Ismael Nafria is Editorial Director at UNIR. Journalist, Writer, Consultant and Professor specialized in Digital Media, Ismael is also the author behind "La reinvención de The New York Times" studying how The NYT led the way for the digital transformation of media, and the newsletter [email protected] sharing digital media news and insights. This article was originally published in Spanish on Máster en Innovación en Periodismo's blog, translated by The Audiencers.
Despite existing for a couple of decades now, email newsletters are experiencing a boom as an essential way to connect with audiences, employed both by individuals and by businesses across every industry. Whilst email marketing has long been recognized as an established formula for companies looking to promote their product or service, content creators have put newsletters to work as a key engagement tool (especially by those employing membership and subscription models), building a loyal community and monetizing their content. This potential value from newsletters as well as the emergence of specialized platforms such as Substack or Revue have made it possible to fine-tune the formula for creating successful newsletters.
So what better time than now to share some best practices that every publisher should bear in mind when looking to run a successful newsletter.
1. You’re sending an email
It may seem obvious, but far from it. The very fact that a newsletter is an email message explains many of the elements that define this product, and is something that should be constantly kept in mind.. It’s an email sent to individuals who have requested to receive it – a direct channel of communication between you and the recipient, arriving in their ‘personal space’ (the inbox) where algorithms don’t intervene to decide whether we read it or not, and which each user manages as they see fit. This allows for a personal, conversational tone that supports natural, close interactions with your readers.
Quartz, who have been sending out their hugely successful Daily Brief for some years now, were one of the first to clearly demonstrate the editorial value and potential of newsletters as a journalistic product, calling their newsletters simply ‘Emails’. That’s what they fundamentally are and largely why they’re so effective.
One of America’s most respected TV journalists, veteran Dan Rather, now in his 90s,, recently launched his own ‘Steady’ newsletter. When introducing himself, Rather said he had chosen to start a newsletter because it was “a direct form of communication, a way for me to build and cultivate a community that I feel is so important”.
2. The topic must be very well defined
What is my newsletter going to be about? It’s a question that any creator needs to clearly define when launching a newsletter. The user who decides to sign up for our newsletter will do so, in large, because the subject matter interests them, whether for personal or professional reasons. The newsletter must therefore have a clear focus, explained in a simple way, either with a slogan or brief description – a value proposition, telling users why they should subscribe.
3. A recognizable title & branding
In a world where infinite amounts of content are on offer, giving your newsletter its own, niche branding is vital to stand out. This will also help to establish a deep connection with your readers, giving a personality to your digital product. A newsletter is a medium in and of itself, albeit a small one, and as such, it must be easily identifiable by its readers.
4. With a well-identified audience
Another essential element to succeed with a newsletter is to clearly identify the audience you want to target with as much detail as possible. Know who they are, where they are, how you can connect with that audience, through whom. The better you define this audience, the easier it will be to craft a compelling message and present a winning value proposition.
One of the most successful ‘pop up’ (temporary) newsletters was created by The New York Times in 2017 to accompany the 7th season of Game of Thrones, continuing into the 8th and final season. This newsletter had an extremely well defined theme and target market, accompanied by well curated content. Tens of thousands of people signed up to receive it every week, and according to the newspaper’s managers at the time, it achieved opening rates that exceeded 100% thanks in part to users forwarding it to other interested readers.
5. Written by experts
This is another element that usually marks the success or failure of a newsletter: the level of expertise of those who write it. Users who sign up for a newsletter expect to learn from it, discover new things about the subject, better understand an issue or be updated in a solvent way on a thematic area, saving time, among other objectives. And this is only possible if the person who writes it has mastered the subject and knows how to convey their knowledge effectively.
At the same time, for the creators, writing a newsletter on a regular basis is one of the best ways to become an expert on a particular topic. Writing a reliable newsletter requires research, consulting many sources, following other experts, keeping up to date on the subject… and putting it down in writing (or explaining in spoken form if you opt for a podcast format).
One of the most successful newsletters on Substack is “Letters from an American“, a daily newsletter on U.S. history and politics written by Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College. The author’s way of telling what is happening in American politics and linking it to the country’s history makes this newsletter a wonderful source of knowledge from a great expert.
6. With a differential content that adds real value
The most effective newsletters are those that offer high value and unique content that’s not available elsewhere within the email itself. Being able to provide this differential value is the best guarantee that the user will want to open the email, and the next one, and the next one… And they’ll want to spend time consuming it, regardless of whether or not they click on the links.
Daily newsletters published by those such as The New York Times (“The Morning“), El País (“El País de la mañana“) or The Guardian (“First Edition“), to cite just a few, are magnificent examples of what a media company’s commitment to providing valuable information entails. These are newsletters written by expert journalists, who “tell” the most interesting news of the day and, therefore, help the reader to better understand the world around them. These newsletters have value in themselves and represent quality time that a user spends with the brand.
NYT presents its wide range of newsletters.
Another good example is “Kloshletter“, the daily newsletter headed by journalist Charo Marcos which, in February this year, had 28,000 subscribers. In Kloshletter we find an explanation for five of the main news items from that day, alongside other interesting references. This newsletter also offers the daily informative podcast a:m on Spotify.
7. With a personal tone
A newsletter should reflect the voice of its author – it’s what gives it personality. And that can, in many cases, be the reason why someone decides to sign up and consume the newsletter on a regular basis. The fact that it is an email also favors the use of a more personal and direct tone.
Those responsible for The Guardian’s latest morning newsletter, “First Edition“, have explained that they want the newsletter to be “like a regular update from a well-informed friend: informal and insightful”, providing interesting details on the big issues of the day.
For this reason, it’s generally advisable for the newsletter to be signed – whether by the same author for all editions or by different authors – and for it to be possible to establish an easy and fluid relationship between the person who writes it and its readers.
8. With a clearly identifiable format
There is no single newsletter format, nor is there one that’s necessarily better than another – it depends on the type, your objectives, and its frequency.
What is important is that the chosen format is clear to the reader, so that they understand what you’re proposing and how they’ll be able to consume it.
To cite some possible formats (not intended to be an exhaustive list), here are a few options:
- Curated content with commented links
- Informative (for example, daily news summaries)
- Briefs (about simplicity)
- Deliverable (e.g. for a course or a book)
- Temporary (for an event or a topical issue)
- In comic book format (Substack is making a concrete commitment to this format)
- Podcasts (the audio version of your newsletter or with added audio elements)
- Photographic (based on images)
- A mix of formats
- A selection of headlines
9. With an engaging, mobile-friendly design
The most important thing about a newsletter from the point of view of its design, is that it’s very easy and pleasant to consume the content. Anything that hinders this reading experience is negative. The design should add personality and help make the product recognizable. And, with an increasing proportion of information consumption taking place on mobile devices, it’s essential that the newsletter can be read perfectly on mobiles.
One of the best examples of the importance of good and effective newsletter design is provided by Axios. This successful digital publisher, now five years old, was born from several newsletters characterized by a particular system of writing and presentation that Axios has patented as “Smart Brevity“. This “smart brevity” is the formula for success that Axios applies to all its products. In the case of newsletters, it’s characterized by the use of short sentences and paragraphs to present ideas clearly, by the efficient use of bullets and bold type to facilitate reading and understanding of the text, by the use of introductory expressions that situate the user, and by the use of images with an easy-to-identify design. In fact, last year Axios launched the Axios HQ service, which offers companies that want to improve their internal communication (especially their email messages) using the same system that Axios uses in its own media, and which pursues the objective: “Write less. Say more.
10. Consistency is key
The advice most frequently offered by authors of successful newsletters is to be consistent, delivering what it promises on its first day and every day thereafter. It must be consistent in its subject matter, format, design, way of telling things, tone, etc.
Consistency is also essential for the timing and frequency of your newsletter: ideally, it should always be sent on the same day and at the same time, regardless of whether this is daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, etc. The user will be waiting for the newsletter and you can’t miss that appointment, despite the fact that they can consume it whenever they want.
11. A newsletter that interacts with users
The closeness that newsletters achieve with their users is a great base on which to build interaction with your audience. Newsletters build community, and community is stronger if you interact with it.
The New York Times recently announced that Jonathan Wolfe, author of its coronavirus newsletter, “Coronavirus Briefing,” will help the paper’s other newsletters better connect with readers. The newsletter, which has 1.7 million free subscribers, has been successful in building community, connecting very effectively with users and incorporating their stories into the Times’ journalism. Now the newspaper wants to transfer that good experience to other newsletters.
12. Analyze newsletter performance
A mandatory task for every newsletter author is to analyze performance in detail. All newsletter publishing platforms offer statistics, in greater or lesser detail, on elements such as open rate (percentage of users who open the newsletter) or click-through rate (percentage of users who click on any links), among others. It’s also important to evaluate how new subscribers are acquired – where they arrive, when, why… – and why users unsubscribe.
Not all newsletters pursue the same objectives, so evaluating performance will depend largely on the goals set out. For some media publishers, newsletters are a great way to increase user loyalty and acquire new paying subscribers. But an individual author may pursue other goals: for example to solidify their position as an expert on a topic.
Analyzing the most clicked links in a newsletter also provides valuable information about your reader’s interests, so it’s worthwhile to analyze the performance of links in detail and draw lessons for future issues.
13. Value the time and effort involved in the newsletter
This is very important. A newsletter requires dedication on the part of its author. Depending on the format and frequency, the dedication will be greater or lesser. But there is no such thing as a valuable newsletter that is easily done.
Given this, whether it’s an individual or company newsletter, you should clearly define who will be involved in producing it, for how long, at what time, how they’ll do it, etc. One of the main reasons for abandoning a newsletter is because of miscalculating the amount of time that needs to be devoted to producing it.
14. Define your newsletter business model
Newsletters offer authors several ways of monetization, either direct or indirect.
There are newsletters that rely on sponsorship or advertising as a formula for obtaining income, whether they have a large audience or a more restricted public. Even if they have a relatively small community of users, it’s quite possible that they can offer advertisers a highly segmented and therefore interesting audience.
Subscription is another revenue stream that has gained more prominence in recent years thanks to platforms such as Substack, which have greatly simplified the implementation of this model. On Substack, which has managed to attract thousands of independent authors, any creator can offer a free or paid product or a combination of both, which is the most common. The platform has already surpassed one million paid subscriptions to publications (note that Substack monetizes through keeping 10% of the subscription revenue).
For some publishers, such as The New York Times, newsletters are divided into exclusive (for subscribers only, currently about 20 newsletters), while the rest (almost 60) are free and serve to generate loyalty and attract new digital subscribers. A similar formula is being used by EL PAÍS.
Newsletters also serve to generate indirect income which, for many individual creators, can be the main reason for a newsletter’s existence. For example, they can be a way to sell books, be invited to conferences or give courses, participate in events, do consultancy work… In these cases, newsletters act as a platform for personal promotion and professional development of great value.
15. Which platform to use?
One of the big questions that every newsletter author asks themselves is which platform to use for its publication. The most realistic answer is that it will depend on several factors (level of technical knowledge, business model, design, available budget…), and the most honest advice that I think can be offered is that each user should analyze what each platform offers and familiarize themselves with the best options to see which one they feel more comfortable with.
There are many options available on the market, especially in the email marketing arena, but if we focus on platforms more geared towards individual authors, the following would be good options to consider:
- Substack: www.substack.com
- Revue: www.getrevue.co/
- Mailchimp: www.mailchimp.com
- Ghost: www.ghost.org
- Medium: www.medium.com
- LinkedIn newsletters
- ConvertKit: convertkit.com
The relevance of newsletters for creators
The company ConvertKit recently published a study, State of the Creator Economy 2022, analyzing the current state of the creator economy. It’s based on 2,704 surveys with creators, almost half of whom are dedicated full time to this activity.
One of the data points provided by this study is that publishing newsletters is the second most performed activity by full-time creators, only behind publishing on social media and ahead of publishing articles/blog posts and creating short videos. But plans for 2022 reveal that launching a newsletter is the number one activity planned by creators, ahead of publishing on social networks.
Another interesting fact from this study is that most newsletter creators’ mailing lists have fewer than 1,000 subscribers, with the average standing at 645 registrants. On the other hand, the two platforms that contributed the most growth to the creators’ audience in 2021 were email newsletters and Instagram.
Newsletters are also considered as highly relevant for content creators’ business, sitting at 8.3 out of 10 as their most impactful promotional channel, ahead of social media (7.4) or paid ads (6).
Type of content created by full-time creators in 2021 – Convertkit’s “State of the Creator Economy 2022” report.
Final tip for authors
All newsletter platforms offer support and tips for authors to create successful newsletters.
One of the most active in this regard is Substack. Both the “Resources” section of their website (“How to Succeed on Substack“) and a specific section included in their own newsletter, “On Substack“, dedicated to offering practical resources, is an inexhaustible source of ideas and useful references for newsletter creators who want to start publishing, improve the product they already offer or convert it into a paid newsletter.
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