Newsletters Are a Must for Pubs if Done Right

New media companies should start with a newsletter

I hope everyone had a great weekend. This issue is less tactical and more focused on a mindset about newsletters. People throw the phrase “peak newsletter” around a lot, but I think that, if done right, we can support so many additional newsletters.

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I spend a lot of time thinking about newsletters.

Whether it's my day job where I think about how they can engage our audience, A Media Operator where I think about how I can better serve you all, or other ideas I am constantly weighing, newsletters tend to rank among the top 10 topics in my mind. 

It seems many of you do as well, since I’ve received a variety of emails over the past few weeks asking about coming up with a newsletter strategy. So, I thought I’d focus in on that in today’s issue. 

While there are multiple ways to do newsletters, I have one very firm belief that some pubs might not agree with. The wrong newsletter strategy is not having a newsletter.

Let me expand on that by first focusing in on why I’m so bullish on newsletters and then explaining the single caveat to my belief.

Why have a newsletter

As publishers, users typing our website into their browsers isn’t the biggest drivers of traffic to our sites. While we wish it was, it’s just not.

Instead, most traffic is coming through the side door—specifically, to story pages from search results and social media. When that traffic is coming in, it feels great. But something always goes wrong.

An example of this occurred when Facebook altered its in-feed algorithm regarding news content. Slate shared the results:

Imagine going from 28.3 million to 3.6 million in a year and a half. But Facebook isn’t the only one.

Back in 2011, Google introduced its Panda update, which was meant to prevent poor quality content from getting high in the SERPs. I got my first job in SEO a month after Panda and I remember looking at Google Analytics and seeing how traffic numbers had plummeted.

The problem was that good quality content got caught up in the mess and it took months for those sites to recover their rankings—if ever.

The platforms are unreliable traffic drivers. While they can drive plenty of traffic when they’re working, simple changes in their algorithms can have big impacts on your business even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

And let’s be frank. None of the platforms actually owe you anything. If Google wants to change its algorithm, that is its choice. Same for Facebook. There’s no contract between the publisher and the platform that guarantees a certain level of traffic.

An email list, on the other hand, doesn’t behave that way. Unless you spam the hell out of it, the list you build and nurture today could remain engaged for years to come.

The newsletter is also a way to convert users from search and social into people that you’re able to communicate with. This changes the relationship from an unknown user into someone that you know something about.

More importantly, if you’re thinking about rolling out a subscription, newsletters are a great way to convert users. According to Wired, which introduced a paywall in 2018:

They’ll particularly pay, we also learned, if you send them newsletters. The propensity to subscribe by people who enter WIRED.com on a mobile device is rather low—unless they come in via a newsletter. (To give one data point, a visitor who reaches us via search is 1/19th as likely to subscribe as one who comes in from a newsletter; a reader coming in from Facebook is 1/12th; and a reader coming in from Twitter is 1/6th.) That’s one reason why we’re launching all kinds of new newsletters, tied to specific sections of the site.

But no one should be surprised about this for a couple reasons:

  • These users are more engaged and loyal to your platform, so they’re more likely to want to subscribe

  • If you’re driving users back to your site and you have a dynamic paywall, newsletter subscribers are more likely to hit the wall since they likely consume more content.

Why you shouldn’t have a newsletter…

It’s clear that I am bullish on newsletters. They help you convert flyby traffic into known users. And, if you’re introducing a paywall, it’s a strong way to get users more engaged in a way that they’re likely to pay.

And yet, there is a reason why you wouldn’t want to have a newsletter. This is the caveat I mentioned above.

If you’re not going to dedicate the resources to making it a great product, there’s no reason to do it.

This is where the topic of peak newsletter is worth discussing. There are so many newsletters. I probably get 20 a day. I don’t have enough time to go through those newsletters in depth, so some of them just get opened and archived almost instantly.

For a lot of media companies, the newsletter is an afterthought. They do them because they read pieces like this that say, “you need a newsletter,” but then they don’t support it with the necessary resources. So, you wind up with this subpar product that really doesn’t help a user. Open rates suffer and then you’re back to square one.

If you’re not going to give your newsletter the resources it needs, don’t bother. It’s going to flounder. I’ve seen so many newsletters that are treated as afterthoughts and teams wonder why they’re not doing well.

What should a newsletter do?

I believe newsletters serve two primary purposes and one secondary purpose. Let’s go through them.

Save time

But, for most newsletters, I believe they should be thought of as time savers. There is so much news out there and people are busy. How can you take all of that important news and present it to your audience in a few minutes?

Here’s how I like to think about it, especially for those in niche media…

If the CEO of a company in your industry needs to stay current on what’s going on in that industry, how much time do they have?

I like to say 5-10 minutes. Therefore, can your newsletter serve the audience in that period of time?

That’s why I like what Axios does with their newsletters. They let you know right at the top about how long it’s going to take to read.

That respects the audience. Considering I am a subscriber to Miriam’s newsletter, I can tell you that in four minutes, I’m pretty caught up on the important space topics for the week. Talk about saving me time.

Provide context

Context is where you take the news and explain why it’s relevant. Context is actually where you can provide a ton of value because you’re helping people think through things in a different way.

Here is where you can get an exceptionally engaged audience because a single good bit of context can help validate or invalidate an idea that someone is working on.

What a newsletter shouldn’t do…

Regurgitate your homepage. So many times, a newsletter is just the RSS feed published in newsletter format. This fails at the previous two suggestions.

First, it doesn’t save time. Typically, the RSS feed just includes the excerpt and encourages the user to click to the website. Now I have to read a bunch of articles to get the news. That doesn’t save time.

Second, it doesn’t provide context. It doesn’t explain why that information matters. Instead, it just says there’s information.

This type of newsletter exists because the publisher is trying to do one thing: get you back to the website. This is a business model issue. Publishers need to increase pageviews to get more ad dollars. I get that, but it doesn’t serve the user by saving time or providing context.

New media company, new newsletter…

I believe that, to do a newsletter well, it’s important to think about it as its own standalone product. Said another way, if your audience could only engage with your newsletter, how would you create it?

This is actually how to think about launching a new media company. A newsletter is a standalone product that can be a good place to start, especially in the niche world. Let’s use an example…

You identify the cannabis business industry as a niche you want to enter. Rather than launching with journalists and a large team, you launch a weekly newsletter. We’ll call it NewCannabisWeekly.

In five minutes or less, you sum up the important news of the week and provide context. But because you don’t have anywhere to send them, you have to do a good job from start-to-finish keeping them engaged with the newsletter.

Over time, the newsletter is shared among the cannabis community. Investors, operators, executives, and the wide variety of other individuals in the cannabis industry sign up. Perhaps you even get a sponsor. Now your newsletter is generating cash.

At this point, you go out, raise that initial round, bring on journalists, and start covering the industry.

This media company, at its core, is driven by that newsletter. It’s a strong engagement tool and it gives you a direct relationship with the reader.

This is the strategy I would take if I were launching in a specific niche. Launch a weekly, curate with the idea of saving time and providing context, and when I’ve got some semblance of an audience, raise that first round and race to profitability.


Thanks for reading this week’s issue of A Media Operator. If you’re obsessed with newsletters like I am, consider subscribing to Inbox Collective’s Not a Newsletter. They are truly the experts at this. Please share this post with colleagues and if you’re new here, sign up. See you on Friday!

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