"Email is the main cog in the social media machine," Lynda Moyo, What's On editor at Manchester Evening news and Trinity Mirror Regionals, told Journalism.co.uk of her experience in writing newsletters.
"You can't have a Twitter or Facebook without an email address."
It may not be as visible or public as social media or a website, but email is still the main channel by which the world communicates online. A 2013 study estimates the number of worldwide email accounts to be 3.9 billion, with more than 180 billion emails sent each day.
As such, an email newsletter is as valuable a channel to reach readers as any other, but some are more successful than others. This how-to guide shares tips from some industry experts who have found regular, engaged readers in the newsletters they produce.
Moyo's success at Manchester Confidential prior to Trinity Mirror involved regular newsletters to engage subscribers, an important element of her new role at Trinity Mirror. Much of her work has been in lifestyle and entertainment, so a more laid-back, personable tone fits the subject matter, but she believes a more conversational approach is the key to success for newsletters.
"It's a bit like if you get home from work and your puppy was sat on the doorstep wagging it's tail," she said, "all happy and excited that you were home and it's got your newspaper in its mouth then you'd go and take it.I want it to feel like it's arrived from a friendMartin Belam, Trinity Mirror
"But if you saw the junk mail leaflets that are still stuck in the letter box, just hanging there, you would pull them out and put them in the bin. It's a bit like that. If it's a newsletter that people can identify with, delivered to them in a friendly tone, then they're more likely to read it."
At Ampp3d, Trinity Mirror's data-driven journalism site, editor Martin Belam writes a newsletter to go out to subscribers at 5pm, highlighting the most important stories produced that day and pointing to any evening coverage of current affairs television.
Rather than "churning out 10 headlines from an RSS feed", he too gives his newsletters a conversational air, even when there have been serious stories covered throughout the day.
"I want it to feel like it's arrived from a friend," Belam told Journalism.co.uk, "from someone you know, that local radio newscaster style. So when you're writing it, think you have an audience of multiple people but write to them as if they're someone you know. So it's got that cosy, friendly feel at the end of the day. And the newsletter is really important in setting the tone for the site."
Open rates are around 40 per cent, he said, and the same is true of Quartz, an organisation that passed the 5 million milestone for monthly traffic in under 18 months and had received over 50,000 subscribers to its newsletter by February.
Gideon Lichfield, Quartz's global news editor, says the conversational tone is vital to the success of the Quartz newsletter in making it appear to be "from an intelligent, worldly, well-informed, witty, cosmopolitan, global individual", he said, "who is telling you what just happened in the world and what's been happening and what you need to know about."
A personal touch is all the more important for aggregation newsletters, he said, because "it gives that sensation of having been thought about and intelligently picked" that cannot be matched for injecting "a little bit of wit [or] a slightly irreverent take on the news".
The Morning Memo, founded by BuzzFeed news reporter Siraj Datoo while he was still a student, is an aggregation newsletter with the express purpose of updating "young, mobile readers" who may have the inclination but not the time to read the news.
Datoo stressed the importance of a conversational tone for The Morning Memo in seeing open rates of between 50 and 60 per cent, but the timing of the email – 8am each morning – is central to the concept.There are different newsletters that serve different purposesGideon Lichfield, Quartz
"I'm almost certain now that if we had an email newsletter that was weekly the open rates would be much lower," Datoo told Journalism.co.uk. "The way that we have done this – sticking to the same time – we've managed to create a brand loyalty among readers because they keep coming back for more and wanting to read it."
The Morning Memo is aimed at giving young commuters news from the UK, technology, science and business fields in a similar manner to the Quartz newsletter. Where Quartz differs is in its global reach, so there are three editions, said Lichfield, each timed to go out at 6am in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
"We wanted it to be a thing that sets you up for the day," he said.
"There are different newsletters that serve different purposes", he said, but the 6am timing is designed to ensure the subscriber receives it between overnight spam and the morning deluge of work emails.
At Ampp3d, the 5pm timing is intended to serve a specific purpose, rounding up the site's output at the end of the working day and giving the reader "tacit permission to go off and look at stuff on the internet" said Belam.
Although these examples have different styles and objectives, building the newsletter into the routine of the reader in a way that is reflective of the brand is a common theme in their success.
Each edition of the Quartz newsletter is written and edited by different people but the unifying format stays the same. A regular reader was so taken with how much he enjoyed it that he posted a detailed analysis from a user experience perspective that Lichfield now gives to new writers of the newsletter as a guide. Making the format "codified" in this way gives a consistency that people keep coming back to, he said.
"People get it at a certain time, they know roughly how long it's going to be, how long each item is going to be, they know the format that each item is going to take, how it's going to present that information to them," Lichfield said. "It's the same day after day and that's one of the things that people like."For any media to succeed these days it has to think about how it fits into people's dayGideon Lichfield, Quartz
There are elements of the format which make it more attractive though. Moyo pointed out the need for a subject line that is concise, noticeable and intriguing – effectively the newsletter's headline – while Belam added that more serious stories work better higher up in the email with more light-hearted content further down.
"Don't give people teasers in the email," he added, "just tell them the story because they might be in the middle of their commute."
The same applies to images, he said, where they can help to illustrate some stories in the email it needs to be planned for mobile consumption. Linking to an image-heavy story may be risky if there is a poor connection, so adding a mobile-friendly image straight into the newsletter may be more effective, he said.
The ideas behind format, timing, and mobile design are all part of what Lichfield sees as the changing role of media in reader's lives.
"When we started we always thought about when and how people read what we publish," he said, "and this is another aspect of that. It's thinking how we fit into their day and that's increasingly the job of media. For any media to succeed these days it has to think about how it fits into people's day."
At Manchester Confidential, Moyo said the online magazine is "mainly lifestyle led", with a focus on food, health, events, beauty, entertainment, fashion and culture.
Over the decade since it was established they have built a database of "hundreds of thousands" of subscribers divided into lists by interest and demographic, she said.If you know their date of birth then who's to say that in the future you can't send them some sort of email birthday cardLynda Moyo, Trinity Mirror
"So they send out a newsletter every single day to different lists, depending on what you're interested in," Moyo said. "Hundreds of thousands of people whose details they have, narrowed down to geographical location, what they're interested in, age, sex."
Not only can this help readers to receive the stories they want but it can help the business side of a publication in better understanding their readers and promoting adverts or products which are genuinely relevant.
"If you know their date of birth then who's to say that in the future you can't send them some sort of email birthday card," Moyo said as an example, "which, from a commercial point of view, you could tie that in with 'here's your birthday, here's 20 per cent off a particular restaurant'."
When Belam worked on the email newsletter system for BBC news he noticed the success of allowing subscribers to choose specific sections they were interested in to regularly be sent top stories from each. Such personalisation was "an incredibly effective traffic driver", he said, and something he discussed during his time at the Guardian, allowing readers to follow blogs or journalists that they particularly like.
As editor of new projects at Trinity Mirror – including humour site UsVsTh3m and new project MirrorRowZed alongside Ampp3d – the publications under his leadership don't have the same level of output but the same ideas should apply as to how it is personalised.
"You have enough signals to know what is going on the home page and what is working and distil a decent email newsletter length," he said.
Relationship with other channels
The role of the website and traffic stats in knowing what stories are popular is just as useful as social media.
"I think social media is much more visible than email newsletters are, so you can see things happening in real time on social media," he said. "With UsVsTh3m we ended up treating Twitter as the canary in the coal mine: if you got a lot of action around a particular story or game it probably tells you that it's going to go really well."
There are differences in response though, as some stories or quizzes received a a bigger draw of traffic from email than social media for UsVsTh3m. Different channels represent a different form of engagement with the audience that is no less effective. Even if email is the "unsexy older cousin" of fashionable social networks, said, Belam, email is still a "very powerful medium", an idea with which Lichfield agrees.
"Social is very serendipitous and email is a way to get people's attention much more effectively," he said. "So if you can write an email that is crafted well, that someone is likely to open and they know it's going to arrive at a certain time of day then it's much easier to create a regular relationship with someone. In the same way that a regularly delivered newspaper or magazine used to create that relationship back in the 'good old days'."
That relationship, based on a conversational tone, regular timing and consistent format, is why the Quartz newsletter works, he said, and is also what makes a newsletter effective: in delivering articles directly to a reader, a moment of online peace among everything else vying for attention.
"People are presented with so many decisions on the internet, every second, every minute, so anything you can do that reduces the number of decisions they have to take is going to be effective."
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