Give paid subscription offers in newsletters a fighting chance – avoid reader blindspots


When was the last time you clicked an ad online? On purpose, not by accident.

How about an ad in a newsletter? How often do you click those?

Never? Maybe that one time? Not on purpose anyway. People hate ads.

A lot of newsletters use regular ol’ advertising to push subscriptions or donations. If people hate ads, isn’t there a better way?

In 2019, selling the work is everyone’s job.

Building a sustainable reader revenue strategy is hard work. It requires all hands on deck, moving toward a common goal. This includes everyone in the organization, not just the business side.

The good news is with a reader-supported product, the readers come first. You report the stories, create content, and get people involved.

Readers pay you to do that, and to create more. It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy. Like I said before, readers are accustomed to the ad-supported model. Free content.

Selling the work is the process of showing your readers that you are working for them, and encouraging them to open up their wallets.

I bang this “get good at selling your work” drum because I want to help you succeed. Growing reader revenue is everyone in the organization’s job. If you rely on reader revenue, and you don’t sell your work, you close up shop.

If you close, who serves your communities?

Larger organizations may already feel a management push toward selling the work. At ONA 2018 in Austin, a common theme was finding ways to tie subscriber metrics to reporter output. These metrics need work, but they ain’t going away.

I want to give you tools you can use to be successful, and steer your superiors toward more meaningful measurements. Bad metrics lead to bad outcomes.

People are damn good at avoiding ads (even when it isn’t an ad)

People hate ads so much, they instinctively avoid them. If something looks like an ad, people treat it like an ad. They ignore it. Instinctively and reflexively. Readers are extremely good at avoiding ads.

Nielsen Norman Group calls this “banner blindness”. It’s not only how an ad looks. It’s also location (especially at the top of the page or in a right rail) and proximity to other ads. I wrote about proximity in newsletter design before. When you put elements next to one another, people treat them as related items.

Therefore, if you put your promo next to the paid ads, people realize that’s where the ads are. And they ignore them.

When you put your revenue message in a prime advertising position, there’s a good chance you are sticking it right in a reader’s blindspot.

Anchorage Daily News newsletter
This subscription appeal’s placement and grey color scheme are working to hide it.

Furthermore, banner blindness even effects content that isn’t advertising. If you put related stories in a place where ads normally appear, there’s an increased chance readers will ignore that content. They assume the content is advertising.

Important note: For this post, when I say “ads”, I’m talking about house ads for your own newsroom. If you use ads to pitch people to subscribe, donate or give you money to keep the lights on, I want them to work. I’m not talking about paid advertisers. They can figure out how to sell their work themselves.

The current state of newsletter ads

I was a bit surprised to see 24 of the 99 Newsletters had no house ads at all. The unfortunate part is 18 of those 24 run ads for sponsors or other businesses. Five newsletters had space for those godawful LiveIntent ads, yet they didn’t promote themselves.

That’s a big missed opportunity, unless you’re certain ads will keep you afloat.

Buttons are a popular option, but be careful not to expect more than they can deliver

30 of the 99 Newsletters used buttons to ask for money. 16 of those used buttons along with other methods like a separate promo section or in-copy pitches. On the other hand, 14 left a button to do all the work.

How many times will a reader see that button in the same location in each newsletter before they ignore it? Maybe 5, tops? Think about testing design and placement. Otherwise buttons risk becoming part of the background.

Buttons are fine, but make sure they are doing the work of getting people to click through to your offer page. Too many buttons I saw feel like afterthoughts: lonely “donate” buttons all alone at the bottom of the page, with no copy to encourage people to click. People don’t click buttons for the hell of it.

Most importantly, let people know what to expect from the button. Test out different copy to find what fits, but be clear. You will burn goodwill if you promise one thing and deliver another. Here’s an example I like from ecoRI, an environmental newsroom in southern New England:

Button: Triple my gift for a third reporter!
The button tells you exactly where your money is going.

If you’ve noticed the buttons aren’t driving many signups, get rid of them. Reduce the clutter. Test the button verbiage, test reserving buttons to during big campaigns only.

Conditional boxes can help avoid annoying paying subscribers

A handful of publications used conditional boxes that only appear to non-donors or subscribers. This is a great way to tailor messages based on audience interests and behaviors.

Conditional messages are powerful if you can nail the execution. You have to know your audience well, and you have to keep well-groomed list segments. Here’s one from Voice of San Diego:

Voice of San Diego newsletter

Knowing I’m a non-donor is a good start. It goes downhill from there.

On mobile, this box takes up a lot of space right at the start. It’s not that different from those terrible ads that takeover your screen. It tells the reader that Voice of San Diego is going to give you ads before it gives you content.

My problem is the tone: “Insightful news roundups don’t write themselves.”

No shit, Sherlock. Readers aren’t stupid.

Additionally, ransom-style messaging of “Give today to make this message go away” is off-putting. For starters, it’s a bad experience, and looks down on readers. Never a good idea. Secondly, as the banner blindness research shows — people are going to ignore this box.

The result is you scold them once, then you trained them to never look at these boxes again. It’s like salting the earth of your own newsletter.

Save the shaming for corrupt elected officials. Your readers did nothing wrong.

A more reader-friendly path would be to use the conditional content to insert a section that speaks to their interests, without the box.

People like to buy, but they don’t like being sold to

How do you make ads that don’t look like ads? The best path is to use your voice. Journalists usually aren’t salespeople or marketing people. Use this to your advantage: Use your own voice. Sell your values and point-of-view.

42 of the 99 newsletters used their voice in special offer or fundraising emails. This is a good start, and a great opportunity to fine-tune and test your strategy.

A few of the 99 newsletters made personal appeals in the newsletter themselves. It wasn’t canned copy. It was a personal message from the reporter or editor who pulls the newsletter together.

This is special, and should be part of more newsletters. You don’t have to do it every email. Nobody likes to be sold to, remember. Periodically, use a personal voice to give people a reason to hand over their hard-earned money.

Check this out from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s morning newsletter:

Philadelphia Inquirer newsletter

I love this message. It’s topical, it’s funny and it’s from a real person. It’s not too pushy, and it doesn’t shame or scold readers. Reporters have unique voices and personalities. Finding messaging that fits your strategy and the personality of the messenger is more reader friendly than throwing ads in their faces.

Be flexible. Test, learn and test more.

For best results, experiment with the format and placement of your revenue messages. Mix and match different ad types. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It varies based on your audiences.

If you have a promo banner at the very top of your newsletter that converts like nobody’s business — keep it. There’s no need to break something that is working.

There are no magic bullets in this work. You keep testing, learning and re-testing to figure out what works. The more we learn, and the more journalists get comfortable selling their work, then we will see small and local newsrooms thrive in big ways.

Feature photo by John Jackson on Unsplash

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Cory Brown

Cory Brown

I know shiny objects, magic bullets and "pivoting to video" won't help journalism. I help newsrooms develop email and subscriber strategies, so they can grow reader revenue, reduce churn and build loyal audiences.

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