Publishers test personalizing newsletters with varying degrees of success

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As companies like The New York Times and The Washington Post experiment with personalizing their homepages to get readers to consume more articles, publishers are also tweaking newsletters to serve readers’ specific interests and behaviors — but to varying degrees of success.

Publishers like The Telegraph and Reach plc are personalizing newsletters to improve open rates, click-through rates and page visits. In The Telegraph’s case, it’s also a key part of the company’s subscription strategy.

But other publishers are finding their newsletter personalization efforts aren’t resonating with readers and that many simply want a newsletter to highlight the most important or best stories from that publication.

Email personalization can drive readers to websites

Last year, The Telegraph launched its Headlines newsletter, which uses an algorithm to send personalized, vertical-specific content recommendation emails at a cadence that ranges from daily to three times a week. The recommendations are based on an individuals’ browsing history; for example, the newsletter doesn’t include articles a reader has already read. The newsletters are centered around culture, news, politics and soccer.

Is the juice worth the squeeze? The answer is yes.
Jean-Paul Camelbeek, chief product and customer officer, Reach plc

The newsletters have become “good tools” for driving readers to The Telegraph and getting them to register on the site, putting them on the conversion path to subscribe, said Michelle Brister, The Telegraph’s head of newsletters. The Telegraph has a goal to hit 1 million subscribers by 2023.

The Telegraph is seeing higher click-through rates, page views per click and time spent on site from readers coming from Headlines newsletters compared to its other newsletters, which do not tailor content to individual readers, Brister said. Headlines are also supporting the Telegraph’s retention and acquisition strategy. “We were surprised at how well they did both,” Brister said. A Telegraph spokesperson said that Headlines converts registered users to subscribers at twice the rate of its other newsletters.

Reach plc, on the other hand, does not have a paywall and its business is based on ad revenue. The main goal for the personalization efforts at Reach plc  — which owns over 200 U.K. publications and websites like Daily Mirror and OK! Magazine — is to get people to spend more time on site and consume more pages per session to ultimately get them to register and become known users, said Reach plc’s chief product and customer officer Jean-Paul Camelbeek. Then, with machine learning, Reach plc can build models based on reader signals, which has resulted in creating “hundreds of cohorts,” Camelbeek said. 

In newsletters, Reach plc breaks down cohorts into smaller groups to serve them different sets of content to see what performs well and then distributes that content to a larger cohort. For example, Reach plc saw a group in its larger lifestyle cohort reading articles on the Mirror and the Daily Star about the TV show “I’m a Celebrity” and created a newsletter specifically around this content.

Newsletter personalization is “part of our roadmap,” Camelbeek said, but it’s still “early days.” If someone has subscribed to the “Royals” newsletter, for example, Reach plc can determine which articles the reader is clicking through and serve them additional links to those types of stories to get them to return to the website. Reach plc is also testing sending a cohort of readers different subject lines to see what versions drive better engagement, Camelbeek said.

However, newsletters are ultimately a vehicle to get people to click through to the site and then personalize recommendations from there, he said.

Overall, these efforts have led to a growth in newsletter subscribers, according to Camelbeek. He declined to share how much subscribers have grown due to personalization.

“Is the juice worth the squeeze? The answer is yes,” he said.

But readers might not want tailored newsletters

But that’s not the case for some other publishers. The Toronto Star launched a dedicated newsletter for personalized recommendations in 2020 and shut it down this May, said David Topping, newsroom director, newsletters at Toronto Star’s owner Torstar. The newsletter’s content was selected by a recommendation engine from LiftIgniter, a machine learning platform. It used a logged-in reader’s browsing history to update their preferences and generate a list of stories to go in the newsletter.

I would rather the work involved that goes into newsletters…go towards making the best possible email offering for the greatest number of people.
David Topping, newsroom director, newsletters, Torstar

Most newsletter subscribers “seem pretty happy getting what everyone else got,” Topping said. The personalized newsletter drove engagement for a “niche audience” who wanted tailored recommendations but it wasn’t “necessarily something that’s going to move the needle,” he added.

“I would rather the work involved that goes into newsletters at The Star go towards making the best possible email offering for the greatest number of people,” Topping said. For example, Torstar’s food newsletter could personalize restaurant recommendations based on food articles a reader consumed on the site, but Topping said a better strategy is to “just do a really, really good job every week picking the right five places that we think most people will be excited about.”

A publishing executive who spoke during a closed-door session at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Key Biscayne, Fla., last week said they tested personalized newsletters for a few months but also found email subscribers didn’t “want anything super custom” in the form of a personalized briefing.

Topping mused about incorporating tailored recommendations into existing newsletters, rather than having a fully personalized newsletter, but noted it’s “not especially high on the list right now.”

Another challenge for publishers looking to tinker with their newsletters? The investment in tech it requires to even be able to offer personalization. Key to Reach plc’s efforts is a customer data platform the company has adopted in the past year, Camelbeek said.

Email service providers have “limited profiling and segmentation capability,” which is a hurdle to collecting data from readers, such as email open rates, Camelbeek said. A CDP helps collect data on a reader’s “opens, clicks, consumption behavior, what they’re interested in — you’re able to then effectively do better personalization,” he said.

Newsletter personalization “usually requires a level of sophistication [and] an investment on the tech side that most newsrooms can’t deliver on,” said Dan Oshinsky, who runs email consultancy Inbox Collective.

This article has been updated to reflect that some of Telegraph’s Headlines newsletters are sent out daily. A previous version stated that they are all sent three times per week. It has also been updated to include information about Headlines’ registered user-to-subscriber conversion rate.

Kayleigh Barber contributed to this report.

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