Keep your newsletter strategy simple, or you risk feeding the beast

A puppy stand-in for the beast

There’s a lot to consider when you think about launching a new newsletter, or revamping an existing one.

A lot of advice I’ve seen out there starts with something like “what type of newsletter do you want to create?” and goes on to describe several different formats. Long form. Short form. Hybrid. Pop-up.

Some advice puts the cart-before-the-horse with topics like who’s going to produce the newsletter or how to monetize.

This is 100% backwards.

Form follows function

You can’t decide your newsletter format, writing style or even content until you decide what outcomes you want. You can’t pick the right metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) either.

The biggest challenges aren’t technical. They need simplifying.

I’ve seen plenty of smart people stumble on this first part. It’s easy to get excited about a new idea and failure is scary. That’s why I help newsrooms develop processes to reduce that risk.

Strategy only works when you define the outcomes and measure what happens. If you don’t define success before you start, you’ll never know if you were successful.

Far too often, I see people say, “let’s launch this new thing” without specifying what the goal is. Then they cherry pick the metrics that look great while ignoring the less impressive results.

Don’t create a beast you have to feed!

That may make you feel good, but it’s not actionable or sustainable. Without clear goals and outcomes, you are very likely to end up feeding the beast.

The beast has one job: it eats resources. It doesn’t care what’s good and what’s not, so you keep shoveling resources its way. Know what’s gonna come out the other end when you’re feeding the beast? A big pile of shit that one day will be someone’s job to clean up.

You don’t want to feed the beast. I don’t want you to feed the beast. I want to help you learn some new practices to reach your goals.

This week, let’s look at how to simplify and focus on the most important problems first. I’ve detailed the three main types of newsletters. Take your newsletter, and decide which of these three is the most important. From there, you can work your way down the ladder: outcomes, metrics, design, workflow, etc.

Let’s dig into each one!

1. Positioning Newsletters

When you think of Volvo cars, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Safety, right? Now do Disneyland. The happiest place on earth! That’s positioning.

Positioning is the space you occupy in people’s minds. It’s a term introduced in 1969 by Jack Trout and Al Ries in their book Positioning: The Battle for your Mind.

Quick — think of Axe body spray. What’s the first thing that pops in your head? This one is trickier. The answer depends on how you perceive yourself, what you aspire to, and what you value.

For too long, newsrooms have found ways to squeeze their coverage into people’s lives. That doesn’t work as well as it used to. The problem is people aren’t looking for all the news that fits.

In the era of 24-hour news cycles and content everywhere, they are looking to belong to something.

Journalism is a unique opportunity to give people something to belong to. Positioning is one way to welcome people to a larger cause and community. Interest based newsletters must keep Positioning top of mind in order to be seen as experts in their field.

If this seems new or maybe hard to understand right now, don’t sweat it. Positioning isn’t a concept I’ve encountered a lot in newsrooms. It takes some change in thinking, because you don’t control positioning. It lives in the minds of the people in your market.

Show your members you belong together

Contrary to popular belief, TheSkimm is not an email company. It’s an “audience routine obsessed company”. Those are the exact words VP of Product Dheerja Kaur used to describe theSkimm at ONA 2018.

theSkimm is a membership business. They started with a newsletter, because that’s where their target users were. The Daily Skimm is fantastic at showing people what theSkimm is about: membership and belonging. Here are few examples from a recent email:

  1. theSkimm does a great job of curating and distilling big stories. With “Skimm More”, they are showing readers that they have additional resources to learn more. A reader can, uh, skim – or they can do a deeper dive.
  2. Great example of showing readers you understand them. It diffuses what we know as an awkward moment and turns it into a lead-in to a news story. Shock isn’t the only attention grabbing technique.
  3. I love these spotlights. Real Skimm members sharing success with the larger group. Skimm’rs belong to a larger community.

From “We make it easier to live a smarter life by integrating in the routines of our target audience — female millennials.”

That’s a great vision. But a vision or tagline isn’t positioning. theSkimm uses that vision to drive strategy, and they measure outcomes against that vision.

When they are successful, members describe theSkimm in words that align with that vision. A few words I’ve heard my friends use to describe theSkimm are: Smart. Confidence. Morning routine. Notice those the first two words describe how theSkimm makes them feel.

Each new product – the app, the calendar, the podcast – builds on that positioning.

(Note: The email above is excerpted, because it’s long. You can see the complete image of the email on his page.)

Lead with your strengths

The “Show, don’t tell” rule is crucial to positioning. Positioning is what your readers think of when they think of your newsletter, not what you tell them to think.

If you can’t commit to backing up your claims, you’re going to struggle. People aren’t dumb, and if you turn them off with poor value or service, they leave. Probably forever.

What’s the one thing you want your newsroom to be known for? Be ultra-specific. It has to be something you can stake out and own. Your Positioning message can’t be a commodity. This isn’t the time for the Voice from Nowhere. Boasting about “facts” won’t work.

I have a zillion options to be “informed”. But I only have one for “informed about my neighborhood”.

There are a dozen options for “casual clothes”. I have one for “hoodie”.

You have useful, valuable content. All you need is the right Positioning strategy to strengthen the connection.

2. Engagement Newsletters

Engagement is the practice of encouraging readers to take part in your reporting. This includes crowdsourcing, collaboration and sharing knowledge. In this study, engagement is not clicks or shares or video plays.

I’ll tell you straight up: if you aren’t having conversations with your readers, you are leaving all your important revenue decisions to chance. I love how many newsroom are adopting more engagement practices. Getting out of the building and listening to readers has tremendous benefits.

Engagement reporters incorporate community expertise into their work. It makes the reporting better.

There are only a handful of the 99 Newsletters that appear to focus on Engagement over the other two types. More common was an Engagement + Positioning combination, which is great. There’s more on that below.

For example, take The Tyler Loop. In the last three months, they asked for questions on recycling, traffic, and affordable housing.

Show readers how their contributions are used

Take a look at this recent email from The Tyler Loop. Notice how each paragraph in this email encourages readers to reach out and share:

  1. Big button at the top makes it clear: The Tyler Loop wants your questions and input. Here’s how to share.
  2. Sharing the process of recording reader input shows that input isn’t tossed into a “Suggestion Box” no one reads. It’s treated with respect, and the newsroom thinks about other concerns that people may be facing.
  3. This email shows how a reader’s question or insight brings new issues to light. New questions to answer and problems to investigate. This encourages more people to come forward.
  4. There’s another call-to-action button. Make it super easy for people. They are helping you out.

3. Broadcast Newsletters

Broadcast is the most common format for newsletters across all types of media. Most consumers think of a headlines digest and links when they think of a newsletter.

Broadcast newsletters are distribution tools. They use email to deliver new content to readers with little or no added commentary. This format can be designed to drive traffic back to the primary website or self-contained products.

49 of the 99 Newsletters are Broadcast newsletters.

Below are some samples of Broadcast newsletters from the 99 Newsletters. They should look pretty familiar: a digest of links, maybe some images. That’s about it. From left to right: Midday News Update from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Long Beach Post daily newsletter, and Madison365 Week in Review.

You still have to determine your outcomes for a Broadcast newsletter. If you want people to click-through to the site, be clear about that with your team. Otherwise, there’s a decent chance it won’t be designed or formatted to drive clicks.

Broadcast newsletters are limited. It’s one-way communication. The newsroom blasts out what they think is important, and that’s about it. Readers learn to be passive consumers, not participants.

Just because they’re one-way communication doesn’t mean they’re bad. Some users are just looking for the headlines. Broadcast newsletters need less hands-on work than other newsletters. They are often automated.

Broadcast newsletter subscribers include a segment of reliable paying subscribers or donors. Don’t sleep on these readers. More revenue for less work is a good problem to have.

Combining two newsletter types

As long as you are clear on what your #1 goal is, you can combine approaches. Remember that the goal is to simplify:

  1. Decide which goal is the most important for each newsletter. Decide before you start designing or writing. Stick with it. Don’t change it until the evaluation period is complete.
  2. Stick to Positioning + Broadcasting or Positioning + Engagement. Don’t do all three.
  3. Seriously, combining all three types is a lot harder than it sounds. You risk trying to do too much and blurring all three strategies.

For the 99 Newsletters, 35.4% were a combination of Positioning and Broadcasting. The most common format is commentary for the intro, links to current stories, and links from other news outlets.

The reader benefits from getting your latest stories. Additionally, they see that your newsroom is on their side. You share relevant information from other sources, and you take time to add context to the story. This feels like bonus content when it’s done well.

The tradeoff is it takes more work.

If your newsroom invests in Engagement and crowdsourced reporting, a Positioning and Engagement newsletter is a boss move. You have the opportunity to create a virtuous feedback loop.

You ask for help. Readers chip in. You share the result back to the community. This encourages more people to get involved — which makes them feel like they belong to something bigger than a newsletter.

How to put your strategy into practice

If you’ve been following the 99 Newsletter Project so far, you’ve read about my love of Welcome Emails. Perhaps you’ve even written or revised your own.

That Welcome Email represents what readers need to know about your newsletter, right?

  • If your Welcome Email primes readers to share their stories, to contribute content, or how they can get involved with your reporting, it’s Engagement.
  • If your Welcome Email’s most important information is the morning headlines arrive every day at 6 am, rain or shine — that’s Broadcast.
  • If your Welcome Email’s biggest promises are insider local information, shares the recent top stories or promotes your mission, it’s Positioning.

How does your Welcome Email align with your newsletter goals? If your Engagement newsletter feels like a Broadcast email, success will be hard to find.

On the other hand, when your Welcome Email is aligned with your strategic goals, then it’s more than a Welcome Email. It’s a vision to guide you as you define your outcomes, design and metrics.

My former publisher had a saying: “It’s better to be the big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond; you’ll get invited into big pond anyway.”

What does that mean for your newsletter strategy? It means focus and specificity are your biggest advantages. You can’t be all things to all people. It’s scary at first, but it’s the best long-term plan.

Look for small ponds you can takeover that align with your newsroom goals. You’ll have better opportunities to learn and grow than if you keep things too general.

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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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