4 tactics for growing e-mail newsletter lists

By Dan Petty

MediaNews Group

Denver, Colorado, USA


It’s a truism in news media that e-mail newsletters are an essential part of any important digital subscription and engagement strategy.

But how do you actually go about effectively growing those lists?

Over the last year, leaders in MediaNews Group’s editorial, product, technology, advertising, and digital subscriptions teams have worked hard to grow our newsletter lists with engaged subscribers, pushing our unique e-mail opt-ins up more than 97%.

Capitalise on breaking and trending news to expand newsletter lists.
Capitalise on breaking and trending news to expand newsletter lists.

The death of Kobe Bryant, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the protests over the death of George Floyd and police violence drove record audiences to our publications along with surging paid digital subscriptions and newsletter opt-ins. Despite that organic growth, we also focused on a handful of tactics over the last year that have accelerated these efforts.

1. Capitalise on the news when the opportunity presents itself

Our teams quickly assembled coronavirus-specific newsletters at our largest publications. In northern California, the Bay Area News Group grew its seven-days-per-week coronavirus newsletter to nearly 50,000 subscribers.

In some cases, rather than building up separate lists, we leveraged existing ones. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the Pioneer Press added an afternoon update to its regular morning update, which continues to see strong engagement and readership.

In total, we grew referrals to our publications from our own e-mail efforts by more than 250% since January. Much of that was driven by growing lists and news. But even as the news cycle normalises, we’ve seen a new highwater mark that’s many magnitudes larger than what we were pre-COVID-19.

Since late March, the Bay Area’s coronavirus newsletter has routinely topped the list of newsletters driving the most users back to all of our owned and operation platforms. In all, it takes our journalists about 20 minutes to organise the headlines and send it out to our lists.

2. Use social acquisition techniques

Much of our growth came through targeted acquisition campaigns for newsletters using Keywee, a company focussed on using Artificial Intelligence to build effective paid content campaigns. We submit stories or Keywee’s engines find stories and suggest teaser text that our editors ultimately approve (usually a few different variants of Facebook teaser text on a story).

Keywee targets users who are similar to our existing e-mail subscribers or people it thinks are likely to engage with our content. We also regularly upload exclusion lists to ensure we aren’t bombarding existing subscribers with the same pitch for newsletters.

We began our partnership with Keywee as part of the Facebook Journalism Project’s local news accelerator programme with The Denver Post. We’ve since scaled it to many of the rest of our publications.

We determined through tracking cohorts of signups through Keywee that enough of the people who sign up to receive newsletter updates eventually convert into paying subscribers and the money spent delivers a solid return on investment. Our cost-per-acquisition is routinely below US$.50 per lead. It has been even more generous since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The best news? This effort is effective with both our very large and very small newsrooms, so size isn’t a limiting factor. The time required of editors is minimal, and the results speak for themselves — more newsletter readers, more subscribers. We found this to be a far more effective approach than directly trying to acquire subscriptions through Facebook.

3. Leverage registration walls to grow lists further

Our publications require readers to pay after reading four articles on a rolling 30-day basis. However, we’ve been experimenting with registration walls as part of an effort to increase the percentage of known users who visit our owned and operated platforms. As the digital world increasingly puts a premium on first-party data, having a direct relationship with our audience will become even more important.

Leveraging technology from customer-data platform BlueConic, we began a small experiment in mid-April asking people who were not current subscribers but had read four or more free-to-read coronavirus stories — in other words, content in front of our paywall — to register with their e-mail address. Doing so signed them up for either a publication’s morning or evening newsletter, depending on which newsletter the editors wanted to grow.

This effort affected only a small number of readers, but it led to thousands of additional sign-ups. Most of our publications are exempting only one or two stories each day from the pay metre. At The Denver Post, we’ve generated more than 16,000 new e-mail signups since launching the wall, nearly all of which have gone on to grow The Post’s evening e-mail newsletter of stories.

In the next several months, we plan to expand this to more publications, while also broadening the audience being asked to register — all while balancing the need to grow subscription revenue and hold on to important advertising revenue.

4. Build out breaking news lists

If you’re ever wondering whether to send out another news e-mail, the answer is probably yes. And that’s certainly true for building out breaking-news lists. We developed a strategy to grow breaking-news alerts.

Keep them simple: A headline and a one-sentence summary, an effective subject line, and space for people to easily click to read more. The faster and more efficiently you can send readers to the news, the better. We soon hope to test whether there’s a difference between breaking-news alerts with and without photos.

Rather than blasting the same list, we’re working to build out a separate list of people who want breaking-news alerts to ensure if someone no longer wants to receive breaking alerts, they’ll continue to receive other e-mails (unless they specifically opt out of all messages).

Test, test, and then test some more

With all of our tactics, it’s essential to test: setting up controls, benchmarking, and evaluating impact on a smaller subset of an audience to avoid disruption. Two years ago, we were not an organisation with a built-out test philosophy. However, through efforts including the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes Program and the Facebook Journalism Project’s local news accelerator, we have become much more adept at testing.

With our coronavirus newsletters, we tried multiple approaches: For the publications with more resources, we spun up separate newsletters. For the smaller publications, we leveraged existing lists to minimise the amount of time needed to build out a solution. When launching registration walls, we didn’t immediately block all of our users; we tested on a small group who had read free content and proved out the concept.

Some of what works for us will likely also work for you, but you should always test your own ideas to ensure that they work for your audience and your own news organisation.

About Dan Petty

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