Let me start with a quick introduction: My team leads strategy for email newsletters at The Wall Street Journal. We’re big believers in email as a tool to deliver news and engage audiences. Across the media landscape, email newsletters are on fire, and for all the right reasons. Our research shows newsletters are workhorses of reader engagement and subscriber growth and retention. Subscribing to a newsletter materially reduces churn among our members while boosting the likelihood of conversion among nonmembers.
We own the customer relationship for those who subscribe to newsletters; there’s no algorithm playing mediator. We use newsletters to showcase deep subject-matter expertise and unique voices, to deliver messages that inform and delight. We get real-time feedback on what readers like and put them directly in touch with our journalists.
Great newsletters are within reach for most every newsroom; they do not require a sophisticated strategy or big team. In fact, local media outlets, business journals, digital start-ups and individual authors have thrived in the email space by building loyal audiences, and they continue to pioneer new approaches.
But as more offerings join the fray, vying for attention in increasingly crowded inboxes, it will take more to stand out. Here are four approaches designed to keep audiences coming back for more.
- Draw inspiration from the past.
As an industry, we’re plenty familiar with the drawbacks of print newspapers and have invested heavily in digital business models (appropriately so).
But there are digital opportunities to build on the attributes that helped make print newspapers so sticky for so long: They delivered news and information in a convenient, well-packaged, completable form, at home or work. They offered a clear prioritization of what was most important at that moment. They packed surprises.
Newsletters can do all of these things too, and, in some cases, improve upon them. Readers today don’t even have to walk to their doorsteps to pick up the newspaper; they can peruse their favorite morning newsletter right after hitting “snooze” one final time . This makes timely delivery important, alongside brevity and a clear hierarchy of what’s most important.
A few other ways to draw inspiration from the past:
- Consider “extra” editions of your newsletters based on deeper coverage of major stories or broader themes, such as trade or climate change. You don’t want to send too often, of course, but readers notice and appreciate when you give them something special that they weren’t expecting. Make sure to signal in the subject line it’s an “extra” edition. And keep an eye on performance so you can revisit topics that resonate.
- Aim to include a “wild-card” story or two in each edition — think animals, culture or technology. The goal is serendipity, to show a side of life that’s less serious than much of the news we cover and to keep readers on their toes.
- Don’t overdo it with links; make sure the newsletter itself has stand-alone value, even if a reader doesn’t click anything. Naturally, we want to invite readers to explore our full stories, but they’re more likely to engage if we avoid the hard sell of a newsletter overwhelmed with links (remember: there were no links in print).
- Focus on reader service to build habit.
It’s natural to fall into routines and formulas when building newsletters, losing sight of the big-picture “why.” Consider developing a short mission statement, which can go in each edition of the newsletter itself as a reminder to your team and readers. It will probably contain some combination of informing and entertaining your audience, helping them get ahead at life or work. Name the team members too, and include contact information so readers can hold you accountable.
A few other ways to emphasize reader service:
- Summarize and link to important stories from other news sources, including competitors. This is one of the clearest ways you can signal to readers you have their interest at heart. They’re likely to repay the favor by making your newsletter a priority daily read.
- Include stand-alone data points that are useful at a glance: a calendar of what’s ahead or what you’re planning to cover that day, a snapshot of the stock market or how to reach local services or officials.
- Set up a reply-to email address — or use your own email as the reply-to — so your readers can interact with the newsroom directly. Within the newsletter, invite readers to “reply to this message” with their feedback. You won’t get an overwhelming number of emails, but you’ll build a stronger connection with readers (who are more inclined than you might think to send nice notes when they realize they’re emailing a real person).
- Don’t overlook formatting.
Ease of use is critical to winning over loyal, regular newsletter readers. Of course, a slick design with lots of photos and graphics doesn’t hurt. But bells and whistles only go so far without a user-friendly, organized structure – think topical subheadings, bullet points/numbering and recurring features like Q&As and by-the-numbers modules.
One way to think about formatting a newsletter is to aim to serve three categories of reader who may open it: The first is casual, giving the newsletter a quick glance. So make sure they can get a few fast takeaways as they scroll. The second consumes the newsletter as a stand-alone news source, and they value snappy and concise summaries that do more than push you to click links. The third category includes deeper readers who use the newsletter as a table of contents of sorts to navigate their way to longer reads.
A few other formatting ideas:
- Let the news inspire the structure of your email, and don’t overthink it. Break out useful information like numbers, background facts and the implications of a news event. Don’t be shy about your own authority and expertise.
- Use bold sparingly, to serve as a wayfinder within the email or to emphasize fully formed key takeaways; avoid italic type, because it can be hard to read on a mobile phone.
- Pay attention to reading time; you can either time yourself reading the newsletter out loud (not a bad exercise itself) or copy the text into a web-based reading-time calculator. Consider sharing total reading time in the email itself as a service to readers and an institutional way to keep emails from getting too long.
- Make it a conversation.
We all use email for both work and personal reasons, addressed to large groups and small ones and individual recipients, and, for most of us, there’s overlap on which accounts we use for which purposes. One common denominator: Emails with a personal touch command more attention from recipients.
Newsletters are no exception. Those that get creative about reader involvement are rewarded with higher engagement. Ask readers a question and feature select responses in each edition, include polls or investigate reader questions and report responses (questions about anything, from city services to savings or investing).
A few other ideas for getting readers involved:
- Think about how you personally use the platform of email and let that inspire your newsletters. Start with a greeting that changes based on the day or season, and end with a friendly signoff. Keep it conversational. If you’re taking a hiatus, let readers know in advance. If someone else is taking the reins of the newsletter for a stint, have them introduce themselves straight away.
- Set the newsletter to come from the person who’s anchoring it (using the send-from field). We’re much more likely to open an email from a person than an institution. And always include an easy way for readers to reach you.
- Tell short reader stories in your newsletter and include their faces when possible; these can be drawn from comments readers have left on stories, responses to a general newsroom inbox or reported out of feedback solicited in a prior edition of the newsletter.
Please drop me a line, at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you ever want to talk more about newsletters.
Cory Schouten serves as New Formats Editor at The Wall Street Journal, with a to-do list that includes more than 40 newsletters and alerts, embedded calendars, rankings, slide decks, e-books, live chat and other storytelling formats. Previously he was a senior editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
Tagged under: Newsletters