Email newsletters, once thought of as low-tech and unfashionable, are proving increasingly valuable to publishers looking to build strong direct relationships with audiences. Email can help build habit and loyalty, which is particularly important for new business models such as subscription and membership.

Previous research has highlighted a sharp increase in their production in recent years, both by ‘legacy’ print and newer digital media publishers (Jack 2016). The trend mirrors the continued importance of email in daily life, and its widespread use in marketing, despite the emergence of more sophisticated digital tools. In this chapter we explore in detail the role played by email news, how publishers are developing their editorial products, and why audiences value the format.

Looking first at consumption across countries, we find significant differences, with over a quarter (28%) using email news each week in Belgium, a fifth (21%) in the United States but around one in ten in Sweden (10%), South Korea (9%), and the UK (9%). The reasons for these differences are not entirely clear but may be related to the extent to which popular publishers have invested in and promoted the format compared with other channels. In countries like South Africa (24%) where bandwidth is expensive, text-based emails can also be an efficient way to distribute online news.

Only 16% across countries regularly use emails but these users tend to be much more interested in news and have more disposable household income. This makes them a very attractive set of consumers for publishers of all types.

Email news users also tend to be older, with over-45s proportionally much more likely to receive them. By comparison, we find that mobile notifications are used equally across age groups. Email is popular both with news lovers – those who have high interest and high frequency of access – as well as with daily briefers, who tend to access news at a number of set times each day. Email is not a good way to engage casual users, who tend to favour channels where the news ‘comes to them’, such as television or social media.

Across 21 countries, where we asked detailed questions around email news, we find that daily updates are the most popular type (60%) of email. These editorial mails which are typically sent early in the morning provide a useful way for readers to cope with a growing information overload.

I use FT Breaking news – it is usually one of the first to break the story, it’s concise so I can glance at it on the go, it covers important events that I care about and is a useful prompt to find out more if I want to.

Male survey respondent, 34, UK

News organisations such as the New York Times and the Washington Post each offer almost 70 different scheduled emails showcasing the work of different parts of the newsroom including business, technology, culture, and sport. Many have also developed ‘pop-up’ newsletters to provide depth on a big ongoing story like coronavirus or the 2020 US presidential election. Beyond scheduled emails, three-quarters of our sample (73%) have also signed up for an email that is triggered by an event – such as a breaking news alert or one based on a specific subject or person that interests them. These emails may come from publishers or from news aggregators like Google News or Nuzzel.

REGULAR BRIEFING EMAILS OFFERED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES

New York Times Email Briefings

Emails function halfway between print and digital. Like articles in a newspaper, they cannot be corrected, updated, or easily modified once sent. They tend to use a constrained layout, which may provide some photographs and graphics alongside text, but rarely more sophisticated or dynamic content. They are often appreciated for their simplicity, but also for how they can showcase journalism in a more personal way for specific groups of people:

The [New York Times] Daily Update is a good mix of the most important news of the day at the top, then other articles of interest toward the bottom

Female, 34, US

The Atlantic Daily helps pull me away from the daily news cycle and toward longer-cycle stories

Male, 39, US

Once just a series of automated links, the most successful emails are treated as an editorial product hosted by a senior journalist who brings an informal tone and personal touch which has often been lacking in digital media. The New York Times recently appointed David Leonhardt as anchor of the morning briefing newsletter, which it also revealed has more than 17m subscribers. The use of the term ‘anchor’, a term borrowed from network TV, shows the value now placed on human curation; on guiding audiences through the news of the day.

In the UK Matt Chorley played a similar role for six years as host of the popular Red Box update for The Times newspaper – mixing politics, humour, and various types of user interaction.

I enjoy Times Red Box because it condenses the last day’s politics news in a light-hearted way

Female, 35, UK

Red Box

Chorley has used the email as a springboard to build a wider personal brand with a weekly podcast, and a nationwide stand-up comedy tour. Now he’s giving up the newsletter to take up a new role as a host on the recently launched Times Radio.

Newsletters tend to be free to all, allowing content to be sampled with the hope that engaged readers can then be converted into subscribers. But they can be equally valuable in providing regular prompts for existing customers to use the product more regularly.

An email saves me going to the web site to find nothing interests me and acts as a reminder to see what’s going on

Male 44, UK subscriber to the update email of the Sheffield Star UK

People in the US get, on average, more emails from different news providers (4) than those in the UK (3). Our analysis shows that American email users are also twice as likely to receive politically focused emails (47%) compared with the average across countries (26%). Emails are particularly important for partisan news providers with The Daily Signal, The Blaze, The Daily Caller on the right and the Daily Kos on the left mentioned frequently by our survey respondents.

Given the relatively high number of emails received, it is striking that on average across our 21 countries almost half (44%) say they read most of their emails each day. A further 37% say they read some of their emails, with only 18% saying they read none or just a few. Publisher data show that the most popular news emails can get open rates of up to 80%, though industry averages tend to be closer to 30%. The New York Times reports an open rate of around 60% for its morning update newsletter.

For subscription businesses email is often a critical weapon in reducing churn – the rate at which people stop paying for the service. Publishers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times try to get new subscribers to take up email newsletters in the first few weeks because the data show that this increases engagement, which in turn reduces churn. According to our data, in Belgium and the United States publishers have managed to get around four in ten (37%) digital or joint digital/print subscribers to use email newsletters. But levels are much lower in many Nordic countries – despite equally high levels of paying for news. In Norway only 14% of subscribers access email weekly, with similar numbers in Sweden (15%) and Finland (19%). Despite their extreme sophistication in using data it seems there is much to learn from American and Belgian publishers on how they are driving more regular engagement through the number, quality, and focus of their emails.

Email news is no silver bullet solution. It is still a minority activity that appeals mostly to older readers and the format can be restrictive. But despite its relative unsophistication, it does remain one of the most important tools available to publishers for building habit and attracting the type of customers that can help with monetisation (subscription or advertising).

With publishers stepping up email production there is a huge amount of choice for consumers, so it is more important than ever to create distinctive content that fills specific audience needs. Our respondent comments show that many consumers appreciate morning and evening briefings because they are easy to skim and save time. Others like the tone of voice and humour that can be provided by a personality guiding people though the news every day – like a television anchor. Others still find email a more efficient way to keeping in touch with a specialist subject area than, for example, browsing through a website.

While specific email formats continue to evolve over time, the characteristics of the most successful – simplicity, finish-ability, curation, and serendipity – are finding parallels in other forms of journalistic output and will be increasingly valuable over time in a world of information abundance and overload.

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