March 6, 2020
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The Two Use Cases For Popup Newsletters

When President Trump was being impeached, there were a slew of podcasts that popped up all offering information about the latest happenings in the impeachment saga.

Now it’s happening all over again with the rising panic associated with Coronavirus. BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Quartz, The New York Times and the list goes on and on have all launched either a newsletter or podcast trying to inform their respective audiences.

I’ve been hearing the phrase “popup” associated with newsletters and podcasts a lot more over the past few months, but have never really understood the appeal. You have to spin up something entirely new, dedicate resources to it, try to grow it and then it’s over and you’re left with a product that slowly fades into the night.

What then? What’s the point?

I’ve been thinking a lot about where they make sense and have a theory on the right use case for popup products like newsletters and podcasts.

To be clear, the answer is not as a replacement to any of your standalone newsletter or podcast products. I’ve heard this come up in conversation over the past six months. “What if we just do popups and react to things that are happening in the market?” Fortunately, I haven’t seen anyone do this yet, but it’s a classic example of how media likes to swing hard in one way on its pendulum of overexcitement around nifty ideas.

Engaging your current subscribers

Once you have convinced a user to fork over money for a subscription, the real work begins. Now you need to consistently remind them why they’re giving you money versus spending it on a different publisher.

What I believe we’re starting to find is that the more important thing is the subscriber consistently using your product. We can actually confirm this by revisiting my piece on helping your readers form habits (halfway down that post). First, from the report:

Studies across the industry show that three reading activities per week is the tipping point where occasional engagement turns into predictable, habitual behaviour.

Then I followed up with:

Your trusty newsletter is a huge engagement tool. In this instance, we want to remind the reader on a regular basis that there is something worth reading on your site. You want to start getting them used to using your site for information. It starts slow, but as time goes on, readers start seeking out the newsletter. When that happens, you’ve formed a habit.

In this case, we’re talking about a newsletter. However, in that same report, the advice was for publishers to go where their readers were and in many cases, that’s in an audio format.

Let’s step back, though… If we have a standard, open-run product, why should we be looking to create a popup?

The primary answer to this is because of the urgency tied to the product. In the case of a coronavirus email or podcast, it’s obvious that it’s the one of the biggest things on people’s minds. If that’s the case, this is your way to show your subscribers that you’re reporting on the information that they’re most interested in.

It’s also incredibly fresh and doesn’t have time to become stale. If it’s a short-run podcast and ends after 10 episodes, your listener knows exactly what they’re getting into. There’s some value in that novelty.

Converting flyby with a hot topic

A year ago, the Center for Cooperative Media out of Montclair State University introduced an amazing tool built in Google’s Data Studio. This Audience Explorer tool is designed for small and medium-size news publishers.

If you’ve ever used the report, it breaks audiences down into three buckets:

  • Casual: A single visit in the defined date range
  • Prospective loyalists: 2-5 visits in the defined data range
  • Brand lovers: 6+ visits in the defined data range

If you’ve ever looked at your site’s data, I am sure that you’d find the vast majority of your audience is in the casual bucket. On the other hand, brand lovers generate the most pages per user, the best bounce rate, the greatest number of sessions per user and the list goes on.

I have seen this report a couple of times. For some publishers, the brand lovers might be 3% of the total users, but they generate a disproportionate percentage of the pageviews. I’ve seen some cases where 3% of the total users still account for 40% of total pageviews. Those brand lovers are the most important and finding ways to get users to become brand lovers is integral to success.

We get that, but how can you get people to move from casual to prospective to brand lovers?

A casual user may not want to sign up for your standard newsletter. On the other hand, a dedicated product to something they really care about is a good way to get them intrigued.

Think about it… Most users come in through the side door. Perhaps they hit one story that you’ve written about coronavirus and then that’s the end. What else are they going to do but bounce? If, at the end of the article, there’s a big call to action that tells users they can get all coronavirus updates by signing up for a newsletter or listening to a podcast, that casual user might be more likely to engage.

Like I mentioned in the previous section, this is a better way to get the casual user in than your generalist newsletter/podcast because it’s less intimidating. It’s super topical and timely and the user knows what to expect.

How anyone can do a popup & what comes next

However, what if you’re not a publication covering coronavirus? What sort of popups can you wind up doing?

I would look at industry events. Find the largest events in your industry and have your journalists cover them. Instead of just writing stories, though, have them also do a daily wrap up of what occurred during the event.

You’re serving two audiences here. The first are the people that are attending the event, but aren’t able to see everything. The second are the people that were never able to attend.

The nice thing about these is that you know they’re coming. Unlike coronavirus, which popped up out of nowhere, the largest events in your industry are planned years in advanced—unless, of course, they’re cancelled because of a pandemic.

If you build a track record of doing these sorts of event-driven popup newsletters, you can try to get them sponsored in the future. This is an important detail worth mentioning. For most timely popups, direct monetization isn’t really a possibility. How do you get an advertiser to close that quickly? For industry event products, though, you have the time to sell them.

Before we finish, it’s worth asking the question: what next?

We’ve done a popup podcast or newsletter and the event is now coming to a close. Here’s where you want to try and upsell the user to check out your standard products. With a newsletter, you shouldn’t automatically add them, but this is a good opportunity to send an email or two promoting your other products.

I’ll be honest… Popups are an interesting strategy, but I find they’re a great way of getting distracted by a shiny object. All sorts of companies love to launch things, but hate to support them. I don’t advise companies start down this path until they’ve got their core product offerings figured out. It’s too easy to get distracted. The secret to successful media brands is that they focus and don’t deviate. Don’t let popups pull you away from your goal.

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