Four rules for awesome email newsletters

“Email is effective because it’s so personal”

By Joseph Lichterman

April 25, 2019

Email is having a moment.

In recent years, publishers of all sizes have rediscovered email newsletters as a mechanism to build relationships with their readers. As platforms have tweaked their algorithms, newsletters have emerged as a rock-solid way to connect directly with their audiences while maintaining complete control of the reader’s data and information.

Speaking last month at the first session of the Facebook Digital Subscription Retention Accelerator in Austin, New Yorker newsletter editor Dan Oshinsky shared tips, strategies, and best practices for how publishers can best utilize newsletters to reach new audiences and build loyalty. (Oshinsky also writes Not a Newsletter — an outstanding monthly Google Doc with tips and advice for how to improve your email products.)

“Email is effective because it’s so personal,” Oshinsky said. “That inbox is a living room. It’s a space that readers are going to let their friends, family, coworkers, and a handful of brands into.”

Oshinsky shared four rules for how publishers should think about newsletters:

Rule #1: Content is king, but distribution is queen (and she wears the pants)

While publishers should prioritize the type of coverage they’re creating for their newsletters, they need to remember that the power of email lies in the distribution.

“It’s so important to produce great journalism, but distribution is just as important. With email you can own that relationship with your customers and with your readers,” Oshinsky said. “I know if I collect someone’s email address I can get my stories to them today, tomorrow, and for years to come.”

Email has had remarkable staying power — we’re all still using it despite the growth of platforms such as Slack — and, as a result, newsletters can help establish a long-term relationship with readers.

Rule #2: Create habits and routines

We all check our email constantly — whether it’s the first thing we do in the morning on our phones or throughout the day on our desktops. That means there are plenty of opportunities for publishers to reach audiences.

It also means that it’s important for the publishers to be clear with readers about what they’ve signed up for and when they’re going to get their emails delivered.

Relatedly, a recent Northwestern University study showed that readers are more likely to subscribe to a publication when they regularly check the outlet for news. Newsletters are the perfect vehicle to develop those habits among readers.

Rule #3: Start with a building block

Oshinsky highlighted four core types of newsletters that serve as foundations for publishers’ newsletter content strategies:

  • Identity: Coverage that focuses in on the readers’ passions: Who they are, what they care about, and what they love. These types of newsletters could focus on everything from your favorite sports team to “Game of Thrones.”
  • Services: These newsletters help make readers’ lives easier. For example, with so many great shows on all the various streaming services, it can be difficult to choose what to watch. The New Yorker created a newsletter, The New Yorker Recommends, that sends weekly suggestions for what subscribers should be watching and reading.
  • Utility: We all need information that helps us do our jobs better and more effectively. People subscribe to — and potentially pay for — utility newsletters because they want to know more about what’s happening in their industry.
  • Personality: Many publishers have had success building newsletters around individual reporters or editors. They can make these products feel like personalized emails that are written specifically just for the recipients.

Rule # 4: Trust is hard to win and easy to lose

As inboxes become increasingly flooded with emails, it’s more difficult than ever for publishers to stand out with their newsletters.

“The expectations for email are higher and higher,” Oshinsky said. “People get so many emails. I have yet to meet a single person who told me, ‘I love my inbox.’ Everyone says they get too many emails, but people still rely on email. They check it in the morning, at work, and on the way home. But because that space is so crowded, it’s especially important that newsrooms focus on creating amazing experiences for readers through their newsletters.”

It can take a long time and a lot of work to build trust with readers and to become essential to their news consumption, but it’s incredibly easy to lose their interest and incite them to unsubscribe.

Publishers must focus on maintaining quality editorial products while also monitoring their analytics and surveying their readers to better understand what they like, what they dislike, and how they can improve.

“If readers don’t like your email, they will unsubscribe — or they’ll tune you out and just stop responding,” Oshinsky said.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. This program is specifically focused on increasing subscriber retention. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Subscriptions Accelerator is part of the broader Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on acquiring digital subscriptions and membership.

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