5 tips for creating newsletters that stick | What’s New in Publishing

Newsletters are booming. This is probably not new to you. For the better part of a decade now, publishers have believed that digital subscriptions are a far more reliable source of revenue than advertising, as Facebook and Google continue to dominate the market. And for many publishers, newsletters are an essential part of a digital subscription strategy. In fact, 70% of media executives plan to focus their efforts on email newsletters this year, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2022 Trends and Predictions report.

Much was made of The New York Times CEO Mark Thompson’s 2016 announcement that the newspaper was aiming to amass 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, a huge boost for a company that had one in the past. era about 1.6 million. But at the end of 2021, the Times was a touching distance from that figure and years ahead of schedule.

For the Times, newsletters were the driving force behind this increase. Regularly delivering quality content to its readers, tailored to their interests and delivered directly to their inboxes, The Times offers a list of around 50 newsletters with a weekly readership of around 15 million. But what makes newsletters so appealing? In August, New York Times Company President and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien summed up the situation:

Given the opportunity we see – an addressable market of at least 100 million people who should pay for English-language journalism and a unique moment when daily habits are up for grabs — we continue to invest in both the value of our individual products and the broader whole.

Habit formation is the holy grail for publishers, many of whom are exploring strategies to make their content an indispensable part of their audience’s daily lives. Whether it’s the morning commute, lunch break, or post-dinner on the couch, the right strategy can convert a moment of inactivity into a regular daily routine and turn curious people into regular consumers.

So what makes a newsletter habit-forming? How can you make sure it’s “sticky” enough to become part of your readers’ routines? Here are 5 do’s and don’ts to help you create newsletters your readers won’t want to miss:

Do make sure your content is personalized

Between 2016 and 2017, the Reynolds Journalism Institute conducted a study testing the hypothesis that personalized email newsletters outperform those organized by a publisher. To test this, the researchers created an algorithm that selected articles based on how closely they matched the reader’s stated preferences. A second group received a newsletter produced solely with input from a human editor. The results, published in early 2017, are conclusive: the algorithmically personalized newsletter far outperforms its publisher-curated rival, with an open rate of 75% versus 38% and a click-through rate of 14% versus 5%.

Ensuring that your content is relevant to as specific a section of your audience as possible can therefore produce significant results. In 2019, News UK launched James, a “digital butler” who used machine learning to analyze subscribers’ reading habits and deliver content more relevant to their interests. The group presented with James’ curated content demonstrated 49% lower churn than a control group without James’ curation. In short, gaining the deepest possible understanding of your readers and leveraging that knowledge to create targeted, relevant content can yield incredible results.

Do not let’s assume conversion means retention

A recent analysis suggests that up to 39% of news subscribers worldwide have not visited the website of the publication they subscribe to in the past month. For well over a third of readers, simply subscribing is not enough to guarantee sustained and regular readership, and unsurprisingly, these readers are by far the most likely to unsubscribe, according to the study.

A successful targeted newsletter can be an incredibly powerful tool for ensuring subscription “loyalty”, giving your readers what they want. The Economist, for example, determined that one of the main reasons subscribers churn was being overwhelmed by the volume of content. To combat this, The Economist redesigned its newsletters with the audience experience in mind, looking for ways to refine its product and link it to the print edition, as well as better showcase the range of articles from The Economist. These changes resulted in a substantial 41% increase in newsletter referrals.

Do stay relevant

Newsletters can be a wonderfully malleable product. With little additional cost, newsletters can be produced to capitalize on current events that have captured the public’s imagination. Sport is an obvious example of this, with major competitions providing an information-hungry audience, but these thematic newsletters leave much more to the imagination. Newsday, for example, capitalized on summer vacation traffic with a ten-week newsletter, Points East, discussing all things Hamptons.

Of course, one subject in particular has dominated the news in recent years. During the global COVID pandemic, the coronavirus newsletter has become one of the most pronounced media trends, with Gannett, The Washington Post, Time Magazine and others quickly building large subscriber bases to their pop-up newsletters. Despite their ubiquity, they provided a concrete example of the effectiveness of newsletters in delivering accurate, insightful and targeted information to large audiences.

With the added flexibility offered by email newsletters, publishers can target even more specific groups and attract readers who are not normally exposed to their content, while beginning the habit-building process. And the process of creating and managing newsletters no longer needs to be time-consuming. Automated newsletter solutions such as Echobox newsletters mean that tailored, highly targeted emails can be quickly and automatically assembled and scaled as the opportunity arises.

Do not think there is a better time to send

Finding the perfect time to send newsletters is easier said than done. Building a habit relies on a sense of expectation, which means it’s a good idea for your newsletter to appear at around the same time every time. But the optimal time will vary depending on the content and from person to person. There’s a lot of noise about the best time to post, but unfortunately, as we’ve noted in this analysis and in this follow-up study, much of it is wrong. In reality, the best time to post depends on a number of factors that require detailed analysis, and moreover these factors can change from day to day or even hour to hour. The only way to determine the best time to release is to do the kind of large-scale, systematic testing that only computers can do.

A simple alternative is to use a solution like Echobox Newsletters, which uses the latest advances in AI and machine learning to automatically determine the best time(s) to send your newsletter editions, maximizing as well as your click and open rates.

Do experiment with design and layout

Newsletters can generate a wealth of information that can be used to refine your offer. Through carefully designed experimentation, every facet of your newsletter can be tweaked to increase all sorts of key metrics. Typically, design tips are relatively general recommendations that repackage common sense into sound advice, and for one simple reason: the best way to design your newsletter will vary depending on your readers’ preferences. So while having a clean design language and easily readable text is a good idea, it really doesn’t start to exhaust the possibilities.

That said, an experiment of this type can be difficult and time-consuming to conduct. Investing in an automated solution that can intelligently and automatically test the effectiveness of your design at a granular level can therefore be a cost-effective solution to achieving amazing results with newsletters.

Email newsletters offer publishers a huge opportunity to attract new readers, retain audiences, and prevent churn from paying subscribers. Whether you’re looking to augment an existing newsletter or considering launching a new one, implementing the recommendations above will help you deliver the best newsletter possible to keep your subscribers engaged and start habits that stick.

Republished courtesy of Echobox, the AI-powered social publishing platform for publishers. More than 1,000 leading publishers around the world, including Newsweek, The Times, The Telegraph, Handelsblatt, Le Monde and Conde Nast, use Echobox to reach billions of people every year.

Harry L. Blanchard