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June 7, 2018, 9:56 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Here are some of the ways you might be doing email newsletters inefficiently (and how to do them better)

Yellow Brim wants to tackle the pain points in newsletter production — and there are plenty.

Get into email newsletters, they said. It’ll be easy, they said. It’s cost-effective, mostly not algorithmically filtered, and good for turning loyal readers into subscribers, they said.

The last few years’ fervor for email can obscure the production efforts that go into editorial newsletters and the metrics around engagement and conversion — headaches discussed widely among the people actually sending those emails. How much time are those people spending on fiddly work — trying to make the template cooperate, cutting down the size of an image-packed email, worrying about broken links? Trying to recreate stories for the website that were first produced for email? Trying to figure out whether its open rate — to be distinguished from unique open rate — is respectable, or whether it’s a useful metric at all? Trying to guess whether all that hard work ends up hidden in readers’ promotions tab in their inboxes, or relegated to spam, or unsubscribed by a friend who got forwarded the email?

“There’s so much on the production side where things seemingly mysteriously go wrong — anything from a template breaking so people can’t read the emails on their phones, a stray quote that breaks it, an image that’s the wrong size, links that have been changed,” Jacqueline Boltik, cofounder and CEO of the newish digital consultancy Yellow Brim. “Often there’s also a lot of double production going on. Then, there’s so much focus on the daily production of content that it’s hard to take a step back and do robust analysis with any given data across different platforms and formats. For publishers, there’s a lot of low hanging fruit there.”

Boltik and Yellow Brim CTO Charley Bodkin evolved the ideas behind Yellow Brim after their time at the Los Angeles Times, Boltik on newsletters and business development and Bodkin as a lead software engineer there. Boltik left the Times to do digital strategy and data science consulting.

Yellow Brim wants to offer a comprehensive toolbox for dealing with this range of headaches, on top of data analysis and audits the team can conduct for clients (for a fee). Its first much-touted solution is a web-to-email converter it’s calling Osmosys (™, patent pending, Boltik said), which is already being tested by some larger publishers like First Look Media’s Topic, as well as single-person operations like Stratechery and Trump and politics digest What the Fuck Just Happened Today.

“When we looked around, it seemed like there should’ve been a better solution, but there wasn’t,” Boltik said. “The production process is time-intensive enough. You add in the people producing emails manually — it’s such a time suck every day.”

The tool, which starts at $5,000 for setup plus a monthly subscription fee, lets the people producing email newsletters convert multimedia or text easily into an email format, that can then be sent via their publishers’ chosen email service providers. It can work with RSS or other types of feeds. Yellow Brim also provides a customizable, responsive email template. If there are elements in the online version you don’t want to make it into the email, that can be customized, too.

Matt Kiser of What the Fuck Just Happened Today formally started using the Osmosys tool about three weeks ago, but had been able to beta test and work with Yellow Brim on tailoring the way the tool works to suit his workflow earlier.

“We’ve had a healthy back-and-forth over the product, my feature requests, and various workflow changes. They’ve been very accommodating to solving for my specific needs while generalizing the solutions for future Yellow Brim clients,” Kiser told me over email. “For instance, they primarily focused on converting WordPress posts to MailChimp, but I don’t use WordPress — I run a Jekyll blog with an API. They were able to map various fields from the API to the template. This solution was/is being generalized to put the user in control of those mappings in the future.”

Kiser says “this tool has been a game changer for me. It used to take 45 minutes to an hour and a half a day to produce the daily WTF update (cloning a campaign, swapping out all the text, fixing weird WYSIWYG spaces and breaks that crop up, updating links, proofing, not to mention all the self-inflicted wounds that crop up from fussing with the MailChimp WYSIWYG editor over the last year-plus). Now I hit a button, wait 20 seconds, set a few parameters in MailChimp, proof it, and send it. End-to-end, it takes me less than five minutes of production time now, which allows me to focus on the content. I’m saving myself four-plus hours a week — that’s huge.”

First Look Media first brought on Boltik to help with audience strategy and to figure out what might be hampering their email newsletter. Topic, an online magazine which publishes a visually rich email, uses a customized version of the converter that takes the publication’s RSS feed and puts together in Mailchimp a formatted email that isn’t so bloated in size that email services like Gmail would end up clipping it (thus cutting off the tracking pixel inside in the email that signals the reader opened the email, thus throwing off a publication’s analytics).

“There can be so much noise and mess in the MailChimp templates when you use the drag-and-drop interface. We were having a lot of problems with Gmail clipping emails based on where tracking pixels were located, especially since for our Topic brands, we publish a very long original story every week, with a number of images and text, Ryan Chanatry, VP of audience development and intelligence, said. “We’ve been able to work with Jacque to take our RSS, feed it to the Yellow Brim converter, which pushes that to MailChimp, which gives us our CMS layout for a newsletter. We know emails readers get won’t cut off. And if we want to make changes, we can just make them within the CMS of how we want our newsletter to look, and know the converter will take care of it.”

Additional ambitious tools are in the works for release later this year, Bodkin and Boltik said. It’s screening potential clients — the services work for not just publishers, but really any companies with an online content business and email offerings — who could use the data monitoring and insights platform it’s building, which can pull in many types of data sources beyond the email realm and provide guidance and alerts when data is showing something is off. It’s also working on a virtual assistant to potentially deliver non-wonky, clear messages around data points and issues worth noting.

The TL;DR on a few of the email tips that Boltik shared throughout this piece:

Boltik has written up many of these ideas in a comprehensive guide on better data analysis for email newsletters, published last year through the Shorenstein Center, available here.

— Does your “open rate” refer to unique open rate, or total open rate? An open rate may be higher than 100 percent since it can take into account readers opening more than once or forwarding the email to others, who are also opening.

— Have you thought about more tailored metrics goals than open rate? Instead of saying, for instance, we want at least a 50 percent open rate, can you say, we want more than 25 percent of subscribers who have an open rate above 60 percent?

— Maybe your clickthrough rate is bad partly because your email isn’t mobile responsive, and therefore is too small for people reading on their phones to see.

— Speaking of forwarding: Is that “friend” you forwarded an email to hitting unsubscribe, and therefore unknowingly unsubscribing you?

— Check who’s consistently forwarding your emails. Maybe you can do something for these super active people?

— Do you have a lot of potential subscribers in double opt-in limbo, because you require readers to click another button to opt into your newsletter, but after they’ve given you their email, your language guiding readers to do that is unclear?

— Is the email you’re sending too big? If it’s over 102 KB in HTML size, the open rate data you’re getting may be inaccurate.

POSTED     June 7, 2018, 9:56 a.m.
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