A stalwart and still one of the best ways to engage… but what’s new with newsletters?

Sunnie Huang, Newsletters Editor at The Economist UK. During a session at the virtual FIPP Congress she explored the role that newsletters play and shares with us the lessons she has learnt…

Newsletters date back as far as Roman times and, by the Middle Ages, they were widely used among traders to cover topics such as the availability and pricing of goods, political news and other trade relevant events. These early newsletters evolved into what we know today as newspapers. More than 2,000 years later, newsletters are still around, only now mostly in digital form, containing news about the activities of a business or an organisation and sent to their members, customers, employees or other subscribers.

Media businesses quickly realised that this was a good way to connect with increasingly disengaged and short-attention-span audiences. Commonality evolved into excess and eventually, readers started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of these snaps of information that overloaded their inboxes and so they began to ignore them.

Sunnie Huang has been Newsletters Editor at The Economist UK for three years and, in that time, the role newsletters play for both prospective customers and subscribers has developed radically.

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Early days

When the team was created in 2017, The Economist was following algorithms used by many others in the industry however they quickly realised that they shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket and that they shouldn’t rely entirely on a third party to send them traffic and build relationships with their audience. That realisation inspired a new run of investment in all their digital platforms, namely their website, apps and newsletters. They regained control and ownership of their digital destiny and over the last three years they have completely revamped their website, both the front end and back end, released a brand new app and a brand new suite of newsletters and emails.

It is easy to understand the initial enthusiasm felt about the potential of newsletters. They involve relatively simple technology compared to a website or an app and it is safe to say that practically everyone has access to email. So it looked as this white canvas of a medium held huge potential to drive traffic, convert visitors and retain subscribers. However, very soon Sunnie and her team realised that they had “ vastly underestimated the complexity” of the whole thing. “I realised that there were many moving parts that were technologically connected and that from a strategic point of view, we had to start from scratch.” And so they did, they applied user research, data analytics, ideation workshops and any other technique available to them. Some of them worked and some didn’t, but in the process they learnt valuable lessons.

Lesson 1: Focus on the reader’s goal

Many publishers look at newsletters in part to make up for traffic loss. Newsletters are very effective traffic drivers and they are also very effective at distributing content. But both of these goals are internal goals. What about readers’ goals?

Sunnie and her team spent time trying to discover what their readers needed and wanted to adapt their products accordingly. Their findings revealed that readers wanted trustworthy journalism and analysis that didn’t just tell them what was happening, but also how to make sense of it. At the same time, they found out that most people find The Economist ‘difficult to read’ and end up feeling guilty about not reading it from cover to cover and often, this guilt leads to unsubscribe. Early on they decided they would not be sending multiple newsletters but a small portfolio designed to meet specific readers’ needs. For example, their morning newsletter Espresso briefs the readers on the day ahead and the Checks and Balances newsletter hones in on US political coverage. Every newsletter needed a purpose beyond driving traffic and content distribution. When that purpose resonates with readers, traffic will follow.

Lesson 2: Ensure a good experience

Individual newsletters are only as powerful as a user’s journey. Newsletter producers spend a lot of time obsessing over every single pixel in the email but the email itself is only a very small part of the reader’s experience. The relationship with email readers starts long before they actually open the first email and it continues long after they’ve finished reading it. This is why at The Economist they spent a lot of time working to build a newsletter sign-up page that was easy and intuitive to use and that provided a clear value proposition so readers know exactly what they’re signing up for and are not surprised when the appears in their inbox. They also worked with their apps team to make sure deep linking was working for those paying subscribers who prefer to continue reading the newsletter in their app for a more immersive experience. This kind of user journey continues between their newsletters and the print magazine to make sure that their emails don’t duplicate but complement the brand experience.

Lesson 3: Create your email squad

A cross functional email team is key to success. This might seem intuitive, but while to media professionals the difference between an editorial and a marketing email is very clear, to readers, an email is an email, no matter from which department is coming. Sunnie likes to speak about inbox experience rather than email experience. She brought colleagues from different departments: design, product, marketing, user research, data… to create a welcoming and consistent experience, customer centred rather than business driven.

Producing this kind of newsletter can be tricky, especially when you are doing daily newsletters for multiple regions in multiple languages across multiple subjects as The Economist does so Sunnie believes that it pays off to spend time in the early days improving templates, studying different plug-ins that can work with existing DSPs and CRMs and ramping up training internally so that more people can access your email platform and produce newsletters. They also try to democratise their newsletter knowledge by building data dashboards and asset repositories so they can provide a single source of truth for everyone to use. ‘Don’t underestimate the power of internal training, the power of knowledge sharing and how they can help improve your production process,’ she concludes.

Lesson 4: Understand your readers’ pain points

Newsletters are a means to an end so delve deep into what your audience needs and then find ways to add value. It will become a lot easier to find the right products to meet those needs and subsequently to increase your opening rate and CTR. The ultimate measure of how well your subscriber newsletters are delivering will be your renewal rates.

Finally it is worth mentioning the importance of time. Time has become a precious commodity. When people are reading their emails, they are constantly interrupted by other communication channels and often they switch between one and another. So it is vital that the content you provide is worth their time, easy to use and attractive. And remember, keep it simple.

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