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E-mailed newsletters are key to subscription success at FT, Funke Media

By Michelle Palmer Jones


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Strategy, metrics, success — they all may come and go, change, and direct media companies in different ways. But what’s proving to be “the great survivor” as companies look for ways to grow business is newsletters. They still work when it comes to converting readers into loyal subscribers. 

In an INMA Readers First Initiative Meet-Up on Wednesday, members heard from leaders in charge of newsletter strategy at their respective media groups.

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota, who leads the Readers First Initiative, shared his big takeaways from the Meet-Up:

  • Leading publishers put e-mail and newsletters at the centre of their strategy.
  • Leading publishers manage a portfolio of e-mail products.
  • As products, newsletters require attention of multiple departments.
  • As e-mail matures as a channel, publishers get more sophisticated.
  • New privacy features by tech platforms will inflate open rates.

Dan Oshinsky is the former head of e-mail at The New Yorker and BuzzFeed in the United States. He is now the founder of Inbox Collective, an e-mail consulting group. Oshinsky calls e-mail a “Swiss army knife for newsrooms.” 

Since e-mail does a little bit of everything for an organisation, Oshinksy is pleased to see media companies moving from basic newsletter strategy like automated topical newsletters and a welcome series to a more sophisticated and complex strategy. He wants companies to personalise the experience for readers and educate them about next steps as they move along. 

“You become a subscriber. Great. After you register and subscribe, we’re going to encourage you to sign up for different types of newsletters,” Oshinsky said.  

Oshinsky mentioned the female-focused Canadian sports site The Gist, which asks its readers where they are located when they sign up for its newsletters. “Based on that information, they personalise certain sections of the newsletter,” Oshinsky said. So readers in New York may get more basketball and baseball news and readers in Toronto may see more about hockey. 

With Apple releasing Mail Privacy Protection this fall, Oshinsky warned media companies may start to see differences in their metrics. Apple is essentially opening up people’s e-mails behind the scenes before it hits a user’s inbox, he said, and companies may start to see inflated open rates because of this and find that location data isn’t accurate. 

Dan Oshinsky, founder of e-mail consultant group Inbox Collective, explained Apple updates.
Dan Oshinsky, founder of e-mail consultant group Inbox Collective, explained Apple updates.

To battle back, Oshinsky wants newsrooms to focus on progressive profiling and ask questions to gather information on readers: “What are they interested in? Where do they live? What do they do? What do they want more of? We can start to personalise the user journey and the specific newsletters to serve these audiences.”

News media companies should measure success by engagement. One-to-one replies to subscribers is more valuable now than it's ever been. Clicks are better than opens to drive habits and use user-submitted data more to personalise the experience as best we can. 

“What percentage of our audience has actually filled out this info, given us this info?” Oshinsky siad. What percentage has given us location data? Do we know their job? Do we know what they’re interested in?” 

Financial Times

Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters at Financial Times in the UK, used the term “the great survivors” when talking about newsletters. She says they keep working because the reader has specifically signed up to read what you’re offering. 

Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters at Financial Times, said newsletters work because they create a direct relationship with readers.
Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters at Financial Times, said newsletters work because they create a direct relationship with readers.

“One of the main reasons is they are so simple and they have that absolutely direct relationship with the reader,” Ebner said. Teams don’t have to worry about algorithms and instead can focus on building habit and loyalty. 

The strategy at FT is to use newsletters to enhance subscriptions and to build really loyal subscribers who love the service provided, she said: “At The FT, the North Star metric is something we call lifetime value. That’s the expected revenue that we hope to generate over the lifetime of an FT reader.”

A common misconception is that all newsletters should have the same strategy, Ebner said. They shouldn’t. There could be a variety of goals or aims depending on what a company is looking for with the end result — traffic, good brand fit, and exclusive content, for example. Ebner also stressed the need for a good reason to launch a newsletter in the first place: Does it explore an area otherwise untouched or does a topic perfectly align with your publication? 

FT trial readers are 134% more likely to keep their subscription of they subscribe to a newsletter.
FT trial readers are 134% more likely to keep their subscription of they subscribe to a newsletter.

FT uses several different metrics to measure success. Ebner says numbers like click-through rates are important, but are not enough. 

“Even to the extent of someone’s opened a newsletter, are they really reading it all the way through? You don’t know that,” Ebner said. FT likes to engage its readers intimately. They fill their newsletters with specific questions, polls, and user surveys. “You have to reply to those; people like that one-to-one relationship,” Ebner says. FT then looks at time spent on their site from a newsletter click to gauge its success.

FT had to make some tweaks along the way. For example, they had to use more language that made readers want to click. “We were sending out a breaking news newsletter that had a lot of paragraphs in it that told you the whole of the breaking news. We cut that right back and now say ‘read the whole story,’” Ebner said. “I think the clicks have gone up by nearly 50%.”

Ebner showed attendees an example of a successful newsletter at FT. U.S. Finance Editor Robert Armstrong’s newsletter, Unhedged, is very direct, provides news on a specific topic, and he never forgets who his audience is.

“Don’t forget the letter part of newsletter,” Ebner said. “It’s not just news. You’re writing to one person.” Ebner says Armstrong always is sure to include his e-mail address with every letter and he gets loads of responses.

FT found readers on a trial basis were 134% more likely to be retained if they subscribed to a newsletter. Another interesting note: Readers who were signed up for their subscription to be directly debited from their bank account every month were 54% more likely to be retained if they were subscribed to a newsletter. Ebner also says not to be afraid to A/B test. The FT saw a 5% increase in openings when it changed the sender from the name of the publication to the first and last name of the writer. 

Funke Media Group

Nadine Lange, Funke Media Group’s product manager of newsletters, told INMA members the German newspaper and magazine publishing company saw a huge spike in subscriptions due to the mass interest in coronavirus. The company went from 53,000 subscribers at the beginning of 2020 to 290,000 subscribers by the end of the year. 

Nadine Lange, Funke Media Group’s product manager of newsletters, shared Funke's newsletter milestones.
Nadine Lange, Funke Media Group’s product manager of newsletters, shared Funke's newsletter milestones.

“Corona kicks in in March so I think we gained 100,000 to 150,000 subscribers from the newsletters within three weeks,” Lange said.

Funke had two main ways to retain readers. 

First, they wanted to engage their 150,000 subscribers who were signed up for one of their 12 main daily branded newsletters. “Our main focus is to keep our fly-bys in contact with our brand and remind them of our content and expertise every day,” Lange said. Funke created pop-up newsletters, which are used for trending topics. Then they’d kill that newsletter when the event was over. However, they would not kill the pop-up before they had something else to offer them. 

“We did pop-up newsletters for the U.S. election last year,” Lange said. “We moved them to permanent ones so there’s a U.S. politics newsletter now for general readers.”

Topics are key to newsletter success.
Topics are key to newsletter success.

Funke had a second strategy that was focused on its 100,000 subscribers who were signed up and interested in one of its 75 newsletters covering a specific topic. “There’s a smaller amount of subscribers but we have higher open rates and there’s a better conversion to paid content,” Lange said. “We see our paid content subscribers last about 56% longer within their subscription if they’re a newsletter subscriber.” The team believes you have to always remind the readers what they’re missing.

Funke saw great retention with its once-a-week newsletter that only talks about good news. Lange said it takes four to six months for newsletter subscribers to start migrating toward paid content, and Funke sees about a 5% conversion rate.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here. 

About Michelle Palmer Jones

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