The future of newsletters

The newsletter boom of the last few years shows no sign of abating. What's next for this critical auidnce tool, asked a panel at news:rewired.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

For a decades-old technology, newsletters have been incredibly successful at becoming the hot new thing. But where are they going next? Not to Substack, whose representative was unable to attend due to a combination of jet lag and COVID… A news:rewired panel of experts explores what comes next to your in-box.

Warning: liveblogging. Prone to errors, omissions and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. Post will be improved over the next 24 hours. 

The Panel

  • Aaron Coultate, senior newsletter editor, The Economist
  • Nimo Omer, assistant editor, First Edition — The Guardian
  • Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters, Financial Times
  • Chair: Olivia Crellin, acting editor,

How do you set newsletter strategy?

At the FT, the North Star is lifetime reader value, says Sarah. Newsletters feed into that brilliantly — people on trials are 134% more likely to sign up for a subscription, if they sign up for a newsletter. Their newsletters have exclusive content from their best journalists, which you can only get as a premium standard. They can use key people to attract younger readers to standard subscription. And yes, they’re very good commercially.

Nimo is more focused on deepening reader relationship — and so it focused on First Edition as a product in of itself. And so, she’s focused on making the content really wonderful. At The Economist, they provide a consistent source of readership and engagement, says Aaron. They’re also subs-focused, so the newsletters tend to fall into the “acquisition” or “retention” buckets.

Opening up on open rates

What’s a good open rate? Sarah thinks open rates are dead. But Apple’s changes mean that open rates are artificially inflated. Some places are counting then as opens, some are not. Substack claims a good open rate is 55%, but the FT is doing less than that. However, it’s more useful to compare newsletters within an organisation. They’re working on new metrics for examining the success of emails. For example, they’ve added a survey at the bottom — and they have had the most incredible response: over 20,000 responses in a month. The comments left are particularly useful.

Aaron agrees: “As open rates became less useful, reader feedback becomes more important.” Tracking interaction and list growth is essential.

Nimo’s newsletter is still very new. They do reader call-outs for feedback, and change the newsletter based on that. For example, people complained about the lack of a sport section — or asked for business news. It can be over-whelming, though, and you need to be discerning about what you take on. A lot of it is about keeping the tone as conversational as possible. It’s your mate in the pub telling you about a topic you don’t know about. That’s how you build a community around them.

Newsletters as community

We’re still experimenting, figuring out what community looks like, says Aaron. The Economist Today is a snapshot newsletter, but the Sunday edition has an intro written by one of the senior editors – and they included a feedback email and switch the sender name to his name: Adam Roberts. That’s been interesting – the level of thoughtful response they got was a positive surprise. People request topics, and Adam incorporates some of them, and all are considered.

At The Guardian, there’s an ongoing discussion about using the author name as the sender name, says Nimo. People would recognise The Guardian name more quickly, but she suspect they’d be more likely to scroll past it. It’s another part of deepening the relationship, making it clear it's a person and not an amorphous organisation contacting you.

Sarah recommends that people remember that it’s a newsletter — don’t forget that letter part of it. It’s personal. They have numerous people wanting to write newsletters, so she has a pitch document to assess the suggestions. Doing a Substack is very difficult because you have no back-up if you go on holiday. Swamp Notes has a particularly strong sense of community.

The personality issue

The Economist does not have a personally anchored newsletter, but the newsletter aim to have personalities. And yes, they have photo bylines. So, you can see The Economist journalists writing personally in the newsletters, which makes it a unique attraction within the title. Off The Charts is written by a rotating cast of the data journalism team.

Teams are important – it’s not just about the individual. There are designers, who can be critical to the success of a newsletter, to the editing and fact-checking resources needed to make sure they are up to standard. And yes, product teams are part of it, too. Aaron says that communication is vital, and that you have to get everyone around the table when the newsletter is still in an embryonic stage.

Newsletters are not just an editorial product, says Sarah. You need to be able to take sign-ups, to send them, to market them. You need all these other departments, and they are finite resources, so it can be a battle. Getting your thing prioritised is a challenge, which people miss. That’s why some people like things like Substack because they handle so much of that.

Organisations have the advantage of being a bundle – people can get a group of newsletters for one subscription price. They can also add other context and voice to major stories. It’s all part of the subscriber offer.

What’s next for newsletters?

There will be much more personalisation, predicts Sarah. Could that be an entire newsletter, or a module within a more conventional newsletter? Sarah rather fancies the latter. And she thinks metrics are going to get more and more interesting.

Aaron also thinks the balance between personality and personalisation will be exciting. Many publishers have invested in this over the last year and a half. Are we near saturation? People can manage their in-boxes, says Aaron. People can keep on top of them, as long as you make it easy to unsubscribe.

Many at The Guardian think that the US is several years ahead of the UK on newsletters. The “too many” conversation has happened with podcasts, and it will continue to happen, and Nimo doesn’t think that saturation is going to happen. They’re not going anywhere, and will just become another part of the newsroom. She also thinks more original reporting will come to newsletters.

They’re very similar to a newspaper, a fixed publication at a fixed moment of time, and Nimo thinks people appreciate that.

Hints and tips for your newsletters

  • Lunchtime is not well-served by newsletters, Sarah suggests. A newsletter she did at the Jewish Chronicle did very well in that time slot.
  • Template your newsletters to make them easier to maintain.
  • Crowdsource the contents of the newsletter can help smaller newsrooms — get everyone to make suggestions, recommends Aaron.
  • Find someone with a personality and a following in your newsroom — and give them the newsletter, suggests Sarah.
Check out other posts from the news:rewired conference.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.