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Nov. 10, 2016, 1:14 p.m.
Business Models

There are at least eight promising business models for email newsletters

When I began overhauling the Financial Times’ editorial email newsletters a couple of years ago, I was soon faced with positive reinforcement, technical frustrations, and sources of deep satisfaction.

The good news was that we were on the cusp of a renewed surge in interest in email by many media organizations that has only grown since, suggesting we were on the right track. From legacy print organizations like The New York Times to digital native groups such as BuzzFeed, almost everyone sees the value of the medium.

The frustration was that emails and the commercial systems that distribute them are poorly suited to journalists’ and readers’ needs. Sending emails involves navigating a complex maze of badly coordinated technical systems and increasing regulatory requirements. It means adapting systems largely geared around dedicated specialists in marketing departments with coding skills to the different needs of busy multitasking journalists on very tight deadlines.

Despite that, there was satisfaction in the response we received: strong and consistent demand to sign up to emails and to open and click on articles, and regular positive feedback. That served as a reminder that what we were doing was akin to “curation”: picking the best gems of news and analysis, and constructing a narrative around them for time-pressed readers drowning in the information overload of the web. And we were forging a direct relationship with our readers.

As Dan Oshinsky, director of newsletters at BuzzFeed, told me: “We have always been about telling stories people want to share, so email is such a natural place to start. It’s definitely not the flashiest, newest platform. But it reaches audiences, brings people back to the site, and distributes our content.”

Like so much else in newsrooms today, resources are tight and media groups are still exploring ways to best monetize emails as part of broader efforts to become sustainable. That led me to talk with colleagues in other media organizations — both in newsrooms and commercial departments — to try to understand the trends, which I have highlighted in a new report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

There are at least eight different business models currently being tested:

1. Web traffic generation/conversion. Clicks from email can boost total web page views, supporting a publication’s broader business model to increase subscriptions and advertising revenues. The Washington Post, with over 70 editorial emails, calls this the “drawbridge.” They add “reach,” drawing in a wider group of prospective readers. The New Yorker says the response is higher from its email newsletters than social media. For smaller and newer organizations, it is a valuable way to grab attract attention and build a reader habit. Blendle generates a third of its traffic in this way. The company has adopted a pay-as-you go model of micropayments, with payments triggered each time a link is clicked to an article by a participating media group.

2. Standalone subscription. The Economist’s Espresso (and its associated app), The Browser, and Brief.me in France all charge subscribers for the email itself, providing standalone original content or discovery of others’ articles based on strong judgement and writing. Laurent Mauriac, founder of Brief.me, says, “The best way to build a strong relationship with the reader is to get them to pay.” In the U.K., The Times’ Red Box, covering British politics, which focuses on conversion and brand awareness, is currently considering charging a subscription.

3. Donations/differential contributions. A number of newsletters are sent out for free but may periodically request contributions, such as Johnson’s Russia List, which aggregates media and academic articles about Russia and the Former Soviet Union, and ProMed, which monitors infectious disease outbreaks. Some are distributed free to individuals and academics, but sold to corporate or commercial subscribers.

4. Add-on to subscription package. The FT’s Free Lunch, Brexit Briefing, and other specialist newsletters are sent free of charge to standard or premium subscribers. They provide an alternative way for readers to consume content, aid in surfacing articles from the FT and across the web, and boost engagement by increasing article readership, which helps retain subscribers or encourage upgrades.

5. Advertising. Many newsletters contain advertising units and banners such as Red Box. An increasing number have “native ad” or sponsored content messages, such as Quartz’s Daily Brief, The Monocle Minute, and TTSO (Time to Sign Off) in France.

6. Cross-selling. Emails often provide a teaser, with the aim of boosting “reach” by getting to new audiences, showcasing unfamiliar content, generating loyalty, and triggering clicks to a subscription paywall or directly to a subscription page. Some do so with third-party commercial sites alongside their own editorial content: for instance, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed have both partnered with Amazon. Others may promote paid-for events, or build address lists allowing separating marketing emails to be sent to recipients.

7. Brand awareness. Free newsletters serve as a way to trigger broader interest in a news organization or product, increasing knowledge of the organization and its content, or raising awareness of new and different content or services it is producing.

8. Community building. Newsletters targeting particular interests, themes or people in specified places provide a way to develop deeper links to specialist audiences, build a more direct relationship, foster loyalty and offer membership or events.

Not all such models work for everyone, and certainly those without their own strong editorial judgment, proprietary content or other forms of distinctiveness will suffer in an ever more crowded newsletter market. The closure of This, which shared reader recommendations, is one recent example.

Alongside greater experimentation with these different models, other future issues for editorial emails include the development of more journalist-friendly platforms; the shifting regulatory environment (especially in Europe); and the role of algorithms in aiding content discovery and personalization.

Emails are a hybrid medium that is far from perfect. But they currently fill a gap for newsrooms, their limitations offer an important platform for experimentation, and their best characteristics are well worth preserving on other digital media platforms that may ultimately replace them.

Andrew Jack is the head of curated content at the Financial Times.

Photo of mailboxes by Joan Campderrós-i-Canas used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 10, 2016, 1:14 p.m.
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