‘Newsletters as puzzle pieces’: How The Economist uses email to reduce subscriber churn

When it comes to content, The Economist takes the view that value trumps volume, a view that extends to its email newsletters.

That’s why it has honed design and content changes to its two flagship newsletters so they act as standalone editorial products that suit the readers’ needs, rather than launching additional email newsletters. In recent months, the publisher has changed the daily newsletter to align with the content of its subscriber app to show the breadth of content while still chosen by editors. Making these changes led to an increase in newsletter referrals of 41%.

“I see individual newsletters as puzzle pieces,” said Sunnie Huang, newsletters editor at The Economist. “Not only does each puzzle have to be useful, but it also has to fit with other pieces, other newsletters and products like our website, our apps and weekly print edition.”

The weekly newsletter has also been revamped. At the end of 2018, the team made changes so that the content guides the reader through the print edition, rather than a selection of stories from the site. It also made the magazine covers more prominent to build excitement for the latest edition while adding a longer introduction to highlight the story behind the cover. Another change was expanding the editor’s picks from four stories to seven to show the range of content.

Ultimately, the goal is to drive new subscriptions or keep current subscribers engaged. Based on reader research, The Economist learned one of the main reasons people churn is because they find the amount of content to read overwhelming.

Revamping the daily and weekly newsletters has meant that the proportion of web traffic via newsletters has more than doubled in the past year, according to the publisher. For the first time in May, referral traffic from its newsletters overtook referral traffic from Twitter.

For all subscription publishers, newsletters play an important role in acquiring and retaining subscribers. A lot of news publishers spin up new email newsletters on different topics regularly, while The Economist has just three. As well as the weekly and daily newsletters for non-paying but registered users, digital subscribers can sign up to its daily morning Espresso newsletter.

“The portfolio hasn’t changed since we started the newsletters team,” said Huang. “So the uplifts we have seen recently come entirely from improvements within the newsletters and along the email journey. When readers find a newsletter helpful, engagement goes up.”

According to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, during the period of July and December 2018, the combined distribution of its daily and weekly newsletters for registered users is 1.3 million globally. People are signed up to the two when they register. Of this, the average open rate between the two is 27%. Average open rates for media and publishing newsletters is 21.9%, as measured by email marketing company MailChimp.

A potential subscriber who receives the weekly newsletter is around 1.4 times more likely to subscribe than one who does not, highlighting the need to hone newsletter strategies, according to The Economist. A Digiday survey found that 65% of publishing execs thought that email was the most effective customer acquisition channel for subscriptions, by a long shot. House ads came second with 16% of votes. The Economist also knows that an existing subscriber who receives at least one newsletter and engages with it is less likely to churn than one who doesn’t.

The Economist is one of the few publishers earning more through its 1.7 million print and digital subscribers than advertising. In 2018, it made £333.4 million ($419.54 million) in revenue, 59% of that from subscriptions and circulation, according to its financial report. Advertising makes up 17%, ad revenues declined by 3% from the previous year.

But subscriber growth was slower than expected last year. As such, the ongoing work on its newsletter strategy will continue to be a priority. It’s now looking to add more newsletters by the end of the year.

In March, the publisher developed a newsletter dashboard to unearth more metrics around the email journey. For instance, once readers click through to an article, how much time do they spend reading? How often do they return to the newsletter to find more articles? How likely are they to subscribe or renew after reading newsletters?

“Redesigning these newsletters we did a lot of testing to make sure the designs truly reflect the new value propositions,” said Huang. “Going forward, I’d like to focus more on the email journey.”


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