Six Lessons about Email and Audience Growth for Nonprofit News

One of the best parts of the Single Subject News Project is when we get to take a break from conference calls, Zoom videos and Slack and see all of our cohort groups in person — in the same room! Back in December, our single subject cohort met us in Cambridge, Massachusetts to do just that. These convenings are designed to facilitate peer learning, and in the process a bit of consciousness raising emerges too (oh, we’re not the only newsroom struggling with this?!). It’s a lot of fun.

Last week, we hosted our second cohort convening in New York on the CUNY J-School campus. But before we get into that, we’d like to review our major takeaways from that first convening back in December.

The topic of the convening in December was how single subject sites can optimize email to maximize audience growth, engagement and revenue. Below you’ll find the the six thematic takeaways from the day’s discussion.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Hansen (our Research Fellow), Andrew Gruen, (affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center), and Adam Giorgi (MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School) for your contributions to this post.


1. Using email to build audiences and generate revenue is as much an editorial practice as a technological and financial one.

  • Email is, above all, about creating and maintaining a relationship with your readers that is rooted in your editorial voice and supported by the strength of your journalism.
  • Editorial engagement is part and parcel of creating effective email newsletters and campaigns, and is bolstered by a general orientation in the newsroom (and on your leadership teams) to the importance of building relationships with audiences.

2. Email is one of the best tactics to use now to capture and retain the attention of readers. Better still, it isn’t a tech platform over which you have no control. In order to optimize email, you’ll need to:

  • Make email acquisition — and source tracking — a priority, and orient your org chart, web design, and partner strategy around this priority. This will require willingness to experiment, patience, and analysis of your performance.
  • In your email copy, use a distinct voice that is personal in tone (while being true to your core values as a publication) with a specific user persona in mind.
  • Offer your users different newsletter options in both content and frequency.
  • Build the relationship with your email readers. Start with a welcome series, thank them for reading often, give them a look behind the scenes, be opportunistic, and recommend that they join other email lists from your site. Tell them when you’ve done something worthy of note, like winning an award.
  • Maintain a healthy email list and monitor its performance (see the Shorenstein Center’s research guide on using data science tools for email audience analysis).

3. Readers will give you money for something they value. You just have to ask, and asking through email is one of the most effective tactics available to nonprofit newsrooms.

  • There is no place for feeling shy about asking readers for contributions. You are providing a service, and doing good work in the world, and readers want to support you (as we learned, some non-readers might want to support you, too)!
  • When you ask for money through your email list, ask firmly and ask often. Remind your users that you need this support in order to provide the stories they read.
  • For journalists, make the case for yourself, explain why your work is important, and engage in the permanent campaign of generating revenue to support your work.
  • Don’t be afraid of using default donation options: suggest $10 instead of $5, make recurring donations a default option, ask sustaining donors to up their donation by $2/month.
  • Unsubscribes are sometimes the price of stronger asks — but don’t worry! If the readers can’t stay in the relationship through your campaigns, they were probably not very engaged to begin with.

4. One key challenge for single subject outlets is maintaining and growing a core group of insider readers while also expanding to the general public. The email newsletter is a tool that can help walk this line.

  • Conduct market research on your readers and your aspirational readers to determine what they want and expect.
  • Implement a welcome series that will bring newcomers into the fold, particularly when your coverage area requires “explainers” or background information. Consider the best way to contextualize stories for audience members who aren’t insiders on the topic yet.
  • Create a different editorial product, such as a separate email newsletter, intended for newcomers not as familiar with the topic.
  • Partner with other groups to acquire readers through list chaperoning or other email acquisition campaigns.

5. Because resources are limited, every action related to email should be linked back to a broader organizational goal such as audience growth in a specific demographic or more reader revenue.

  • Successful organizational changes often come with a thoughtful implementation plan, along with specific individuals identified to do the work, and concrete, measurable goals linked to specific indicators.
  • A tiered approach to technical changes can also lead to easier adoption (e.g. adding a lightbox on desktop only, at the outset).
  • Say no to any activity that isn’t aligned with an identified goal, even if it only takes a few hours. Test everything to know what you can stop doing (e.g. images in newsletters do not increase conversion).

6. There is significant power in pooling resources.

  • News organizations are not technology shops; they don’t need to be anymore, thanks to the ability to stitch together multiple outside tools into a workable publishing system. Further, these systems can be shared (think SEO co-citation or the News Revenue Hub).
  • We can significantly accelerate learning through other consortia like the News Revenue Hub, Institute for Nonprofit News and The Membership Puzzle Project.

Thanks for reading! Did anything here resonate with you? Agree or disagree with any of the points?

Shoot me an email at emily_roseman@hks.harvard.edu. We’d love to hear from you!

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