“We’ve made significant changes to the look and feel of the newsletters since then, but the biggest change is mindset,” says Sunnie Huang, The Economist’s newsletter editor.
“Over the past year, there was a clear shift in the way we think about newsletters: rather than treating them as another loudspeaker to distribute our content, we began a process to shape them into stand-alone products that serve the needs of readers.”
Though more are in the pipeline, The Economist currently offers two flagship newsletters to all registered users. The Daily Dispatch helps readers keep up with the latest analysis, while The Economist this week guides readers through the current edition. Espresso, a subscriber-only newsletter, runs from Monday to Sunday, offering a quick round-up of what’s coming up in the day.
In this interview, Huang, who will be speaking at this year’s Newsroom Summit in Oslo, explains how The Economist transformed the way it approaches newsletters, and highlights some of the challenges associated with engaging audiences through these tools.
WAN-IFRA: Could you tell me a little bit about the work you’ve done over the past year?
Sunnie Huang: Some background first: the editorial newsletters team was launched last September as part of an initiative led by Denise Law, our head of product, to improve our own digital products.
We pride ourselves in our world-class journalism; we should also strive to offer world-class digital experience through the products we can control, namely our website, app and newsletters.
We’ve made significant changes to the look and feel of the newsletters since then, but the biggest change is mindset.
Over the past year, there was a clear shift in the way we think about newsletters: rather than treating them as another loudspeaker to distribute our content, we began a process to shape them into stand-alone products that serve the needs of readers.
Our products team believes in solving business problems by solving customer problems. So we kicked off by talking to readers to find out more about their motivations and frustrations.
We then worked with UX researchers, designers, developers and editors to come up with hypotheses on how we could use our products to meet readers’ needs. We practice design thinking: we did lots of brainstorming and sketching (see pic), built prototypes, tested them in front of real users, and iterated based on their feedback.
Almost every week there are some sort of experiments going on. They could be as small as testing different image sizes or as drastic as overhauling the format of a newsletter. Every week we learn something new about our audience and grow as a team.
How would you describe the primary goals of The Economist‘s newsletters, and the way they fit into the digital strategy overall?
The primary goal of our newsletters is to help The Economist deepen its relationship with readers. Those who receive newsletters are either registered users or subscribers, meaning they are already familiar with our publication.
The newsletters’ job, then, is to further highlight the depth and breadth of our journalism to encourage registered users to subscribe, and to help subscribers get more value out of their subscriptions.
While social media and search engines help us broaden the top of the funnel to introduce our journalism to more people, newsletters increase the gravity of that funnel and help us reach, acquire and retain subscribers.
What are some of the challenges and lessons you can share associated with engaging audiences with newsletters?
Technology. The email templates we inherited were made using a previous email system and carried a lot of legacy issues.
Even simple tasks like moving an image or adding an extra content block required a technician who knows how to code.
We spent the first few months building these templates from scratch. We are also looking at additional CMS tools and developer resources to ease the day-to-day workflow and allow us to experiment and grow more quickly.
Could you tell me a bit about how you promote your newsletters, and what has proved most successful?
Most readers sign up for newsletters when they register for an account on economist.com. We also have an in-line sign-up widget in the middle of an article page.
We are in the process of revamping this journey. We can do a better job explaining what newsletters we offer and the value of our offering.
The inbox is an intimate and increasingly cluttered space, and we need to work harder to prove to readers the value of letting our newsletters occupy that precious space.
It doesn’t matter how great the product is, if readers don’t know what they are signing up for, they are less likely to get value out of it. Building excitement (and habits) for newsletters should start long before the first email lands in readers’ inbox.
What role does data play in your newsletter strategy? What are some of the key metrics that you track?
Similar to other publishers, we keep track of open rates and click-through rates. These numbers don’t just tell us how much traffic newsletters generate, they also tell us whether readers are getting value out of our newsletters and our journalism.
That being said, data never dictates our decisions. To help us prioritise what to test/change/launch/improve, we combine data with qualitative user research and editorial judgement (and a bit of gut instinct, sometimes).