New York Times, FT, Atlantic share different strategies with same goal: engagement

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


Elisabeth Goodridge, editor/newsletters and messaging at The New York Times, has headed the revamped newsletter initiative at the media company for the past two years. At that time, the Times had about 40 newsletters that had grown organically, Goodridge told audiences members Thursday at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in Miami.

Goodridge stepped in and:

  • Explained writers can’t just care about what they’re writing about — that they have to care about audience and product. “No one is going to open it if you send a crappy subject head.”
  • Did an audit of existing products.
  • Analysed competitors.
  • Researched readers and the newsroom.
  • Determined editorial, tech, and corporate needs.
  • Established goals.
  • Identified KPIs.
Elisabeth Goodridge, editor/newsletters and messaging at The New York Times, started revamping the company's e-mailed newsletter strategy two years ago.
Elisabeth Goodridge, editor/newsletters and messaging at The New York Times, started revamping the company's e-mailed newsletter strategy two years ago.

An editor came to Goodridge with the idea of doing a newsletter based on “Game of Thrones.” Thus began the Times’ pop-up newsletter approach.

Goodridge shared her list of ingredients for a successful newsletter:

  • Targeted audiences. Who are you writing for? Name them.
  • An expert writer.
  • Clear, conversational voice. “That’s what people are expecting in their inbox: chatty and conversational.”
  • Invaluable, useful information. “It’s a very crowded place, your reader’s inbox. Make sure the information is useful.”
  • Delightful formats.
  • Reader engagement tactics.
  • Experimentation. Listening to reader feedback can help with this.

Goodridge came up with another pop-up newsletter called “Summer in the City,” offering Millennials in New York City ideas on what to do in the summer.

“My idea was to target Millennials, who love bragging to their friends about the cool stuff they did in the city,” Goodridge said. “We had Millennials write it. We had two itineraries: one for a date or your best friend and one for your visiting parents.”

Goodridge advised asking yourself what the goal of your newsletter is: “Are you a brand builder or are you an audience driver?”

Emilie Harkin, senior director for customer marketing and growth at The Atlantic, told the audience how her company has built a strategy around treating each customer like an individual — which supports growth and retention.

“People are at the center of what we do,” Harkin said. “In a not-so-distant past in media, we could think about audiences in terms of numbers: circulation, ratings, rate base. We need to now think about people not as numbers. We need to put the customer at the center of everything we do from the moment we meet and through every interaction.”

The Atlantic recently launched its membership programme The Masthead, which includes exclusive content, ad-free web browsing, and other perks.

Building customer relationships is not just about making business decisions, creating new offers, and changing rates, Harkin said. It’s about how you treat your customers and providing an excellent experience for them from the beginning.

Harkin identified specific ways The Atlantic accomplishes this:

  • Don’t treat customers like they’re all one person. “View a customer as an individual,” Harkin said. “It’s about creating a wonderful experience. What are the moments that will make something truly special?” Media companies should establish an environment where the customer service team can react to individual feedback and tailor their response. A great interaction can turn a customer into a brand ambassador — after a positive experience with your brand, they may tweet and share it with the world.
  • Help customers help themselves. There will always be customer service problems. Harkin said the company’s aim is to be: prompt, clear, empathetic, and never blame the customer for the problem they are having. The Atlantic recently built an online “knowledge base” tool for customers to search for answers to common questions or problems. Customers also can up vote or down vote to indicate whether an article was helpful. She said this feedback (83% up votes in early days) is showing that most of the people find most of the content valuable.
  • Send them something they’re not expecting. Unexpected “surprise and delight” experiences can bring value and depth to the relationship. Harkin detailed two examples — one focused on the individual customer (sending a custom-made outfit for the daughter of a reader after he wrote to say he subscribes to expose his child to quality journalism) and another that was bonus for loyal subscribers (a special Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. print issue created for the newsstand was recreated in digital format especially for subscribers).
  • Create micro-love, not micro-hate. Harkin said this means reducing friction in as many areas as possible: on pathways to purchase, changing account settings, registration, etc.
  • Don’t view the customer experience as a cost center. “It is not a drain on resources. It is an investment that pays off,” she said.
  • View readers as collaborators. The Masthead from the Atlantic was co-developed based on feedback from thousands of members. One year after the launch, retention is hitting targets. “Before we launched this product, we ran surveys and did a lot of intel,” Harkin said. “We spent time listening and learning. We looked at email engagement, site visitation, churn rates. We also listened to benefits they would appreciate and we’ve added those.”

Gadi Lahav, head of product at Financial Times, advised news media companies to have a North Star: a single metric to guide it. FT’s North Star is a consumer engagement score based on recency, frequency, and volume.

Gadi Lahav, head of product at Financial Times, says news media companies need one guiding metric.
Gadi Lahav, head of product at Financial Times, says news media companies need one guiding metric.

The challenge with metrics is two-fold, Lahav said:

  1. You risk following the wrong metric. For example, the metric for Netflix is total time spent. But what if your customer falls asleep on the couch while watching a movie?
  2. There are too many truths. What if your e-mail metrics show one truth and your social media metrics show another?

In an effort to provide the most relevant information to its audience — thus keeping them as a paying audience — FT created myFT, basically a Twitter-like feed for readers on their chosen topics. Engagement increased 86%.

FT invests three times more in retention versus acquisition. The company spends a lot of time looking at audience habits: devices, day, and time of reading, whether they come to the home page, what platform they use. Based on that information, the media company’s data science team puts readers into clusters. Interestingly, what time of day a reader engages with content doesn’t really indicate big differences in readers or their needs.

Whether they are an app user or a social media user is hugely important to know, Lahav said. “If they have a habit with Facebook, they don’t really have a habit with us. They have a habit with Facebook, so we need to push you into e-mail.”

About Dawn McMullan

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