Photo: Yannik Mika / Unsplash
Everyone seems to produce email newsletters these days. But not everyone is doing it well.
Which is a shame, since newsletters have been identified as a key way to build subscriber loyalty as local news operations shift from reliance on advertising dollars to a customer revenue model.
Major data research conducted by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center and released by the Medill Local News Initiative in February 2019 established that readers who visited news websites regularly were more likely to remain as subscribers. Newsletters help bring them there. And the rise of subscriber-only newsletters suggests that email products can drive loyalty even when they are stand-alone offerings that don’t send readers to websites.
The recent Medill News Leaders Project 2019 likened newsletters to “a newspaper on the doorstep” – a prompt to encourage consumption. To investigate further, the Medill Local News Initiative talked to a half dozen people who know newsletters well and were happy to share their insights.
Write like a person, not a robot.
Everyone talks about the importance of tone. A conversational, familiar style makes your newsletter a welcome presence in people’s inbox. But going too far can be counterproductive.
“Voice is one of the most critical components in a good newsletter,” said Ranjan Roy, founder of The Edge Group, a New York-based firm that consults on newsletters.
TheSkimm, he said, “showed pretty early on that they could toe that line between seriousness but also fun.” He called CB Insights a witty newsletter that’s “even more relevant in this space because you have a whole world of research-oriented white papers or really dry, serious writing. So to see some kind of life injected into that was almost a milestone.”
Christine Taylor, the Chicago Tribune’s managing editor for audience, said it’s important to differentiate between newsletters that are designed to drive readers toward websites and those that are one-stop destinations.
“What we’ve seen in the industry with growth products like TheSkimm and The Lily and The Hustle [is] that newsletters that have personality and voice and are designed to be consumed in the inbox are more successful than others,” she said.
But Roy said some newsletters go overboard.
“Sometimes we see the intro paragraph of a newsletter that’s about something relatively serious will be, like, stuffed with six different witticisms,” Roy said. “Or people will really hit a serious subject with an inappropriate pun.”
Charlie Meyerson’s Chicago Public Square newsletter aims to be a quick read that steers readers to stories through links, and he doesn’t want to get in the way. “A little personality goes a long way,” he said.
Meyerson, vice president of editorial and development at Chicago startup Rivet and a consultant in audience engagement, was a newsletter pioneer at the Chicago Tribune, launching and writing the paper’s daily Daywatch news roundup and managing its other email news services from 1999-2009. As of November, his Chicago Public Square had a subscriber base of about 1,650, with a 43% open rate and a 15% click-through rate, compared to Mailchimp’s 2018 media and publishing industry averages: 21.9% for opens, 4.6% for click-throughs.
“The audience is impatient,” Meyerson said. “The audience opens emails to transact, to get information, to fulfill a need. Unless personality is the reason-to-be for your newsletter — if you are a personality, and you’re a columnist for instance — if your mission really is to deliver news to people, I don’t need to see — and my experience is, readers don’t need to see — an introductory paragraph that tells me what you had for breakfast and what your hobbies are before you get to the latest news.”
Keep it short, unless your audience can’t get enough.
“I think a lot of them are too long,” said Amalie Nash, Vice President for Local News at Gannett’s USA Today Network, while she praised USA Today’s own appropriately named Short List.
“The longer it is, the less likely that some non-trivial percentage of your audience will make it to the end,” said Chicago Public Square’s Meyerson. “Do you want them to make it to the end? Is there stuff at the end you want them to see? Then write short.”
But some of the most popular newsletters are quite long. At the Chicago Tribune, two newsletters have been made subscriber-only because of their high reader interest: Lisa Donovan’s politics newsletter The Spin and Brad Biggs’ 10 Thoughts newsletter about the Bears [football team]. A recent Spin was about 2,000 words, and a recent 10 Thoughts was more than 5,000 words. Biggs’ newsletter is so long and popular that people opening it up, closing it, and returning later to read more have given it a cumulative open rate over 100 percent, Taylor said.
The Edge Group’s Roy said it “definitely does not matter” whether readers get to the end, and “it’s OK if it’s long if it’s good.”
“His newsletters average over 3,100 words and I think there are over 50 links per newsletter and even more interesting was, there were four times as many links to external publications as CNN links, which we found really was a sign of quality, that he was trying to find the best as opposed to just trying to drive traffic to internal properties,” Roy said. “… Axios, we’ve done an analysis across all their products, and they averaged over 1,500 words. And those are definitely two of what we’d say [are] ‘industry leading’ and the fact that they can play at that length is a good sign that it’s OK if it’s long if it’s presented well, it’s actually trying to convey meaningful information, and it’s basically good.”
Roy suggested that long newsletters were more reader-friendly than long online news stories. “It’s in your inbox, so you don’t forget about it, unlike trying to remember one specific website,” he said.
Nicole Stockdale, director of digital strategy at the Dallas Morning News, said decisions on length should take data into account.
“As long as people are getting out of it what they want to get out of it, I don’t have any preconceived notions over whether short or long is better,” Stockdale said. “We are testing that. We’re testing if a newsletter is too long, are people not getting to the links at the bottom so you need to rearrange them? … How much chatter should you write about each link that you share? That’s one of the tests we have going on right now.”
Sharpen up your subject lines.
“We do a lot of testing with subject lines,” said Tribune’s Taylor, “and I think at the end of the day what matters is the first three or five words that you have in there. You have to think about what people can see on their mobile screen when they’re checking their inbox.”
Including references to multiple items is advisable as long as it doesn’t turn into a jumble.
“Having a variety of topics that are included in the subject line has led to better open rates, so for us that’s best practice,” the Dallas Morning News’ Stockdale said.
“Giving more options is certainly better because then each individual thing you provide in the subject line is another reason to open,” he said. “But naturally, if it doesn’t end up showing up in someone’s email preview or notification, it’s kind of lost work and looks worse as well.”
Taylor said it sometimes works for the subject line to include an item that’s low in the newsletter. “We actually see a lot of people do scroll down and sometimes that last item in the newsletter is the most clicked on,” she said.
But don’t get too cute.
“It’s dangerous, especially in subject line, to be too witty, especially if that’s not on-brand,” Roy said. “People don’t know what to expect inside if you get very cute. That’s not increasing open rates, vs. being kind of literal, informative, ‘here’s what you’ll find inside today,’ is generally a much better rule.”
Work on your headlines and lead-ins.
If your aim is to get readers to click on individual links, the quality of your headlines and lead-ins is crucial.
“We work on headlines so much,” said Taylor. “… We write headlines for readers and we write headlines for algorithms, and sometimes those things are different. We actually have a Slack channel here called Headline Hospital where we send stories with headlines that need to be resurrected.” (Taylor credits Elizabeth Wolfe, the Tribune’s director of audience development and engagement, with setting that up.)
Retired Chicago Tribune website journalist Paul Muth once observed that the perfect headline for clicks would be: “Someone You’ve Heard of Is Dead.” Of course, that kind of teasy headline is frowned upon these days, and for good reason.
Meyerson said headlines can be intriguing without feeling exploitative if they take advantage of “the curiosity gap – which is, we know something that you will find interesting and if you click here, you will gain the thing you are curious about.”
One more thing on newsletter headlines: Make sure they actually convey info and don’t just feel like punctuation. For example, a calorie-free recent headline in Stelter’s newsletter read: “For the Record, Part Two.”
Tailor your timing to your mission.
A lot of guidelines for the best times to send newsletters have been discussed in recent years. But consumer habits are changing as more people read emails on smartphones.
“Mobile consumption has opened up completely the hours before 9 and after 5 for newsletters,” Roy said.
Also, the best practices for newsletter timing depend on your mission.
“What purpose does it serve?” Roy said. “… We’ve found that if they are directly related to your profession, the middle of the workday is totally fine. … You’re sitting at your computer, you’re much more likely to want to engage with something that helps you do your job.”
Roy said a lot of the metrics he sees about optimal newsletter times are “much more heavily skewed toward email marketing content and not editorial-oriented newsletters, and there’s not a ton of good data around editorially-minded newsletters.”
It’s clear that “weekends during the summer, Friday afternoons during the summer” are not good. But he rejects the idea that Fridays are low-traffic. “Fridays are actually one of the best performing we’ve seen, especially when it’s sort of longer-form content.”
Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said the open rate for his group’s every-weekday newsletter doesn’t vary much Monday through Friday.
“There’s nothing too dramatic about days of the week,” Benton said. “Mondays are a tiny bit lower, Thursdays a tiny bit higher. Fridays are about average in total, but that’s influenced by the fact that people will read it over the weekend. If you’re looking just at 24-hour periods, Friday afternoon is definitely a lull.”
Nieman’s newsletter comes out at around 3 p.m. Eastern time.
“I see the afternoon as a relatively underserved market for newsletters,” Benton said. “I don’t know about you, but I get around a dozen morning email newsletters just about the media industry, plus a gazillion more from news sites, PR folks, and anyone else looking for attention. At that hour, I’m mostly just triaging everything that’s come in, and everything on my to-do list is competing for my attention. By the afternoon, everything is usually a little more sane, and I think there’s a nice opportunity to have a ‘here’s some stuff from today you might have missed’ offering around that hour.”
The Dallas Morning News’ Stockdale called for consistency.
“We have found no magic bullet on any posting times,” she said. “So what we advise our journalists is, pick a time, be willing to test it to see if there’s a different day of the week or time of the day that might work better. But more than anything it seems that it’s important that once you pick a time, that you’re consistent and that people can build a reading habit out of that.”
But Gannett’s Nash said her organization has found success with a newsletter that’s not on any schedule at all.
“One of the things that we’ve done in some of our markets – Indianapolis [Star] started this and a number of other sites have done it as well – is an ‘openings and closings’ newsletter,” Nash said. “And that’s like businesses and restaurants, that sort of thing. And the thing that makes this really good is that they don’t have it on any particular schedule. And so if a new restaurant is opening, you’ll get a newsletter telling you about it. If there’s nothing to report, you’re not going to get a newsletter. So I think one of the mistakes we’ve made, in setting these things up, being like ‘Well, every Monday we’re going to have this business newsletter,’ and then people don’t find a lot of really interesting news in it and they stop paying attention to it. And some of these ‘openings and closings’ newsletters tend to get really high open rates because you know when you’re getting this in your mailbox there’s fresh news coming at you.”
Make it easy for people to join and share.
Chicago Public Square does a particularly good job of providing links for people to share, subscribe, and contribute to the newsletter. (The Square is on a “patron model,” and about 12% of email subscribers pay up, offering an average of $6.46 a month. “That has made Chicago Public Square what I like to refer to as a part-time minimum-wage job,” said Meyerson.)
If you want to grow your newsletter’s audience, you have to ask people to join.
“Very simple things like asking the reader to share if they like it up front is good,” said The Edge Group’s Roy. “Indicating that if someone received the email from someone else, giving a clear sign-up call to action is very helpful. … A lot of times people are concerned with growth but their actual sign-up-page experience is so heavy, so many steps, or so many data fields to fill out, that severely limits the growth.”
Pay attention to metrics.
“One of the best things about newsletters is that you can test everything,” said the Dallas Morning News’ Stockdale, whose newsroom does both surveys and A/B testing on newsletters.
Meyerson, running a newsletter that is essentially a tip sheet for other outlets’ content, pays close attention to click-through rates as indicators of what people are interested in, and what hooks them.
“Certain words and phrases will attract an audience’s attention, and those are tools you can use when you want to take them down a path that is not effortlessly compelling,” he said. “Certain words and turns of phrase and presentations and headline styles can work to connect people with great journalism and not just with trivia.”
Make the most of your hyperlinks.
Meyerson said effective hyperlinks make clear and valid promises.
“Those words should correspond pretty closely to the thing you’re going to get when you click on it,” Meyerson said. “ … I often see the word ‘says’ by itself be hyperlinked to an article. Well, that doesn’t help the audience. Am I going to a quote? Am I going to a page?”
Chicago Public Square’s links are often near the end of the sentence.
“There’s a bit of visual punchline effect to have the hyperlink be at the end of the sentence,” he said. “… Sometimes I will have two hyperlinks in a sentence, and they often refer to variations of coverage of that same story. My experience is, almost always the second link is the one that gets clicked.”
Be sparing with photos.
“Don’t clutter up your email with photos for photos’ sake,” said Meyerson.
For too many newsletters, photos are things to break up type rather than visual information to enhance the news.
“People open email in particular and I think visit websites in general to read,” Meyerson said. “… A generic picture does nothing. The standard picture that we’ve all seen of police tape across a crime scene – that does nothing.”
Stockdale also takes a measured approach to photos.
“If it’s all text, it’s hard to get engaged and to stay focused on it,” she said. “But if it’s all photos it can feel jumbled and it’s going to be too data-heavy. My favorites are ones that have a main image that signals to people where their eye should go to first, and then you might have some that are just links and then another main image as you scroll. But you give some variety to the eye and it helps lead you through the newsletter and keeps you interested.”
Create pop-up newsletters when the situation warrants.
“I think a big thing to remember is to take a more portfolio-oriented approach to newsletters,” said Roy. “Meaning if you put together a really long newsletter that could be broken up into different parts that mean different things to someone at different times of the day, it’s OK to send different newsletters or package them differently.”
Roy offered a timely example.
“The New York Times is putting up a morning briefing and an evening briefing, but now they also added on the impeachment briefing, which from my own consumption has been hugely valuable in providing this one piece of targeted information relevant to something that’s happening right now. It makes me comfortable that I don’t need to try to keep up with what’s happening with impeachment during the day,” he said. “And now I’ll get it in a nice summary at the end of the day. So rather than them trying to stuff that into the evening briefing, breaking that out into its own product is incredibly valuable.”
Roy said even smaller news outlets should be “creating more newsletter products that are shorter but more targeted rather than trying to bundle everything into one semi-frequent product.”
This article first appeared on the Local News Initiative’s site and is reproduced here with permission.
Mark Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.