Relaunching a newsletter: Failures, successes and what we learned

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Newsrooms can no longer afford to distribute poorly curated newsletters. Yet executives from many modern newsrooms say they lack the financial and staff capacity to do otherwise.

Crosscut Public Media, in partnership with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, will soon be releasing a new, free tool for newsrooms and newsletter curators to begin addressing this challenge. The team has bundled a powerful package of best practices, strategies and resources into one digital newsletter wizard, which walks newsrooms and independent writers through the essential planning, considerations and decisions needed to curate effective newsletters.

Leading up to this release, we'll share periodic posts to help prepare your newsroom for the tool, and to highlight teams and individuals who are succeeding at curating effective and engaging newsletters.

Sixth in a series:

As we ramp up for the release of our newsletter optimization tool, we wanted to share with you Crosscut's own experience as a beta tester for an early version of the product. In early 2017, the Crosscut news team sat down to revamp our Daily E-News, a newsletter that broke basically every best practice in the book.

Image source: Crosscut

Everyone could see that the newsletter needed a facelift: The RSS feed-style email was an eyesore, and the obnoxious donate button at the header wasn't doing us any favors. In fact, it's elements like these that can get curators into trouble.

We looked to the tool for guidance. A product of a yearlong research project, the tool consolidates the best practices and most effective strategies for newsletter curation into a simple, interactive "newsletter optimizer" (or newsletter creator, for those who are just getting started).

We took our old newsletter through each aspect covered by the tool: newsletter intention, model, monetization options, content, staffing, frequency, launch and post-launch tracking metrics. The process was relatively short and sweet, and soon we had a brand-new product.

If there was one thing our months of research showed us, it was that we needed to build a newsletter that served our primary intention. We decided that we wanted a traffic-driving newsletter and settled on a portal model for our newsletter.

Portal newsletters must contain links, acting as an entrance to the rest of the internet. The model is contrary to a stand-alone newsletter, which can be absorbed without linking out. With a portal, your reading experience begins in your inbox, and should end elsewhere. In this case, elsewhere is the Crosscut website.

Crosscut Daily 2The newsletter looked a lot better, but was it working? We recommend curators collect around three months of data before making any sweeping conclusions. We've tracked dozens of metrics since the launch. Here are some of our main metrics after using the tool:

Before:

  • Average open rate: 33.2 percent.
  • Click rate: 15.4 percent.

After:

  • Average open rate: 35.6 percent.
  • Click rate: 21.5 percent.

As for driving traffic, a boosted click rate within the newsletter led to more traffic on Crosscut's primary platform, ultimately increasing overall traffic by 3 percent.  

Failures, success and what we learned

The importance of a great subject line. We'd been planning the release of our new newsletter for more than a month. Day one of our launch rolled around, and we were fully confident our readers would love the new product. Unfortunately, the metrics told us otherwise: Our open rates were abysmal, and our subject line had completely tanked.

We launched our newsletter on February 14 as a Valentine's Day gift to our readers. Our subject line read as the following: Crosscut's Valentine's Gift to You.

This was our first lesson on the importance of subject lines. With an open rate 10 percent lower than usual, we began A/B testing more compelling subject lines immediately, and jumped back up 10 percent the next day. For our readers, we noted, an appealing subject line was indispensable.

If it doesn't work, don't be afraid to let it go. During the first month of our newsletter launch we decided to include an interactive element at the bottom. This "rotating feature box" would contain a call to action, an event listing or even a job posting. A month and a half in, after reviewing click rates and other several other metrics, we saw that very few people were clicking on it. With a small newsroom and only two staffers curating the newsletter, the time spent on the interactive section was not giving us the return on investment we'd hoped for, and we decided to let it go.

First email of the relaunch? Make it short and sweet. Our first email in the relaunch included a lengthy paragraph to our readers about our research, and why we were doing a redesign. Apparently it was too lengthy – our click rates were terrible because people barely scrolled past the introductory message. Lesson learned: People don't necessarily care that you're giving your newsletter a makeover, especially if it's a news-related email. Get to the meat of your content quickly or risk turning off people.

Our design looked better on the phone, so people wanted to open it. A large percentage of Crosscut readers were opening the newsletter on their phone, so it was important that the redesign look good on both desktop and mobile. We received a lot of positive feedback on the design, especially from our mobile readers who reported improved readability.

Adding the explainer. The explainer is a neat little tool used by the likes of Quartz and The Washington Post that gives just enough information to pique a reader's interest, without enough summary to give them a full picture. The idea is to drive the reader to click the link, therefore increasing traffic to the primary platform.  

This quick one-liner enticed readers to click the link to read more, and the result was a click rate improved by 6 percentage points.

The moral of the story: An intimate sense of your audience is critical to a newsletter relaunch. Unlike a brand-new letter, these readers are already subscribers, so you're not attempting to pull people in, you just need to keep them loyal while better serving your goals. So if you're relaunching a newsletter, be sure to pay close attention to your metrics to determine the pulse of your readership.

You can read more about listening to your metrics here.

We'll be back soon with a blog post about our favorite newsletter pop-up ads. If you're going through a newsletter relaunch yourself, or have additional questions or input, feel free to reach out on Twitter at @sangeetaskurtz or @cambriaroth.

Read the previous columns in this series:

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