Publishers love newsletters, but grapple with the underlying tech

Publishers are embracing newsletters as they try to drive people directly to their sites. The third-party tech behind those newsletters, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. So more of them, including The New York Times, Financial Times and Washington Post, have taken matters into their own hands and built their own.

The FT, for one, used to use different systems from Salesforce to produce its newsletters, and it was hard to have consistent data on open rates and article click-throughs. Having multiple systems sometimes meant that readers would unsubscribe to one newsletter, only to find themselves unsubscribed to all of them. And most important, the systems weren’t designed for journalists working under tight deadlines.

“Here we are as journalists, not primarily equipped to handle coding,” said Andrew Jack, head of curated content at the FT. “We’re much more accustomed to using words. So you might be cutting and pasting from a document, and suddenly it’s a horrible train crash with all sorts of fonts and colors.”

So a little over a year ago, coinciding with a bigger emphasis on newsletters, the FT developed EmE, which stands for email for editorial. With EmE, editors can type directly into the template and the coding gets stripped out. The FT’s emails often have a list of related headlines at the bottom, and EmE automates the headline curation process by letting the editor search for them by keyword. It’s easy to use, so the FT can produce more email newsletters (it now has 18) by distributing the workload across the editorial staff.

“It’s made a huge difference in the ability to put out high-quality email newsletters in a short space of time and the potential to spread that out to a large group,” Jack said. “You don’t have to have people with intensive training.”

The Post, New York Times and Times of London have also built their own newsletter systems. The Times developed its platform, called Paperboy, more than 10 years ago, and uses it on its 40-plus newsletters. The Post introduced Paloma last year, a part of the Post’s Arc suite of tech products that it built to wean itself from third-party providers.

Having homegrown tools gives the publishers full control over the content creation and presentation of their newsletters. Paloma, which is now being used on about a fifth of the Post’s 100-plus e-newsletters, it’s also easier to publish faster and include content from social platforms, said Joey Marburger, director of product for the Post. There’s also more control over the reader data.

In general, e-newsletters are limited in their ability to monetize because of the lack of a third-party auditor and the constraints of third-party platforms.

“People still forward emails. All of a sudden, your email provider stops counting that as a new open,” said David Helmreich, COO of LiveIntent, which serves ads in newsletters. “If you rely on a third-party platform, all you see is what they want you to see.”

Publishers like the Post see the homegrown CMS as a way to not only accommodate more editorial formats but better monetize newsletters. Paloma, for example, allows for customized ads and real-time metrics, Marburger said.

Developing newsletter tech in-house takes a significant investment, so it’s not for every publisher. The FT had two developers working at least part-time for the better part of a year on EmE. The Post has six engineers dedicated to Paloma, but considering the scope of its newsletters, the investment was worthwhile. Marburger pointed out that Paloma also saves the Post money because vendors charge based on volume, and the Post send out hundreds of millions of emails a month.

“You could look at the whole newsletter portfolio, that’s almost the size of a chunk of our website,” Marburger said. “Email newsletters are critical to our business.”

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