The email newsletter is a centerpiece of digital strategy for many organizations. With that in mind, perhaps its creation—whether in terms of strategy or execution—shouldn’t be siloed off within one part of the association.
Email communications touch on many different parts of the org chart at once. And this can make executing your email newsletter tricky business.
Email tends to be more fragile than websites, meaning that you might need to get your developers involved on more than an occasional basis. Your marketing team might see its purpose as largely promotional and would prefer to put its imprint on the matter. Then there’s your communications or editorial team, who might see email as a storytelling format, with links that support messaging goals rather than promotional ones. And, of course, volunteers might want a say in what goes inside your email newsletter. Their goal may be to inform the community about their activities.
And what about the day to day? When there are so many players involved, who has to sign off on a message—and how does the strategy change if it’s a daily newsletter, rather than a weekly or monthly one?
One more wrench to consider: You may decide that, for some newsletters, you’d prefer to work with a partner that can add benefits like automation and personalization.
It’s a lot to think about, in terms of ownership, structure, workflow, timing, and the ultimate result. But it’s a discussion worth having—because that ownership picture can frame the way that you communicate with members and potential members.
Day-to-Day Vs. Strategy
Recently, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy pondered these questions as part of its Single Subject News Project, a two-year endeavor that aims to track audience growth at highly focused editorial nonprofits such as The Marshall Project, which covers criminal justice issues. Researchers found that, in the case of these mission-oriented newsrooms, ownership of the day-to-day newsletter operation mostly fell to the editorial team—but many other departments had a say on broader strategic issues.
James Burnett, the editorial and managing director of The Trace (and a former editor of mine at another outlet a number of years ago), noted that his organization, which focuses on the impact of gun violence in the United States, told the researchers that business and editorial needs tend to work independently of one another—one in a strategic role, the other on deadline.
“The metabolism and velocity that goes into the editorial content of a great newsletter is distinct from the business-side work of building your email list and increasing subscriber donations,” Burnett said, according to a Medium post summarizing the research.
The outlets surveyed had a many different processes for building newsletters, spending anywhere between four and 58 hours on newsletter production every week. Forty hours was common for many outlets, and size was a factor in how each outlet functioned.
Let’s Talk Execution (and Strategy)
Now, single-subject nonprofit news outlets don’t work exactly like associations, but they have many important parallels. Typically, they’re mission-oriented, they carry a distinct advocacy voice, and they’re looking to drive revenue (though in their case it’s generally through donations or subscriptions, rather than via membership dues). These organizations even put developer resources against their newsletters: The Marshall Project built an internal tool called Pony for simplifying the process of sending emails in MailChimp, then open-sourced it.
And they think about their newsletters in terms of both now and six months from now. That’s an important distinction, and it’s something I think associations need to do more of with their own newsletters.
Producing an email comes with quirks that vary from strategic to technical. The layout of the message matters; so, too, does the way it’s structured. If you’re putting together a simple roundup of links, it can probably be automated to some degree. If you’re going the Mike Allen route and sending a long, quippy message full of details like what you might see at Politico or Axios, it might take the better part of a day.
If the message has a distinct voice, or if it’s image-heavy, this might have an impact on who opens the newsletter and how it’s structured. And, of course, some email marketing might not look like a newsletter at all—some outreach might call for, say, a drip campaign instead.
When you’re building a new newsletter in your organization, these are the kinds of questions that should be discussed early in the process—and revisited, frequently. Execution will be informed by strategy. Data should be involved, as well as department feedback over what’s working and what’s not. Maybe that template needs a refresh; maybe the tools are slowing things down.
And maybe ownership shouldn’t be so cut and dry. As my colleague Tim Ebner wrote near the beginning of this year, the email newsletter renaissance is well underway, but with its growing importance as a tool for reaching your audience, now isn’t the time to silo your newsletter work off under a single department. Perhaps, like your website, it needs to be managed holistically, throughout the organization.
Maybe nobody should “own” it. Then again, maybe everyone should.