World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers


Maximising the potential of newsletters to drive reader engagement and subscriptions

World News Publishing Focus

World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Maximising the potential of newsletters to drive reader engagement and subscriptions

By Sherwin Chua

Publishers should invest more resources into developing their email newsletters to directly engage with their readers, build loyalty, and drive subscriptions and memberships.

This was one of the key takeaways from WAN-IFRA’s five-month-long Newsroom and Business Transformation Asia (NBTA) 2020 programme in August. 

In one session, both NBTA programme leads George Brock and Grzegorz Piechota, together with guest speaker and Nick Petrie, deputy head of digital at The Times of London and The Sunday Times, shared insights on why publishers should harness the potential of email newsletters in converting readers into loyal subscribers.

From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.

Based on a survey of 128 news organizations, Piechota found that a majority of 60% have less than 10 newsletters. 

“This indicates to me that many publishers are still unaware of the merits of this channel,” said Piechota. 

Incidentally, the 2020 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that more publishers are using readers’ inboxes to communicate directly with them, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Newsletter registration as a gateway to subscription

From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.

According to a study that examined purchasing patterns of readers at five publishers in Europe and Asia, user registration was found to be the most important indicator of whether a reader would eventually subscribe.

Given this finding, news publishers should start developing their newsletters by first thinking about the distinctive value that would incentive readers to sign up, said Piechota.

To illustrate his point, Piechota drew on the example of US-based publisher The Washington Post, which had developed a stable of more than 70 newsletters that include a range of topics from general news to niche interests.

When The Post started expanding their newsletters in 2015, they first poured an immense amount of resources into researching which topics their readers were keenly interested in.

The US-based publisher then designed its newsletters to cover those specific topics that connected with the interests of its readers and also motivated them to register.

To get readers to register for newsletters, publishers should be particularly mindful about what their readers truly want out of that registration, said Piechota.

Between 2015 and 2016, The Post had increased its website traffic from newsletters by 129 percent and earned more than 1 million newsletter subscriptions, according to a Digiday interview with Beth Diaz, the publisher’s vice-president of audience development and analytics.

Newsletters, a habit-forming product

From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.From Grzegorz Piechota’s mini-lecture, “The first million of the Washington Post”.

Once readers have signed up, publishers can leverage their newsletters to help readers develop a habit of reading their news, which plays a key role in converting readers into subscribers and retaining them, said Piechota.

Research suggests that newsletters are highly effective in triggering readers and becoming part of their everyday habits as newsletters are unobtrusively injected into users’ routines of checking emails, he added.

Referring to The Post, Piechota said that the US-based publication had successfully used its newsletters to incentivise readers to build a routine of interacting with its content, digitally coaxing them to gradually become more familiar with the value of its products before eventually converting them into subscribers.

Newsletters are personal and drive engagement

Email newsletters represent a more personal medium of communication between publishers and their readers than news websites, and therefore better suited for driving engagement, said Piechota.

Agreeing, Pietri added that The Times devotes a lot of its resources into its “bespoke newsletters” that cater to readers with niche interests.

“Our morning political briefing newsletter has an open rate of more than 55% daily, while the monthly newsletter Crime Club has an 83% open rate,” said Pietri.

“We started them just four years ago and these newsletters have an unbelievably engaged audience. It shows that if you can find those niches and do right by them, people will be engaged,” he added.

Newsletters are a long term game

Despite the potential of email newsletters in boosting reader loyalty, engagement and subscriptions, both Brock and Piechota stressed that publishers should not consider it as a short-term strategy.

“If publishers want audiences to read their email newsletters habitually, they have to be prepared for a trial period of at least two months as research suggests it takes more than 60 days for people to develop habits,” said Piechota.

Furthermore, publishers must also be prepared to constantly monitor and tweak their newsletters based on the performance data, said Brock.

He gave the example of Johnston Press (JP), a UK-based publisher which had initially discovered in 2018 that the click-through traffic from its email letters was below the industry average.

In response, JP surveyed 1,000 readers to understand what readers wanted from its newsletters, used insights from the survey to revise the presentation of its signup forms and newsletters, and built a dashboard to monitor their performance.

“JP recognized audiences’ needs and served them. Consequently, newsletter traffic increased to 2% of total website traffic and those readers are more engaged than before,” said Brock.

For publishers who are starting on newsletters, more resources can be found here.

About the author: Sherwin Chua is a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, whose research focuses on media innovation and journalism. He is also a freelance journalist who covers digital transformations occurring in journalism, and his articles have been published by Nieman Journalism Lab, WAN-IFRA (Asia Pacific) and The Splice Newsroom. He was a former editor and journalist in news media and publishing, and taught journalism and mass communication courses at a polytechnic in Singapore.

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2020-09-07 12:53

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