To increase retention, The Financial Times is using newsletter polls

The Financial Times has started incorporating polls into its email newsletters in an effort to encourage readers to interact more regularly with its content and ultimately increase subscriber retention. Early signs show it’s working.

Since March, the publisher has run 27 polls in its most popular newsletter, FirstFT, a subscriber-only newsletter that has well over 100,000 followers, according to the publisher. This newsletter is a morning roundup of the top global stories containing links to other FT articles, which the publisher measures via click-through rates. So far, the FT has seen the polls drive the highest click-through rates of all other links, though it wouldn’t share specific numbers.

“It’s new for us to be thinking of the newsletter platform for community building; we’re working out what that looks like,” said Renée Kaplan, head of audience and new content strategies at the FT. “We’re in the early stages of that, of levering engagement to build community, which is different from just engagement. When people are more committed and have a sense of belonging to a community, they open more frequently and become all the more valuable.”

The goal is to build up consumption with content in the newsletters, in turn improving open rates. This April, the FT crossed the 1 million paying subscribers threshold. However, as the majority of the FT’s newsletters are for subscribers, the goal for its dozens of email newsletters is to retain readers. Kaplan wouldn’t share the latest open-rate figures, but open rates have previously been reported to be between 25% and 50%.

For now, the FT is asking only yes or no questions, like “Do you think Boris Johnson call pull off Brexit?” The most popular poll, which ran on June 4, asked: “Was Theresa May right to invite Donald Trump to the U.K. on a state visit?” Questions are tied to polarizing topics with a news hook to encourage people to respond. The polls, using tech platform Opinary, reveal people’s responses instantly. The following day, the FT shares the results in the newsletter. The next phase is to broaden the scope of questions and extend polls to more of its newsletters.

While ad-funded publishers often dabble in audience surveys and polls, subscribers who already have a stake in the content are more inclined to respond and offer feedback. Publishers like Axios, Business Insider and The Athletic are increasingly calling on feedback from their subscribers to help inform editorial, product and strategy.

Polls also act as a proxy for measuring success. Metrics around newsletters are vague and mostly limited to open rates and click-through rates. Some of the FT’s newsletters are self-contained commentary and analysis, making judging the success less clear, whereas polls are a way to see if people are engaged enough in the content beyond opening and reading an article.

Typically, newsletters are targeted around niche interests and are driven by topic, so the audience has already proactively subscribed and opened the email, therefore tend to be pretty captive readers. But the FT is exploring how to best foster this captive audience.

“The overarching question is how do we use newsletters and the audience we have around these topics and products to build not just followers but also community,” said Kaplan.

This isn’t the publisher’s first foray into using newsletters to foster community. Over a year ago, it asked readers who subscribed to its Energy Source newsletter — which covers analysis and commentary on the week’s energy news — to email in questions for editors to answer in the following newsletters. Again, the metrics problem with newsletters makes this difficult, but the publisher said the number of people sending in questions has increased.

“It’s hard to correlate actual content actions within newsletters to open rates and click-through rates; it’s difficult to know what it was that produced results,” said Kaplan. “But the response to people writing in questions has been measurable. That means that people are bothering to read it and write in their questions and getting value out of the content.”

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