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Newsletters offer publishers “their best chance for attracting and retaining paid subscribers”: INMA report

“The difference is remarkable in people clicking through to the site.”

The newsletter is an old tool that continues to be relevant even as new technologies and platforms create disruptions. A new INMA report backed by insights from industry experts looks into how publishers are reaping benefits with newsletters.  

“Newsletter readers read 300% more articles on average than your other FT reader,” according to Sarah Ebner, Executive Editor and Head of Newsletters at The Financial Times. “The difference is remarkable in people clicking through to the site. And, of course, for the FT — which is a subscription product — that is just enhancing the value of your subscription.” 

“It’s good at conversion, and it’s really crucial for retention”

Juan Señor, President of Innovation Media Consulting and Editor of FIPP’s Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report, notes that newsletters have become a business model of their own and would be an essential strategy as third-party cookies disappear and new technologies appear in the Web3 world. 

It’s really good at building relationships. It’s good at driving traffic. It gives you a lot of good data. It’s good at conversion, and it’s really crucial for retention and churn, too. It just supports so many parts of the business.

Dan Oshinsky, Consultant, Inbox Collective
Source: Sarah Ebner, FT, Readers First Initiative Meetup on The Power of E-mail and Newsletters

Greg Piechota, Researcher-in-residence, INMA adds that newsletters are the No. 1 benefit or value proposition new users are looking at when they subscribe. Quite so; a Reuters Institute survey found that 69% of news publishers are focusing on email newsletters as a way to attract audiences and build engagement. 

“Gateway drug to entice Gen Z”

INMA’s new report, “How News Publishers Can Capitalize On the Newsletter Economy,” aims to help such media companies build an effective newsletter strategy. It shares how publishers around the world are leveraging the power of newsletters via case studies from the UK, the US, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Finland, and Germany. 

“Email has given publishers the opportunity to build habit and generate loyalty with readers,” writes author Paula Felps. “And newsletters delivered via email are proving to be the heroes of the inbox. They’re appealing to users across a broad age group with different types of interests.”

From hard news lovers to sports fans to those whose interests lean more toward entertainment topics, newsletters are versatile, customizable, and engaging. And they’re increasingly being used to drive subscriptions.

Paula Felps, Author, How News Publishers Can Capitalize On the Newsletter Economy

Moreover, “Gen Z — that coveted but hard-to-reach demographic — finds newsletters appealing,” she adds. “So newsletters very well may be the “gateway drug” to entice Gen Z to connect with the news media world.”

Bente Zerrahn, Innovation Catalyst at Axel Springer, said at an INMA webinar that a newsletter offering a roundup of the day’s top stories is one way to ease younger audiences into the news.

“Like all audiences, Gen Z is susceptible to newsletter fatigue, which makes it more critical that publishers carefully choose their newsletter subjects,” underlines Felps. “Focusing on topics that are top of mind for Gen Z — like climate change, mental health, and gender and racial equality — could further catch their attention.” Personalization plays an important role in a newsletter’s success, especially with Zoomers. 

Media companies that master the art of communicating with Gen Z could end up winning the subscription game in the long run. 

Paula Felps, Author, How News Publishers Can Capitalize On the Newsletter Economy

“100,000 to 150,000 subscribers within three weeks”

Newsletters can be created quickly created to serve a trending topic. This was a popular strategy employed by publishers during the pandemic when they launched newsletters to help readers understand and deal with the crisis. The same was done for the US Presidential Elections and other important events. 

Germany’s Funke Media Group, grew its audience from 53,000 subscribers at the beginning of 2020 to 290,000 subscribers by the end of the year. The publisher’s product manager of newsletters, Nadine Lange said at INMA’s The Power of E-mail and Newsletters webinar that newsletters drove subscriptions in March 2020 as the coronavirus tightened its grip. She added that they “gained 100,000 to 150,000 subscribers within three weeks.”

“News publishers have the chance to retain audiences even as interest in one newsletter fades,” writes Felps. Since they can be created quickly, publishers can discontinue specific newsletters when the event is over and encourage readers to subscribe to others. Since such readers are likely already engaged, they are more open to considering receiving other newsletters and may become paying subscribers later.

“We are able to wrap up a topic very fast,” said Lange. “We do these pop-up newsletters for federal elections or something, and we do it for the time the event is lasting — and then we kill these newsletters.” The publisher offers to move subscribers to its main newsletter before it closes one down. It created a pop-up newsletter for the 2020 presidential elections in the US. After the elections were over, its subscribers were moved to a permanent newsletter about US politics. 

“Creating an effective newsletter strategy”

The success of pop-up newsletters has inspired some publishers to create paid offerings. The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina has launched a premium newsletter focused on the coverage of the Murdaugh trials in the state. It gives subscribers insider insight from reporters, behind-the-scenes analysis, exclusive photos, and more.  

Canada’s Winnipeg Free Press recently used a reader survey to decide between possible newsletter topics. Questions included:

Source: Erin Lebar, Manager of Audience Engagement for News, Winnipeg Free Press

Over 5,000 users responded and there were a couple of immediate gains:

  1. Users encountered sign-up prompts twice due to the way the survey was set up. It led to more than 2,400 newsletter signups.
  2. They got the answer they were looking for. A significant number of respondents chose gardening making it a priority for the newsletter team.

The publisher launched the Winnipeg Gardener newsletter within a month. The newsletter notched nearly 4,600 signups, “putting it in line with many of our other editorial newsletters after only two months and three editions,” according to Erin Lebar, Manager of Audience Engagement for News, Winnipeg Free Press. It is currently the publisher’s most popular newsletter with 5,500 subscribers.

“Creating an effective newsletter strategy begins with determining who owns it,” suggests Felps. Since newsletters affect editorial, sales, consumer revenue, events teams, product, and data, Oshinsky recommends building a cross-functional team. 

“Everyone has to be working together to build a good email strategy because the things that you’re doing on the editorial side affect how you’re converting readers,” he says. “And the choices you’re making on the product side affect how you can grow the products for consumers and how you monetize the product.” Ideally, the team should include people from each department that has a stake in the outcomes such as editorial, product, and sales.

“One of its strongest allies is data”

“As publishers consider a newsletter strategy, one of its strongest allies is data,” suggests Felps. “Publishers must make sure they are using the proper data and metrics to attain the results they need.” Open rates have long been the standard measurement of success, but that has changed with Apple’s changes to its mail privacy policy. Apple’s Mail app now blocks trackers that inform senders when (or if) the email was opened.

Ebner said that while open and click-through rates are important, they’re not enough. “Even if someone has opened your newsletter, are they really reading it all the way through? You don’t really know,” she explained.

Oshinsky noted that Apple’s move has made publishers reevaluate how they measure newsletters’ success which is a step in the right direction. “We can measure success with email by looking at click data and traffic,” he said. “We can measure success by looking at conversions from the newsletter to paying supporters. We can look at things like the overlap between our paying audience and our newsletter audience and how much or how little they use the newsletter to stay informed.”

Source: Dan Oshinsky, Inbox Collective, Readers First Initiative Meetup on The Power of E-mail and Newsletters

Although newsletters help build habits and encourage users to visit the site, using them to convert users to paid subscribers requires patience. “They’re not going to convert in the first 30 days or 60 days,” said Laurie Truitt, VP of Global Consumer Growth, Time at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit. “We spend a lot of time measuring how long it takes them to become a registered user.” 

Immerse yourself in data, collaborate with editorial and data, focus on audience engagement and more loyal subscribers. Really invest in your newsletters, marketing, your content marketing, and that will help you grow.

Laurie Truitt, VP of Global Consumer Growth at Time

“Newsletters are a publisher’s best opportunity”

It takes four to six months after registration for a newsletter subscriber to make the leap to paid content, according to Lange. The wait is worth it as paid content subscribers who subscribe to newsletters hold onto their subscription about 56% longer than those who don’t subscribe to newsletters, she added. 

“Even as new technologies emerge and lure users to the Web3 world, newsletters have emerged as an essential strategy for staying connected with readers partially due to the intimate form of communication they allow,” notes Felps. “But their success is also due to the versatility of the newsletter, which can cover everything from entertainment to sports to providing an analysis of complex news topics. Newsletters aid in relationship building, conversion, retention, and churn reduction — which means they check more boxes than most products can.”

Newsletters are a publisher’s best opportunity to show the value of the news brand and, in a subscription-driven world, their best chance for attracting and retaining paid subscribers. 

Paula Felps, Author, How News Publishers Can Capitalize On the Newsletter Economy

The full report is available from INMA:
How News Publishers Can Capitalize On the Newsletter Economy