Email is the product: Insights from Axios, theSkimm, and Quartz

At this year’s ONA conference, Eva Scazzero, product manager at Quartz; Dheerja Kaur, head of product and design at theSkimm; and Roy Schwartz, co-founder and president at Axios took to the stage to discuss email as a driver of innovation and loyalty (yes, Email). We gathered some of the main takeaways from the session.

  • The Quartz Obsession email is just over one year old. It is a daily deep dive into a random topic, ranging from the colour purple to camels all the way to hyperinflation, turning the daily reader into a trivia pro. Their July 9 edition on CBD had an open rate of 84 percent. It goes out mid-afternoon.
  • The Daily Skimm has 9 million subscribers. It is aimed at a female millenial audience and it is sent out early every morning.
  • Axios sends out seventeen different newsletters (tech, energy, the future, auto) every day. The target audience are influencers: those who work in governments, run companies etc.
Quartz Obsession

Intimacy strategy

The biggest shift, according to Kaur, is that email is no longer just a marketing tool towards your product, but it actually is your product. What makes email special is the intimacy it creates with your audience: The Daily Skimm is not just a daily email newsletter that pops up in people’s inboxes, but it builds a habit and a routine. ‘When I started at theSkimm and began talking to users, it was kind of beautiful. They’d say, I get up, I brush my teeth, I drink my coffee, I read my Skimm, I go to work’, said Kaur. ‘The Daily Skimm immediately became a cornerstone of their morning routine in a way that was so seamless and so hard to create and build with another platform’.

This idea of intimacy has shaped the publisher’s entire strategy: premium subscribers also have access to a calendar and audio material. For example, if one email was on the topic of Facebook, premium subscribers would gain access to an audio deep dive on the topic and have the option of adding the date Zuckerberg is testifying in front of Congress to their calendars.

‘All formats mirror the intimacy that email has and it can be very different from a typical strategy that you see’, said Kaur.

Contextualise, contextualise, contextualise

According to Kaur, one of the most important things is to contextualise the email reading experience:

  • What time is it?
  • What is the reader doing?
  • What are they looking for?
  • What’s the best way to engage with them?

Kaur said that there is a bifurcation in the way that people look at their inbox: they do a split second scan and then auto-segment their personal emails from their brand promotions. The key is to make your email seem like it was written from a friend rather than just another promotional email whose miserable fate is the trash folder. Creating this friendly feel depends on the tone of voice, the written content, and the design of the email: images should be minimised and the reader shouldn’t have to click out too much.

Don’t put in a bot what you’ll put in a newsletter

‘You can’t just take any story, slightly reformat it, and put it in a newsletter’, said Schwartz. ‘If you do that, opening rates will start to plummet. According to him, readers are savvy. They will have read the story elsewhere already, meaning that the moment of intimacy and uniqueness the email is meant to create in the moment is lost.

‘Writing a story on our site is not the same as writing an email’, added Scazzero. ‘The story you’re telling has to complement the design and vice versa’. At Quartz, the people who write the emails are called push editors, reflecting the notion of pushing something out to a user, which is unique to the format.

Maximising clicks while minimising shitty emails

Kaur said that it is easy to make small concessions and ‘bastardise things’ in order to drive clicks. Instead, the focus should be on the value of the email. The reader should be able to get their news rundown and news content without having to click out of the email. ‘Once they click out, they’ll never come back’, she added.

The purpose of Axios newsletters is to create a dive deep on a certain topic. ‘Our letters are very self contained and there is no driving to some other product’, said Schwartz. However, they do have an ‘in case you missed it’ newsletter that goes out at the end of the day to to run people who have been in meetings all day up to speed on the five most important stories of the day.

Loyalty and metrics

‘Top line open rate means almost nothing to me’, said Kaur. She suggested looking at list size and understanding what you’re seeing in terms of daily and weekly engagement across the board instead.

  • Which percentage of the audience is opening the email every single day versus those who are opening once a month? Who is in the middle?
  • What are the drivers of this overall metric? Is it click through rates or is it overall engagement day after day?
  • How are readers engaging with the brand holistically? Email is also a huge driver of user level across different platforms.
‘Doing user level segmentation is the most important thing I think you can do’, said Kaur.

Axios sent out a reader survey to its 80,000 subscribers and received 15,000 responses, including written responses, giving a sense of the level of engagement some newsletters can get. They also look at the interaction between their different newsletters and how people are interacting with their other products, which include live events, videos, their website, and soon they’ll have an HBO show.

Innovating an archaic format

Email is often thought of as archaic due to the perceived lack of sophistication of the technology. TheSkimm have built a robust targeting infrastructure, allowing everyone across the organisation to try and test new things. But beyond focusing on tech innovation, the publisher is taking a step back and thinking about the reader, their daily routine, and how their morning can be ‘innovated’. What does the reader want outside of the news? Is there a possibility of personalisation? How can this part of the day be connected to the rest of the day?

For Quartz Obsession, innovation lies in the approach. The 2 June edition of this year, for example, was titled ‘Blaming Ambien: The truth and consequences of sleep-aid side effects’. The team creatively turned Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet fiasco (which she blamed on Ambien) and Elon Musk’s historical tweets about the drug into a story about what happens to our bodies when we take the drug and fail to fall asleep. ‘This might not be technically new and exciting, but it’s an innovative way to think about a story and it worked in the specific format that it exists in’, said Scazzero.

Screwing up

The most stressful thing about working with emails is that you can’t take them back. At theSkimm, there have been times where they’ve double sent the email. Seeing as the whole point of the email is to create a ‘human’ relationship with the audience, the publisher decided to talk to their audience in a ‘human’ way to apologise. ‘We sent another email right after saying something like “Sorry, we forgot to drink our coffee this morning, please take us back”, said Kaur. The apology email ended up being a huge engagement driver and people replied things along the lines of ‘don’t worry it happens to us too’. These human interactions can therefore be a way of consolidating your brand even more.

Responding to build relationship

The Skimm also replies to every single email they receive and there is a dedicated support on the product team that sifts through feedback and summarises it for future improvement.

According to Scazzero, people are often shocked when they receive a reply and realise that there is a person on the other end of the newsletter, which can lead to some good conversations. ‘Don’t underestimate how much that can be your value driver’.