This article is part of API Tech Talks, our series about leveraging emerging technologies for local news. Follow along as our team continues to demystify the latest tech trends through events, articles, our Need to Know newsletter and social content.

As newsrooms look to win the attention of readers amid social media changes, solid newsletter strategies are essential. Earlier this year, participants in an API Tech Talk on engaging news readers amid social platform flux expressed interest in putting resources towards newsletters to connect with readers. Newsletters can serve as community builders and a connector between audiences and newsrooms. Establishing a strategy can help you set goals and quantify success — or even determine whether a newsletter is a good fit for your audience. 

In July, API hosted a virtual event on newsletter strategies for revenue and retention. API Newsroom Success Manager Shay Totten was joined by Madeleine White, editor-in-chief of The Audiencers and Head of International at Poool; Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Front Porch Forum; and Emily Burnham, a feature writer and columnist at the Bangor Daily News who helped develop audience-centered newsletters.

Below are takeaways from the discussion, as well as tips and trends attendees considered during breakout sessions. 

Assessing appetites for new newsletters

Whether you want to offer a new newsletter to your existing audience or build something for a potential new audience, how can you determine what’s worth your time and resources? 

First, survey your newsletter readers about what they like and what they want more of (see below for more tips on surveying your audience). Also, look at your site or newsletter(s) and consider what stories are the most popular with your readers. Are there topics that are drawing attention but don’t have a dedicated newsletter, or are there popular stories that are getting buried in your newsletter? 

For example, Bangor Daily News has a weekly email highlighting life in Bangor that includes a historical image. That section became so popular that they are now trying a newsletter tied directly to Bangor’s history and the newspaper’s deep archive and knowledge of its community — and using this to promote subscriptions to the paper’s digital archive.

Consider who would be the voice of the newsletter, as well. Do you have a reporter with a strong following who could lead a new offering? 

Don’t be afraid to test out an idea with a pop-up newsletter to assess interest before fully committing — as well as identifying potential new audiences. You could also run a new section in an existing newsletter to test for interest. 

Once you’ve decided on a newsletter topic, consider the steps you and your readers will take together in your newsletter journey. Backwards mapping can be helpful here — consider the goal, and what it will take to get there. Totten advises asking yourself:

  • What service am I providing and for whom?
  • What is the action I eventually want this reader to take?
  • What do I need to do to support and guide them into taking that action?
  • What will each step along that journey look like — for them and for our newsroom?

Bangor Daily News’ Burnham said her team is still in the early stages of building out their newsletter strategy. For a recent new newsletter, they sent out a message to flagship newsletter subscribers and automatically signed those readers up for a series of five editions of the new newsletter. They followed up a campaign with a short survey asking readers what they did and didn’t like, which gave them valuable insights. 

Totten agreed with this approach; in some cases you’re learning alongside your audience, and that can actually help with building relationships and gathering feedback. Getting readers involved results in more buy-in, especially when you report back on the feedback you’ve received and how you’re going to proceed.

Testing and surveying for audience feedback and data

It can often feel like you’re sending newsletters into the void, with no way to understand who’s actually reading them or how they’re being received beyond simple metrics. Regardless of whether you’re starting a new newsletter or want to assess your current offerings, Totten encourages tweaking and testing often. Newsletter components to test include:

  • Subject lines
  • Send times and days
  • Personalization
  • Asking for support
  • Topics and types of stories
  • RSS versus curated versus hybrid
  • Welcome series
  • Short-run topical newsletters (e.g., elections, special events)

A/B testing, which most email platforms offer, is great for this approach. To calculate your testing sizes and schedules, you can use this free calculator. 

While test results can offer a lot of insight, Totten emphasizes always checking in with your audience, especially when you’re trying new approaches. This process can be intimidating, especially if you historically have little or no interaction from newsletter subscribers, but there are a variety of ways to solicit feedback and information about your readers. 

First, figure out who your readers are. When a new user subscribes to your newsletter, start by collecting their email address and first/last name to help with personalization. Also, ask for their town, neighborhood and/or ZIP code, age, income, gender and occupation. You can gather this additional information over time, too, so as not to overwhelm your readers with a lengthy sign-up form.

Don’t forget to regularly clean your data — remove bounced email addresses and think of ways to target people who aren’t engaging with you and ask them why they aren’t clicking. You could suggest other newsletters that might be of interest to them that might be on a different topic or less frequent.

After that, start thinking about what feedback you want to solicit. Offering prompts or asking questions that relate to people’s lives and needs can encourage people to be more specific with their feedback. Here are some example prompts. 

The Audiencers’ White said she sends all subscribers a message on LinkedIn once they sign up, making it easier to follow up for feedback later. She also noted that outlets like Financial Times and The Atlantic view reader surveys as their biggest metric and dedicate teams to individual outreach — which both garners more responses and builds relationships. 

Totten also offered these survey and feedback best practices:

  • Include sentiment surveys, which are one-click for readers and can be easily automated
  • Regularly ask how you’re doing
  • Ask them to weigh in on changes
  • Use newsletters to test product interest
  • Make it easy to unsubscribe and give feedback
  • Include feedback in your newsletter
  • Remember: You can’t please everyone, but you can listen to them

Take it a step further and compare what readers find most useful to your own analytics (what drives clicks, shares and engagement). If your newsletter platform is not connected to your analytics, do that ASAP. Using analytics to track what drives traffic from newsletters can help you determine if your investment in time/workflow is paying off. It’s also helpful to determine value to potential advertisers or sponsors. 

When it comes to gathering feedback from non-subscribers, consider setting up a simple pop-up survey on your website with a conditional prompt like “Do you subscribe to our newsletter?” If the user answers yes, the survey can ask a couple of questions about their experience. If the answer is no, you can ask why not, and what they think would be useful in a newsletter. You can also do this type of survey right after someone registers as a subscriber to your site.

Generating revenue and fostering retention

When launching a subscriber-only newsletter or switching from a free model to a subscription model, try to balance readers’ frustration and engagement and approach the idea of subscription slowly. 

Use free newsletters to build rapport with new audiences to encourage them to eventually subscribe to your full offerings. Free semi-automated briefings can aim to bring readers to your site, where you can funnel them to subscribe for full access. 

Consider creating specific paywalls for readers coming from different niche newsletters as a subscriber benefit. For example, if a reader is coming to your site from a food newsletter, they’ll navigate your site through a paywall that is focused on food. 

If you’ve done your audience research, you should have an idea of what’s going to appeal to your readers. And, you can always try things out on a short-term basis. For example, perhaps you determine your audience is keen on a weekend preview email highlighting things to do. To test this out, see if there’s an existing email into which you could build this as a section and measure how much engagement it receives. Or, try a short-run newsletter that advances a specific, community-wide event or celebration to see how well it performs with readers. Or, do both! 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to generating revenue from a newsletter. To start, as outlined above, the newsletter should have a purpose. Depending on that purpose — to generate traffic to your site, promote an event, provide a value-add for existing subscribers — should inform the tone, cadence and outcome or action related to the newsletter. Again, start from the endpoint and work your way backward to design a journey for you and your reader. It will help you think through what touchpoints need to happen to foster revenue and retention. 

Finally, be transparent with your readers about why you’re asking for their support. Highlight key investigative reports or impact journalism and appeal to them to support you with a subscription or, if applicable as a nonprofit newsroom, a recurring donation. Too often, Totten noted, newsrooms are not good at explaining to readers why we need their support and what role they play in making our journalism happen. And, he added, you may be surprised at how much they value your role and your work.

Building trust with readers

Newsletters offer a strong opportunity for newsrooms — and individual reporters — to build trust with their audiences. Several event attendees noted success shown through A/B testing with adding personalization from reporters or editors to the introduction of their newsletters.

For one newsroom’s beat-based newsletters, each beat reporter writes an introduction that includes their own voice and adds some behind-the-scenes insight to their reporting process — how do they decide what to cover, or what is a solution to the problem they’re writing about? 

Other news outlets noted a drastic increase in open and click-through rates when reporters shared something personal in their newsletters, such as their house hunting journey or a road trip they took. Not all reporters are comfortable being the face of a story or beat, so sharing topics of interest to them, such as their favorite places to go to happy hour or even updates from a “falcon nest cam” close to them, can increase engagement without getting too personal. 

Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, agreed that this is a great way to build trust and engagement with newsletter audiences. For example, Politifact A/B tested sharing one extra behind-the-scenes item, and that newsletter’s sentiment rating was higher.

For networks with a lot of newsletters and websites, or frequently-rotating staff, having newsletters signed with a byline and email address of the reporter can help familiarize readers with who you are — and reminds them that there are humans producing the news. Mayer noted that the Des Moines Register’s Off Hours newsletter is great at connecting readers with the people behind the news.

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