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Newsletter engagement strategies to grow community and readership

How audience development professionals are rethinking newsletters as tools to drive action, conversation and content

Email newsletters have long been an essential distribution channel for publishers, but new engagement strategies are evolving to help publishers stand out in a crowded inbox and build an enthusiastic readership.

Demand action

Elevating newsletters beyond a tool for link distribution requires asking readers to interact. By encouraging action, you “defy the longevity of one email,” said Dooling, and some newsletters can be built specifically around those actions. Here are some actions that newsletter editors are asking their readers to take:

— Join a group —

Publishers on the call shared experiences using newsletters to drive the growth of other off-platform communities. One digital-native publisher is growing a subreddit where members discuss the contents of its newsletter; similarly, several newsletters are supported by Facebook Groups. In these cases, the communities not only discuss the newsletter, but also serve as places to promote related content from these publishers and generate ideas and content for future newsletters.

— Do an activity

Motivating people to get away from their desks and devices might seem counterintuitive for a publisher, but getting readers to perform some action with your brand in mind will galvanize excitement for the next newsletter. One publisher challenged subscribers of a dedicated newsletter to complete an offline activity each week; approximately 40 percent of readers completed all the challenges, and their engagement fueled growth of a corresponding Facebook Group.

— Converse in the inbox —

You don’t have to push people to groups, forums, or comments to have a conversation with readers. Banish the no-reply@ email addresses and use a real e-mail address. Email editors are making more frequent use of explicit question prompts or invite feedback. Subscriber responses can be used as content in future newsletters, pushing the conversation forward. Other approaches shared by discussion participants include polls to collect bulk responses, or running a quiz in which an email autoresponder will send the answers to those who join in by replying.

— Follow a story —

Curated email digests remain a staple for news publishers, but these can be made more engaging by giving readers an opportunity to continue following stories outside of the newsletter. A global publisher with several newsletters uses its daily digest as an entry point to other newsletters and notifications. After summarizing a story, it includes subscribe links to allow one to follow that topic over time. “You may be done with [the digest] for the day, but if we can get you to have an interest in a particular story, or a writer or editor, you can follow them across multiple properties and you can always be connected to that story,” the participant said. Notably, the subscribe link automatically subscribes that user to the relevant list when clicked, keeping the reader’s level of effort low.

Redefine metrics

Engaging newsletters demand new metrics to define success. As a metric, open rates are ambiguous, possibly referring to unique opens, total opens, multiple opens, forwards and more. “The idea of an ‘open’ doesn’t really work as a quantification of your newsletter being successful anymore,” said a newsletter product manager from a global publisher. “It’s pretty absurd how much we stress over an open when it’s not concrete, it’s abstract.”

Reactivating lists

When a newsletter outlives its audience’s interest, it might be time to move them on to other things. On newsletters for which open rates had plummeted and were to be retired, one discussion participant shared their team’s success sending a targeted message to any reader who had opened that newsletter even once within the past year. The message offered related newsletters, and in the first send had an open rate of approximately 50 percent, with somewhere between 20 and 40 percent clicking through to another newsletter.

Return on investment

Creating engaging, interactive newsletters can require more resources, particularly if moderating conversations. So what’s the payoff? It depends on the newsletter, but discussion participants pointed to potential benefits in branding, deeper awareness of publishers’ offerings, forwarding behavior that benefits list growth, and — for those with advanced reader revenue models — a data point to understanding a reader’s likelihood to subscribe.

More where this came from

This story is published in Noteworthy, where thousands come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

Written by

VP, Audience @ BlueLena. Past: Center for Cooperative Media, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, BK Eagle, LifePosts, Bklyner, Sheepshead Bites.

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