2018 Trends in Publisher Email Programs

In the past, we’ve talked about trends in publisher newsletters: what kinds of newsletters they send, how many they send, when they send them.

But the newsletters themselves aren’t the only thing changing. In an evolving digital publishing world, the role of email is shifting to accommodate industry developments. For publishers, email is becoming an important tool to weather algorithm changes, supplement new publisher business models, and even provide more personalized experiences for their audience.

Here’s a quick look at some trends from the publishing & media email space.

The newsletter resurgence isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

If publishers were doubling down on email before, in 2018 it seems they’ve tripled down.

Why? In part, due to Facebook’s much-publicized pivot away from publishers. With Facebook diminishing the presence of news in the news feed, social-dependent publishing and media companies are feeling the squeeze, while publishers that have diversified their traffic with things like newsletters have weathered these algorithm changes more successfully.

The continued popularity of newsletters also aligns with another trend in digital publishing: a focus on audience engagement. Publishers are finding that the value in chasing fly-by traffic pales in comparison to the value of creating engaged readers, and newsletter subscribers tend to be a publisher’s most engaged readers.

For instance, Vox has found that their newsletter readers stay onsite longer than visitors referred from any other platform:

“I pulled the numbers last month and newsletter readers were spending about a minute fifty seconds [1:50] on the site, and about a page and a half, usually a little bit more. Whereas Facebook readers would spend 40 seconds on the site and weren’t even reading an entire page. They’re just zipping in and out, they’re clicking a link and then gone.”

They’re not alone. According to data, Greentech Media’s newsletter readers spend 80% more time onsite, and readers from New York Times newsletters consume twice as much content.

Publishers are aligning their email and social media strategies.

Of course, publishers definitely aren’t giving up on social media. They’re simply shifting their strategy.

Publishers are finding that social media delivers more results when they think of it as more of a marketing channel. According to a publisher cited in the Tow Center’s 2018 report on platforms and publishers:

“I think we are moving to a place where platforms become, essentially, marketing platforms that allow for the audience to brush up against the brand. Then [publishers] need to figure out how to get them and keep them.”

So instead of dumping content on Facebook and hoping the algorithm falls in its favor, they’re using social media to convert their social audiences into email subscribers. That way, they can use email to build real relationships with these audiences.

Promoting newsletters on Facebook has paid off for publishers like Kiplinger. A May 2018 article in Digiday discussed Kiplinger’s success using Facebook ads to drive subscriptions, noting that “It costs as little as $1 apiece for new newsletter subscribers, and Kiplinger makes an average of $3 on every subscriber it gets.”

For publishers with premium business models, Facebook ads promoting newsletter subscriptions are more likely to convert than ads for paid subscriptions. After all, people absentmindedly scrolling through their news feed probably aren’t looking to buy news—not yet, anyway. But in the meantime, email gives publishers a pretty effective way to nurture readers into eventually becoming paid subscribers.

More publishers are offering premium newsletters.

Paid business models are becoming the norm in digital publishing, but a growing number of publishers are competing for the same subscription dollars. To convert paid subscribers, publishers need to differentiate themselves, and premium email newsletters give publishers another way to add value to a paid subscription.

From The Economist’s Espresso to the Slate Plus Digest, more than a third of publishersare offering paid newsletters to sweeten the deal for subscribers. But premium newsletters aren’t just about bringing new subscribers in; they’re also a good way to ensure those subscribers stick around. The high engagement of newsletter subscribers makes email a critical contributor to paid subscriber retention.

Newsletters have become a critical part of new publisher business models.

If there’s one thing that publishers are learning as they move to paid models, it’s that there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Still, no matter the model, email plays a critical role in its success, and this is no more apparent than in the approaches of local, niche, and nonprofit publishers.

Launched in 2016, the News Revenue Hub set out to draw up a blueprint for building publisher membership programs. They teamed up with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to develop the Playbook for Launching a Local, Nonprofit News Outlet. At the core of a nonprofit model’s success? Email.

“Make email your first priority… As social media platforms and smartphones have made audience attention more elusive and advertising dollars more tenuous, email remains one of the most proven and powerful methods for directly reaching your audience and attracting their attention and loyalty.

“Right when you begin publishing, start collecting email addresses and engaging in direct dialogue with readers. Daily and weekly newsletters, akin to a print newspaper in the mailbox or on the front step, get readers in the habit of reading your reporting.”

For publishers with membership or contribution-based models, email provides a way to grow and convert the donor base. Readers are more likely to donate when they see value in content or investigative journalism, and newsletters (or even persuasive marketing emails) are a critical way of demonstrating that value.

Publishers are using their already-engaged audiences to launch new newsletter products.

Publishers have long used their email newsletters to try out new products. The high engagement of email audiences makes them ideal guinea pigs for publisher experimentation.

Especially when those experiments are new newsletters.

With the power of newsletters well-documented, publishers are eager to add new email products to their email programs. Still, no matter how great your new newsletter is, getting it off the ground can be tough if you’re starting your list from zero. Instead, senders are taking advantage of their existing email list to bootstrap new newsletters.

Some publishers have sent an email inviting their list to subscribe to their new product (like Vox did just this week with their new Future Perfect newsletter), while others have chosen to just opt their existing list in automatically. Provided your audience knows they can count on you for quality content (and you include a clear opt-out link at the top of the first newsletter), you can typically do this with good results.

Publishers are using first-party data to send personalized content.

Between GDPR and tightening restrictions on third-party data, a publisher’s first-party data is more important than ever. The challenge is making that data actionable, but it’s a challenge that top publishers are meeting—whether with technology like CDPs or even just by making better use of the first-party data already available to them in their Google Analytics instance.

Knowing what content a user has consumed in the past gives publishers a good idea of what they’ll likely consume in the future. This gives them the ability to personalize the experience, whether it’s by displaying CTAs that correspond with their place in the subscription funnel or sending email notifications about breaking news updates to stories a reader previously viewed.

Publishers like Apartment Therapy Media are even experimenting with email personalization to curate more relevant newsletters. With PostUp’s integration, Apartment Therapy sends content relevant to subscriber interests, even excluding articles the subscriber has previously read.

Better email technology is easing publisher headaches.

In the past, publishers have cited technology concerns as hurdles to successful newsletter programs. With limited resources available, publishers couldn’t afford to grapple with problems posed by email technology, but they also couldn’t afford to not benefit from email revenue.

Fortunately, email technology is catching up to the publisher pace, allowing publishers to automate, personalize, and report on email with ease. From newsletter startups simplifying the paid newsletter creation process to enterprise-level email technology built specifically for publishers, engineering an email program to engage publisher audiences is more effective and more efficient than ever.

Yes, something as seemingly quaint as email is advancing forward in a way that makes things easier for publishers. Email might not be the trendiest medium, but the publishers making effective use of it definitely seem to be trending towards success.

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