What future for newsletters?
Credit: Mark Hakansson/Mousetrap Media
“It’s a newsletter, remember the ‘letter’ part, it’s not just the news,” says Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters at The Financial Times (FT).
She was speaking on a panel at our recent Newsrewired conference on the future of the newsletter format. Ebner, who oversees a list of 32 people FT newsletters, says that for a subscription-driven digital news organization, newsletters are an effective way to deepen relationships with readers and grow them into paid engagement.
Polls and Featured Writers
“It’s an amazing, direct relationship where someone said, ‘yes, you can send something straight to my inbox,’ which will bypass all those social media algorithms,” she continues.
At FT, readers can sign up for a selection of free newsletters, take out a standard subscription which gives access to FirstFT and Editor’s Choice newsletters, or pay a little extra for the premium subscription which gives access to 15 premium newsletters. They also have the option to preview or try the newsletter before committing (at £1 for 4 weeks), and those who do are 134% more likely to continue subscribing.
FT uses the specific LTV (lifetime value) metric to determine the success of newsletters, rather than the historical metric of open rates (which have been rendered almost worthless by changes to Apple Mail and Ebner believes Google will follow for Android users). LTV instead calculates the value of the customer in the long term.
As a result, newsletters have welcomed an influx of its top reporters and reporters, like Stephen Bush on Inside Politics or Isabel Berwick on Working It.
Ebner knows from his previous roles at The telegraph and The temperature that it is necessary to be selective about who receives a newsletter. Getting star writers on board is a great way to be successful, but readers want to find use in the product and also, frankly, have fun reading it. Remember this is a letter as well as a news product.
If personalization is so important, how do you decide who should write the newsletter? Ebner uses pitch materials for staff writers to submit their newsletter ideas, outlining their expertise, why their idea should be served by a newsletter (as opposed to another format), and who writes it when they’re away.
Like any good information product, it should seek out reader feedback and consider it. FT newsletters include a survey at the bottom, which links to a full survey. It asks the reader for a rating between one and five, along with any additional comments. In a month, FT received an overwhelming 20,000 responses, so be careful what you wish for.
Poll at the end of the Inside Politics newsletter
This can be a good way to explore other opportunities. His newsletter Swamp Notes attracted an audience affectionately dubbed “Swampians.” Newsletters like these, led by strong personalities, have polled that readers are particularly interested in attending events to meet their favorite writers – something FT is well placed to please as he runs a successful event business.
Two final tips from Ebner: newsletters can provide an expert voice to comment on emerging news. Also, lunchtime is an underrated time of day to post newsletters, as many readers will be fiddling with their phones then, and too many competitors think a newsletter only belongs in commuting hours. . Find 20 minutes to put together a midday reading.
Go under the hood
There is a similar story to The Economist, where newsletters exist to acquire and retain digital subscribers – which is still its defining factor if it expands into new territory.
There are fewer newsletters offered than FT, but they’re built around core topics and specialties, like climate change, science, and American politics. These newsletters are created exclusively for paid digital subscribers, but free newsletters are also offered.
The newsletter’s editor, Aaron Coultate, also said that as the open rate becomes less important, reader feedback becomes more important. It also keeps an eye on the size of the recipient list, as the health of a newsletter can be gauged by weekly growth. The click-through rate, while not “endgame”, is also a good pulse check.
The Economist is well known for being “lineless”, which Coultate says is due to the “collegiate” and “collaborative” nature of its newsroom. The credit belongs to the whole team. But newsletters are a slightly different story, where specialist newsletter writers get a shot.
“You can read Economist journalists writing in the first person, you can see their face and their name, and that instantly makes it a unique channel and form for us, and we lean into that with the tone,” he says.
Without surprise, Economist readers are data lovers. Through public comment, he’s learned that readers like to look “under the hood of his journalism” to find out how he came together. It addresses this need through its Off The Charts newsletter, featuring staff from across the data team showing the programs and techniques they use, as well as broader recommended readings.
Further reading on Off The Charts
Coultate works across editorial, production, data and strategy for newsletters. His best advice is to focus on cross-departmental communication, as newsletters require product, editorial, marketing, and sales teams to all be aligned. As a result, silos can easily form, so include everyone from the start.
“So if you want to start a new newsletter, everyone [must] figure out what the reasoning is, maybe what the data case is, what the editorial case is, and then put that on the table to get everybody on board.”
Recreate the newspaper experience
As part of a wider redesign and newsletter recruitment campaign, the Guardian launched a new daily news bulletin, first edition, in April this year.
Award-winning journalist Nimo Omer joined the team three months ago to write the newsletter alongside editor Archie Bland, who has moved opposite the of the guardian popular Today in Focus podcast.
The newsletter summarizes five big stories for time-poor readers, then provides a detailed explanation of one important story. Omer cites the outcome of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a good example.
Additionally, there are broader nods to other articles read by the team, not related to current events. Guardian articles, the latest episode of the aforementioned Today in Focus, a preview of the newspaper’s front page and an article from its famous constructive journalism section The Upside.
As with all his journalism, the of the guardian the newsletters are free and its priorities are to highlight the diversity of the content offered. ‘The best of Guardian‘ as a product in itself.
In its early days, reader feedback has already proven influential in bringing the sports section back to the demand of readers unhappy with its initial omission.
It has already experimented with personalization when it comes to the from email address that readers see in their inbox. It seems that emails work better when sent from the author’s own email address versus the general email address. This comes with some caveats, warns Omer.
Readers may not know individual authors by name and may be confused as to what they receive by email. The benefit of using a general email address is that readers will recognize the brand name and remember that’s what they signed up for.
Going forward, she adds that the first edition will target original reports specifically for the newsletter format, rather than just promoting a wider Guardian journalism. She wants to see a future where the newsletter experience truly mimics that of the newspaper of yore.
“Newsletters are in many ways very similar to an actual newspaper in that they are a fixed point in time. There is no change, there is no turning back once ‘they’re in your inbox,’ she concludes.
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