This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.
This “win” comes from Lindsay Deutsch, program manager, newsletters; and Najja Parker, multi-platform audience specialist, both of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. AJC participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2021 and the UNC-Knight Table Stakes program in 2019-20.
On Aug. 14, 2023, a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury handed down criminal indictments of former President Donald Trump and 18 of his associates, alleging they tried to steal the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was on the scene covering all angles of the news of local, regional and national importance. Reporters and true subject matter experts Tamar Hallerman, Greg Bluestein and Bill Rankin, editor Shannon McCaffreyand others anchored the coverage across platforms, including via podcast.
Two major things became apparent about both the nature of the news and the audience we were anticipating:
- We were attracting a new audience: The Trump Co. indictments were sparking attention from folks who may not usually be as tuned into the news, and they were sparking attention from folks from across the nation.
- We were committed to covering the entire news arc: Aug. 14 was just the beginning: The trials could last for months and there would be consistent, multi-platform coverage throughout with mounting interest as the RICO case unfolded. This was our story.
Those elements presented some questions for us to answer: How do we get readers, especially new readers, to keep coming back to the AJC for their news on the Trump indictments? And, as we set our sights on 2024, how might we learn from this newly tuned-in audience and how can we serve their news needs?
The answer: We launched a pop-up newsletter. We did it quickly, deliberately and because there was a specific opportunity space. Below we’ll call out ways we identified the opportunity and executed on it, and how you can do the same. (And you can sign up here!)
Here are 5 pieces of advice on starting a pop-up newsletter:
Get everyone on board with shared goals and intentions
What do we want to do and why? It really comes down to answering those questions with alignment from all involved. From the offset, one key to launching a successful pop-up newsletter around a major news topic or event is to really dig into what you’re trying to accomplish. When considering launching the Trump newsletter, we asked:
What is the core user need we are trying to solve? Bottom line: If the user need can be solved by other products you have, that is likely the better move. Some of those spots could be carving out promotional/pop-up space within an existing newsletter, refining an alerts strategy that’s already in the works, or creating a social audience plan that’s comprehensive of needs. Newsletters are hard to sustain and there may be an easier, smaller way. We proposed that this newsletter would solve a unique need by being a place for users, particularly new users, to get a weekly briefing from the most experienced reporters on the scene.
Other questions we asked and aligned on:
- Why are we the ones to solve this problem?
- What outcome are we hoping to achieve?
- How do we know we’re accomplishing it?
Through this process, we crystallized that we are the definitive news source for this coverage, and that as the Atlanta newspaper, it was our place, time and opportunity to take.
Nail down your workflow
We knew we were adding a consistent, weekly task to multiple peoples’ lives. That’s hard to keep up with, so from the beginning creating spaces for collaboration and schedules for newsletter production was crucial. We found it to be easy for colleagues to be willing to commit to helping because we had the clear “why” for our audience and business. And, we found it helpful to write through a shared charter that had details of not just plans but strategy, goals and expectations all in one place. For us, this is housed in a Google Doc one-sheeter “playbook” that is pinned to Slack channels/bookmarked for easy reference.
One question for us regarding workflow and newsletter cadence: Whether the Trump newsletter should be as-needed/as news breaks, or whether it should come out at a consistent cadence. We established that we wanted the newsletter to be weekly, allowing a look at what’s happened that week and a preview of what’s to come. So, we worked through what it would take to get the newsletter out on Wednesday evenings.
Try not to let a perceived blocker be a blocker
The Trump Indictment newsletter… The Trump Trial newsletter… The Case of Trump V. The State of Georgia… Thinking of a punchy name for a newsletter that’s comprehensive of the undefined news arc is a bit of a doozy when you’re working on the fly. So … we did not choose a name. And it was OK. Our best advice is to cast blockers aside especially if time is of the essence. Names can change. We landed on our newsletter’s name, The Trump 19, on the fifth week of the send. By then we had a solid audience, but we knew way more would sign up through the monthslong news arc, being none the wiser that the name had not been solid from Day 1.
Casting the name debate aside allowed us to focus on launching swiftly with all the things we knew our audience would want:
- Smart, additive body copy of what’s happened, what’s to come and what’s behind the scenes of it all
- A link to the podcast
- The four most relevant articles
- Eight evergreen resources to better understand the Trump trials
The Trump indictment news dropped on Aug. 14. On Aug. 15, we had a sign-up page and were soliciting sign-ups with a welcome email in place. We decided to set a goal of 1,000 sign-ups before launch, and were able to launch the following Wednesday, Aug. 23, with more than that. None of that could have happened if we’d waited on the perfect name.
The newsletter currently has an average open rate of 59.6% and click rate of 3.9 %.
Have a plan for encouraging organic growth
Much like a tree falling in a forest … if you send a newsletter to no audience, did anyone really see it? (No, no they did not.) And frankly, no one has time to meticulously craft a newsletter that ends up going to very few people. Here are some tactics we took to grow our newsletter to a more-than-1,000 subscriber launch one week after sign-ups:
- We embedded calls-to-action and newsletter sign-ups high up in major relevant breaking news stories that were getting SEO traction. It’s those top-of-funnel folks whose appetites have been whetted with a great AJC story that are most primed to subscribe to a newsletter to get more.
- We were thoughtful in making sure key players were tweeting about the newsletter. Making it as easy as possible for busy reporters and editors by crafting sample language folks can use is respectful of their time, and by making direct appeals and reach-outs rather than thinking a mass Slack or email will get the best results. https://twitter.com/TamarHallerman/status/1692257632445239777
- We wrote an article about how users could best follow along with the news story, or write a news story about the newsletter itself. Remember: This newsletter is a service! Let’s tell people about it. The AJC’s Brian O’Shea put this one together. https://www.ajc.com/news/sign-up-for-ajc-updates-on-the-trump-georgia-investigation-in-atlanta/RNTAI73DKRH67IM7B73QZZMWVQ/
- We cross-promoted in other newsletters and in the Breakdown podcast.
- We set an audience goal number for launch: Cheerleading and touting a growing list size helped people cross departmentally push this newsletter toward success. Counting to 1,000 was tangible and resonated.
- We considered, but then (for now) opted out of paid growth: That’s still on the table for this newsletter, but we have opted for organic growth so far, also knowing that the newsletter may be flagged as political content if we put paid social toward growing its list. Additionally, the stories included in the newsletter were free for new readers and included pop-ups encouraging folks to subscribe.
Know that goals might need to iterate as you get feedback from readers
From the offset, we knew we wanted to learn from our readers. To do so, we have a survey embedded in the newsletter to reach first-time subscribers, we are tracking the metrics on what’s clicked on, and tracking the growth of the audience. And, we’re ready to pivot when needed. A few examples of how we’ve iterated:
- We noticed our readers clicking in an overperforming way on content explaining what things mean and giving broader context. So, we’ve made sure to add that as an element of sharing the weekly news.
- In our initial survey, about half of readers said they wanted a consistent news touchpoint, and half said they wanted alerts when big things happened. We opted to send consistently weekly on Wednesdays, but when necessary, do a bonus send. We’ve done that one time: When Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro both pleaded guilty, halting plans for jury selection and the start of the first Trump Trial in Georgia. That newsletter send performed the same as other sends (about a 60% open rate), and no one unsubscribed from the out-of-cadence email, so we’re taking that as a tactic we’ll repeat when needed.
- We are keeping an eye on the resource guide at the bottom of the newsletter to see if readers consistently click on evergreen explainers of the case. So far, that section continues to be utilized.