How Boston Globe uses newsletters to drive engagement

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States

Peter Doucette, chief consumer revenue officer at Boston Globe Media, presented a live Webinar for INMA members Wednesday, sharing how The Globe is using newsletters to drive subscriptions and reader engagement. 

As publishers ramp up efforts to engage their rising number of digital subscribers, a surprise finding has been the role of newsletters. The Boston Globe has created 30+ newsletters within topics of news, opinion, politics, sports, business, arts and lifestyle, health and science, and more. 

Doucette shared what was working and not working for The Globe, lessons learned, and best practices: “Newsletters are a big part of our subscription service, and a big part of our business overall.”

To illustrate the value of newsletters, from both a publisher and a reader perspective, he shared quote by David Carr: “Newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognisable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos.”

Peter Doucette of The Boston Globe shared newsletter practices that are driving subscriptions and reader engagement.
Peter Doucette of The Boston Globe shared newsletter practices that are driving subscriptions and reader engagement.

As a business, news media companies should think about how they’re going to build engagement and drive consumer value with a newsletter. “The point I want to highlight is the direct relationship,” Doucette said. Newsletters allow publishers to compete in a direct relationship model, in a way that other vehicles do not.

He shared the mission and values of The Globe newsletter strategy: to quickly and efficiently push content to readers in a way that allows them to consume it wherever they are. The business value is two-fold:

  • Engage with readers on a regular basis to build a direct relationship, that ultimately drives them to subscribe to The Globe.
  • Target and engage with distinct customer segments, creating a clear value proposition that sales can take to market.

Some interesting statistics shared were:

  • Readers who sign up for newsletters are 10 times as likely to subscribe to the newspaper.
  • The number of Globe newsletters has nearly doubled in the last 20 months; the news media company currently has 31 total. These fall under three main types:
    1. Curated (24).
    2. Automated (5).
    3. Cur-Automated Combination (2).
  • The Globe has 2.9 million total newsletter subscribers (including 1.7 unique members).
  • The Web site traffic from newsletters is 8%.

“Newsletters for us have become a major driver of traffic back to the site,” Doucette said, pointing out that it’s not just about scale; frequency is also a big variable. The Globe’s daily, automated headline newsletter drives the most traffic. The Globe has seen both its automated and curated newsletters work, so he can’t say that one works “better” than the other. There is no distinct pattern.

“The takeaway here is that you have to try different things. There are examples where curated makes sense and drives traffic, and examples where automated does the same thing. There is no magic bullet.”

What’s working for The Globe

The sign-up process: After months of experimenting, they found a model that works. It’s personalised based on reader interests from data collection, and gives the flexibility to change the list and opt-out. This sign-up model has brought The Globe 4,475 list members per day. “One of the lessons we learned was not to have too many choices and options in the process,” Doucette said.

Subscriber retention: Subscribers who come from the newsletter have a 7% better retention rate, and generate 13% more one-year revenue. A digital subscriber who becomes a newsletter member gives 5% better retention, and generated 8% more one-year revenue.

Large source of traffic: More than 16% of the Web site traffic is coming directly from newsletter subscribers, which is far more than social media. Such engagement makes a big difference in subscriber retention; there is a linear relationship between subscriber visits and retention. “It’s all about getting them to the site more and more frequently,” Doucette said. “Newsletters have been by far our biggest mechanism in influencing this behaviour. In our experience, price doesn’t drive churn. Engagement — or lack of it — drives churn.”

Improved launch timeline: By improving the alignment with editorial strategy and the design/build phase, they’ve moved the launch timing from 10 weeks to three.

“Newsletters are a huge part of our digital subscription business,” Doucette shared. “Not only are we sending out content, but we are using that to remarket to them and to drive them to the site.” The top ways to convert newsletter readers to digital subscribers include a meter paywall, email, and site assets. The Globe has about a 1.5% conversion rate for new newsletter leads.

Newsletters are also becoming an extension of the home page for The Globe, providing extra touch points to allow regular interaction with subscribers. Adding existing newsletter readers to other lists has increased conversion rates. “We found that more is better, until you get to about four newsletter subscriptions, and then it levels off.”

What have the challenges been?

Organisational complexity: Editorial, advertising, and circulation are striving for different outcomes, which makes evaluating newsletters difficult and inconsistent.

Audience overlap: The Boston Globe is still trying to figure out the calculus between distinct versus overlapping audiences.

Technology: Two different email platforms (ExactTarget and MailChimp) offer different benefits; and it’s expensive. The Globe sent out about 1.1 billion emails in 2017, at a cost of US$750,000. There’s still a lot of manual input and training needed.

List hygiene: Competing goals can lead to inefficient list hygiene. If you’re good at getting people to sign up, how do you get people to open the emails and engage, Doucette asked? It’s a balance that’s difficult to get down: “One of the things that’s slowed us down is that we have not fully solved the organisational side of it.”

What’s next?

“Sitting here today, looking back on the last couple of years, we think newsletters are a huge part of our business,” Doucette said. “We are doubling down on our efforts to evolve our newsletter strategy and business.”

The Globe currently is working on hyper-personalisation, testing the environment for future products, offering a premium newsletter product, and new B2B revenue models.

“One of the main advantages of e-mail is that it’s easier to launch things in that ecosystem.”

Audience Q&A

INMA: What was the percentage of growth in terms of newsletter uniques?

Doucette: We went from about 200-300,000 to 1.7 million in a two year period.

INMA: On which device do readers read the newsletters and how quickly do they open it on average?

Doucette: 55% mobile, 40% desktop, and balance on tablet. We don’t really track how quickly they open it, or clicks to open versus reading. Around 15-20% who open the newsletter actually click on a link to the Web site.

INMA: What happens with newsletter clicks on the paywall?

Doucette: A non-subscriber would be subject to the paywall the same as anyone clicking on the site.

INMA: Can you explain a little more about your cur-automated newsletters?

Doucette: For example, This Week in Opinion — it has the look and feel of automated, but an editor does curate which stories go in it. This allows the editor to choose the pieces included.

INMA: What measures have been implemented to improve open rates?

Doucette: We haven’t really cracked that nut. The open rates are pretty consistent; we’ve experimented a little with design for improving click-through rates.

INMA: Why do you use two different e-mail services?

Doucette: It’s a sub-optimal solution. They do things a little bit differently; one is faster and easier, for things like breaking news. The other is more robust, and manages the individual user experience more. Their different core competencies serve different purposes.

INMA: Do you mix paid and free content in the newsletters? Are they available to subscribers and non?

Doucette: There’s no specific locked content; it’s based on subscriber access level. Most of our newsletters exist for both. We want them to convert and become a subscriber, though we have a couple of subscriber-only newsletters.

INMA: Text versus pictures and length: What works best for you?

Doucette: Shorter is generally better. Text works, and I think you can over-design. We’ve seen high levels of engagement with text-heavy newsletters using old designs. When it comes to layout, we focus on the mobile experience more.

INMA: Has the closed Facebook group for subscribers worked?

Doucette: Yes, the group is relatively small, but much more engaged and they have a higher retention. We haven’t moved beyond that to scale it.

INMA: What is your strategy for attracting younger audiences?

Doucette: We’ve done it a little bit; Fast Forward was our version of a Skimm newsletter. We haven’t really figured that out yet.

INMA: What are your top three best practices?

Doucette: I would get a list captured together, then figure out what is the content you want to deploy through a newsletter. Think about the journey. And then track it.

INMA: What do you do with those people who haven’t opened a newsletter in 90 days?

Doucette: We drop them episodically; first send them another e-mail asking if they want to stay signed up, and give them the option to opt in again.

INMA: What’s the process for killing a newsletter that isn’t working?

Doucette: We look at whether the list is growing and the engagement. What hasn’t worked? Sometimes focusing on too niche of an area, which limits the potential.

These are only some of the many questions that were posed, and can be viewed in the Webinar recording.

“We want scale, we want engagement, and we want growth," Doucette said in closing. “I look at this as an opportunity for learning about our subscribers.”

About Shelley Seale

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