by Eric Potter Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute October 31, 2018 When Tamara Power-Drutis worked at Crosscut Public Media, a nonprofit news site in Seattle, she was involved with the site’s email newsletter. She was absolutely sure they were doing it wrong. She just didn’t know in what way. “It went out twice a day, but we didn’t [...]
With no silver bullet or obvious funding solution for the future of journalism, our eyes are glued to the horizon for the next great idea. But what if some of those ideas aren’t on the horizon, but right in front of us? As Freek Staps wrote in his roadmap for media entrepreneurship, “Not every idea has to be a blockbuster. Small successes can also lead to new revenue streams (and a larger scaled transformation in the newsroom).” One of those nonblockbuster opportunities is likely sitting in your inbox right now: newsletters. If done well, newsletters can inform subscribers while also generating revenue. However, it’s important to know from the outset what the main purpose is. For curators interested in monetizing their newsletter, here are four possible methods to consider.
Your newsletter subscribers are trying to tell you something, but are you tracking the right metrics to hear them? Learning from and iterating upon even the simplest elements of your newsletter can lead to powerful insights and improvements for your newsletter and audience, as we discussed in Designing a Data-Driven Newsletter. Curators traditionally rely on three standard metrics to gauge newsletter effectiveness: open rate, click-thru rate and subscription rate. Yet these alone don’t provide a complete picture of newsletter health. Conversely, collecting every possible data point does not guarantee fitness. Too many curators waste time collecting data simply for the sake of collecting, rather than using analytics to diagnose and improve.
The greatest barrier to being data-driven isn’t capacity or expertise, but discipline. Being data-driven is as much a habit as it is a business model, and collecting data you don’t use isn’t just bad business sense, it’s also bad for morale. At a time when newsrooms across the country are downsizing and streamlining to make the most of their resources, collecting data can either be a tool to increase efficiency and impact or it can be an enormous waste of time. The difference is in learning from and iterating based on that data. Testing, measuring and analyzing even the simplest elements of your newsletter — such as send time or placement of visuals — can lead to powerful insight on your audience and what they want from you.
Like many modern freelancers, you may find journalist Ann Friedman in a range of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and New York Magazine. This disaggregation of her body of work can make it difficult for readers to develop loyalty. Yet many readers — particularly millennials — are more interested in following a writer they trust or enjoy than a publication. “People like people more than brands,” Friedman told Crosscut in a recent interview, which is why she began curating her own weekly newsletter to better engage and grow her readers across publications. The roughly 500-word-count letter highlights topics she finds interesting, written in her distinctly casual, first-person tone. Through unpaid social media and word of mouth, Friedman has grown her subscriber base to more than 25,000 readers since the newsletter launch in 2013.
E-newsletters have become a primary engagement, dissemination and revenue-generating tool for modern newsrooms. With benefits ranging from reader loyalty to audience insights to new revenue, it’s easy to see why. What’s harder to see is the “why not,” though it’s equally important. Email used to be a method for filtering the internet. Far from the infinity scroll or overcrowded stream of unvetted articles, email delivered exactly what we needed to know from a trusted source in a format that we could finish. For newsrooms, email allowed us to target exactly who we wanted with the content and branding we wanted them to see. Email has not only outlived and outshone other tools, it has remained the one constant in a stream of new technologies. As ReDef executive Jason Hirschhorn told The New York Times, email is “the cockroach of the internet.”
If you operate a nonprofit newsroom, email appeals have likely become an essential fundraising tool. Yet while recommendations for how to grow your mailing lists are readily available, it’s much harder to find good information about retaining subscribers and engaging them as active community members. As a result, many successful efforts to gain subscribers are followed swiftly by flurries of unsubscribes or high spam ratings. Through a fellowship with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, I’ve set out to explore ways that nonprofit news outlets can turn fly-by readers into email subscribers and, further, into supporting members.