The Email Newsletter Renaissance Is Here. Are You Ready?

A new report from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism looks at news organizations that are aiming to grow their revenue by converting readers into members. One essential way they do this: They create habit-forming newsletters.

This morning when I woke up, the first thing I did was reach for my phone and open my inbox.

This is a news junkie’s daily ritual. It helps me get up to speed quickly on essential news and information that I missed while I was sleeping. You might recognize some of the newsletters that arrive in my inbox before the workday gets started: The Skimm, Politico’s Playbook and its vast array of spinoffs, and, of course, Associations Now Daily News.

I like each of these newsletters for different reasons: The Skimm has a clear and concise voice that’s approachable and fun. Playbook focuses on tiny news nuggets that I might have missed the day before. And our newsletter is a daily one-stop shop for news and commentary from across the association universe. (I open it each morning to catch up on what my colleagues are covering.)

Right now, a lot of people in the media are obsessing over how to make their newsletters more habit-forming for their readers. This effort is part of a continued push to upend the traditional media revenue model, which for decades was based primarily on advertising and subscriptions, and push it in the direction of a membership-style experience. Earlier this month, Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism dug deep into that topic with the release of its Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement.

While the Tow Center report is meant to help news organizations and media entrepreneurs deepen their engagement with readers, association professionals can glean some useful takeaways for tweaking their email newsletters to make them more habit-forming. I also recommend reading Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

In his book, Eyal identifies a four-step process that leads to habit-forming experiences. It starts with an initial trigger experience, followed by a push to take deeper action, then some type of reward or incentive, and finally a challenge to commit more time to the experience.

“The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it,” Eyal says. “In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labor leads to love.”

That’s especially true if you’re challenging members to read, think, and act through a recurring email newsletter. One of the key findings from the Tow Center report is that “for publications of all sizes, email newsletters are proving to be productive for encouraging repeat visits and eventually converting readers into supporters. Reading email is a powerful daily habit, especially on mobile phones, and becoming part of that daily habit is a particularly potent way for news organizations to build reader relationships.”

Email newsletters are experiencing a renaissance of sorts because, unlike other distribution channels like social media, newsletters give the publisher almost total control over timing, delivery, content, style, and substance of the message.

Creating Personality-Driven Newsletters

In the Tow Center report, Elisabeth Goodridge, editor for newsletters and messaging at The New York Times, says an effective email newsletter comes down to achieving the right balance of content in a personality-driven voice. The product must be:

  • targeted to a specific audience
  • written by experts
  • presented in a conversational and clear tone
  • delivered in engaging formats and features
  • based on previous subscriber habits

This approach emphasizes a need for an audience-development or engagement editor, someone who can think critically about the news—or the message you want to communicate—and deliver it in a digestible format and in a narrative style that reflects your community’s voice and personality.

Too often, associations rely on the convenience of automated newsletters, sacrificing context for daily or weekly news. The Tow Center advises against this approach.

“It can seem tempting to send automated editorial newsletters that feature your sites’ most recent headlines sans curation or staffer explanation, but the resulting newsletter can feel stale and automated to recipients,” the report states. Engagement comes from a strong writer-reader (or association-reader) relationship.

That doesn’t mean automation doesn’t have its place. It works well for routine newsletters, like those that deliver standardized information to onboard a new member. Newsrooms are adopting that strategy too. The drip campaign, a tried-and-true tactic of many associations, is now being used by the Honolulu Civil Beat to introduce new readers to its style of nonprofit journalism and watchdog reporting.

As I’ve said before, newsrooms and associations probably have a lot to share if they want to solve the membership puzzle they both face.

Have you made a tactical change to your member newsletter recently? What did you change and why? Share your comments in the thread below.

(vladwel/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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