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Email Personalization in Publisher Newsletters

With the publisher pivot to paid subscriptions comes the need for those publishers to better convey the value of those subscriptions to their audience:

“Marketing subscriptions used to be all about transactions, with little personality,” says Sheppard. “It was almost cold.” But with an online content product that includes magazine, apps, web content, podcast and video, “it is important to get that information out to subscribers to let them know the value of their subscription,” he says.

Among other things, the need to put the right information in front of the right audiences has led to an increasing publisher interest in personalization. Publishers are personalizing communication, content, and (with dynamic paywalls) even their business models to drive subscriptions.

Undoubtedly, email is critical to this value communication process, so it’s no surprise that publishers are eyeing personalized email in particular. Unlike other industries, email personalization for publishers isn’t merely a matter of sticking first names in the copy or sending abandoned cart emails. More importantly, it’s about delivering the content that’s most likely to engage them (and keep them engaged). Here are a few ways to get personal in the inbox.

1:1 newsletter personalization based on viewing activity.

As a direct link to your individual readers, email is particularly amenable to 1:1 personalization.  And with the role that email plays in establishing audience identity, it also provides valuable insights into the kinds of content each of those individuals consumes. This allows you to enrich your email audience with this behavioral data and tailor your newsletters accordingly.

Apartment Therapy uses PostUp and Parse.ly to personalize newsletter content:

“Instead of a one-size-fits all roundup, subscribers receive emails with articles relevant to their interests: someone who’s been reading up on bathroom renovations might get tips for de-cluttering her counter. To keep things fresh, Apartment Therapy also skips sending articles subscribers have already read.”

Some 1:1 personalization experiments at other publishers have also been promising. The Austin American-Statesman’s personalized newsletter content drove higher open rates than its more general control newsletter. More recently, The Times of London’s “digital butler” James uses machine learning to personalize both email content and the time the email is sent.

Still, that doesn’t mean personalization will bring endless email engagement. Some publishers have found that detailed hyperpersonalization efforts “never really had enough of a lift for [them] to justify the expense and complexity.” That’s why it’s important not to chase content personalization as an end in and of itself.

Ultimately, the goal is to show your audience relevant content, while also leaving the door open for content discovery. You can accomplish this goal by taking a broader approach…

Self-Personalization: connecting audiences with the right content.

At its simplest level, newsletter personalization doesn’t require additional tech—just a few additional newsletters. If you offer multiple newsletter products specializing in a particular topic or vertical, your email audience can “self-personalize” the content they receive:

“Self-personalization is a promising approach at Condé. It is seeing tremendous response to Vanity Fair’s ‘The Players’ section, which lets users sign up to follow and receive email content about specific celebrities and to nano-niche e-letters like ‘Royal Watch.’

“‘It is our highest performing newsletter at Condé Nast.’”

The key is to match your passing audiences with the right newsletter. When a reader arrives, tailor your email capture form’s messaging to match the content being read. If they’re reading about a particular topic, they likely have some degree of interest in that topic; offer them the newsletter that most closely matches that topic. You can use this approach to win new subscribers or encourage existing subscribers to opt into additional newsletters.

Rather than having one personalized newsletter, offering multiple newsletters allows you to cater to a larger audience plus establish more contact points with that audience. It’s a win-win: readers receive content that aligns with their interests, and you get an additional chance to engage them each day. That gets audiences back to your site more often, and it also gives you more chances to show in-email advertising.

Sending highly-engaged readers additional newsletters.

When you offer multiple newsletters, you don’t necessarily have to wait for your audience to self-personalize the email content they receive. With the right data, you can “personalize” their newsletter content by opting your most avid readers into additional newsletters as appropriate.

For instance, if you have a weekly best-of newsletter, your first-party data may show you that some of its subscribers primarily consume content of a certain type. If you have newsletter products that focus on that particular type of content, you can opt the reader into those additional emails proactively, typically to good results. On the other hand, you can take a more conservative approach and use newsletter cross-promotion in your emails to allow readers to sign up for more email themselves. Because you already have their email address, subscribers can opt into additional newsletters with a single click.

Proactive opt-ins and cross-promotion allow you to further tap into your already-established direct audiences. This can come in handy when you launch additional newsletters, an increasingly popular practice among publishers. Instead of starting a newsletter from zero, you can get a running start with a built-in engaged audience.

As you create additional newsletter products (and particularly if you’re going to automatically opt subscribers in), be sure to house your newsletter options in a preference center, along with options for adjusting email frequency. While few people will visit your preference center to opt into additional newsletters, having one may help you convince a potential opt-out to stick around by giving them further opportunities to self-personalize their email experience:

“But at Rolling Stone, they will send a daily email and direct users to an ‘opt-down’ preference page so users can regulate the amount of messaging they receive. ‘It does decrease our opt-outs by a significant amount and overall increases engagement,” Kirkwood says.’”

Email personalization that matches a reader’s spot in their lifecycle.

While personalizing content to a reader’s interests can effectively increase engagement, as paid subscriptions play a larger role in publisher business models, personalizing email to a subscriber’s spot in the lifecycle is equally important.

Why? Recent American Press Institute research determined that “email newsletters are the single most effective way to get people to decide to subscribe.” Hitting your newsletter subscribers with a well-timed marketing email may be what it takes to convert them into paying subscribers. As publishers are learning, email also plays a large role in getting people to remain subscribed.

The New Yorker has found that even getting trial subscribers back to the site just once or twice increases retention 7 percent. But when email re-engagement efforts are personalized to engage subscribers at the right time, they can reduce churnsignificantly:

“[The Globe and Mail] found that emailing subscribers with the highest propensity to churn reduced churn by 140%, while emailing subscribers who haven’t logged in for 30 days helps to reduce churn by 27%.”

That’s why it’s important to hit these subscribers at the right time, nudging them before they disengage entirely. Rather than occasionally sending a re-engagement email campaign to an entire segment of your list, setting up a re-engagement program to target subscribers at a precise moment in their lifecycle ensures your re-engagement efforts are most effective.

What do you send to re-engage readers? Some publishers attempt to grab audience attention by changing up what those audiences receive. You can achieve this by sending these subscribers one of your other newsletters, or even crafting something special for them. For instance, Elevator’s subscribers get a personalized note after not opening an email for 90 days, while Morning Brew sends a “message from the CEO.” These emails are designed to remind lapsed subscribers of the value of opening their email.

Getting personal without personalization.

For many publishers, email personalization isn’t necessarily about putting personal information to use. It’s about making those email newsletters more personal. The inbox provides a place to communicate more informally, and in turn, foster audience relationships:

“The most important part of a newsletter is not the ‘news,’ but the ‘letter.’ Your email should feel more like a letter from one person to another. …Your newsletter is an important opportunity to create or deepen a relationship. It’s not just a ‘content distribution strategy.’”

No longer simply a vessel for repurposed web content, publishers increasingly view their newsletters as products in and of themselves. Publishers like The New Yorkertailor their email content for the “cozier” feel of the inbox:

“This has always been a loyalty type of business. You don’t last that long without building strong relationships with readers. Email is kind of like a living room. It’s a very personal space. You let in your friends, the coworkers you like, and a couple of brands you really trust…”

This focus on newsletter quality also gives publishers additional avenues for monetization. The Economist supplements their value proposition with subscriber-exclusive newsletter content. Meanwhile, the Financial Times built such a loyal following with its personable Due Diligence newsletter that they were able to turn it into an event series.

That being said, friendly editorial and automated personalization aren’t mutually exclusive. It takes time to write newsletters, and automating parts of your newsletter creation can free up some of that time. With the right newsletter automation tools, you can find a balance between automation and editorial that works for your audience and business model. A balance that’s personalized to you, if you will.

Melanie Angel
Editor, PostUp PlayBook

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