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How Newsday pairs newsletters and audience data to grow digital subscriptions

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Newsday is driving digital subscriptions and engagement with targeted newsletters.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Anthony Bottan, senior product manager – newsletters at Newsday, and Mandy Hofmockel, former deputy editor of news at Newsday.com and now managing editor of audience at Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Newsday participated in the Knight-Lenfest major market program in 2019 and the Poynter Institute’s Local News Innovation Program in 2017-18. 

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A screenshot from Newsday’s website shows some of its newsletter options.

Answer: Newsday’s top goal is to grow digital subscriptions as we diversify revenue sources and bring our business model more in line with what younger and more diverse audiences want and need from us. We also want to keep existing subscribers engaged and retained, reducing churn. Newsletters are among the most effective tools for targeting and reaching our specific local audiences.  

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This effort is directly related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”), Table Stake No. 2 (“Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences”) and Table Stake No. 4 (“Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists”). Each of our newsletters serves different targeted audiences with targeted content, catering to their interests and needs. We published on the preferred platform used by our readers (email), and we had the goal of funneling readers into subscribers who pay and stay with us. 

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Our newsletter team created five newsletters with different audiences and outcome goals to help us drive readers down the audience funnel to subscribe and stay with us. We created criteria that each newsletter had to fulfill and used that to help guide our pitch to a committee of high-level executives. The criteria answered key questions as to why we wanted to launch the newsletter, including: 

  • Who is the targeted audience?
  • What problem is the newsletter solving for them?
  • What does success look like?
  • How will we track our progress? 

The ideas for the newsletters were born in different ways. Some were easy. Based on metrics, we knew our audience was highly engaged in certain content, so we decided to take a risk and test the content area as a newsletter. Others were driven by the need to grow subscriptions; to try to find a way to get our most-engaging content into the inboxes of people we wanted to convert.

“Points East,” a weekly pop-up summer newsletter dedicated to “everything Hamptons,” ran for 10 weeks, beginning July 4, 2019, and was directed at vacationers and day trippers going to Long Island’s East End. It included everything from celebrity sightings to recommendations on where to shop, dine and vacation. It was available to non-subscribers.

“Fall Frights,” a twice-weekly pop-up newsletter, focused on things to do in October 2019 and was meant for Halloween super fans, including scary going-out options for young adults and not-so-scary options for families with young children. It was also available to non-subscribers.

These two newsletters yielded new top-of-funnel leads for our subscriber acquisition team. The team aimed to create habits where readers regularly engaged with our content and were pushed to the paywall.  

The “In Case You Missed It” newsletter aims to funnel existing users into subscribers by providing them with a weekly curated list of our best stories that were proven to drive subscriptions. 

A second version of the “ICYMI” newsletter is sent to a smaller list of existing subscribers and is focused on retaining subscribers with declining engagement. 

The content is similar in both newsletters. For the “ICYMI” newsletter with the larger list (of non-subscribers), we programmed it with content that had converted the most users with the idea that it would hopefully convert them, as well. For the “ICYMI” newsletter with the smaller list, consisting of subscribers with declining engagement, we curated it with content that had high engagement scores (based on data from the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News), with the hope that it would entice them to engage more with digital content.

Both newsletters were seeded with users who had previously agreed to our terms of service. 

We also created “Power on Trial,” a narrative pop-up newsletter authored by columnist Joye Brown, that gave local political junkies her unique inside-the-courtroom analysis at the corruption trials of public officials on Long Island. This newsletter was brought back for a retrial and a second corruption trial. 

“Power on Trial” was free for everyone during its first and second run, and its list consisted mostly of non-subscribers. During its third run, we made the first three editions free to everyone. But after that, non-subscribers could read the first paragraph of the newsletter and then were prompted with a call-to-action button to read more. Once they clicked, they either had to log in or subscribe. 

Q: What worked? 

A: The “Power on Trial” newsletter’s goal was to convert subscribers, and it did. Over the five-week trial, the newsletter led to 61 conversions. 

Our “ICYMI” newsletter served non-subscribers with our best content each week and included a compelling offer for a digital subscription. We used data to select evergreen stories that had driven

readers to subscribe. In the first month of this newsletter experiment, we received a couple dozen digital subscriptions. Over the first five months of the newsletter, “ICYMI” for non-subscribers led to 83 conversions.

For our “ICYMI” newsletter for subscribers with declining engagement, we have seen an uptick in engagement. It initially began with a 3% open rate, but has since grown to more than 20% weekly. 

For “Fall Frights” and “Points East,” the goal was to drive engagement, collect new emails for our acquisitions team, and have an open rate of 30%, which is above the industry average.

Over 10 weeks, “Points East” averaged a 40% open rate, collected 372 new emails and converted eight users. “Fall Frights” averaged a 33% open rate, slightly lower than the expected key performance indicator (KPI) of 40%, but still ranked among our highest average open rates of the year. It also helped us collect 362 new emails in four weeks. 

In March, we launched our “Tracking the Coronavirus” newsletter. We had so much daily COVID-19 coverage, we needed a place where readers could get everything in one place.

Since we felt the information was so important for our audience to have, we made it available to all users, subscriber or not, and all links were in front of the paywall. 

Through a series of promotions on the homepage and app, and with help from our marketing team, we signed up more than 30,000 users. It has become one of our highest conversion drivers since launch, converting hundreds of users. It also had the highest open rate of any newsletter in our history, averaging 50% to 60% over the first eight weeks. 

Q: What didn’t work?

A: For the “ICYMI” newsletter geared toward subscribers, we experienced some technical difficulties in segmenting less engaged subscribers. We had two methods of measuring engagement — one through Adobe and the other through Sailthru, our email service provider. We decided to use Sailthru’s metric of engagement. 

The newsletter also had unimpressive open rates (below 10%), but we did see a statistical uptick in engagement. Since then, open rates have grown to more than 20%, and we’re seeing more users engaging with our digital content. 

We didn’t have a dedicated subscription offer featured in the “ICYMI” newsletter for non-subscribers, and that was a missed opportunity. We have made changes to fix that, which has helped drive more than 100 subscriptions since the beginning of this year. 

Without a dedicated subscription offer in “Points East,” we missed an opportunity to convert more users. We relied mostly on the paywall to drive conversions. We feel if we had tailored an offer to the “Points East” list, we could have converted more. For next time, we’d also want to give ourselves more time to promote signups and acquire new emails. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We developed a playbook with criteria to create and launch additional newsletters quickly. Because the newsroom and business-side teams became familiar with pop-up newsletters, we were able to expedite sign-offs for them.

The biggest surprise for us was an experiment with “Fall Frights.” We wanted to try something new — sending a newsletter on Saturday mornings. Besides our daily news briefing, we don’t send any newsletters over the weekend because we thought people would be less likely to open them. 

Those of us who have kids discussed good times to look for things to do with our families. We agreed many of us scramble on Saturday after a long work week to find fun ideas for our kids, and even though historical data told us our users didn’t engage as much on weekends, we decided to test it. If it failed, we could pivot; and if it succeeded, we may have found a new way to reach users. 

To our surprise, the first Saturday edition of “Fall Frights” had the highest open rate at 45% and a click-through rate 10%. That taught us something new about our users: Put yourself in readers’ shoes and think about when the content would be most valuable for them. 

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We’ve created tailored subscription offers for each newsletter highlighting our brand’s value proposition. Initially, subscription offers were tailored to the list, meaning verbiage was centered around user interests based on the newsletter. Since the pandemic, we’ve pivoted to a more uniform approach to subscription offers within newsletters.

 Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Know the audiences that you’re pursuing off the bat. Put yourself in their shoes. That will help you determine the content of the newsletter, as well as send times, frequency and more. 

Also create ballpark key performance indicators you want to reach and enlist other departments to help you achieve your goals. 

Give yourself time to launch. Plan in advance. It’s hard to hit KPIs if you’re rushing to finish or cutting corners to hit a deadline. A month is enough time to brainstorm, build, promote and launch a newsletter. 

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: Be willing to pivot. Constantly check metrics. If the data is showing a trend you weren’t expecting, in particular a downward trend away from hitting your goals, test like crazy: frequency, send times, subject lines, length of content, etc. Use the user data to help re-shape the newsletter if you have to.

Related content: Read how KPCC-LAist’s COVID-19 help desk is driving newsletter subscriptions — and memberships