Digital Publishing: You’ve Got Mail

By: Rob Tornoe

Digital Publishing: You’ve Got Mail

Tweet this, share that, pin it, post it on Instagram—as journalists, it’s easy to feel like we’re slaves to the everyday demands of social media. Unfortunately, developing a presence on Facebook, Twitter and others have become a necessity in an age of hyper-competition between news organizations.

But for all the benefits of engaging with readers, content on social media can seem both scattered and endless. TechCrunch editor Erick Schonfeld dubbed this flow of content “The Stream,” which winds its way through the Web and reorganizes it based on one singular criteria—“nowness.” Plus, publishers are constantly at the mercy of newsfeed changes and algorithm shifts by social media companies that have their own bottom line to maintain.

Because of all this, more and more media companies are turning to a relic of our digital past to cut through the scattered haze of social media to better reach readers and promote content. Yes, I’m talking about the same place you receive anti-Obama notes from your uncle and poorly-spelled notifications of financial windfalls from Nigeria—your e-mail.

Dubbed “the cockroach of the Internet” by ReDef’s Jason Hirschhorn, not only have e-mail newsletters survived the onslaught of blogging and social media, lately they’re thriving among engagement editors looking for greater success in reach their overburdened audience.

“I don’t think of it so much as a resurgence—email newsletters never went away—but instead, those who may have lost focus with the shiny new social media toys are now refocusing on the ever-reliable, impactful channel of email marketing,” said Ron Cates, the director of digital marketing education at industry-leader Constant Contact.

The success of Mike Allen’s go-to political newsletter “Playbook” points to the potential a popular newsletter can bring in terms of delivering not only content, but revenue. According to the Washington Post, Politico collects about $35,000 for a weekly sponsorship in the daily newsletter that includes a brief “Playbook” blurb and a small “paid advertisement” disclosure.

Under now-fired publisher Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles Times has gone down this route, creating several new email newsletters curated by journalists on topics aimed at landing a big-money sponsor. Among the most popular is “Essential California,” which aggregates content from both in and outside of the Times to offer a comprehensive look at stories shaping the Golden State. Curated by Times reporters Shelby Grad and Alice Walton, the newsletter is reportedly closing in on 100,000 subscribers.

Beutner’s not wrong—newsletters can be valuable real estate for sponsors. According to a study by Quartz, 60 percent of executives read an email newsletter as one of their first three news sources they check daily. That’s more than twice as high as news apps and three times more than visiting a news site on desktop.

In recent months, we’ve seen a fury of new newsletters being launched by media companies. The Tampa Bay Times launched a weekly “PolitiFact” newsletter. The Atlantic just announced the launch of a new climate change newsletter. Philly.com launched a curated morning newsletter featuring the site’s top five stories. After seeing massive growth on their daily newsletter, TechCrunch launched no less than seven new week-in-review newsletters. And so on.

“The number one advantage that email has over social media is guaranteed audience reach,” said Cates, who notes that the best combination for publishers is using email as the foundation of their promotion effort and social media to further amplify their reach.

Media companies don’t need to develop big projects or get their IT departments involved to get their newsletters off the ground. In fact, it’s never been easier for individual journalists to venture out and start their own personal newsletter.

One of the best tools available is TinyLetter, a free service where even the most tech-adverse writer can send out a nicely-formatted newsletter within minutes of signing up. Think of it less like a traditional newsletter and more like “Gmail on steroids.”

Most things in TinyLetter, from font type to your subscription homepage, are customizable, and email addresses are easy to import (the signup limit is 5,000 addresses and please, ask contacts for permission before adding them). But most importantly, TinyLetter generates code so you can embed a sign-up field in your online posts, allowing you to promote it right alongside your content.

Ann Friedman, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for NYmag.com, has been aggregating her own work into a weekly newsletter (tinyletter.com/annfriedman) since 2013. She came up with some useful guidelines for Columbia Journalism Review for journalists looking to go it alone. Freidman suggests establishing a set structure for your newsletter, catering to your core audience and don’t email just to email— make sure you actually have something to update subscribers about.

“Even though mass email has long been associated with bots and spammers, my newsletter has felt like the opposite: a more personal way of communicating than social media,” Friedman noted on the TinyLetter website.

If setting up and promoting a newsletter isn’t daunting enough, you also need to convince readers to open it. Constant Contact estimates that average open rate across industries is just 22 percent (newsletters with less subscribers tend to have higher open rates), but there are ways you can encourage more of your subscribers to open your email.

“Big Data insights from Constant Contact have uncovered that top-performing emails include approximately 40 characters in the subject line, 20 lines of text in the body of the email, and three or less images throughout,” said Cates, noting that a digestible email is important in an age of constant interruption and dwindling attention spans.

But it’s that era that makes newsletters so appealing to journalists. They mimic the way subscribers read a newspaper, and unlink the constant stream of information we’re all subjected to on social media, newsletter have a beginning and an end.

“Email sits in your inbox until you do something with it. You don’t have to look at it right away. It just kind of waits for you,” Kate Kiefer Lee, the content manager for MailChimp, wrote in a blog post. “Though your newsletter might have a smaller audience than your blog or website, you have your subscribers’ attention. It’s quite an honor to have someone give you their email address.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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Published: November 24, 2015

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