A few weeks ago, Facebook began testing the option for publishers to offer newsletter sign-up buttons at the bottom of their Instant Articles. The initiative was a way to add value to publishers through lead generation – and an indication of just how important email has become for news delivery in today’s world of apps, networks and push notifications.
Email is back in style. For readers weary of the endless amount of information online and an infinite social media feed, a newsletter delivered to their inbox creates a finite and satisfying reading experience. For publishers, it’s a way to engage directly and consistently with readers, converting a casual audience into a loyal one and continuing to lead them further down the sales funnel. The New York Times, for example, has found that readers who sign up for a newsletter are twice as likely to become paying subscribers.
Newsletters are an easy way for audiences to become familiar with a newspaper’s coverage and columnists, as the emails serve up relevant stories straight to a reader’s inbox. And the product capitalizes on a key strength of news media: curation. Audiences have always relied on newspapers as trusted experts to distill the constant stream of news into the information they really need to know. Newsletters featuring the day’s top headlines are a key way to deliver this experience to readers and invite them to engage more deeply with the publisher’s content.
Increasingly, news publishers are using newsletters as standalone news products that can extend beyond a newspaper’s daily coverage, creating a more loyal community – and targeted advertising offerings – around specific, niche topics. Consider The Columbus Dispatch’s Movie Insider briefing, which is sent every Friday with movie reviews, upcoming openings and information about the latest blockbuster productions and awards programs.
As another example, The Baltimore Sun uses its Reader SunShots newsletter to celebrate local photography enthusiasts, highlighting its ongoing reader photo contest alongside top photos from staff journalists each week. The San Diego Union-Tribune emphasizes its investigative journalism in the Watchdog Week newsletter, and it partnered with The Los Angeles Times to create a daily Essential California newsletter with the top stories from both outlets.
The strategy has proven so successful that The New York Times has launched more than 40 targeted newsletters, on topics ranging from running to race relations to exclusive commentary from popular columnist Nicholas Kristof.
“Historically, the newsletter has just been based on our sections,” Dork Alahydoian, executive director of product at the Times, recently told Digiday’s Lucia Moses. “We realized that’s not necessarily what people are interested in. So we’ve been exploring two ways of looking at it — going beyond sections to lifestyles and different themes. The other approach is going much narrower. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all.”
Over the past few months, The Washington Post has been building on its newsletter strategy by experimenting with personalized “pop-up” newsletters that email key stories to users who previously read similar articles and are therefore likely to be interested. The newspaper has promoted eight stories in this way since January, and the results are encouraging. According to Nieman Lab, “Click-through rates for the personalized newsletters are three times the average and the overall open rate is double that of the average for the Post’s newsletters,” although the paper hasn’t released specific numbers.
Other news companies have also seen success with curated email newsletters, especially among millennials. Spirited Media’s Billy Penn is a millennial-friendly Philadelphia news outlet that relies heavily on its daily news briefing to engage with readers. Its early success in engaging local audiences led to a recent investment from Gannett Corporation and an upcoming expansion into Pittsburgh.
Millennial-focused newsletter theSkimm is further proof that email is a valuable tool for reaching young professionals and college audiences. The newsletter’s conversational and down-to-earth style of covering top news stories earned more than 3.5 million subscribers in just a year and a half, with more than 13,000 passionate brand ambassadors who regularly share the newsletter and encourage friends to sign up.
While email is certainly not a new tool, it is proving to be increasingly valuable for news publishers. The low cost of developing and distributing newsletters can provide a high return in audience development, engagement and advertising revenue – while giving readers a convenient, requested and finite news experience.
Lindsey is the Communications Director for the News/Media Alliance. Prior to joining the Alliance, she led communications for a food and nutrition nonprofit in Washington, D.C. for over eight years.