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“Swiss army knife that keeps adding blades”: How publishers are using newsletters to multiply audience and revenues

Newsletters are “the old medium that never quite went away, the publisher’s swiss army knife that keeps adding blades,” states the latest edition of FIPP’s annual Innovation in Media Report. Quite so, considering that newsletters have been on an uptick since a few years – even before the pandemic – when the format registered historic growth. 

For the star writer or the lesser light, for the legacy newsroom or the digital upstart, this is now the new golden age of newsletters, and the numbers show it.

Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report, FIPP

“Replacement for the newspaper and magazine”

87% of publishers and marketers actively invested in email and 94% scaled their email programs in 2021, according to email service provider LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey of 200 senior marketing and publishing executives. 

The trend is set to grow this year. “Technology has helped email newsletters become a replacement for the newspaper and magazine as people’s view into the world and how they get news and information,” says Kerel Cooper, CMO, LiveIntent.

The splash made by newsletter platform Substack shook things up – the company reached 1M paid subscribers in November 2021 – and inspired publishers to up their game. Now all over the world they are powering the format with innovative approaches to stimulate engagement, build habit, loyalty, as well as grow subscribers and revenue (both advertising and direct).

Here are some of the popular strategies being used by publishers to make money from newsletters compiled by David Tvrdon, Journalist at The Fix.

  • Paid newsletters
  • Extra content for paying subscribers (i.e. Sunday edition, special Q&A)
  • Extra features for paying subscribers (i.e. access to online community)
  • Free newsletters with links to paywalled articles
  • Free newsletters with membership/subscription promotion (support us)
  • EAAS – email as a service (full articles straight into inbox)
  • Newsletter as a retention tool
  • Referral programs
  • Create a newsletter subscription platform 

“People who do receive newsletters are far more likely to pay and to stay”

The New York Times whose newsletters had earlier been free announced in August 2021 that it would be making a select few exclusive to paid subscriptions. “The subscriber-only newsletters offer exclusive journalism from experts who go deep on the topics that our subscribers are most passionate about, and do it within the convenience of the inbox,” explained Alex Hardiman, the publisher’s Chief Product Officer. She added that the move was “both a retention play and a conversion play.”

When we look at the intersection between our subscription model and newsletters, newsletters are already really important. We see that almost half of subscribers open a newsletter in a given week, and people who do receive newsletters are far more likely to pay and to stay.

Alex Hardiman, Chief Product Officer, The New York Times

“Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business,” said Adam Pasick, Editorial Director of Newsletters, NYT. “Subscribing to a newsletter is a healthy habit that can bear fruits down the line.” Funke Mediengruppe has been able to get 5 to 10% of their newsletter subscribers to pay for their online subscription via free newsletters that feature links to paywalled articles.

Forbes and The Atlantic have launched their own newsletter platforms with features resembling Substack. The Atlantic is importing independent newsletter writers like Charlie Warzel (who had a Substack publication) to blog on its platform. They are not full-time employees, but are offered a base payment and get the opportunity to make additional money if they hit certain subscriber goals. Those who subscribe to these newsletters get access to The Atlantic’s other newsletters as well as a year’s subscription. Forbes’ newsletter platform allows journalists to launch their own paid newsletters and split the revenue with the publisher.   

“Reach the right 50,000 readers”

Newsletters also have great potential for generating ad revenue. “The publishing industry has seen its grip on the digital ad market weaken over the last decade, but as newsletter appetite has grown, newsletter advertising has remained a bright spot,” notes Mark Stenberg, Senior Media Reporter, Adweek. 

“The newsletter form offers publishers something advertisers crave: a targeted audience,” adds Politico’s Jack Shafer. “When you subscribe to a newsletter, you reveal that part of your identity defined by your interests and that has value.” 

Advertisers would rather reach the right 50,000 readers than 5,000,000 randos, and they especially covet audiences to whom they can repeatedly serve targeted content. Instead of letting all those precious eyeballs disappear into the Substack writers’ room, publishers have found that they can provide plenty of room for newsletter writers to roam.

Jack Shafer, Senior Media Writer, Politico

So how do publishers zero-in on the right newsletter ideas? “Look at the content consumed most by loyal users as that is a guide to what your newsletters should be based around,” suggests Martin Little, Audience Transformation Director, Reach. The UK-based publisher uses newsletters as a key tool to direct readers across its over 80 online brands. 

“Build up your mailing list. Focus really hard on your mailing list and make sure it’s quality as well,” adds Little. “It’s not a case of buying users or a mailing list because their engagement levels will be low, you need to use your website’s inventory well. Again target loyal users – where are they visiting on your site? What sections? What pages? Optimize the inventory on your pages to get those people to sign up.”

“Reconnect with your audience”

Newsletters may also need to be replaced or updated depending upon their performance and changing audience requirements. For example, the pandemic saw many publishers launching newsletters around the topic, same with the elections. However, such newsletters won’t be needed once the event on which they are focused has passed. 

“We did popup newsletters for the US election,” says Nadine Lange who manages Digital Transformation Project at Funke Mediengruppe. “We moved them to permanent ones so there’s a US politics newsletter now for general readers.” 

The Telegraph uses engagement rates among other metrics to decide which newsletters are going to stay and the ones that have to be retired or consolidated. 

“Newsletters can have a shelf life,” says Dan Silver, Director of Email and Newsroom Innovation, The Telegraph. “It’s fine to unsubscribe to one newsletter and sign up for another newsletter. We have a very fluid attitude to these editorial properties.” It’s because they “are easy to get out, on the ground, and test new concepts,” he adds.

The format has been an essential element of The Economist’s subscription strategy. The publisher offers both free and subscriber-only newsletters. “The best newsletters should be first and foremost designed with readers in mind,” says its former Newsletters Editor, Sunnie Huang. She suggests publishers stick to a tight-knit number of newsletters with distinct offerings.

The Economist has a cross-functional team that thinks about the email approach through workshops. “We all think the email should be a welcoming, consistent, customer-sensitive, and business-driven experience,” adds Huang. “When everyone is clear where you want to go, everything becomes easier and that’s why a cross-functional team is key to success.” 

Take a step back from the product and reconnect with your audience and their needs. Once you know who your audience is, what needs they have and what pain points they have, it will become a lot easier to find the right products which fit those needs.

Sunnie Huang, Newsletters Editor (former), The Economist

The full report can be downloaded from FIPP:
Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report