Newsletters are long term engagement levers. Once favoured for facilitating personalisation and data collection, they are now most utilised by news organisations. As opposed to other formats, they have only been superficially impacted by the rise of digital platforms. That can be attributed to their ease of adaptation to evolving and emerging user content interests. However, publishers have yet to allocate resources that appropriately match the width of newsletters’ window of opportunity. Our analysis into trends, best practices and solutions gives way into where to start revamping yours.
News publications: the largest source of emailed newsletters
Newsletters have long been a tactic for organisations or individual writers to engage with their readers, and the benefits for both sides have been widely stated before. For readers, newsletters are a trusted source of consolidated information—relevant on a personal or professional level—sent directly to their inbox. For organisations or individual writers, newsletters build a direct relationship and drive habitual readership with an audience.
They are a mutually beneficial outlet for collecting first-party data - the organisation gathers data while the reader receives this curated content. But some say this tactic is no longer the hot commodity it once was–with Substack struggling to raise funding and social media outlets Facebook and Twitter putting their newsletter projects on the back burner. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case for news publishers specifically. In fact, mainstream news outlets and their journalists are the largest source of emailed newsletters across the globe.1
1 Digital News Report 2022 - Reuters Institute - University of Oxford
Although technology has drastically changed the news publishing landscape in the past few years, newsletters have remained a constant tactic for news publishers to reach readers. Despite a slight decrease due to the rise of social media and mobile alert use, the proportion of those that access news via email has remained relatively steady in the last five years.2
As the general support for subscription products by editorial leadership increased, so did their propensity to pivot into producing exclusive newsletters.
For businesses looking to carry on a mission as their focal point as they scale up, expand, and diversify their portfolio, diving deeper into complimentary topics and products and topics that lead into people’s passions is a promising route. Newsletters remain the preferred format to do just that with a prominence of education as a subject matter.
2 Digital News Report 2022 - Reuters Institute - University of Oxford
Newsletters prove to be a positive engagement tactic because readers have specifically signed up to read what is being offered, thus they want to use and engage with them. They are an effective way to explore pushing content to the customer and an alternative to push notifications with the objective to improve their efficiency and productivity. They also allow for the personalisation and curation of content and are a way to aggregate content and make recommendations to specific audience segments.
The content of the newsletters could be relevant to their professional roles, build a sense of community within a niche topic of interest, or simply a personal connection to the editors of a source of information that they trust. Whatever the topic or theme of newsletters, readers have signed up themselves, indicating interest, and therefore are more likely to engage with this content.
This changes slightly when readers are auto opted-in to newsletters as part of an onboarding or registration process since there is a lack of interest. If auto-opting readers into newsletters is part of your strategy, we recommend sticking to the newsletters that are heavily connected to your brand—editors’ top picks or audiences’ most read stories, for example.
The above applies across mainstream news publishers, specialist media channels, as well as individual writers so it’s not worth throwing out your newsletter strategy if you are not a mainstream news organisation. Yet mainstream news publishers have the benefit of diversity, tending to have more journalists to cover multiple specialist subjects as well as generalist themes, providing a wider range of newsletter options for readers. With the sometimes overwhelming increasing amount of online accessible - but not always credible - information, newsletters from mainstream news publishers provide a finite amount of information from a recognisable and trustworthy brand.3
Furthermore, many publishers are not looking into adventuring out of their already existing channels of distribution but rather into finding new utilities for them. Oftentimes, they are especially keen on starting to treat newsletter as not only epistolary products but also as a way to structure online learning.
3 Innovation in Media 2022 World Report - FIPP
Collect, test, and refine
Many news publishers are not at the forefront of utilising reader data to optimise their publication for readers. But According to an American Press Institute survey, most publications would like to.4 Newsletters are an easy and efficient way to collect information to understand and test within this audience.
At The Financial Times, the newsletter team has gone beyond collecting the simple name and email from sign ups and built specific questions, polls, and user surveys into their newsletters.5 Even if only name and email is collected from readers, this still allows you to track reader usage beyond the sometimes unreliable cookies.
In order to enhance a newsletter strategy you must set goals and track critical performance metrics; open rates, click-through-rates, conversions (for non-subscribers), and engagement levels (for subscribers). Develop a robust testing plan and use these metrics to improve your newsletters––possibly even sunsetting low usage newsletters. Newsletters are a great place to be adaptive to reader interests, popular topics, or world events. These newsletters don’t necessarily need to last forever but they are a great way to indicate to your readers what is new within your publisher, whether that’s content coverage or newly developed features. Martin Little, the audience transformation director of Reach, U.K., recommends to “look at content consumed most by loyal users as that is a guide to what your newsletters should be based around.”5
Beyond using newsletters to identify areas of interest for your readers, experimenting within the already concrete audience tends to be straightforward. Divide a newsletter audience into different variations (e.g. different subject lines, copy, or design) and measure success of the aforementioned metrics to optimise the best newsletters for your specific audience. When changing a newsletter sender from the publication itself to the specific journalist's name, The Financial Times saw a 5% opening increase.5
4 Innovation in Media 2022 World Report - FIPP
5 Digital News Report 2022 - Reuters Institute - University of Oxford
Get readers to pay
Finally, newsletters are not only a key engagement tool for publishers but also a conversion and retention tool. The New York Times's (NYT) chief product officer, Alex Hardiman stated that “People who do receive newsletters are far more likely to pay and stay.”6 NYT leaned into this fact while revamping their newsletter strategy, converting one third of their 50 newsletters to be subscriber-only. Keeping some newsletters free allows readers to sample coverage and the publishers to promote content and product features that they know are enticing subscription features. While this sampling builds interest and the potential to subscribe, the regularity and frequency of newsletters habituates readers and makes for strong conversion rates.
6 Digital News Report 2022 - Reuters Institute - University of Oxford
In understanding the importance of newsletter levers, their ability to drive active engagement even in news markets close to saturation does much of the talking. Their breadth of personalisation and adaptability options often does do the rest. But many experienced news organisations have fallen into the trap of not fully utilising audience data as a means and an end of their newsletter. Indeed, newsletter simultaneously be informed by and collect reader data. It is in that hard-to-nail balance that lays their success.
How FT Strategies can help
There are many clear reasons why 90% of publishers encourage new subscribers to sign up for newsletters—only some of which are stated in this blog. The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey believes the future of newsletter lies in rebundling and format experimentation. But if you don’t know where to start, FT Strategies can help.
With first-hand experience helping over 250 clients worldwide deepen their relationships with their readers online, defining goals and launching new subscription strategies, FT Strategies can help you grow your newsletter presence or redefine your growth strategy.
About the authors
Breck Wills is a Senior Consultant at FT Strategies. She has experience across Data, Media, and Subscriptions with a focus on data modelling, subscription strategy, and business analysis and insights. Previously, she has worked at Dow Jones as a Data Science Manager for the publications The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and MarketWatch.
An intern at FT Strategies, Sofia Louli is a King’s College Global Affairs graduate with a longtime passion for news and international relations. Her previous experiences include working for newsrooms and NGOs in France and the Middle East.