In today’s fast-paced digital world, media companies face intense competition across many different platforms. Echobox, a provider of social media management tools, offers new research, “Publishing Trends 2023,” highlighting media businesses’ priorities, challenges, and opportunities. The top three priorities for content companies include finding new audiences (53%), automation and AI (50%), and video content (47%). Staying ahead of the Facebook algorithm (53%), declining traffic (47%), growing digital subscriptions and diversifying revenue streams (both 34%) were commonly cited challenges.
Echobox surveyed a targeted sample of 32 leading media companies across the world. This global perspective includes respondents from 20 countries in Europe (67%), the Americas (20%), and Asia (13%).
Instagram emerges as a vital channel for publishers in 2023. In fact, the study shows that 66% of respondents believe Instagram will play a more significant role in their business this year. Publishers recognize the value of leveraging Instagram’s visual nature for content promotion and audience interaction.
TikTok is also gaining prominence, with 59% of publishers turning to this platform for video content distribution and audience engagement.
Media brands recognize the importance of capitalizing on the visual nature of TikTok and YouTube. By investing in video production and distribution, the report suggests that media companies can enhance their content offerings and attract a wider audience.
However, challenges persist on platforms like Facebook, primarily due to its lack of algorithmic transparency. Approximately one-third of media companies view Facebook as vital, and they want to maintain visibility and reach on this platform. Unfortunately, the opaque evolving nature of the platform requires publishers to constantly adapt their strategies, remain vigilant of algorithm changes, and seek alternative avenues to engage their target audience.
Newsletters remain an area of growth for many media businesses. The report highlights that 56% of respondents plan to expand their newsletter offerings or start producing newsletters in the coming year. Publishers understand the value of direct communication and engaging subscribers in off-platform vehicles. By crafting compelling and personalized content in newsletters, media businesses can establish stronger connections with their audience and help drive traffic to their websites.
The report indicates that 63% of media companies acknowledge the growing importance of AI for their businesses. AI-powered tools and technologies offer immense potential to streamline operations, optimize content distribution, and enhance audience targeting.
Publishers can leverage AI to automate repetitive tasks, personalize content recommendations, and gain valuable insights into audience preferences. Media companies using AI can unlock new efficiencies, improve engagement, and achieve better business outcomes.
Ending third-party cookies
When thinking of the impending demise of third-party cookies in 2024, less than half of the respondents foresee a significant impact on their business. Specifically, 31% do not anticipate any effect and 13% state that they don’t rely on third-party cookies. Of the 50% of publishers anticipating significant impacts, half report they are prepared while the other half are not.
The Echobox report does highlight that, though the growth of newsletters has slowed, the first party data insights they provide does provide a means to offset the loss of third-party cookies.
The results of Echobox’s 2023 publisher survey does show a certain amount of continuity from last year, as traffic remains a concern along with Facebook, while newsletters continue to demonstrate value. This year did see significant economic impacts as well as uncertainty around the role Twitter will play for media companies and advertisers. The report finds that publishers are investing resources in a wider array of social platforms in an effort to diversify their own audience demographics and to position themselves for increased adaptability to weather the evolving social landscape and consumer consumption trends.
As publishers look to take advantage of the newsletter boom, news is not the only thing on their minds. Email offers a direct delivery method for all sorts of content and the FT is among those leveraging newsletters as a way to offer educational content to inform and engage audiences.
The Financial Times launched its first newsletter course last month; MBA 101. The free six-week email series, which starts whenever a reader signs up, is aimed at anyone interested in applying for a Masters of Business Administration. It is written by Global Education Editor Andrew Jack and Content Editor Wai Kwen Chan, and guides participants through the process of applying for an MBA, from choosing the right course to getting funding.
Engaging younger readers
A free newsletter course may not be an obvious starting point for a publication which has one of the hardest paywalls in the industry. But part of the reason why the FT chose the MBA admissions topic for their first course was because it aligned with their existing successful MBA rankings program.
Although the top-level rankings are available to view for free, prospective students can register for a profile to compare programmes they are interested in, as well as see key statistics on diversity, career progression, course tuition fees and more. Signing up to the MBA 101 newsletter course also creates a registration for an MBA rankings profile, which keeps the link between the two products strong.
Ultimately though, the end goal is to convert MBA rankings and MBA 101 registrants into full FT subscribers. Because the majority of the target audience for this course are likely to be students already–or soon to become students–each of the newsletter editions also contains a link to the FT’s heavily discounted student subscription.
Emily Goldberg, US Newsletter Editor for the Financial Times led the new project. “We know that newsletters boost engagement among our readers, and that they’re a really great way to promote retention,” she said, explaining why they chose to go with email delivery. “Since the course is available for free, it has the potential to reach new readers, draw them into the FT and then keep them engaged and involved.”
Balancing information delivery
Given the expectation of internet users that information is available instantly, the idea of releasing a course in stages via email is a strange one. The team thought carefully when they were putting the course together about what made most sense for this particular topic.
“We ultimately decided that a weekly cadence would promote habit, which is what we want with a newsletter,” Goldberg said. “This is also a very action-based and practical newsletter. So by spacing things out weekly, we thought it would give readers a chance to engage with the content, read the content, figure out how they might be able to apply it to their own lives, which strategies work best for them, and give it a try before we send them the next piece of information. It means we don’t overload them, and give them a good balance.”
Breaking the content down into chunks also helps meet one of the FT’s key aims of the project: making the course practical. “It’s a much better learning experience to do something like this in chunks,” Goldberg commented. “Otherwise we could just throw a textbook at someone.”
The course is primarily text-based and has been designed with mobile readers in mind. This is particularly important when reaching younger people, who Goldberg says are far more likely to read course content on their phones. “Anything that we can give people that they can consume in a digestible way is definitely something we thought about in putting this course together that’s clear and action-oriented,” she said.
There are, however, plenty of links to other content, including recordings of an event that Global Education Editor Andrew Jack ran with other FT journalists and admissions professionals working at business schools. One part also includes a template that students can use themselves in networking outreach, reinforcing the practical nature of the course.
The importance of evergreen content
The FT is not the only publisher to have courses delivered by newsletters. The Wall Street Journal has a range of ‘Challenge’ series, from the ‘WSJ Money Challenge’ newsletter to the ‘WSJ Healthy Habits Challenge’ which range from four to six weeks each. The Washington Post also has a selection of limited-run courses delivered via email. ‘A Better Week’ runs for just seven days and aims to help participants free up time, while ‘Bold School’ releases smart advice on how to approach life after 50 with two emails a week across 12 weeks.
For other publishers looking to deliver courses via email, the subject area is crucial to get right. “One of the qualities that you need for a good course is that it needs to be something relatively evergreen,” Goldberg noted. Unlike traditional daily or weekly email newsletters, these courses will start and finish at the same point whenever the participant signs up.
Where next for the FT’s newsletter courses
Engagement is a key success criteria for the MBA 101 course. The early signs are positive for the publisher. “We’ve already seen success with the open rate and click-through rate in these emails which is above average,” Goldberg outlined. She explained they use a verifiable open rate to combat the challenges presented by Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, and are seeing an almost 60% open rate of the initial welcome letter, which is sent a day after someone signs up for the course.
Longer-term success criteria is ultimately more subscribers to the FT. If younger readers and students take out the student subscription and the course is able to boost awareness of the FT with a younger demographic, then it will have been a great success.
As part of this, registrants are encouraged to reply to the business school email address throughout the course if they have any feedback or questions. They also send out a survey halfway through the course and at the end of the course so readers can share their experience.
MBA 101 is just a month old, so the newsletters team will be carefully evaluating the results to see what they can optimize and improve. The course is not directly monetized at present, although the team are exploring sponsorship opportunities. It’s a model that Goldberg could see transferring easily to other topics across the FT, as well as potentially standalone paid newsletter courses.
“Anything that is actionable and that our reports can provide as an area of expertise [would work for a newsletter course],” she said. “That’s what made this course such a success is that the writers of the course, Andrew Jack and Wai Kwen Chan are talking to admissions professionals and university administrators all the time. So I think anytime that we can teach our reader something and they can take action off the back of would be a good fit.”
Newsletter courses are a straightforward enough concept. They capitalize on a trend which ultimately drives habit, quality and loyalty. But the subject area needs to be carefully aligned with a publisher’s brand. In the FT’s case, there are so many potential topic areas which they could expand into, this will no doubt not be the last course launch from the team.
It’s been another breakneck year for the media industry. Every year at Media Voices we round up the biggest moments from the past 12 months, and explore how they impact publishers. This year was certainly not short of industry-defining events, and Media Moments 2022 summarizes these across 10 chapters, from advertising and subscriptions to newsletters and emerging technology.
Stepping back from the big moments of cookie delays, Twitter takeovers, and bumpy ad markets, there have been a number of developments this year which have the potential to shape publishing strategies in 2023 and beyond. Here are seven key themes from the report that will inform your approach moving forward:
1. Adblocking has returned to an all–time high
The days of adblocking causing sleepless nights for publishers seemed to be long–gone. Between the demise of third–party cookies and vigorous blocklists costing huge amounts of revenue, executives in the ad department have had plenty of other things to worry about.
Unfortunately, adblocking needs to move back up on the agenda. It has returned to levels last seen at the peak of the phenomenon in 2018, with 290 million web users actively blocking ads worldwide, according to the 2022 PageFair Adblock Report. This is an average of 21% across all geos and verticals. Solutions to tackle the problem are in short supply, and are likely to remain so unless it is prioritized again.
2. Streaming accounts for the majority time spent with TV
In August, streaming officially topped cable as the most popular method by which people in the U.S. consume television content. According to Nielsen, which runs a monthly Gauge study of TV consumption, streaming now makes up more than one–third (34.8%) of all television consumption, overtaking cable (34.4%), and far ahead of broadcast (21.6%).
Unsurprisingly, streaming powerhouses like Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are leading the charge. However, this is a notable milestone for streamers across the board. It marks a major shift in how audiences – especially younger people – engage with what we’ve traditionally thought of as television content. This opens more opportunities for publishers in the video space to get well–told stories in front of audiences. But it also means that the video landscape is more fractured than ever.
3. Local news can be profitable on just reader revenue
The past five or so years has seen local news start–ups grow all over the world as access to publishing and revenue tools has opened up. Some have shown real promise this year, offering tantalizing glimpses of a sustainable future for local publishers.
In the U.K., The Manchester Mill, a Substack–based local news publisher, reached profitability last month with just 1,600 paying subscribers. The two–year–old brand says they are profitable off annualized subscription revenue of around $164,000. Founder Joshi Herrmann has launched two sister titles off the back of its success: the Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribune, which are at 650 and 900 paying subscribers respectively.
For local news to truly thrive, we will need to move beyond models of just one or two reporters per city. But the early green shoots of success are encouraging.
4. There’s no sign of subscriptions decline…yet
Following Netflix’s Q2 subscriber tumble, many analysts have forecast a downturn in subscriptions. As economic pressures begin to bite, almost 30% of consumers polled by Toolkits and the National Research Group said that they planned to reduce the number of online subscriptions they hold.
But the second half of 2022 has shown that the subscriptions market is resilient. Netflix saw a spectacular bounceback in Q3, adding 2.41 million new subscribers and beating its own and analyst expectations. Publishers are seeing continued growth too: AOP members reported digital subscriptions growth at almost 15% over the last 12 months. Some have reported record performances, from the New York Times’ 9 million subscriber milestone to The Economist posting its most profitable year since 2016 on the back of 1.2 million subscribers, and total subscription revenues accounting for more than 60% of its revenues.
We may yet see a downturn depending on how pressures on consumers play out over winter. But for now, people are happy to pay for content they find valuable.
5. Email newsletters are an unexploited revenue opportunity
Email may be one of the oldest forms of digital communication, but as a revenue driver it is still very under–used by mainstream publishers. Despite the wave of Substack–led paid newsletter creators over the past few years, few publishers have attempted anything similar themselves.
A recent report from WAN–IFRA highlighted the opportunity gap around email newsletters. 48% of publishers they surveyed did not monetize their newsletters. Of those that did, advertising and exclusive sponsorships were used by 32% and 16% respectively. Significantly, newsletters were used as part of a subscription bundle rather than standalone offering were used by 30% of publishers.
Quartz is one publisher who dropped its paywall entirely this year. Interestingly, they still kept the membership scheme, and instead have a suite of premium emails they send to members. “We found that 75% of Quartz members read us primarily through email, so we’ve been putting more of our best stuff directly in their inboxes,” said CEO Zach Seward.
When it comes to advertising, I wouldn’t wish the ad tech that plagues the rest of the internet on our email inboxes. But the tech to improve the advertising experience in email via personalisation and segmentation is getting there. Now, we just have to behave responsibly with it. Newsletters have a reputation as a premium engagement method for a good reason.
6. News headlines are in a negative spiral
Following the headline findings from the Reuters Digital News Report about the growing issue of news avoidance, there has been much discussion this year on how to rebuild trust with audiences. As publishers compete for attention online, they have found ways of standing out and getting readers to click and share content. But this isn’t necessarily positive.
One study in particular from PLoS ONE showed just the extent to which media headlines have become increasingly negative over the past two decades. The research showed headlines expressing anger were up 104% since the year 2000, fear, 150%, and sadness 54%. This isn’t because the world has got worse, even if “permacrisis” is the word of the year for 2022. Rather, negative and emotionally–arousing headlines are more likely to attract clicks and attention, which in turn means more revenue for publishers.
It’s a difficult cycle to break. The sheer amount of competition for attention means that it’s understandable publishers have to find ways of breaking through the noise. But the long–term effects of stoking outrage and despair on a near–constant basis are just beginning to be recognized.
7. Some emerging tech is good to jump on early. Others, not so much!
Publishers who tried early experiments in NFTs have been richly rewarded. From digital covers to archive images, NFT projects have generated millions for brands like TIME, The Economist, Forbes, and Playboy over the past few years.
However, the bottom has since fallen out of the NFT market, driven by the tough year cryptocurrency has had. NFT trading volumes collapsed 97% between January and September this year. So it’s not surprising to see publishers like CNN wrapping up their NFT marketplaces and projects.
Caution in other areas, however, is wise. Apart from a couple of publishers like Vogue testing metaverse experiences, it has been mainly consumer brands rushing to the space.
Audiences so far have not followed. Meta had aimed to have 500,000 monthly active users for its flagship platform Horizon Worlds by the end of 2022. By October, they had revised that figure down to 280,000, although the current tally is allegedly less than 200k. Other metaverse platforms are also struggling; audits on Sandbox and Decentraland have shown that user numbers are small. Platforms seeing success like Roblox are primarily built for gaming. As yet, there is little justification for publishers to lever themselves into the metaverse at great expense.
Trends and strategy
What is more evident when compared with previous years is how quickly things can crash. We suspected when authoring last year’s edition that, for example, that the NFT bubble would burst. We couldn’t have foreseen that would happen just months later.
Instead, innovation – whether that be audience-building, revenue generation or product – is to be found in formats that have been around for decades. Podcasts, newsletters and apps have been used by publishers of all shapes and sizes this year to deepen relationships and reduce churn. The key is to be where your audience is with a product that they need. And so far, you won’t find them in the metaverse.
DCN’s editorial director Michelle Manafy interviews Nicole Carroll, the Editor-in-chief of USA Today and Aja Whitaker-Moore the Executive Editor of Axioson Newsroom innovation: What’s the future of storytelling at the Collision conference, which was held in Toronto, Canada June 22-24, 2022.
[Full transcript below.]
WATCH/LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW
I’m back! But I’m in good company. I’ve got some terrific speakers here joining me to talk about newsroom innovation. If we could, I feel like the topic is just huge. If maybe you’d like to kick us off with what the heck does it even mean?
You know, I think innovation now, in the olden days, it was always tech and what’s the next product? And what’s the next thing? And I think now honestly, it’s about engagement is like how do we truly authentically engage with our audiences. And that could be tech that could be in person storytelling, that could be, you know, lots of different ways. I also think innovation always is just about to keep moving forward, you know, every generation of journalists is going to do it a little bit differently. And I think we’ve got to find our way. So, I think about innovation, not just in a technology sense, but literally everything we do in hiring, and how do we fund our journalism? How do we connect with our audiences? We’ve got to keep moving forward.
Aja, anything you want to add to that?
No, I mean, I think you’ve covered a lot of it. And from the actors perspective, you know, we’re a startup. And so everything that we do is kind of innovative, in our opinion. And we were born of, you know, we thought a problem, which was, there’s too much information, and people don’t know how to keep up with it, they don’t know how to access it. And, you know, we think that our promise is innovative in the sense that we came up with a new format, came up with a new delivery mechanism, and are coming up with new ways to reach an audience on an everyday basis. So that’s our version of innovative, I think.
So let’s go back to Axios then for a second. How do product and editorial work together in your organization, and how do you drive innovation in that relationship?
Yeah, I mean, pretty closely, because, you know, like I said, you know, we are focused on smart brevity and packaging things in a way that people want to digest them. And that means that we’re mobile first. And that means that everything we do has to be looked at from a product perspective, how are we delivering lists in a mobile friendly format? How is our app working? How are we delivering products to people, you know, in the way that they want them. So we work really closely together with a product team that I think understands journalism and understands news in a way that is really important.
I mean: easy for you to say, “built from the ground up.” But let’s talk about USA Today. Like, is there a tight integration of product and editorial, editorial, huge,
we’re, you know, we’re one of the OG startups, but we were actually smart, brevity 40 years ago, and we’re pretty, you know, made fun of because of that. So I’m you know, I’m glad to see the world has, you know, come around to that you can get good information in smaller amounts of words or video. So I, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done. But yes, we are really tight with our product teams, the fact that we just want to call with them this morning. You know, we’re constantly looking at not here’s what we should do. But what is the outcome you’re looking for? And then working together? How do we get to that outcome? We try not to go into it with the solution you go into it with what’s the outcome you’re looking for, and what do we need to bring to that equation?
So one of the things you touched on in like your “what is innovation” was: staffing, diversity, leadership, those those issues… Can you tell me a little bit — let’s start with USA Today — about how you’re approaching leadership and recruiting with an eye to fostering innovation to fueling it.
It’s never been more important to recruiting and what we’re doing right now. And I don’t know if how many of you are in the industry. But there’s the great journalism shuffle going on right now. I mean, everybody is moving somewhere else. Right now, there’s a real fight for talent and leadership. And I think people want to be part of authentic companies, who are really trying to again, I always say our job is to spread truth, you know, to engage with our audiences. And so showing a path having mentorship programs showing an opportunity for leadership, showing industry leadership is really important to creating the culture that will keep people in our organization. We’ve made the pledge at Guenette, that we want our newsrooms to reflect our communities by 2025. And we measure ourselves every year against that benchmark around racial diversity. I measure it every quarter at USA Today and report that to the staff. I think it’s really important we hold a mirror up to ourselves and be really honest about how we’re doing.
How about Axios? What what what is the approach? How are you thinking about like, what is this newsroom? What is the staffing what does the leadership mean, to our ability to be innovative?
Yeah, I mean, I think we we agree at that at the start the diversity of our newsroom should reflect the diversity of our audience. And that will then you know, result in diversity of coverage and that’s really what we’re striving towards. You know, our founders are committed to that goal as well. You know, in the fall, we’re releasing a smart brevity book. And they dedicated the proceeds the advance from that book to fund a fellowship program that we’re really proud of where we’re focusing on hiring from diverse communities in underrepresented backgrounds, to mentor them into Axios. And focusing on developing a beat developing the next generation of leaders that we think is, you know, missing from journalism right now. And it’s something that is a part of, you know, our newsroom recruiting our newsroom leadership. Axios is led by two women of color. And myself, and our editor in chief, Sara Gu. And it’s something that we you know, walk, talk, live, breathe and think, is the future of innovation at our company and everywhere, so we’re really focused on it.
Alright, so let’s shift gears a little bit. We there’s been a kerfluffle, of late around the social presence of journalists online, rather spectacular, blow up, in fact, quite visibly on social media. For for Axios, let’s start there. How are you balancing the desire for reporters to have a social presence to leverage that social presence? With your standards?
Yeah, and when I think we’re, we’re not like, any, you know, we’re similar to every other media organization out there, that’s figuring out, you know, how to balance that, but we’ve been really proud of our track record so far, you know, in the past five years, you know, we we’ve really just said to our staff, we trust you. You arer adults. Represent yourselves represent Axios the way that you, you know, would expect to in public. And that’s actually what’s happened. So I think we are, you know, proud of how we’ve done it so far. And we’ll continue to act accordingly on social platforms, and still be able to share our journalism with the world engage with people in a responsible way. And I think we’re all doing that.
I know that at USA Today, the social presence is a big part of the work. So how are you setting your standards and communicating to your staff that this is important? But you still have to represent our brand.
Right? I mean, we know that, you know, our integrity and our fairness. And all of that is just the bedrock of what we are. And so we want to make sure that we represent our way ourselves that way. On social, we tell people, we want you to bring your authentic selves, we want you to bring your lived experiences. But obviously, we can’t slip into advocacy. And I say this all the time: The power you have as journalists, to choose stories to tell stories to spread stories, is so much more power than you’re going to have in that tweet. And so you know, again: Bring your true selves, bring your authentic selves, but but let’s not tip into advocacy that could harm the integrity of our brand.
So I think another issue digitally in particular is the 24 hour news cycle, right? We’re all facing this kind of pressure to constantly be online, constantly be informing our our consumers. But how are you balancing the 24 hour news cycle with your again, with your standards and your goal to provide actual, trustworthy news?
Well, we’re really lucky and that we’re spread across the country from, you know, Washington all the way to LA. And then we also have a London bureau. So, we really are on 24/7, which, which makes things a little bit easier. But you know, I tell people 100 times out of 100, I’d rather be second than wrong. 100 times out of 100. So if you’re ever in doubt, don’t do it. Double check it triple check it, I’m going to be fine. If we’re last as long as we’re right.
I see a lot of scoops and exclusives at Axios. So how about you? Is there a difference there? Is there pressure?
Yeah, Imean, I think that our philosophy is a little bit different. We’re not there to deliver you every piece of news. We’re there to deliver you what you need to know, and the things that are important. And so I think that our model is a little bit different in that we package our version of the 24 news cycle into a newsletter suite. So if you’re getting Mike Allen’s AM, and PM and Finish Line newsletters, that’s what we call our daily essentials. And he’s set a really diverse kind of breakfast table for you in the morning. Happy Hour, four in the evening. And he’s telling you the stories that you need to know and so we’re curating that and packaging that I think in a different way than you know, a news wire or or a news organization that’s giving you breaking news 24/7.
It’s interesting. We used to call those “newspapers” where we curated what you need to know i the course of a day. I do think it’s interesting. The last panel was very much touching on this deluge; this fire hose, and how we can discern. And of course you know, I advocate for trustworthy sources like y’all.
All right. So, innovation in delivery and formats. I know you specifically mentioned Axios being mobile first. And I think that’s for a little while there that was almost a cliche industry. But I think it’s, it’s a given, is it not? Are you thinking a lot about innovating in terms of say, Tik Tok? Let’s just throw out like, are you looking at new formats?
Tick Tok? Not so much. Not yet. I mean, we have experimented, I think on all the platforms, you know, we do Twitter spaces, we do curated videos on You know, on Instagram, I think Tik Tok is an amazing platform. And a lot of I think publishers have figured out a great way to do it. But I think it actually is we, you know, right now, you know, we really are interested in podcasts, we’ve found a way to tell long form stories in smart brevity, through audio, which, you know, is is challenging, but we’ve done it with our How it Happened podcast series. It’s got, you know, 3 million downloads, and it’s really resonating with the audience. And we also have, you know, a daily podcast that we think is, you know, really innovative and how we’re telling stories in, you know, 10 minutes a day, and our audience is telling us, you know, they can’t get enough of it. So, I think that’s definitely interesting to us. You know, we just hired our first SEO editor and we’re really focused on you know, packaging our stories for social and, you know, making sure we’re we’re meeting people where they are.
I know that social audio has been really good for you guys too. How about USA Today. What do you do?
Well, it’s funny: I was just checking or TikTok I think we’re just checking to see how many followers I think we’re over a million somebody check me so we’re over a million and when we you know, I love it. My son’s 16 He gets all his news on Tik Tok. So whenever we show up in his feed, he’s really proud. He’s like, there’s my mom. So I mean, we’re gonna be in the spaces where people are, we’re doing Twitter Spaces, we were on Clubhouse, we were doing all the things. Really, it’s because we just want people to know that we’re there with the information they need, again, whether it’s Instagram, or Tik Tok, or a newsletter, or a podcast. And it just helps the overall reach and hopefully, you know, to your point about trust and media, if they see us enough, if they see that we’re right enough, if they see that we’re responsible enough, I want to develop that trust. And so I think it’s not just about the audience. It’s about developing that relationship and trust and like, Oh, I’ve seen you three or four times now. You know, I I know your real I know, you’re a trustworthy news source. And that’s really important to me.
Yeah and that’s interesting, because you both mentioned, you know, being where they are.
But then your values like perpetuated values and your ethos there to build that trusted relationship.
Well, it’s funny when the last join some of the January 6, and we made some decisions about, you know, we didn’t errors, certain of Donald Trump’s speeches, because I did, they were misinformation, and we chose not to air them live. We would go back and we would package them so we could fact check them before we did it. I actually went on Tik Tok. And I told people why we were doing that. And I did a video like: Hey, here’s we may be hearing about this. And this is why we’re doing that we think it’s important to fact check before we put information out there. So it was kind of fun to be able to talk directly to that audience
Addressing that that demand for immediacy. Head on,
We want it now. But here’s why we’re not.
Why don’t you tell me each of you just very quickly, a project or product that you’ve done recently that you feel is particularly innovative?
Sure. I mean, I think Axios local is probably our biggest project of the year. And, you know, talking about rebuilding trust, we want to meet people in their communities, and talk to them about the economic situation where they live, the lifestyle opportunities, where they live, also, the political landscapes where they live. So we’ve stood up in 17 cities, and we’re going to be in, I think, another 25 by the end of this year. So, we’re really proud of that expansion and trying to recapture some of what’s been lost in the local news landscape. And, you know, it’s really resonating with audiences, we’ve had over a million subscribers in those local markets, generated, you know, 5 million in revenue last year from loca. And so we think that’s, you know, a really big part of the future of Axios. And hopefully the future of restoring trust and journalism in America.
No small feat.
Yeah, just a little, just a little project.
Just a Tuesday. How about at USA Today?
Sure. Well, I really hope you guys will check out some of the AR we’ve been doing. And again, this leans more into the tech, but it’s really cool tech. So you can we did a series this past year on 1961 and the importance of what happened in 1961, around voting rights to what’s happening today. And our AR team built this amazing experience where you could actually ride the bus as it was being attacked by rioters and you can hear the story and you can you can you can hear we brought in historical video and audio. And you really feel like you can see the flames around you and you are really immersed in that experience. So, you know, again, we’re trying to bring the truth to people and help them understand news that empathy that you get from immersive storytelling is really important. Not just reading it; you’re experiencing it. So really proud of some of the work we’ve done on AR.
That’s a great example. Just before we’re done here: How about something that you think that everyone is talking about in media right now, that maybe is hype or that maybe you’re a little skeptical about?
Just in general?
In the digital media industry. Hype cycle?
I don’t know,
Alright, we can do NFTs? [laughter]
Well, we do have a newsletter that covers crypto and I think we do talk about that, you know, quite a bit. And NFTs have their place in the crypto world.
Unknown Speaker 15:48
Oh ho ho. No, it doesn’t have to be NF T’s. Metaverse can do another one. You guys bullish?
I mean, I think the Metaverse is interesting. If you think about it from the standpoint of like, we’re just building it now. You know, we don’t actually know what it’s going to be.
Is it going to be the Facebook-averse. Is that? Or is it going to be an open platform?
I guess it depends on who you ask.
We’re not going to ask Mark. Apparently, he didn’t want to talk to us about this.
Which is weird. So weird. I mean, I think we just have to keep moving forward. Like I said at the beginning in all these spaces, and here’s the cool thing, we get to invent them, right? We get to say what they’re gonna be. So that’s awesome. We’re like, you know, I know, there’s a lot of stress in media right now. But I’m really excited about where we’re at right now in media, we’re, we get to invent the future. And that’s pretty cool.
All right. The very last thing: leadership, like if you are looking out into the industry, and you want to just impart one piece of wisdom about leading an innovative team, no pressure. Aja: pressure.
I mean, I think it’s really just about having a culture of activation and being able to experiment with an idea and nurture it from experiment, you know, to fruition. I think we do that, you know, every day at Axios. And really, every day in media. Every day, we’re writing a story. It’s like, you know, where’s this going to take us at? Where’s this gonna go? And just continuing, you know, to do that?
I love that.
Yeah. I think it’s all about the people. No matter what you do, you’ve got to create the culture. You’ve got to believe in people you’ve got to have, I think I call realistic optimism. We are in a tough world. But you realistically have to think “we can do these things.” And you have to impart that to people. You have to have a culture of “yes, let’s try it.” What can you do? What can you do in a month? What can you do in two months? We have to keep moving forward.
Love it. Well, thank you both. I sincerely appreciate this. It was a great conversation and went to fast.
The newsletter gold rush is well under way. Media companies large and small are focused on their newsletter strategies. And the frontier towns of Substack, Revue and Ghost are packed with hopeful writers and journalists hoping to strike a rich vein of subscribers. But—as with real world gold rushes—there will be big winners and a wider array of also-rans, whose grand plans didn’t pan out.
Just as we are progressing from web2.0 to web3, the editorial newsletter has moved to the next level, driven in part by the emergence of integrated platforms. While the email inbox is still the destination for the final product, the ability to integrate sign-ups across social platforms and dedicated newsletter ad tools have propelled the medium to its next stage.
Between the development of those new tools and the recognition that completable, digestible news formats have value in the constantly updating nature of digital news, it’s small wonder that so much time and effort is being poured into newsletter strategy. And, driven in part by the pandemic, last year saw a raft of newspapers and magazines doubling down on newsletters for community development and revenue purposes.
The revenue models
Paid subscriptions to Substack’s newsletters exploded to more than one million late last year. Mid-2019, that number was closer to 50,000. And it isn’t just the newsletter platforms that have reaped the benefits of a bumper year for sign-ups.
The New York Times, which has around 17 million subscribers to its newsletters, announced last year that it is to make a third of those subscriber-only. Its decision around which were to be paid-for products was based largely on which newsletters it saw as being better for discovery and which had revenue potential. Its editorial director of newsletters Adam Pasick attributed that potential to growth in newsletter sign-ups from people desperate for news about the pandemic and the U.S. election.
Perhaps the best measure of the maturation of the space is the level of experimentation that has gone into newsletter revenue strategies. Mel Magazine, buoyed by subscription success, launched a trio of paid-for newsletters in March 2021. In January of this year, the newsletter Dirt launched DirtDAO which allows its subscribers to use branded NFTs to vote on and commission stories for its writers.
On the other end of the scale, the Manchester Mill is a local newsletter published to a few thousand people in a Northern UK town. Its founder Joshi Hermann told me that 2020 and 2021 outpaced his expectations for signups: “In the first year, we’ve picked up just over 1000, which is really promising, probably slightly more than I expected given the notorious difficulty of building up subscriptions in the first place for massive content and stuff. So, I’m really delighted with that.”
Beyond paid-for newsletters, ad-supported formats are increasingly popular. Andreas Jürgensen, CEO and co-founder of newsletter ad platform Passendo, said: “There’s… a whole resurgence of publishers who are email first, and are basically building strategies around email. Then web becomes secondary, or might not even exist in the mix for them. These guys have seen the light, in regards to this as a trusted channel of the future.”
But that gold rush can’t last forever. There is increased competition amid a range of newly launched newsletters from individuals and newspapers alike. With a potential impending economic crunch, sponsors and advertisers will have to cut spend, and the public won’t necessarily prioritize newsletters. So while publications might be looking to newsletters for post-Covid revenue growth, they will have to contend with growing headwinds.
However, as bad as that might be for major publishers, it will be far worse for individual newsletter creators.
Squashed by the giants
Larger publications have the resources to keep newsletters going through a slump or take the time to transition the strategy, such as for discovery over direct revenue. Individuals who have launched newsletters will be first to feel the pinch.
Neal Freyman is managing editor of Morning Brew, which preempted much of the discussion around newsletters as an editorial product when it launched in 2017. He explains: “I think it was a bit of a pandemic blip kind of thing, as we’re seeing a lot of the pandemic winners kind of fall back to Earth.
“It’s an insane amount of work to put out a newsletter every day. So, I do think you’ll see the level of individual newsletter creators fall back down to earth and realize that you know, a support system is really needed. You might see some of these writer collectives start forming, but then you’re basically looking back at a media company, again, with sales and all that.”
One early piece of evidence for that was the closure of a long-running freelancer-focused newsletter in the UK. In the announcement, the sole creator Anna Codrea-Rado noted: “There are lots of reasons for this difficult decision, but they can be summed up quite simply: it’s just not working. Most pressingly, the maths doesn’t add up anymore. The number of paying subscribers isn’t high enough to make this one-woman newsletter business sustainable anymore.”
Some of that pressure comes from the fact that the majority of consumers who choose to be informed through newsletters signed up via major publications rather than individuals. According to the latest Digital News Report only 16% of that cohort are signed up to newsletters run by individuals. Meanwhile, 53% are signed up via “mainstream media organizations.”
The Report also notes that, to some extent, the newsletter boom is a US-centric trend: “The ‘Substack revolution’ for news is still primarily a U.S. phenomenon and it is not guaranteed to catch on elsewhere, especially given the difference in market size and context.” It is notable that most of the non-U.S .publications that launched paid-for newsletters did so with modest aspirations in terms of subscribers: Mel Magazine’s three paid-for newsletters had a goal of 10,000 subscribers within their first six months.
The outlook for individual-based newsletters, then, is iffy and exposed to volatility in the wider economy. But for bigger publications, newsletters are set to retain their primacy as a tool to entice readers into their ecosystems. There might the massive market for subscription newsletters the industry might hope fore. However, newsletters still offer unmatched value as a way to connect with audiences and add value for subscribers.
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.”
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.”
Leveraging first-party data in a cookie-less world
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.
TREE KEY ‘C’S FOR NEWSLETTER SUCCESSES
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.”
“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.”
There is no doubt the media industry can be pretty cutthroat. Publishers are always looking for new ways to generate revenue and compete with big tech, which dominates the digital advertising market.
Increasingly, media companies are diversifying revenue through subscriptions. So, when news broke that Vox Media acquired the Hot Pod newsletter, many focused on the fact that this would be The Verge’s first paid-for product. But there’s more to it. This is a story of friendship, partnership, trust, and serendipity – all of which form a strong foundation for growth.
According to The Verge’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, the idea to acquire Hot Pod came about because it’s founder Nicholas Quah decided it was time to move on. Quah took on a full-time position as a podcast critic on Vulture, a Vox Media title, and was ready to shut down the baby he’d birthed back in 2014. But Patel had other ideas.
“Rather than just shut down Hot Pod, I suggested Nick sell it to Vox,” explains Patel. “It was an ideal opportunity. We like Nick. We like Hot Pod. And Nick knows us, he knows our work, and he trusts us with the product that he built. It seemed like the natural home for Hot Pod. I’m not sure a paid product on Verge would have happened otherwise. The pieces just fell together.”
This new acquisition, which increases Vox Media’s growing arsenal of brands, wasn’t purely philanthropic – after all, they have a business to run. Patel says The Verge team had been thinking about moving into paid product for some time. It was all about finding the right product, at the right time.
“Nick’s legacy Is strong. So, we have the right product and the right audience” says Patel. “This will help us learn how to deal with a paid product, without the challenge of having to build the product as well and verify two things at once.
“We have a lot to learn, but we are looking at this as a test. When we have more experience in this area, we can create new paid products down the line.”
Another key piece in the puzzle was Ashley Carman, senior Verge reporter, who will take over as lead writer of Hot Pod. Carman is a respected name in the industry, thanks to her essential reportage of podcasting and audio.
“Ashley turns up in Hot Pod all the time, as she is one of the best podcast reporters,” says Patel. “Plus, she has worked with Nick in the past, so there is a lot of inbuilt trust and the audience know her. This means the transition should be seamless, which is another potential risk that is lowered. We wouldn’t have done this deal without her.”
Trust is a word that comes up time and time again when talking to Patel. It’s clear that this is one of the reasons The Verge has amassed a loyal audience of over 50 million. That and the fact it delivers award-winning content – for free. Content across all of Vox Media – including The Verge, Recode, Polygon and more – has been free to access since its launch a decade ago. (Though about a year and a half ago, they began soliciting reader contributions to help support their journalism.) The company merged with New York, which does have subscription-based brands, in 2019.
The combined media organization boasts a roster of fan favorites, reaching audiences obsessed with tech, gaming, music, food, lifestyle and – of course – the city that never sleeps. It has also been building up its roster of newsletters and a formidable slate of podcasts. The Hot Pod acquisition adds another brand with deep insider knowledge that fans trust, which the company believes they will pay for.
“We have a very large, free audience at The Verge. And we are proud of that” says Patel. “They will continue to be well served with free content. But in addition, we will offer Hot Pod, which is a great product.
Vox plans to keep the subscription price for the newsletter at $7 per month. However, it is offering paid current subscribers a three-month subscription to New York magazine, which Quah also works for. So, what does Patel think The Verge audience will make of this new paid-for product?
“We realize you can’t just charge for more stuff. You have to charge for content that is useful and valuable. We think Ashley can deliver a lot of value that is worth paying for.”
Patel says they have a load of new ideas for Hot Pod, such as reviews of software and services that the podcast industry runs on, more features, and a broader focus on technology – rather than just podcasting. But first they plan on managing the transition in a way that ensures the audience feels “cared for.”
“Over time we will make changes, with a focus on improving user experience,” he explains. “Hot Pod is already a must read. We want to make it a definitive must read.”
“Verge has a huge team, with 70-plus people in the newsroom behind us. So, we can bring new, exciting things to Hot Pod. But before we start instituting change, we are going to prove we deserve the audience and their money.”
After all, bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes taking an independent, trusted product and giving it big backing turns out to be the beginning of the end. Hot Pod’s new host, Carmen can attest to that. One of her recent investigations offered some insights into ways this can take shape. She took a look at how podcasting’s big bad boy Joe Rogan was faring after signing a $100 million exclusive deal with Spotify. Carmen cleverly tracked indicators on social platforms and found that Rogan’s influence has actually decreased since joining the podcasting giant.
Until now podcasting has largely been the domain of independents and creatives using open platforms to distribute and market their work. But the big tech companies know there’s money there and they have arrived in force.
“At The Verge we don’t actually think that dynamic is good, which is sympatico with the Hot Pod audience and what Nick’s ethos was,” says Patel. “There is a vibrant, open eco system of creators that makes the internet and our culture what it is.”
Once again, it’s all about building trust with your audience – and not just attracting big names or making changes for a fast buck. “So much of what is good about podcasting is the democratic access to distribution. And, as distribution channels become more tightly controlled, we will see aggressive ways of pushing back.”
“For us, the story is the push and pull between what people like and what the platform companies want to do, and how they do it. And Ashley is very focussed on that story.”
Meanwhile, the company will take its first crack at a subscription product amidst a newsletter (and podcasting) boom. And with its latest acquisition, Vox Media continues to experiment and innovate – while focusing on supporting creators, quality journalism, audience engagement – and trust all-around.
The first successful American newspaper was founded in 1704 by a
postmaster named John Campbell. Called the Boston
News-Letter, it was not unlike many email newsletters today: Campbell wrote
“a summary of the most noteworthy items of information that passed through his
post office and circulat[ed] that newsletter to a small group of friends.” As
journalism historian Christopher Daly writes in his book Covering America, Campbell “filled his paper with stories that he
lifted from London newspapers – supplemented by letters from his friends, news
of the comings and goings of ships, public announcements, and some paid
advertising.” Campbell didn’t have access to Substack or TinyLetter, but his product
– a prototype for American newspapers – should sound familiar to subscribers of
modern email newsletters.
As media companies and the public have grown more skeptical of social media platforms over the past few years, email newsletters have seen a resurgence. Publishingcompanies are being built around them, new publishing tools are gaining momentum, and we’re seeing countless experiments in editorial style, format, and more. But for all that experimentation, much of publishers’ effort around email newsletters has focused on what’s new. That makes sense, given that reporting the news is journalism’s central charge, but it’s only one opportunity that email provides.
When we started thinking about this project in early 2018, there were already lotsofexcellentnewsletters devoted to data science and machine learning. Many of these, though, focused on technical, business, and societal perspectives. We wanted to cover the challenges that organizations face in actually managing data science work and teams.
A Must Read
Based on the success we’ve had with other curated products like our Must Read book series, we hypothesized that readers would prefer a finite series of carefully selected content over an ongoing weekly or monthly newsletter. We interviewed numerous data scientists to better understand the biggest management challenges that they were facing on their teams and to get their feedback on the concept. Then we commissioned and edited eight digital articles that became the heart of our email series. The articles were written by professional data scientists who’ve worked at companies including Google, Apple, Netflix, Stitch Fix, and Coursera. Each email in the series focuses on one theme (like the different types of data scientist), with all eight amounting to something of a mini-course on managing data science.
Following on the newsletter success that publishers including Axios and DealBook have had, we designed our email series to be more than a collection of links to content. Each issue links to one of the eight articles, but also contains what we think of as a “mega-summary” – a 400-word version that basically gives you the gist. It also includes further relevant reading from HBR and other sources, as well as a more lighthearted stat or chart at the bottom to reward readers who make it all the way through.
So far, Managing Data Science has been a success. More than 38,000
people have signed up for the email series, and our open rate is over 40%. We
expect the audience to grow substantially throughout 2019.
Popping the Popup
In our experience, the evergreen-series approach to email has
significant advantages in terms of product development, user acquisition, and
editorial resourcing. Unlike an event-based pop-up newsletter, we didn’t face
pressure to drive signups immediately at launch. We were able to stagger
promotion over several months, testing and gathering feedback. This ultimately
allowed us to make improvements to the design of the newsletter before
promoting it to a larger audience. We’re now able to continue promoting the
series and driving engagement with our readers without endlessly creating new
content. Instead, we can focus on incrementally improving the series for new
These examples as well as our experience suggest that evergreen
newsletters can become a critical part of publishers’ strategies. For one
thing, email engagement tends to decline over time; short-run newsletters don’t
ask readers to sign up in perpetuity. Therefore, they tend to have higher
engagement. They also help publishers focus on a particular audience. And that
focused relationship is between the publisher and the user, not mediated by
social media algorithms. Finally, as mentioned, evergreen newsletters are a
chance to take an iterative approach to improving email products. Because the
content doesn’t need to be refreshed every day or week, more attention can be
spent to continually improving other elements of the experience – such as the
subject line – and adjusting where users would most benefit.
Newsletters are only going to become more important for publishers
in the coming years. They can take many forms, and news briefings likely will
(and should) be the quintessential email product. But email programs don’t
always need to emphasize what’s new.
They can help users learn about new topics or acquire new skills, too.
About the Authors
Nicole Torres is a
senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review. Walter Frick is the deputy
editor of HBR.org and will be speaking at DCN Content Everywhere on April 25.
With so many new and immersive ways to reach audiences on their mobile devices, it’s natural to wonder if email, now nearly 50 years old, has lost its luster. But before you make a call consider reams of researchthat show email rules as the most reliable way to reach consumers everywhere on the planet. Granted, email took a hit in the wake of the European Union’s May 25 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), legislation that raised opt-in standards for email campaigns. However, the cleansethat followed also produced audiences that are genuinely interested in receiving communications and content from companies that have their express consent. It raises the question: Can companies do more with email newsletters to drive deeper engagement with their content?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” That is if they move beyond offering collections of links to offering content that has a distinct voice, format and style all its own. This is the strategy championed by Quartz, a six-year-old mobile-first publisher widely credited with helping reinvent the email newsletter. The company, which was recently acquired from Atlantic Media by Uzabase, a Japanese business intelligence and media company, broke new ground in 2017 with the launch of Quartz Obsession. The edgy email deep dives into topics that have “seismic importance to the global economy” and reports an open rate of 78%, much higher than the industry average of 22%.
Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Adam Pasick, a senior editor at Quartz who oversees Quartz’s push team, which includes email newsletters, apps, and bots. Pasick discusseshowQuartz looks beyond the newsroom for content that inspires and engages audiences, and why it pays to publish newsletters with a “sense of purpose and cohesiveness.”
PAS:Katie Weber, VP of client partnerships for Quartz, is quoted as callingthe inbox “the new homepage for executives.”How do you choose and craft newsletter content that will consistently appeal to this high-value audience?
AP:I think we’ve certainly struck a chord with an audience that is more than the sum of the numbers. We have bespoke editorial and news coverage that we tailor for our products including the Quartz Daily Brief, Quartz Obsession, as well as the Quartz app for iOS and Android. Each has their own content and their own voice.
Sometimes we adapt articles from the main Quartz site, but most of the time we are writing the content from scratch. It’s the best way to treat each of those products as their own thing, with their own audience, their own appeal and their own writing staff to make the package complete. Quartz Obsession is a great example of this. We looked at just piping regular Quartz content into these products, but we found it to be an unfulfilling experience. It just fell flat.
PAS:I’m hearing that your audience is a demographic that values an element of serendipity and rejectscontent that feels stale. How do you keep your content fresh?
AP: We are constantly testing and rolling out new products, and the Quartz Obsession email is a great example. It’s had a hugely positive response out of the gate because it invites readers to go down a rabbit hole every day on one very kind of narrow topic. Then it opens your world by giving you a big-picture view of the topic in the context of the wider world.
PAS:You call it the daily “digression.” But is the starting point the daily news?
AP: The content is inspired by topics that are in the news. But we go a step further delivering more evergreen content that sheds light on the weird and wild tangents. In this way we fill a need that people have to be delighted and surprised with content that touches on the issues of the day but also takes some unexpected turns to inspire them to see and experience what is beyond the news.
Across all Quartz stories and products there’s kind of a common editorial DNA that should run through them. But we don’t only use Quartz stories as a starting point. We are agnostic in terms of where our stories start off. It can start with a Quartz story, we are also happy to use stories from other sources for the app and the emails. It’s not about driving traffic back to the Quartz mothership; it’s about finding the best stories for our audience no matter where they started off or where they may have originated.
PAS:You oversee several products, including apps and chatbots. What are the content offers and audience preferences across these platforms?
AP: Each of those products has its own advertising format, one that is appropriate and native to that platform. This ensures that we are not reliant on driving people back to Quartz.com. This is why we feature stories from other news outlet and then adapt it and tell it in our own way. Across all these formats it’s about channeling the news into a more casual conversational style, while keeping it very tight and concise. The tone that we are aiming for is one that is how you would write if you were describing the story to your friends.
The chatbot on Facebook Messenger presents content in a conversational format, so we use different tools to kind of mimic having a conversation with a real person. There are real people writing the responses, but it takes place in an automated algorithmic fashion. The starting point is often a push notification. Thenthe experience can go beyond what’s happening in the world to sharing ways you can enhance your world. For example, we’ve taken people through lifestyle ideas and inspiration like how to bake your own soda bread. We’ve experimented with different experiences and see audiences spend the most time on content around the news. But for chatbots, as well as apps, it’s also important to mix serious stories and with topics that are off-beat or lighthearted. You want to have a diverse story mix that doesn’t kind of beat people over the head with one kind of story. It should feel more eclectic.
Our app is available on the watch, so we know we touch reader’s lives in ways that are immediate. It’s about developing innovative ways to be valuable and offer value throughout the day and across platforms. So, you start the morning reaching for your smartphone and you scan the news on what happened while you were sleeping. The Daily Brief provides a kind of editorial intelligence service and it has a very loyal audience. With the app, that’s where readers dip in and out to learn something or be delighted with content and then get on with your day. Obsession comes in when your day is wrapping up, when you’re a little exhausted and you just need something to kind of take you out of your world and into an unexpected direction.
PAS: You provide me the news and experiences you think I want. Why don’t you ask me?
AP: We are assuming that if you found your way to us you that you also like the Quartz editorial. That’s why we purposely pick, curate, and write stories that fit in with our kind of Quartziness. And that’s our goal. It’s not about the capability to write something different for every individual person. It’s about having a purpose and approach to telling the story that resonates with our audience.
In a time when the email channel is becoming increasingly clogged, you would think email newsletters would take a back seat to other forms of audience interaction. But just the opposite seems to be happening as media outlets see the newsletter as a way to communicate directly with their core audiences. Email newsletters are popular and proliferating.
Perhaps this trend is being driven by the success of newsletters like TheDailySkimm, an email-only news briefing delivered every morning with a colloquial tone that treats the news with a sense of humor and gives you what you need to know in an entertaining fashion. Regardless, every major media outlet seems to offer a variety of newsletters. These are often segmented into subjects like finance, politics and sports, full of links and information, and designed to provide the core audience with details tuned specifically for them.
A little something for everyone
Newsletters remain popular because they deliver value to both the audience and the producer. The audience gets the information they want delivered straight to their in-boxes, often tailored to their specific interests.
The publisher gets something valuable as well. While interacting with people who clearly like your media outlet and the content you produce, you also get to own the information about your readers, says digital strategist, Jacqueline Boltik.
“For newsletter producers, having an email newsletter is smart because it’s the only way to really own your audience online. Ultimately Facebook owns your Facebook fans, Twitter owns your Twitter followers. Building your digital base anywhere other than email is like building a house on rented land,” she said.
She says beyond owning your audience data, there are many other reasons to offer a newsletter. These include driving traffic, monetization, and the ability to leverage your email data to strengthen your digital strategy on other channels.
Building connections to your audience
While the data certainly has value, a newsletter is much more than simply a data collection exercise. It’s also about building a strong connection between your audience and your publication, and in some cases to your journalists or other content creators.
“The best newsletters feel personal. Even though email is one to many, it feels one to one. In general, the more you can make your newsletter feel like it’s from a person while still fitting in with your brand, the better your newsletter will be received by readers,” Boltik said.
Quartz publishes a newsletter called the Daily Brief that it sees as a key way to interact directly with some of its most avid readers. “For audience engagement, it’s immensely valuable. Daily Brief subscribers are among Quartz’s most fervent and dedicated readers, and they’re also what advertisers consider to be a “premium” audience. About half are senior leaders at their companies,” Mia Mabanta, Quartz’s executive director of product and brand marketing explained.
Beyond that, Andrew Golis, general manager of Vox Media’s news brand says that newsletters provide a way to understand the news from a trusted source in a world where social media is bombarding us with stories. “We’re all more and more overwhelmed. As consumers, newsletters allow us to connect to a curator and analyst we trust. We get a finishable wrap-up of what’s important to pay attention to and why.”
The value proposition
You would think that driving traffic back to the site would be another primary goal, but publications don’t necessarily see it that way. Email newsletters build and maintain brand loyalty with core audiences—which is valuable in the long term. If they drive traffic, that’s a bonus, but it’s often not the objective.
In fact, Quartz includes links to other sites besides their own says Mabanta. “We explicitly don’t use the email as a way to drive traffic back to our site. It’s meant to be a self-contained experience. The user can click through if she wants to dive deeper, but she doesn’t have to. And oftentimes that link doesn’t lead her to QZ.com,” Mabanta said.
Vox’s Golis feels the same way. “We don’t approach newsletters as traffic drivers. Instead, they are distributed media experiences valuable in and of themselves. We love them because they give our loyal audiences a way to establish a permanent relationship with Vox. They also give our journalists the opportunity to build that connection and a set of stories and insights with a consistent community over time,” he said.
A valuable proposition
That engaged core audience also draws in sponsors and advertisers, who are willing to pay a premium to get the attention of a known quantity, and because you own your email data, you should have a good sense of who that audience is. “Better leveraging email data is a significant opportunity for many companies and as combining data sources becomes more flexible, digital advertising is going to become much more efficient and effective,” Boltik explained.
You can get those sponsors or premium advertisers on board to directly monetize your newsletters. Or you can simply use them as a way to stay connected with your most ardent readers. Whatever the strategy, newsletters remain a valuable way to understand and interact directly with your core audience. And that, in the era of distributed content, is a valuable connection indeed.