Data, access among reasons for news publishers to invest in newsletters

By Silence Mugadzaweta

Alpha Media Holdings

Harare, Zimbabwe


The Internet is holding media businesses hostage.

Across the world, news publishers are witnessing a sharp decline in advertising revenue. This has forced many to rethink their business models. Some are at the verge of collapse, and only innovators and thinkers will survive digital Darwinism.

Relying primarily on content, publishers are forced to think of new ways to distribute content. Even the content has to be enhanced to meet readers’ needs and compelling enough so that revenue is guaranteed.

Newsletters offer publishers a unique opportunity to hone in on and target their ideal audiences.
Newsletters offer publishers a unique opportunity to hone in on and target their ideal audiences.

Publishers like The New York Times have introduced a value-added bundle to sustain their subscriber base. “The growth is no longer primarily in subscriptions to news alone,” wrote Rick Edmonds for Poynter. “Rather, the Times is heavily pushing what it calls internally the bundle.’ That is an all-access product that also includes Games and Cooking verticals, audio, the Wirecutter product information site and now The Athletic, which the Times purchased for US$550 million in January.”

With competition from start-ups and digital-only set-ups, there is renewed demand for value and new ways to retain audience. More importantly, there is a need to make sure content is seamlessly accessible by audiences.

In addition to bundles, e-mail newsletters have proven to be a worthy investment as they provide audiences with content preferences. Confronting audiences directly through e-mail and reminding them there is new content or even breaking news makes a lot of difference.

Standing on the audience’s doorstep

We all hate queues. Why not get news straight to my inbox?

“The personal touch of a well-crafted e-mail newsletter landing quietly in your inbox became a welcome relief from the white noise of unsolicited posts and notifications,” said Peter Houston.

Houston added that newsletters must be good and relevant: “E-mail lists offer a direct route to readers in direct contrast to the social melee of Facebook, et al. And as social timelines are increasingly taken over by advertising algorithms and saturated with sponsored posts, newsletters have provided publishers with the opportunity to offer audiences the safe haven of regular, trusted content.”

According to Elise Czajkowski, “because a newsletter arrives directly in someone’s inbox, the relationship between the writer and the reader is more intimate. Readers have made a choice to subscribe, and possibly pay, for access to this information, creating a dialogue between reader and writer. It’s also a good way to reach national or international audiences with shared interests.”

Using AI to attract audiences

Of course, newsletters need a technical investment also. Personalised content is key in making sure audience do not miss the product. This entails strong AI to filter content in accordance to individual audience preferences. Ultimately, audience will feel the presence of preferred content knocking, and it will be difficult to ignore, opening opportunities to monetise.

Are the resources free after the investment?

Certainly, there is a huge opportunity for monetising newsletters.

According to Houston, “programmatic advertising is also possible inside e-mail, although reach, either owned or networked, is crucial to make that pay. And newsletters can also help with Web site monetisation, filtering newsletter subscribers regularly to Web content. Refinery29’s newsletters drive 20% of their site traffic and Vox says newsletter subscribers spend twice as much time on their site.”

An alternative to social media (where lack of transparency and algorithmic control are at play), newsletters give publishers control over distribution and data as well as monetisation. Control is vital, as newsrooms will have knowledge of metrics, the subscriber list, and story performance online.

Feedback and follow-ups are also generated from newsletters, creating an inroad for creating more compelling content.

Strategies for effective distribution and wider reach

Content is king, but do we know which content audiences prefer?

The biggest advantage is data and AI. Assuming we have it all, it’s time to lean on content pillars for our offerings. Health, politics, environment, and business are some of the content pillars available to capitalise on. Within those broader pillars lay sub-themes that can be a focus — for example, sexual and reproductive health targeting Gen Z.

“Like a magazine or a Web site, the newsletter needs a mission, a position, and a regular calendar,” Houston said. “It needs financial targets or, at the very least, audience-based success metrics.”

About Silence Mugadzaweta

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