When Facebook made changes to its algorithm in 2017 to downgrade news content in users' feeds, The Economist realised it could not rely on social platforms for traffic.
So it knuckled down on newsletters with a dedicated team, which would go on to introduce several flagship and theme-specific newsletters both for paying subscribers and for general public. Newsletters have since been instrumental in The Economist's subscription strategy.
At its core is a weekly round-up, an evening digest and a subscriber-exclusive Espresso morning briefing, the most popular newsletter on offer.
But recently, the publisher has also launched the subscriber-only Cover Story newsletter that shows the process behind the selection of the print cover story; the Checks and Balances newsletter for US political coverage; and the Climate Issue newsletter which is a collection of cross-section climate stories.
Newsletters are important catch-ups for time-poor commuters. But despite the lack of commuting during the initial coronavirus lockdown, these core readers have not vanished.
Speaking at FIPP World Media Congress 2020 today, Sunnie Huang, newsletters editor of The Economist said that the publisher will continue to invest in newsletters even with the prospect of a second lockdown looming over us. She also offered some lessons her team has learned from the past three years.
Make newsletters into a stand-alone product
"The best newsletters should be first and foremost designed with readers in mind," she says.
It is tempting to see newsletters as another way to drive traffic to, and to diffuse content from, the website. But neither of these are reader goals. The best user experience will not require readers to be redirected to make sense of it all.
"People are overwhelmed by our journalism, many people describe it as a difficult read," she explains, referencing articles that have poked fun at the publisher's relentless coverage.
"Subscribers have told us they struggle to read everything and they even feel guilty about not reading the issue every week, cover-to-cover."
She revealed that 'unread copy guilt' is one of the biggest reason why people unsubscribe, so her team is focused on not adding to the burden. Huang advised to not ask too much of the reader and stick to a tightknit number of newsletters with distinct offerings.
Hone in on a powerful user journey
People need to have a good reason to read. Newsletters are only as strong as the user journey and user experience. Here, the value proposition is what matters most.
Huang said that her team agonised over the email sign-up page, "obsessing over every pixel", so that readers know what they are signing up for. It is key to manage goals and expectations.
If, like The Economist, the optimal user experience revolves around an app, encourage readers to download and use it.
If you also have a print product, make sure the digital offering is distinct and not just replicating the same experience.
Devise cross-functional email teams
Internally, we all know the difference between marketing emails, transactional confirmations and editorial newsletters. But to others, it can all look the same.
"To readers, an email from The Economist is an email from The Economist," says Huang, adding that in addition to expanding its portfolio of newsletters, the publisher has doubled-down on the "inbox experience" across the company.
An "email squad" was assembled from many different departments - editorial, marketing, products, data, user experience, legal - to think about the email approach through workshops.
"We all think the email should be a welcoming, consistent, customer-sensitive and business-driven experience," she explains on the common ground she found within departments.
'When everyone is clear where you want to go, everything becomes easier and that's why a cross-functional team is key to success."
Never stop improving the tools and product
It is tough to produce daily newsletters bridging many themes, languages and regions.
Always seek new technological solutions, like new templates or plug-ins. But do not stop there, train more staff from different teams to get to grips with the tools and access the email platforms.
"Don't underestimate the power of internal training, the power of knowledge-sharing and how that improves processes."
Understand your reader's pain points
"Take a step back from the product and reconnect with your audience and their needs," says Huang.
"Once you know who your audience is, what needs they have and what pain points they have, it will become a lot easier to find the right products which fit those needs."
The pain point which came out of Huang's user research was how time-poor her audience was. Not only that, they would be interrupted by other emails and app notifications at any point of reading newsletters.
The key, she concluded, is to create a product with is worth their time and not overly taxing to use, as to not add to the friction.
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