In case you’ve forgotten already, there was a royal wedding last May. American Meghan Markle married Prince Harry. It was a big deal. Seemingly every news organization on the planet covered it, including the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster.
The CBC added an experimental element to its coverage: A short-run newsletter. For the eight weeks leading up to the wedding, the broadcaster sent a weekly newsletter covering every aspect of the nuptials.
This week in Solution Set, we’re going to pop in to the CBC pop-up. We’ll look at how the newsletter was developed, how the team incorporated reader feedback, and how they wound it down.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one delightful thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
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Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: CBC News wanted to find a way to capture the excitement surrounding the royal wedding last spring, so it launched a pop-up newsletter.
• The Strategy: The CBC ran its pop-up newsletter, The Royal Fascinator, over the eight weeks leading up to the royal wedding. It heavily promoted the newsletter across all its on-air and digital platforms.
• The Numbers: The Royal Fascinator had an average open rate of 65 percent over the course of its run. (But the CBC wouldn’t share the list size so it’s hard to gauge what exactly that means.)
• The Lessons: Pop-ups work best with topics that have passionate audiences. It also helps to be flexible and adapt your plans to reader feedback.
• The Future: The CBC has introduced a few more pop-ups focused on provincial elections and the environment.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to find out how other publishers have tried pop-up newsletters.
The royal wedding last May was a massive story. News organizations from all over the world descended on Windsor to cover the celebrations.
One of the outlets that devoted sizable resources to the wedding was CBC News, Canada’s public broadcaster. (Queen Elizabeth II is the queen of Canada, too.)
While the CBC covered it in all the ways you’d expect a traditional TV and radio network to report on such a massive story, the network was also interested in finding other ways to capitalize on the intense interest surrounding the wedding.
It wanted to create a product that served the core audience that wanted to know more about the wedding, but it didn’t want massive overhead.
To meet those goals, the CBC decided to launch a pop-up newsletter in the lead up to the royal wedding.
“[We wanted] to really harness this interest that we knew was probably out there for this specific event,” said CBC News Social producer Megan Griffith-Greene, who led the project.
“There’s a real connection that a lot of people feel to this event, and we wanted to create something for them that felt special and made for that audience.”
The royal wedding was on May 19, 2018. The CBC newsletter launched eight weeks before the wedding. It was published weekly on Saturdays. The last issue came out on the wedding day.
The newsletter was called the Royal Fascinator, a sly reference to the small hats women attending royal functions tend to wear.
Each issue featured one main story on a different aspect of the wedding planning process: the venue, the guest list, the dress, etc. It also included elements such as a quote from previous royal weddings, links to others’ coverage, and answers to reader questions. Griffith-Greene said the team tried to take advantage of the wealth of archival material available.
“The main story was written with history, tradition, and context in mind,” she said. “We weren’t fawning and we weren’t catty. That, combined with the fact that we were looking at this event through a Canadian lens, is what set us apart from other royal coverage that was out there.”
The newsletter was written by Janet Davison, a CBC features writer who is a “big royals nerd,” Griffith-Greene said.
Though the newsletter launched in March, a cross-functional CBC team began developing the product about two to three months earlier.
The CBC had never produced a pop-up newsletter before, so it spent quite a bit of time testing out different formats and templates that would fit the reporting and also look good on a phone.
“Planning out how everything would fit together and how it would progress through time, we spent a lot of time puzzling that out and making sure that it would be completely optimized,” Griffith-Greene said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to learn on the ground. We had to make sure that as soon as we were able to go we knew exactly what that entire arc was going to look like.”
Once the CBC settled on a name and a format, it began promoting the newsletter. It created a landing page with an easy to remember URL and promoted the newsletter on air and across its digital platforms. It inserted sign up forms and promos into related stories. The CBC also ran a few paid social campaigns to promote the newsletter.
The Royal Fascinator team also developed a welcome email that oriented new subscribers to the project. “so that when people signed up they got an email right away… welcome them to the project and got something to expect… didn’t get the first newsletter and remember what the hell this was… getting people to sign up.. Didn’t know…”
The CBC continued to promote the newsletter and encourage new sign ups even after the launch. It also helped that Prince Louis was born in April, so there was a bunch of royal coverage that helped build interest for the pop-up newsletter and attracted new subscribers. (I’ll talk some more about list building in The Lessons.)
In response to feedback from readers, it added some supplemental editions of the newsletter that provided added information and context. (I’ll talk some more about this in The Lessons.)
After the wedding was over, the CBC implemented a three-part plan to wind down the pop-up:
1. It conducted a reader survey to learn more about what the subscribers liked and didn’t like. The survey asked about the different content types, the length of the newsletter, the frequency, how they found the newsletter, and what they want to see next from the CBC.
2. It asked subscribers whether they would want to opt-in to stay on the list. Because of Canadian anti-spam laws, the CBC can only use the list for royal wedding related coverage. (Unfortunately, there is no Royal Fascinator for Princess Eugenie’s wedding this weekend. Alas!)
“We don’t have another idea for a royal wedding newsletter right now — and certainly the end of the series we were all a little royaled out — but we could wake up with one tomorrow, and we wanted to have that option if we wanted it to email them tomorrow,” Griffith-Greene said.
A “significant percentage” of subscribers opted in to stay on the list, Griffith-Green said, adding that next time she would have begun asking readers earlier if they wanted to stay on board.
3. Subscribers were also sent a list of five other CBC newsletters that they might be interested in receiving.
“We tried to package things as well as we could,” Griffith-Greene said. “The way we phrased this was: What to fall in love with next. It fit with the tone and the spirit of the actual editorial.”
She said “quite a number of people” signed up, but noted that “this is still a big question with pop-ups: What do you do with this list that you’ve now nurtured and created this really beautiful little community with? Kicking them out at the end of the dinner party is a tough thing.”
Over the course of its eight-week run, the Royal Fascinator had an average open rate of about 65 percent, Griffith-Greene said. The best performing newsletter had an open rate of 80 percent.
The CBC wouldn’t share how many subscribers the newsletter had, so it’s hard to gauge the significance of the open rate. Griffith-Greene did say, however, that “we we were able to reach a list size that was around the same as some of our long term projects.”
The subscriber list grew in two main waves. There was an initial burst of interest as soon as the project was announced and then the newsletter got another big influx of subscribers as the wedding approached.
In addition to the eight core emails, the Royal Fascinator team sent out a couple extra supplemental emails as well an edition that wrapped up everything that happened at the wedding. Over the course of the newsletter’s life, Griffith-Greene said “hundreds” of readers replied to the emails with questions and comments.
And because the CBC a government-supported entity, Griffith-Greene said the newsletter didn’t have to think about generating revenue.
• Passion!: If you’re thinking about launching a pop-up newsletter in your newsroom, it needs to be on a topic that has a passionate following that readers are curious about, Griffith-Greene said.
“The keys that when I talk to groups that are hoping to do something like this is to really find out where that curiosity is from the readers and how you can connect with them over something they’re really passionate about,” she said.
“One of the reasons this worked so well is that it’s not a passing interest, it’s something that people wanted to be a little obsessed about for a little while. I think that that naturally lends itself to this kind of project where you can create something for it that will be a valuable service to the readers, but it has to go hand-in-hand with that natural passion and curiosity around something.”
• Empower staffers and share successes: While the Royal Fascinator was the CBC’s first short-run newsletter, it was also the first time Davison had written a newsletter or worked on an experimental project like this.
She was involved throughout the development process and helped craft the format in a way that would be most suited to her. Since she was invested from the start, Davison jumped into the project full heartedly and really took ownership of it.
“Janet was used to long-form narrative essay style features on the site,” Griffith-Greene said. “Figuring out even minor adjustments to that formatting that would work better for newsletters, especially with that mobile experience in mind, that was something that we were really conscious about as we were doing testing, as we were taking some of the copy and seeing what the right length was, what the right structure was, and how to break it up and what that experience would be like. That is quite different than how she was used to writing for people in a feature on the site.”
Davison’s success with the project helped showcase the possibilities for such projects internally and got others interested in trying experiments of their own.
“That this was such a positive experience for her was terrific,” Griffith-Greene said. “She completely jumped into it and took it on and was fantastic. There have been other pitches for pop-up newsletters that have come out of that department now because her experience was so positive that other writers are now interested in taking on similar types of projects, which is really fantastic because experiments are hard and getting people enthusiastic about trying something different is so important.”
When you’re running experiments or innovation projects, it’s always helpful to have champions within your organization who can share wins and get others excited about trying similar things.
And Griffith-Greene suggested that pop-up newsletters are a relatively straight forward way to begin working with journalists on innovation projects.
“This is a really excellent way to introduce people in the newsroom who aren’t used to taking on experiments to really try their hand at something,” she said. “They can work from an area of expertise, experience, and passion. And then really see that pay off.”
• Be flexible and responsive to readers: Throughout its run, Royal Fascinator made a point to reflect readers’ thoughts and questions in the newsletter.
“Email is a communication medium,” Griffith-Greene said. “When you email someone and they email you back, there is a responsibility to be responsive to that communication. I wanted to build that into the newsletter as a regular feature.”
The newsletter received so many questions from readers that it added an extra issue just focused on answering reader questions. It was one of the most popular editions, Griffith-Greene said.
Though it wasn’t in the original plan, the CBC was responsive to what readers wanted and was able to adapt its product to better serve them. It’s always a good idea to be flexible and to be willing to change your plans to meet readers’ needs.
• Get creative about encouraging sign ups: When launching a newsletter, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to sign up. Publishers should add sign up boxes on their homepages, in article pages, on social and more.
As discussed in The Strategy, the CBC did all of this with the Royal Fascinator, but it also took some creative steps to encourage sign ups.
For example, during the newsletter’s run Griffith-Greene writing the CBC’s morning briefing newsletter, and she would incorporate coverage from the Royal Fascinator in the morning newsletter.
“If there had been a royal story, I would list something fun that we had written for the newsletter, condense it and make it in the right format so it would fit within the morning brief, and then have a line out of that saying that this originally appeared in our new newsletter The Royal Fascinator, if you are interested you can sign up here.”
Each issue of the Royal Fascinator would also include a prompt high up to encourage readers to forward the email to their friends or encourage them to subscribe.
When you’re looking to promote your own newsletters, it’s important to think about ways you can use your existing platforms to reach already engaged readers who would be interested in the product.
The CBC has already launched a couple of other pop-up newsletters and is in the process of preparing to debut another.
Local CBC reporters ran pop-ups earlier this year for provincial elections in Ontario and British Columbia.
“I think elections area really terrific opportunity for pop ups, but there’s so much competing content out there. The key there is to offer something that is different, more personalized, or more succinct.”
And Griffith-Greene and others on her team are now planning to launch a new pop-up focused on environmental coverage.
“It literally was an idea that one of our really terrific talented feature writers pitched and used the success of the Royal Fascinator to help justify why it was a worthwhile.”
Want to know more?
• J-Source, which covers Canadian journalism, wrote a great profile of the Royal Fascinator this spring with lots of terrific background.
• The Washington Post launched a pop-up newsletter for the men’s World Cup over the summer. I wrote a Solution Set issue about how they relied on reader input to launch the newsletter.
• Here’s a Digiday story on The New York Times’ short-run newsletter strategy.
• There have been lots of great examples of short-run newsletters, but my current favorite is the User’s Guide to Democracy from ProPublica. It’s a set of eight emails that gives subscribers detailed information and background on their own congressional delegation in the lead up to the U.S. midterm elections.
Anything to add?
How’s your news org thinking about newsletters? Are you doing anything cool in the inbox? I want to hear about it!
Send me an email or reach out on Twitter.
See you next Thursday!