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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The newsletter boom: capitalizing on the intimacy of the inbox

October 21, 2021 | By Micaeli Rourke – Independent Media Reporter @micaelirourke

When it comes to building direct relationships with readers, newsletters boast a superpower: intimacy. In addition to being a direct avenue for relationship-building with readers, newsletters are also major drivers of revenue diversification and provide insights from first-party data. As such, they have become an all-purpose survival tool for publishers. 

“There are so many ways 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 of email service provider LiveIntent. “It’s in your inbox. It’s there almost on-demand when you’re ready to consume it.”

LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey, published in July, found that 87% of publishers and marketers were actively investing in email and 94% were prioritizing scaling their email programs this year. 

“Prior to the Covid pandemic, we were seeing newsletters trending in a very positive direction. People were spending more than five hours a day between their personal and work emails,” Cooper explained. “With the pandemic and everyone being home, that growth accelerated.”

The FT’s newsletter machine

Sarah Ebner, Head of Newsletters at the Financial Times, agrees with Cooper that newsletters were already “having a moment” before Covid struck. 

“Newsletters have been ‘the big thing’ and then ‘not the big thing’ for probably a decade,” says Ebner. “[In] the last year, with the pandemic, ​​because many people found themselves in a situation where they were stuck at home and hungry for information, newsletters became a very big tool. People wanted information and news sources they could trust.”

To quote journalist Faisal Kim, “What could they deem more trustworthy than emails they’d chosen to receive in their inboxes?”

Currently offering 32 curated newsletters and counting, FT was early to embrace the newsletter distribution channel. Way back in 2019, shortly after crossing the 1 million subscriber threshold, they began using newsletter polls to increase subscriber retention.

“We know that the engagement rate is very high for FT subscribers,” Ebner explained. “It’s even higher if they’re newsletter readers, which is a really good thing.” 

According to Ebner, readers on a trial are 134% more likely to be retained if they subscribe to a newsletter. “[Newsletters] drive traffic and engagement. They also definitely enhance loyalty and create habits and they really can push people to subscribe and donate,” Ebner told me. “You can also promote events or other newsletters through them. So, they do a lot of things in a really simple way.” 

The personality-driven future of newsletters

Again, given the intimacy of the inbox, it isn’t a surprise that readers develop a relationship with newsletter authors, not just the publishing brands behind them.

Last April when David Leonhardt was appointed to lead The New York Times’ flagship morning newsletter, he was given the title of “writer, host, and anchor.” For a newsletter that reaches the inbox of over 17 million subscribers, Leonhardt has the equivalent audience of some primetime news programs. “Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental,” wrote Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses.”

Independent publishing platforms like Substack are leveraging this connection and luring top writers from newsrooms like salaried moths to a self-employed flame. In response, publishers have begun to embrace the personality-driven content structure more boldly in their newsletter offerings.

“One of the amazing things about newsletters is that you build up that direct relationship with the writer and you trust them,” FT’s Ebner said. “When we relaunched Brussels Briefing as Europe Express, I spoke to [Britain After Brexit newsletter author] Peter Foster and asked him, ‘Can you mention it?’ Because he wrote it in his own words, saying ‘This is really good and you should sign up for it,’ it didn’t look like it was from an advert. That was the most clicked-on link in his newsletter that week.” 

Publishers are not blind to the power of personality-driven newsletters. In fact, many are embracing it. Just last week, The Atlantic announced it would be hiring independent newsletter authors to write under their brand (and behind The Atlantic’s paywall). Still remaining semi-autonomous, newsletter writers will not be full-time employees and “will have some light oversight from Atlantic editors.” They will earn base pay and additional incentive payments if their readers convert to Atlantic subscribers.

“When you think about how brands and publishers want consumers to spend more time with them, the more of a direct relationship you have, the more you can understand who the users are and their likes and their intent, the better you are in a position to provide them services to continue to stay engaged with your brand,” said LiveIntent’s Cooper.

“It’s definitely part of the strategy to have a strong anchor to many of these newsletters,” said incoming VP of Audience at Axios, Ryan Kellett. “You’ll notice that some of them come from teams. And some of that is the sustainability of the newsletter. It is very very hard to write a daily newsletter.” Kellet joined Axios last month after over a decade at The Washington Post. He most recently worked as Senior Director of Audience where he oversaw digital strategy and subscriber growth. 

Axios Local’s rapid expansion 

While some publishers like The Telegraph have recently chosen to embrace the “less is more” newsletter strategy by offering “fewer, more focused newsletters,” other leading media organizations are maximizing their newsletter model by replicating it in local markets.

Late last year, Axios launched a free-to-readers newsletter model for local news markets called Axios Local. According to Axios, “The daily morning newsletters cover the most consequential news and developments unfolding in each of the cities.” Their editorial model embraces personality-driven content by recruiting the most prominent writers from each of those local markets to “anchor” Axios Local’s newsletters. 

Kellett cites Axios Chicago’s Monica Eng and Justin Kaufmann, two veteran reporters and “former pillars of public radio in Chicago,” who began co-anchoring Axios Chicago’s morning newsletter in August, as examples of how personality-driven content is integral to the success of certain newsletters. However, speaking on broader terms than just one company, Kellett emphasizes the challenges of newsletter writing that often go overlooked.

“It is often underappreciated how hard it is to put out [newsletters] on a day-to-day basis and do a number of other things like attending community events, actually reporting stories, engaging on social media…” said Kellett. “Obviously, we want to have the strongest writers and the strongest personalities to be the anchors. But  part of it is thinking about sustainability and the teams that are required to feed some of those newsletters as well.” 

First launched in Charlotte in December 2020, Axios Local has expanded to morning newsletters in 14 cities across the US in less than a year, with plans to expand to 11 more during the first half of 2022, according to Kellett. Axios Local is forecast to make at least $5 million in newsletter revenue this year, with $2 million alone expected to come from its Charlotte newsletter. 

Leveraging first-party data in a cookie-less world

Source: LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey

Apart from the outward benefits of fostering engagement and revenue, the email address itself has become all the more valuable with regard to first-party data collection, especially considering the impending death of the third-party cookie. According to LiveIntent’s July survey,  “​​99% of survey respondents believe that the email address is vital to the future of identity resolution after the third-party cookie’s demise.”

LiveIntent’s Kerel Cooper supports this position strongly by saying, “Third-party cookies have been a staple of targeting and monetization for a very long time in our space. As a publisher or brand, you have to think, ‘Okay, if this data set, this foundational element that I’ve used to build my business is going away, I need to replace it with another data set.’ First-party data and first-party audiences are going to be super key to that transition.”

“The email channel has already operated in the same manner in which the browsers have been wanting to get to forever,” Cooper continued. “There’s no third-party cookies. You have to opt-in or in some cases double opt-in to receive content from publishers or brands. And there are heavy privacy rules and regulations. Think CAN SPAM. It’s an environment where browsers already want to go.”

However, the value of email addresses may prove to become even more coveted, given Apple’s recent rollout of the iOS 15 update, which introduces Mail Privacy Protection to Apple Mail users. 

As AdWeek’s Ronan Shields explained, “Mail Privacy Protection will prevent brands from knowing whether a user opens one of their emails and hide IP addresses so that senders can’t link that action to other online activity or determine a user’s location.” The jury is still out on just how detrimental this change will be to publishers existing strategies for leveraging first-party subscriber data.  

As our digital sphere barrels forward to 2022, newsletters rightly serve as a powerful multi-purpose survival tool for publishers. Now that the churning momentum of independent newsletter platforms has gained the attention of tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, each of whom has announced plans to “get in the newsletter game,” publishers must plan to keep this particular survival tool very sharp. At the same time, while exploring all of a newsletter’s advantages, they must never forget the simplicity of the medium and its eternal superpower: intimate, welcomed, and frequent access to readers’ attentions.


Newsletter expert Ryan Kellett outlines three basic tenets to foster reader loyalty in newsletters:

1. Create high-quality content on a frequent and regular basis

“As we all know, that email address is very valuable. You want to really try to deliver as consistently and as best as you can and at as high a quality as possible on a day-to-day basis.” 

2. Consistency yields dependability yields loyalty

“Consistency is really important in developing that relationship so the reader trusts that you’re there on a certain cadence, be it daily or weekly or bi-weekly…I think one of the reasons why daily works so well is because it says ‘Every day at 7am, that [newsletter] is going to be there for you consistently.’ You could have anything happen in your life and it will be there.” 

3. Community-building capabilities 

I think with newsletters being so intimate, oftentimes it can be a little bit tough to say ‘newsletter community.’ It may or may not actually exist. But I think with really great newsletters, you are building a community there, despite it sort of being a one-to-one experience…It just depends on the medium… Podcasts, websites/comments sections/forums, and newsletters all have their own type of community.”

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