Audience Engagement Top Stories
4 mins read

A Swiss army knife for publishers: Newsletters help grow subscriptions, generate ad revenue, and gear up for a cookie-less world

The New York Times’ flagship morning newsletter The Morning, launched in May 2020, hit over 1B unique opens in January 2021. Overall, readers opened the publisher’s various newsletters (over 71) more than 3.6B times in 2020 – a 150% increase over 2019.

Newsletters were already on an uptick when Covid-19 happened. The pandemic bumped both production and consumption across the industry. It helped that people stayed at home and looked for sources of information they trusted. And what could they deem more trustworthy than emails they’d chosen to receive in their inboxes? 

For publishers, newsletters are highly engaged media. Consumers opt-in to receive it, and they make a conscious decision to open and read it.

Nick Dujnic, VP of Marketing, LiveIntent

As the world inches towards normalcy, publishers are seeing newsletters as a powerful tool to build engagement as well as grow revenue. 

“Justifying a higher premium”

“Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business,” Adam Pasick, Editorial Director of Newsletters, The New York Times told Digiday. The Times uses newsletters to get users to sample its content regularly. This builds habits and motivates readers to eventually sign up as subscribers to access paywalled content, said Pasick.

The publisher also generates advertising revenue from The Morning by selling single-day sponsorships to advertisers. 

“While newsletters have always been highly effective at driving readers to a publisher’s webpage,” says Dujnic, “they are discovering that the newsletter itself can generate high CPMs and incremental ad revenue. Why? Because the reader has logged-in using their email address.”

In fact, newsletter CPMs remained remarkably consistent throughout the pandemic while ad rates declined on other digital platforms, according to Kayleigh Barber, Senior Reporter, Digiday.

When readers are logged-in, advertisers know more about who is consuming the content, justifying a higher premium. 

Nick Dujnic, VP of Marketing, LiveIntent

“This is, of course, also true on publisher websites,” adds Dujnic. “But while only a percentage of web audiences might be logged-in at any given time, email newsletter audiences are guaranteed to be logged-in.”

“Great digital handshake between a consumer and a publisher”

Having readers’ email addresses is also helping publishers prepare themselves for a future without the third-party cookie. “For the industry at large, the real value of the email addresses is in bolstering their business for the future,” explains Dujnic. 

“As third-party cookies are slated to be phased out, everyone is looking for an Identity solution that will long outlast the death of the third-party cookies, and publishers realize the email address will be at the crux of that solution.” 

More and more of our customers are doubling down on email newsletter strategy as a way of building a direct connection with consumers, as a way of offering advertisers unique products and services and bridging that gap from a third-party world to a first-party world. 

Kerel Cooper, CMO, LiveIntent

“An email newsletter is a great digital handshake between a consumer and a publisher…. You hand over your email for good content… and you as a consumer can end that contract by hitting the unsubscribe button,” Cooper adds. 

Creating habit-forming newsletters

Here are some tips that will help publishers ensure that the “digital handshake” leads to an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship.

The table stakes for a great newsletter are regularity and great content. It’s not as easy as ‘build it and they will come’, but with consistently great content, a clear value proposition and focused web and social media promotions, you can grow your newsletter audience.

Peter Houston, Co-host, Media Voices Podcast
  • The slide below suggests questions that publishers should ask themselves to hone in on the right newsletter ideas. They were presented by Kim Bode, Product manager, newsletters and messaging, Los Angeles Times/San Diego Union-Tribune and Jacqueline Boltik, CEO, at the ONA20 conference.
Souce: ONA20
  • Having a dedicated team for newsletters can be valuable. Funke Mediengruppe achieved fivefold newsletter growth in just one year reaching 250,000 subscribers by December 2020. Its head of the digital transformation Ruth Betz said at The Fix’s recent Media Revolutions conference that they have an interdisciplinary team of technical staff, editorial specialists, and project managers to create new editorial concepts and manage the budget.
  • Data helps create a positive customer experience, says Catherin Anne Hiller, Strategic Marketing Lead at Funke Mediengruppe. Funke uses data science, data profiling and automation, data intelligence, and data collection and research.
    Profiling customers helps the publisher understand how users are consuming newsletters and allows it to automate audience engagement. Newsletters reduced Funke‘s churn rate by 50% and increased the loyalty segment to 30%.
  • Finally, Esther Kezia Thorpe, Co-host of the Media Voices Podcast and WNiP’s newsletter editor, recommends setting goals and KPIs. “Subscriber numbers are an obvious KPI for many newsletters,” suggests Thorpe. Her team at Media Voices keeps tabs on how well readers are engaging by opening emails, reading content and responding.

    Here are the popular metrics listed by Bode and Boltik:
Souce: ONA20

Thorpe also suggests publishers to encourage feedback, and respond to it. “Newsletter is a way of inviting readers to join the conversation,” she writes. 

Unlike social media, newsletter is a communication channel that publishers own. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report, ​2020 called it “one of the most important tools available to publishers for building habit and attracting the type of customers that can help with monetisation (subscription or advertising).”

“When publishers embrace email and invest in it as a channel for consumption and monetize it, they are investing in a channel they own that performs with real people,” concludes Cooper.