Disruptive innovations? Exponential technologies? In media and publishing, some of the best new things are born from evolutions 🐢, not revolutions ✊.

The last decade has been the most disruptive for the media economy: from social networks to smartphones, from video everywhere to global streaming platforms, from programmatic advertising to artificial intelligence, media companies and traditional publishers had a hard time to keep up with the pace of transformative innovations.

In a world shaped by exponential technologies, it seemed that content and ideas were sitting in the back seat, instead of being the driver of the publisher-audience relationship.

Yet, not all innovations are disruptive. And some of the most promising editorial products are not driven by exponential technologies. Editorial newsletters and podcasts are more a result of favourable conditions created by technical evolution, audience readiness, evolving consumption habits and authors in search of new ways to do their creator-curator job.

  • In a mobile-first world, email is back to be the most consumed media on our devices.
  • On your smartphone, the music listening apps paved the way for a new attitude toward consuming audio content.
  • The saturated social media and their noise moved many people to search for more curated, selective and personal experience: out of the feed, back in the mailbox.
  • Advertising, well, it sucks more than ever: too much focus on delivery optimisation and viewability, nothing about creativity, meaning and context.
  • Finally, a new attitude to pay for valuable content is growing.

The next decade can be a good time for publishers to beat platforms with intelligence products and valuable experiences. Email newsletters can be one of these.

In case you missed it, this is what you need to know about the new golden age of newsletters. A little essay on the why, the what and the how of editorial newsletters.

What does not kill you, makes you stronger: the new golden age of email newsletters.

“Email has had a good run as king of communications (…) But its reign is over.” 2009, The Wall Street Journal. Everyone used to hate emails. And many tried to kill it: chatbots were supposed to replace emails. So, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. And what about Asana or Slack, the whose declared mission was to empty your email inboxes, replacing them with a mess of irrelevant conversations enhanced by emojis, whose sole purpose is to make you feel a cool type.

Sorry for them. Email not only survived. It is thriving. People spend hours on emails. They are not scrolling but reading them. The mailbox has proven to be a landscape of freedoms amidst the walled garden of social networking and messaging services.

Strategically executed emails are the preferred mobile-first platform for offering readers unparalleled coverage they can easily access during their commutes, in line at the coffee shop, and at home on the couch. Potentially, newsletters are the killer weapon in the hands of publishers to finally escape from the social-media-driven audience engagement trap.

Mobile-first, easy to read, antidote against the noise of social media.

Emails have become the new darling on your phone.

For consumers, email can be a refreshing antidote to the onslaught of constant content. In a world overrun by endless algorithmic feeds, the email list and email inbox make for the only democratic platform: users retain full control of the coverage they choose to consume within finite, curated reading spaces.

For media organisations, email (and specifically the email newsletter) enables direct control over how to reach an audience they own.

Be inspired from these newsletters: VOX daily brief and THE SKIMM.

You might have already subscribed to the top publishers´ newsletters: The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, NZZ offer an incredible choice of dozens of topical, interest-based, specialised or entertaining, pop-up or seasonal newsletters. 

What´s more, some publishers focused so much on providing newsletters with a distinct voice and format that the newsletters themselves became the publishers´ flagship product. 


It is the case, to name one, of Vox Briefing, a newsletter delivered in the morning for US reader that has an almost unique tone of voice, elegant and ironic. It curated content not only from vox.com, but includes links to other sources to provide for each of the key topics it covers the perfect combination of high views and deep dives. Probably one of the best journalistic newsletters ever edited. 


New publishers have been born from a newsletter. The most famous case is the Skimm: a daily newsletter that boils down world events into breezy, bite-sized chunks targeted at millennial women, with more than 7 Million subscribers and profitable thanks to direct sales of advertising, a paid subscription service and a book published in 2019. The company has attracted several investor VC and raised more than 20 Mio USD. 

The appeal of newsletters: a direct relationship builder, a tool to know better your audience, a conversion tool to increase your subscriber base.

If so many publishers issue so many newsletters and have created dedicated teams and jobs for them (such as the Head of Newsletters and subscription products), there are good reasons and good numbers behind.

Newsletters have a unique kind of appeal: an ability to connect directly with his readers, without any reliance on volatile algorithms and in a more intimate manner than social media allows, and to shape a close relationship.

Something that you, as a reader, do not see any more like a bunch of links but as a daily companion, sitting in your inbox and quietly waiting for you to open it. Opening a newsletter, even if it’s not personalised, is inherently personal; newsletters arrive at “my” email address and speak to “my” interests (that is, the good ones do). The curated experiences of newsletters can make them feel like they’re just for you. Not only do newsletters help brands forge direct connections with readers, but they let your readers build a personal rapport with your voice and values.

As a result, newsletter readers are more avid consumers of content, constituting valuable direct site traffic that the duopoly can’t touch, no matter how often algorithms change. Just one number, among the many you can find online: The New York Times newsletter readers consume twice as much content as those who don’t get newsletters, and they’re twice as likely to become paid subscribers. For high-quality newsletters, such as the ones delivered by NZZ, the open rate is higher than 30%, a number that could drive crazy many marketers worldwide.

And – talking about business and monetisation – email newsletters are logged-in products: the email address is the most crucial identity data, and via newsletter subscription, it is fully owned by the publisher. A powerful marketing resource that you do not share with a platform.

Anatomy of the best newsletters. Focus in these things, and you will get your newsletters right.

  1. START FROM THE VALUE PROPOSITION 
  2. NEWSLETTER IS A DIGITAL PRODUCT: YOU MUST DESIGN IT, TEST IT AND ITERATE
  3. DEDICATE PEOPLE TO IT 
  4. BAN NO.REPLY EMAILS
  5. PROMOTE IT AND MAKE IT DISCOVERABLE 
  6. MEASURE IT AND OPTIMISE IT 
START FROM THE VALUE PROPOSITION: WHO, WHY, HOW, WHAT

Newsletters are more than retention or conversion tools. The best newsletters are personal services, valuable, relevant and very personal. You need to start from defining a clear value proposition: for who is the newsletter, what is it its unique proposition, why readers will stick to it, why they should pay for it? How you will deliver information, what formats, what media types? Is it a regular newsletter or event-driven, pop-up or long term, more narrative or more data-driven? Is it a specialist or generalist newsletter? Put it down a product sheet and use it to size the potential of your newsletter, and draft a business plan around it with targets, costs, the value generated and the outcome expected.

DESIGN IT, MOBILE FIRST. TEST AND ITERATE.

Good product design is critical. Keeping the newsletter to a specific size, understanding the impact of images, and experimenting with interactive elements are all examples of powerful tools for successful newsletters. This means adding product thinkers early into the workflow of the newsletter.

DEDICATE PEOPLE TO IT

The strategy and craft around the newsletter product often come from a staffer with one foot in editorial and one foot in audience development. For instance, the engagement editor, a relatively new role in the newsroom, creates a new feedback loop among the reader, the editorial newsroom, and the publisher.

Writing an excellent daily newsletter is a profession in itself. You have to understand the need of a reader who has just a little time in the morning and wants to know about the world in which they woke up. It’s not something you can do on top of your other daily work tasks. It’s a day-to-day responsibility of an editor who works early in the morning. Where it used to be enough to quickly put it together, in 2020 the newsletter must be written in a recognisable style, which may be less formal than the style of writing on a site or in an app. Journalists have to become good at writing newsletters. That’s why it’s crucial to have one or more dedicated members of the editorial team to take on this task.

BAN NO-REPLY EMAILS: NEWSLETTERS ARE PERSONAL AND WRITTEN BY PERSONS.

Newsletters are engaging because they’re the only form of communication where 1:1 and 1:many exist in the same place. You can have an email from your mother right beside an email from Warby Parker. Newsletters that offer a little bit of personality or personal information remind subscribers that there’s a person on the other end, not just emails from corporate robots sent from a noreply@ address.

Ask feedback from your readers. Provide an email address they can write to. Provide a face and a signature at the and of your newsletter. Inviting readers to share their thoughts in a two-way exchange isn’t a new concept either, but not many publishers’ newsletters allow subscribers to contact their writers easily.

PROMOTE IT AND MAKE IT DISCOVERABLE 

Is your newsletter sign up easy to find?
Could you promote your newsletter sign up in more channels?

MEASURE WHAT MATTERS. MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE.

Overall list size and open rate are “vanity metrics”. There is more you should measure, and more in-depth analysis to run.

1 Monthly list growth — Do readers understand why they’d want to sign up for your newsletter? Have you created enough new ways to capture email signups? Keeping an eye on monthly list growth is an easy way to tell that your branding and your acquisition efforts are working.

2 Click-to-open rate — If 100 people opened my email, how many of them clicked on at least one link? If your product is designed to drive people to your site, this will help you measure whether or not your readers are finding content that they want to engage more deeply with.

3 Distribution of List of Open Rate: This metric shows the distribution of user unique open rates for current subscribers on your list. For example, you can see what percentage of your list opens zero per cent, 10 per cent, 20 per cent, all the way up to 80 per cent of the time. We think newsrooms should focus on retaining, growing, and monetizing that segment of 80 per cent-plus openers; on moving users with lower levels of engagement along the engagement funnel; and on removing the users who stay inactive over time.

4 Dwell time per newsletter. How much time do readers spend on newsletters?

5) Mobile open rates — Here’s another metric that’s already built into that GA dashboard. Remember: The majority of email use takes place on a mobile device, so the numbers must reflect it.

6) Clicks per 1,000 emails delivered. Once you have that number, you can start to see the potential impact of your newsletters as you grow. If you have a high clicks/1000 number, that may be a sign that you’ve got a product, you should focus on growing since it might produce significant traffic returns in the long run.

Yes, but… what about the technology to create great newsletters?

Here the good news is that, with the growing numbers of newsletters, and so many solo professionals and small publishers launching new editorial products, a new ecosystem is also developing.

Some of these tools are specifically aimed at making newsletter creation and management accessible to anyone. And even the biggest VC, like Andreessen Horowitz, has invested on the ecosystem: the very last investment in the field has been on Substack, the US-based newsletter platform.

If you want your data to stay within Europe, and enjoy an elegant, yet a very friendly solution, I suggest you go for Revue. Revue, made in the Netherlands, is dedicated to the small publishers and individual content creators, and it is more sophisticated than the Mailchimp-owned Tiny Letters.


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