In conversation: How Reuters and The New York Times use newsletters to drive loyalty, subscriptions, and revenue

Newsletters continue to be a valuable tool for cutting through the noise of shared online spaces and engaging audiences in direct and meaningful ways. To learn from a couple of experts in the field, Chartbeat’s Brad Streicher sat down with Elaine Piniat of Reuters and Maya Neria of The New York Times at The Audiencers Festival in New York.

They talked about how their roles help bridge editorial and business teams, how newsletter growth correlates to site KPIs, and what they find challenging about their work. The following excerpts from this conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by walking us through your roles? 

Maya: I’m the Director of Product for Messaging. Messaging here refers to both push and email. Our work is really to be a bridge in many ways between the business side and the newsroom with email strategy.

We have over 150 newsletters that span lots of different categories. They also vary very much in format. Certain newsletters are really all about the inbox and very much about journalism in your inbox. Other formats are really focused on optimizing engagement with our on-site journalism. We live in a world where there is really limited real estate, especially on Mobile, so we really see emails as an extension of the homepage and a way to personalize the homepage for readers.

Elaine: I’m the Newsletter Audience and Revenue Strategy Manager at Reuters. My role is a bridge role with all of the different departments working on newsletters–Editorial, Product, Design, Sales, Marketing, Data–and I essentially act as a product manager. When I started at Reuters, I was the only employee working full time on newsletters, and now we have a cross-functional team that’s made up of individuals from all these departments and we’ve hired a newsletter editor to be my editorial counterpart.

Editorial and sales are the two departments that I work the most with. On the editorial side of things, I work with the team on building templates, A/B testing, surveys, and communicating those findings. And on the sales side, I’m working with planners and sellers on pricing, data, and providing audience info for pitches.

At Reuters, our goal is to attract professionals in the areas of sustainable business, auto, health, and legal. Essentially, what we do is we’ll have deep coverage with a specific topic, and we’ll marry that to a newsletter. 

What correlation have you seen between newsletter growth and hitting key metrics on the site itself?

Maya: I think email plays a bigger and bigger role in engaging readers that would have otherwise come organically via search. And we’ve seen huge success in terms of email being a situation lever for folks. We’ve done a lot of analyses that show real incremental impact when it comes to both conversion and retention. And that’s true for both emails that drive readers to site as well as emails that are all about inbox journalism. We tend to subscribe to a philosophy that our subscribers should have no friction so our subscriber-only newsletter portfolio is really about the most premium feel in the inbox. We’re not trying to get them to click into the site by design.

More of our free offerings tend to try to drive people to the site and we have a smart meter that will serve a paywall when it makes sense. For KPIs on the newsletter side, we look at email clickthrough rate as a leading indicator. We then track weekly active users, and we’re also tracking conversion and retention. So every single time we launch a newsletter, every single A/B test that we’re making on major formats of newsletters, we’re really able to test those lagging organizational KPIs and be able to attribute real email impact to those.

Elaine: For Reuters, when I first started our focus was on the surface-level metrics – open rate, clickthrough rate – and to find more meaning in newsletters we transitioned over time to site metrics. We’re setting goals against sessions and estimating revenue from users who click from newsletters to the site. We’re paying closer attention to that impact. Clicks and sessions are key for us. Over the last two years clicks have grown 39% and pageviews have grown 50% so the growth is there. 

We’re also seeing that newsletter subscribers are much more active on site than the average visitor. They have 25% more engaged time on site, 75% more pages per user, and a lower bounce rate. So all of these metrics that are kind of core to measuring engagement and ultimately loyalty are higher with our newsletter subscribers, and we’re still looking for ways to measure loyalty in a more meaningful way, but we see the value there in our newsletter subscribers.

What tips do you have for publishers who want to start adding personalization to their newsletters?

Maya:  I think the real opportunity is how you match the audience and the content, and that’s where we’re really investing our resources. Obviously that’s very resource intensive so we’re also developing models that are not about one-to-one personalization but one-to-many. So even just saying, “What does a registered user get versus a subscriber?” and that’s a much easier personalization problem.

So going back to that example of a subscriber-only newsletter that is really not about driving readers to site, you can create a version of that newsletter that’s all about driving people to site, and it’s the articles that were referenced in that email, but now in a digest preview that you send to the registered list. That’s the way of doing this that’s not as difficult to pull off as one-to-one.

We’ve talked a lot about some of the successes that we’ve seen, but I think we would be remiss to not address challenges that you’ve seen in your roles as well.

Elaine: Getting resources can sometimes be a challenge. Newsletters are a small piece of what the rest of the team does so when we have a vision for our newsletters, we may not be able to do it in the time span that we were hoping to.

Another is the accuracy and truth behind data. When it comes to open rates, when it comes to clickthrough rates, and, if you’re using a tool like SailThru, metrics that now filter out Apple MPP and bots, how much do we trust those metrics? How do we disseminate those metrics? Do we share that information, and when do we share it? We don’t want to discourage people who are working on newsletters when they see the truth behind some of the metrics.

Maya: One is figuring out what the business needs are and what the user needs are and how you get those people aligned. There are times when the business wants to guide as many people to the site as they can, and if you’re working with a newsletter editor, they want to make sure that they have the best journalism in the inbox. Navigating those tensions is really important.

I think the other thing from a product perspective is how do you not get stuck in a world where you’re just doing incremental improvements–small A/B tests that have 1%, 2%, or 3% lifts– and give yourself the space to think bigger and actually get into a larger, potentially riskier area. I think that’s where we are with geo-personalization, both the infrastructure that we have to build to support that and the culture that we need to change.  Figuring out how you actually give your team the space to innovate there is really challenging, because it’s much easier to just continue to do A/B tests and just get a little bit better and a little bit better.

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