Newsletters are “the old medium that has never quite disappeared, the publisher’s Swiss army knife that keeps adding blades”, says the latest edition of FIPP’s annual report Media Innovation Report. Absolutely, considering that newsletters have been on the rise for a few years – even before the pandemic – when the format saw historic growth.
For the star writer or the lesser light, for the legacy newsroom or the digital upstart, now is the new golden age of newsletters, and the numbers show it.
Global Media Innovation Report 2022-23, FIPP
“Newspaper and Magazine Replacement”
87% of publishers and marketers have actively invested in email and 94% have evolved their email programs in 2021, according to email service provider LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey of 200 senior marketing executives and publishing.
The trend is up this year. “Technology has helped email newsletters replace the newspaper and magazine as people’s view of the world and how they get news and information,” says Kerel Cooper, CMO, LiveIntent.
The splash made by newsletter platform Substack shook things up – the company hit 1 million paying subscribers in November 2021 – and inspired publishers to up their game. feed the format with innovative approaches to drive engagement, create habits, build loyalty, as well as grow subscribers and revenue (advertising and direct).
Here are some of the popular strategies used by publishers to make money from newsletters compiled by David Tvrdon, journalist at The Fix.
- Paid newsletters
- Additional content for paying subscribers (i.e. Sunday edition, special Q&As)
- Additional features for paid subscribers (i.e. access to online community)
- Free newsletters with links to paid articles
- Free newsletters with membership/subscription promotion (support us)
- EAAS – email as a service (full articles direct to inbox)
- Newsletter as a loyalty tool
- Referral programs
- Create a newsletter subscription platform
“People who receive newsletters are much more likely to pay and stay”
The New York Times, whose newsletters were previously free, announced in August 2021 that it would make a few exclusive to paid subscriptions. “Subscriber-only newsletters offer exclusive journalism from experts who dig deep into the topics our subscribers are most passionate about and do it from the comfort of the inbox,” explained Alex Hardiman, chief product officer of the publisher. She added that the move was “both a retention game and a conversion game.”
When we look at the intersection between our subscription model and newsletters, newsletters are already very important. We find that nearly half of subscribers open a newsletter in any given week, and people who receive newsletters are much more likely to pay and stay.
Alex Hardiman, Product Manager, The New York Times
“Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business,” said Adam Pasick, Editorial Director of Newsletters, NYT. “Subscribing to a newsletter is a healthy habit that can pay off down the line.” Funke Mediengruppe managed to get 5-10% of its newsletter subscribers to pay for their subscription online via free newsletters with links to paid articles.
Forbes and The Atlantic have launched their own newsletter platforms with features resembling Substack. The Atlantic imports freelance newsletter writers like Charlie Warzel (who had a Substack publication) to blog on its platform. They are not full-time employees, but are offered a base payment and have the opportunity to earn extra money if they meet certain subscriber goals. Those who subscribe to these newsletters have access to other The Atlantic newsletters as well as a one-year subscription. Forbes’ newsletter platform allows journalists to launch their own paid newsletters and share the revenue with the publisher.
“Reach the 50,000 good readers”
Newsletters also have great potential for generating advertising revenue. “The publishing industry has seen its grip on the digital advertising market weaken over the past decade, but as the appetite for newsletters has grown, newsletter advertising has remained a focus. positive,” notes Mark Stenberg, Senior Media Reporter, Adweek.
“The newsletter form gives publishers something advertisers crave: a targeted audience,” adds Politico’s Jack Shafer. “When you subscribe to a newsletter, you reveal that part of your identity defined by your interests and which has value.”
Advertisers prefer to reach 50,000 good readers rather than 5,000,000 randos, and they especially covet audiences to whom they can repeatedly deliver targeted content. Instead of letting all those precious eyeballs disappear in the Substack editors’ room, editors found they could provide a lot of space for newsletter writers.
Jack Shafer, Senior Media Editor, Politico
So how do publishers zero in on good newsletter ideas? “Look at the content most consumed by loyal users as it’s a guide to what your newsletters should be based on,” suggests Martin Little, Director of Audience Transformation, Reach. The UK-based publisher uses newsletters as a key tool to direct readers to its more than 80 online brands.
“Build your mailing list. Really focus on your email list and make sure it’s quality as well,” adds Little. “It’s not about buying users or an email list because their level of engagement will be low, you need to use your website inventory well. Again, target loyal users: what are they visiting- Are they on your site?
“Reconnect with your audience”
Newsletters may also need to be replaced or updated depending on their performance and changing audience needs. For example, the pandemic has seen many publishers launch newsletters on the subject, as has the election. However, these newsletters will no longer be needed once the event they focus on has passed.
“We created contextual newsletters for the US elections,” says Nadine Lange, digital transformation project manager at Funke Mediengruppe. “We moved them to permanent ones, so there’s now a newsletter on American politics for general readers.”
The Telegraph uses engagement rates among other metrics to decide which newsletters will stay and which should be removed or consolidated.
“Newsletters can have a lifespan,” says Dan Silver, director of email innovation and newsroom, The Telegraph. “It’s fine to unsubscribe from one newsletter and subscribe to another newsletter. We have a very fluid attitude towards these editorial properties. That’s because they “are easy to get out there, in the field, and to test new concepts,” he adds.
The format has been a key part of The Economist’s subscription strategy. The publisher offers free newsletters reserved for subscribers. “The best newsletters must first and foremost be designed with readers in mind,” says its former editor, Sunnie Huang. She suggests publishers stick to a small number of newsletters with distinct offers.
The Economist has a cross-functional team that reflects on the email approach through workshops. “We all believe that email should be a welcoming, consistent, customer-responsive and business-focused experience,” adds Huang. “When everyone is clear about where you want to go, everything becomes easier and that’s why a cross-functional team is key to success.”
Take a step back from the product and reconnect with your audience and their needs. Once you know who your audience is, what their needs are, and what their pain points are, it will become much easier to find the right products that meet those needs.
Sunnie Huang, Newsletter Editor (formerly), The Economist