What we’ve learned from launching a morning newsletter

Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

When The Compass Experiment launched Mahoning Matters last October, we knew we would have to deeply connect with the Mahoning Valley community in order to build a sustainable local news organization.

We also knew that email newsletters are among the best vehicles to connect with an audience — specifically, email newsletters that come from a person and are tailored to fulfill a particular task or information gap.

After our website launch, we quickly built a list of thousands of subscribers for an automatically generated afternoon newsletter that delivered everything we published daily. That newsletter had open and clickthrough rates that were higher than the industry average, but we thought we could deliver even more value — and establish a stronger connection with email subscribers who could become members in the future — by authoring a daily curated email newsletter.

Our target audience was made up of locally engaged news consumers. We decided to try to engage them on a deeper level with a newsletter model akin to a morning newspaper experience that collects the relevant news of the day in one place.

The top requirements of the newsletter were to:

  • Write it with a personal, authentic voice from the local editor
  • Curate news from sources around the area — including in-market competitors — to give readers a more complete picture of the day’s news
  • Make it scannable and very consumable on mobile

We launched our morning newsletter, Morning Matters, a little more than two months after the initial launch of the site. We knew our challenges would be largely operational — staff learning newsletter software and best practices for newsletter writing, and crafting a workflow and dedicating staff time to writing and producing it every day. The biggest operations challenge has been whittling down the total time spent on newsletter production to less than an hour — a skill we’ve not yet quite mastered, but we’re getting closer.

While many news organizations launched separate coronavirus newsletters as the global pandemic became prime local news, we were able to use the vehicle we already had. As local life became almost entirely about the virus, Morning Matters included daily case numbers and news to help readers navigate local shutdowns and safety precautions.

We learned that:

  • Practice does not make perfect, but it’s important. We used a simple prototype to smooth out the initial workflow and make sure we were hitting the right notes in the writing. We had a “soft launch” for several weeks before we started heavily promoting the newsletter.
  • Acquisition is tricky. We started with a pretty solid initial list of subscribers. In order to grow it, we found we were going to need to go hard on marketing options beyond organic growth. Offering giveaways like gift cards proved to be good motivation to readers to sign up for the newsletter, and we’ve worked to tweak pop up signup modules to boost the list as well.
  • A/B testing is a whole ball of wax. We intended to A/B test early on, but it requires about as much focus and dedication as launching the initial newsletter, so we’re not quite there yet. When we do get there, we know we’ll have to glean actionable insights from the tests and adjust accordingly.
  • Success is not about clickthroughs. Although we’re learning about our audience based on what they click on, the open rate and other engagement metrics are far more important as we seek to establish a morning habit among our subscribers.
  • Curation is an extension of our mission. By linking out to other news outlets in our area — including those that have wary of us since our launch — we are showing our commitment to collaboration over competition. We don’t mind driving traffic to others’ stories if it creates value for our readers and helps them be better informed.
  • Though there are multiple ways to approach a morning newsletter like this, our decision to embrace an editor-driven approach allowed Mahoning Matters Editor Mark Sweetwood to use his own voice to develop a daily, personal, empathetic relationship with our audience, which proved particularly helpful as the coronavirus crisis unfolded.

Overall, we’ve been pleased with the response to the newsletter, which readers consumed especially voraciously during the frenetic early days of the pandemic, and have met our initial KPIs as we approach 7,000 subscribers and have maintained an open rate above 30 percent.

Plus, we get daily notes of encouragement from readers who are replying to the email. The latest, from one reader, said, “I would like to thank you for your time and trouble of doing this.”

Thank you, reader. We appreciate you, too.

Julie Westfall is Central Editor for The Compass Experiment, a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project. This Medium site is set up to share news and learnings from The Compass Experiment’s local news websites, which include Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio and The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado.

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