Newsletters, audio and personalisation: top priorities for US newsrooms

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by Nicole Frankenhauser | December 20, 2018

Photo: WAN-IFRA Study Tour participants in The New York Times newsroom

Newsletters: The Loyalty tool of choice for publishers

“Sophisticated” is definitely the adjective that comes to mind when discussing newsletter strategy with US publishers. The Washington Post is using newsletters as the main vehicle to boost their digital subscription strategy and they have a dedicated team for that. It’s a similar story at The New York Times.

But for Axios, the new kid on the block from 2016, newsletters are even more fundamental to their editorial model. They now have a robust portfolio of free newsletters (17 in total with 6 dailies), building the brands around the recognised journalist or editor that leads each one.

Axios is on a mission to bring back the scoop or at least cover news with an angle that makes them stand out. It seems to be working: they claim 350,000 newsletter subs, but can make 1 million UVs on a scoop. Building this loyal and quality audience has helped them grow their advertising revenue, which now represents 70 percent of their earnings (with 30 percent coming from their events arm). Paid subscriptions will eventually follow, with a future variety of newsletters that they will launch at a very premium price.

Another great example of a publisher refining their newsletter strategy is Philadelphia Media Network (PMN). They recently reduced their variety of newsletters to focus on their core competencies: funneling resources into more local-infused newsletters covering politics, sports, dining and events. They refer to newsletters as “the bridge to people who do not yet subscribe” and are even doing cross promotion in newsletters to further secure a coveted spot in the reader’s inbox.

PMN publishes exclusive content in stand-alone newsletters (“Things to Do,” “Let’s Eat”… ) and the wildly popular, click-driving newsletter The Inquirer Sports Daily, plus of course the daily engagement product Inquirer Morning Newsletter that is both purposed to convert readers into subscribers and to keep the current subscribers engaged.

Publishers were unanimous in their end goal on newsletter strategy: habituation.

Positioning their newsletters as an indispensable part of a reader’s day will help publishers with re-circulation of their stories and will ultimately get readers to either continue hitting that paywall or boost ad revenue.

Active experimentation going on in the audio sphere

While VR, AR and video are still important for publishers, audio was the most talked about medium during the study tour. On visits to newsrooms in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, each newsroom was tapping into the audio phenomena. Whether through quick audio briefings or niche podcasts – people are growing increasingly more dependent on audio assistants, and are adapting their routines to consume news through a hands-free, eyes-free, audible way.

Free offer of an Echo Dot with a Washington Post subscriptionAt The Washington Post where audio is not yet behind a paywall, they have been able to find new audiences and study the behaviours of consumers with their growing audio team. This is helping them reach new audiences, as shown by an interesting link between WaPo and education – where teachers are using their podcasts in the classrooms.

Looking at user behaviour, WaPo found that most listeners use their audio content at home, with the second biggest group tuning in during their daily commutes. They’ve seen long tail impact with podcasts and continue to grow their audiences of loyal listeners in a very saturated market. In these times of experimentations, audio monetisation relies on advertising. At least at The Washington Post. There is still so much to learn before asking listeners to pay for it.

Personalisation: Focusing on the 1-2-1 connection with readers

Throughout the week with US publishers there was a consistent message that your newsroom should be thinking audience first. The New York Times wants to be your “smart friend” who provides recommendations and helps prepare you for the day with a digest of news.

Additionally, the approach for their newsletter puts the reader first by aiming to “delight” them and to also curate a balance of stories so that they finish the newsletter with a positive feeling. The goal is to build a closer relationship with them despite the fact that the newsletter reaches millions of other readers.

Philadelphia Media Network (PMN) has deployed the Hearken tool to create an open, engaging platform between their readers and their audience development team and aptly named it “Curious Philly.” This idea was birthed out of their reader’s interest to learn more about their hometown.

Since its launch, more than 1,000 questions have been submitted, then readers are asked to vote and the winning ideas get a thorough investigation. As of mid-October, the team had produced 19 stories covering a variety of Philadelphia-related stories that are then shared in the Sunday newsletter.

The Curious Philly explainer for PMN readers on how to submit their pressing Philly questions through Hearken

WAN-IFRA makes an annual week-long trip with global editors and executives to visit US newsrooms to learn about media trends and have an open exchange between the hosts and the participants. If you would like to join us in 2019, please check out our website for the Audience Engagement Study Tour (7-11 Oct. 2019).

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