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All the ways publishers are using newsletters to grow paying members

Emails are so important for reader revenue-focused news publishers see them as a building block of their strategy.

“It’s crazy how outdated it is”, says one respondent in a The New York Times piece on using email for communication titled Could Gen Z Free the World From Email?

Yes, it’s crazy. But crazy in a good way. By the way, NYT also relies on email for its digital subscription strategy. (They see newsletters as habit-building and push subscribers to them to boost retention).

Email has been around for a while. Many smart “digital media people” believe it will survive for a while longer.

There’s no debating it – this is the new golden age for newsletters. It was the renowned media columnist David Carr who wrote in 2014 that the death of email newsletters is exaggerated.

In that column, Carr quotes Jason Hirschhorn, the chief executive of the digital curator ReDef: “Email is a 40-year-old technology that is not going away for very good reasons – it’s the cockroach of the Internet.” That perfectly sums it up.

In the past few years, wherever I have looked for insights on building sustainable reader revenue, emails and newsletters have almost always been in the top three things to focus on.

So here is a list I am keeping on all the ways news publishers are using email to grow paying members and subscribers. This is a growing list and I keep updating it, so make sure to bookmark it somewhere. (I also keep a running list of ways to monetize your newsletter, but let me share that another time.)

More from The Fix: What if the future of media is only newsletters and podcasts? Axios seems to think that’s right.

1) Paid newsletters

Paid newsletters with access only for paying subscribers are the most straightforward way news publishers can grow their paying members or subscribers. It’s not a simple task by any means. There are different strategies you can choose from. But having a paid newsletter connected with your membership/subscription offering is easy to communicate.

The Ghost blog has published a two-part series (first, second) on how to increase paid-for newsletter subscribers with landing pages. Both blog posts include several useful examples and best practices on how to communicate the value of the paid product directly from the landing page, there is a lot you can learn from there.

Of course, this goes without saying, if you want people to pay for your content, it has to be good. Interestingly, it does not have to be perfect, as is the common misconception among starting paid newsletter authors. According to several successful paid newsletter writers, you should not paywall your best content as that provides the best marketing (promotion) for your product.

2) Extra content for paying subscribers (i.e. Sunday edition, special Q&A) 

Recently, Bloomberg has launched new personality driven newsletters and one of them, “Power On” written by Mark Gurman about Apple and consumer technology, has two versions. One version is for any free subscribers with all the weekly Apple news. Another version goes out to Bloomberg paying subscribers sooner and includes an exclusive Q&A section.

Another example of exclusive content for paying subscribers is an extra edition of the newsletter only for them. The most popular choice I have seen has been a weekend edition to a daily newsletter.

3) Extra features for paying subscribers (i.e. access to online community)

One of the best practices for building a loyal following is creating exclusive and “safe spaces” for members and subscribers to interact with the newsroom and each other.

Taking this into account, some independent and also small news publishers are experimenting with creating online communities on Discord or in closed Facebook groups. Entry only for paying supporters.

This is an indirect way that newsletters are helping to grow them as they usually advertise is also through newsletters, some are using feedback and information from the community in the newsletters, kind of like featuring some supporters.

4) Free newsletters with links to paywalled articles

If you have a big base of readers, going the indirect way of converting them to paying customers might be more successful even if it is a longer term project.

One of the big news publishers going down this way is The New York Times. “Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business. Subscribing to a newsletter is a healthy habit that can bear fruits down the line,” told Digiday Adam Pasick, editorial director of newsletters at The Times.  

The Morning, the biggest newsletter of The Times by far with millions of subscribers, is free for anyone. According to Pasick they are using a couple of tactics to convert them to paying subscribers. The process is ongoing and he did not share what is working the best.

Also, this strategy of free newsletters linking to paywalled articles was successfully used by Funke Mediengruppe who managed to convert 5 to 10 percent of their newsletter subscribers to pay for their online subscription.

As Ruth Betz, the head of newsletter strategy at the time, told us during the Media Revolutions conference, it took them on average around six months to convert new newsletter subscribers to paying customers.


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5) Free newsletters with membership/subscription promotion (support us)

This is a similar approach as in the previous point with the exception that you are actively promoting your digital subscription in the newsletter.

NYT is doing this, Funke Mediengruppe tried this but had more success with sending readers to paywalled articles.

You can do this also with a membership for a news site that does not have paywalled content. The pitch for the reader is to support the existence of the newsletter and the outlet producing it.

Think of it as a Patreon strategy with newsletter being your main funnel. Sure, you can provide benefits and additional perks, but the idea is to ask for financial support for the news product you create – the newsletter.

6) EAAS – email as a service (full articles straight into inbox)

What if your subscriber’s inbox was the main touch point with your content? The resurgence of independent writers (a few years ago we used to call them bloggers) using platforms like Substack, Ghost, Revue or even Facebook’s recently launched Bulletin shows the power of the inbox.

Readers subscribe to the newsletter and get the full experience of each content within the email sent by the writer. No need to click and visit the website to read the whole article. Everything lands in your email and you can get to it whenever you have the time. It’s there, no algorithm will float it away.

The Slovak Denník N has been successful with getting readers to register by subscribing to their newsletters or by following articles published by a certain author or  topics they chose to follow. The reader then gets a notification whenever a new article is published.

Imagine if you sent paying subscribers the whole article straight to their inbox, not just a notification. Now that would be a service worth paying for. And it has a good selling point – with each email notification to non-subscribers to your digital subscription you can remind them that with an active subscription they would get the whole content straight to their inbox.

More from The Fix: Newsletters help grow subscriptions, generate ad revenue, and gear up for a cookie-less world

7) Newsletter as a retention tool (losing less subscribers)

Sometimes growing your members or subscribers means you are not losing the existing ones. As I quoted Adam Pasick of the NY Times above, newsletter is a great habit forming tool. And as reports have shown, engaged readers don’t churn.

8) Referral programs

Referral programs are primarily used to build up the newsletter list. You create incentives for your newsletter subscribers to share the sign up link to get their friends or followers to join your newsletter.

If your list segmentation is properly set up, you can better target those referrals joined by paying subscribers with special offers and saying that the person that referred them is already a paying customer and they should consider the same.

Basically, the referral program data can be used to target those newsletter subscribers who already have a connection to someone who is a paying customer.

9) Create a newsletter subscription platform

The last and hardest one to pull off. If you have the resources, the market power and the incentives for independent writers to join your platforms, you can build up a newsletter subscription platform.

Now, you can go about it the Substack-way, getting a fee from overall subscriptions or you could tie the subscription to your main or upgraded product (digital subscription) and either give the writer a cut from every subscriber or pay a flat fee.

Just to clarify, think of the Medium subscription model. Medium is a blogging and now also a newsletter platform. Some of the content is exclusive and you have to pay a subscription.

There is only one subscription for everything and the writers get pieces of the overall revenue based on how many paying readers interacted with their content.

So think of this model in terms of newsletters. You have an overall digital subscription with access to independent newsletters included. Your publication is the main gateway and you split the revenue with the writers based on agreed metrics.

If you come across another strategy for using newsletters to grow paying supporters, let me know, I will add it to the list.

More from The Fix: Ex-New Yorker and BuzzFeed newsletter director explains how email can become a newsroom’s biggest driver of revenue

Photo by Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash


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