery and native advertising feed for the open web. A third of the world’s Internet-connected population explore and discover information through its feed technology, which is trusted by brands and integrated into thousands of media companies’ tech stacks to manage and monetize their publishing operations. Outbrain operates in 55 countries and is headquartered in New York City with offices in 18 cities worldwide.