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Should Publishers Use Email Newsletter Personalization?

In their quest to deliver hyper-relevant, highly actionable content, email marketers have made 1:1 personalization the goal. While personalized email can work for ecommerce and other industries, digital publishing’s unique problems complicate the personalization question, as we’ve talked about before.

Like retailers, publishers use email to build audience relationships and sell subscriptions, but for many companies, the email newsletter is the product itself. Newsletters in the publishing & media space have succeeded largely by prioritizing specialized content and strong voices over personalization; however, a recent Reynolds Journalism Institute study claims publishers should start considering the opposite.

How do publishers and readers feel about personalization?

Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach to media is inferior to delivering content that readers want. Most media companies have “personalized” their email through specialization: publishers offer multiple newsletters, and readers sign up for the ones they like. So far, it’s paying off: readers who receive one or more of the New York Times’ 50+ newsletters are twice as likely to buy a subscription. Still, with the resources required to curate dozens of daily newsletters, some editors are looking towards automation to provide readers with highly-relevant content.

But is personalization what readers want? The Times found out for themselves after their plans to personalize were met with mixed feelings. For some readers, news personalization means convenience; for others, it sounds a lot like the “filter bubble” of social media news that’s been widely derided as of late. Nevertheless, some publishers believe that personalized news can be a means of empowerment and increased engagement. The Austin American-Statesman decided to test it out.

What happens when publishers use email newsletter personalization?

In 2016, the Reynolds Journalism Institute partnered with The Austin American-Statesman to test whether email personalization outperformed human curation. First, they created a new email newsletter with content populated by a personalization algorithm. This email gave reader 5 articles every weekday based on individual preferences. They pitted the new product against a nearly identical editor-curated newsletter.

After 6 months of testing, the personalized email had nearly twice the open rate of the curated newsletter (75% to 38%) and more than tripled its click rate (14.5% to 4.6%). It’s important to note that newer subscribers tend to open more email, and anyone who takes the time to identify their interests (as the personalized email required them to do) is already more prone to engagement than the average reader. Still, the margin is large enough to suggest some appetite for personalized emails.

What does all of this mean?

In terms of newsletter performance, it’s undeniable that the personalized newsletter is the winner, but is worth it to just chase newsletter metrics? It can be. If your newsletters are a significant source of direct revenue, engagement is attractive to potential newsletter sponsors or advertisers. Still, many publishers see their highest newsletter engagement not from automated lists of articles but from newsletter-exclusive content written in a familiar or lighthearted tone. As impressive as AI is, it’ll probably be awhile before robots start dropping political jokes in our inbox.

For the Austin American-Statesman, driving page views is secondary to selling subscriptions. Ultimately, the goal of their email is to convince casual users that the publication is worth paying to access beyond the metered paywall. It can do wonders for the perceived value of a subscription if 100% of the articles they see in an email pique their interest. Speaking from personal experience, they’ll probably be thinking pretty hard about a subscription after they hit their 4-article limit for the month on day 2.

Rare relies on ads for revenue, both in their emails and on their site. In-email ads can generate more revenue than ads on a site because the inbox grants more attention, visibility, and a safe haven from ad blockers. The focused nature of the inbox isn’t just good for advertisers: research by the Reuters Institute suggests that email audiences are more likely to find and enjoy articles they wouldn’t normally consider reading. By giving readers subject-based newsletters multiple times per day, they make it more likely that readers will discover, click, and generate ad revenue.

Okay, but seriously, should publishers personalize?

While the pursuit of personalization is all the rage in the digital marketing world, chasing 1:1 personalization isn’t inherently useful. Publishers who rely on metered paywalls and subscriptions may benefit from highly-relevant content that outweighs the cost of implementing the algorithms to do so. Meanwhile, smaller publishers with business models that prioritize ad revenue might be better off monetizing their newsletters and sticking with the vertical approach. Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits all solution; your newsletter strategy must be personalized for your business model.

In need of more ideas for your newsletters? PostUp’s clients get results with responsive templates, email capture lightboxes, interactive content, and newsletter redesigns that keep up with the latest trends in the digital publishing world. Click here to get PostUp’s latest creative services lookbook and get inspired.

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