A mutual friend: How to make newsletters work for you and your readers

The Times and The Sunday Times send over 35 different newsletters

Newsletters are essential to our audience development strategy here at The Times and The Sunday Times. We spent the second half of 2018 finding out what our readers liked about them and this is what we learnt.

Newsletters represent one of our most direct points of contact with readers, cutting through the noise of breaking news and relentless social media feeds, to deliver our journalism straight to the reader’s inbox.

We know newsletters are important, over half of Times readers we surveyed consider them to be a vital part of their subscription. We’re not the only ones, Quartz has found that 94% of executives who get their news first thing in the morning, do so from email newsletters. And according to a McKinsey Global Institute survey, almost a third of an average work week is spent managing and working with email.

How we use newsletters
We use newsletters to regularly update our readers with the best articles on a given subject (e.g. Sunday Times Style or Times Wellness). We also publish newsletters as standalone products, providing subscribers with exclusive content (e.g. Times Red Box or Sunday Times Crime Club).

Dedicated newsletter about the NHS at 70

Increasingly, we use newsletters to present content collections on topics we’ve covered in depth. In 2018 we produced a dedicated newsletter for the Armistice Centenary and another to mark the 70th birthday of the NHS. We also built one-off newsletters to give subscribers a first look at our special investigations, such as Ben Macintyre’s report on antisemitism, and the forced-marriage investigation — the latter managing an impressive 50% open rate, despite sending at 11pm at night!

It’s a mutual benefit
Around 200,000 subscribers have opted in to receive over 35 different newsletters from The Times and Sunday Times. We measure the success of our newsletters using a combination of different metrics, but we can be confident they are hitting the mark by taking a quick look at average open rates, in some cases as high as 50–60% — the industry standard is closer to 25%.

This mutually beneficial relationship is proving more important than ever as the unpredictability of social media and search engine algorithms has threatened news media reach. Newsletters are a habit-forming engagement tool which can be nurtured and controlled, largely free from external influence.

What we’ve learnt
Here are seven ways to help the relationship blossom:

Format Readers like a short, bylined introduction, followed by a series of links to carefully selected articles. However, a newsletter that contains a written-through article is seen as more valuable overall.

Curation Readers prefer less than 10 article links per newsletter. We want to avoid bombarding the reader with myriad click-through options. Our advice is to keep the newsletter short and to the point — readers value the fact that the newsletter is a concise edit of what’s available online.

Personality Adopt a unique tone, one that is more conversational than the tone you would use for an article on your website. And, crucially, maintain this tone throughout the newsletter, rewriting headlines and standfirsts to suit. Readers respond well to authenticity, so make the newsletter personal.

Content We have found that our readers like newsletters to contain the very latest articles, perhaps even exclusives that can’t be read elsewhere. The more you can make the reader feel like they have V.I.P membership via the newsletter, the better.

Habit Create a level of expectation with your audience and get them into a routine. This means sending the newsletter at the same time, on the same day, and ideally, from the same voice. Eventually this will form a habit with the reader, and do wonders for your newsletter engagement.

Timing Our readers have told us that they don’t mind which day of the week they receive our newsletters (including weekends), but they do prefer to receive them in the morning. So plan and build your newsletter in advance, and schedule it to arrive in time for breakfast.

And finally… don’t neglect the subject line. These are the newsletter equivalent of a front-page headline. Subject lines should be coherent, well-constructed phrases. They should refer to a maximum of three different topics, and always entice the reader to find out more.

What’s next?
In 2019 we want to launch more topic-led newsletters by testing audience appetite for new subject matter with short-runs. A reader survey conducted in 2018 showed that a massive 88% of respondents would be interested in receiving these kinds of newsletter.

The first of these will cover the World Economic Forum at Davos this January (21–25th) with a five-day guide to the best sessions, parties and that all-important weather report, written by our business editor Richard Fletcher. It will be completely free to receive, and act as a showcase for our market-leading business coverage available to subscribers. Sign-up (thetimes.co.uk/Davos) and let me know what you think.