The Future of Email Newsletters

January 20, 2017

Last November, I presented at Confab Higher Ed on what higher ed can learn from new trends in email newsletters. Yes, you read that right: email newsletters, arguably the hottest digital platform today (sorry, Snapchat) and it was invented in 1972.

The death of this erstwhile platform has been asserted time and time again, but email is most definitely still alive, and going through quite a renaissance thanks to new tools, new personalities, and renewed attention to substance and style. As fatigue with the social media firehose grows, publishers are rediscovering the one-to-one intimacy of electronic mail. The inventor of email, Ray Tomlinson, developed the platform with but one simple intent: “We just want to send messages to people.”

The late, great New York Times media reporter David Carr presaged in 2014: “Publishers seeking to stick out of the clutter have found both traction and a kind of intimacy in consumers’ inboxes.”

The Opportunity for Email in Higher Ed

In higher ed, email newsletters are a dime a dozen. Many are, let’s be honest, not great — their structure, substance, and design are often taken for granted, managed by people with limited content experience and receive less thoughtful, strategic attention than web or social platforms. And our survey of higher ed digital professionals found that while emails to prospective students are measured for outcomes, many internal (student/faculty/staff) or departmental newsletters are not — meaning the value of hours of work in a resource-scarce remains unknown.

But the effort these email products require to create and manage is not insignificant. And there’s a lot of competition awaiting us in the inbox. How can we make email work harder for our content strategy, and what can we learn from this platform’s newfound popularity to make it more effective for us?

According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2016 E-Expectations study, email is the second-most influential tool for digital recruitment, behind the college website. Most high school juniors and seniors find email to contain more reliable information than social media, again coming in just behind the college website. They use email at least once a week and will open a message from a school of interest.

The trick is how to sustain that interest beyond that initial open. Email allows us to not only engage a captive audience, but forge meaningful, influential relationships.

“An inbox is a personal space … By signing up for your newsletter, they’re saying, ‘Come on in; I want to hear from you,” says Kate Kiefer Lee, writer and editor for email publishing platform MailChimp.

Newsletters also present interesting opportunities to experiment with content, as Marquette University’s Tim Cigelske explained, allowing you to measure effectiveness and iterate while expanding your subscriber base. That’s right, get your A/B testing party on!

Consider, for a moment, the humble yet ubiquitous system message — email subscription confirmations, login credentials, access confirmation, even unsubscribes. Those messages can be touchpoints of delight, if thoughtfully crafted with audience and context in mind. (Of course, it’s important to know when system messages should eschew cleverness at all costs — safety alerts, for example.)

Everything Old is New Again

The rebirth of the email newsletter isn’t limited to small, niche organizations trying to resurrect a dying communication tool. Some of the internet’s most popular news outlets as well as some innovative newcomers are making everyone think differently about the medium:

  • TinyLetter - Not a newsletter itself, but rather a platform that, in its simplicity of design and interface, captures that intimate, one-to-one vibe while serving as a platform for writers to communicate with large audiences.

  • Buzzfeed - The viral news and entertainment platform gets twice as much traffic from its email newsletters as it gets from all of Twitter.

  • Lenny Letter - As of March 2016, this progressive, female-focused email product spearheaded by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner had 400,000 subscribers and a 65% open rate, focusing on longform content about prominent figures such as Hillary Clinton and Amy Schumer.

  • N.Y. Times - The paper of record has focused on developing more niche, theme-based newsletter products, dedicating significant editorial resources to their creation and promotion in lieu of automation. The outcomes? A 14% growth in subscribers in the first half of 2015 and a 50% open rate. “Historically, the newsletter has just been based on our sections,” Dork Alahydoian, executive director of product for The New York Times, told Digiday. “We realized that’s not necessarily what people are interested in. So we’ve been exploring ...  going beyond sections to lifestyles and different themes.”

  • TheSkimm - This daily new email is purposefully crafted so that it “sounds like your friend telling you what you need to know. It’s relatable and to the point.”

  • Voice and Tone - MailChimp’s own style guide provides a great frame of reference for defining your own voice and tone, much like that which distinguishes TheSkimm.

  • Dynamic content - Email need not be a message in a bottle, a static relic frozen in time. For its 2016 Giving Day emails, Cornell University embedded a live, dynamic leaderboard in its emails showing which programs were making the most significant progress toward the fundraising goal.

  • Higher ed pioneers - Email newsletters like Temple’s student-focused Nutshell are breaking the mold and defying convention in truly tailoring content to the student audience. Check out an example of how they’re making it happen.

  • Personalization - An experiment by the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that personalized email products yield higher open and clickthrough rates. As some schools still partner with companies that shoot a firehose of boilerplate emails to purchased lists, the targeted success of a more personalized approach warrants attention.

Getting Started on Campus

When beginning to think about how to improve email at your institution, start by getting the lay of the land:

  • Who is sending email newsletters on campus? How many?

  • How many email tools are in use?

  • Are there established standards, guidelines, or templates available to email publishers?

  • Do they use analytics tools to measure email effectiveness?

  • Are email tasks supported with adequate time and resources?

  • Do email publishers use editorial calendars or similar tools?

  • Where is email innovation already happening on campus? (Hint: look for highly visible faculty or centers)

  • How is content being sourced for newsletters? (Note: Interesting news often gets trapped in department-level newsletters. What is the workflow for sourcing that information? How can we liberate the highest value pieces of information so they can do more work across a more visible range of platforms?)

You may also consider undertaking the newsletter identity exercise proposed by NPR. By thinking through fundamental questions about your target audience, their needs and behaviors, how you will manage a newsletter, and defining success metrics, you will be set up for a stronger, more sustainable overall effort.

Another great resource is actually an independent study undertaken by a student at the University of North Carolina, exploring what makes modern email newsletters successful. (Hint: a purposeful voice and tone, creative layouts, attention-grabbing subject lines, and liberal context via links, to name a few factors.)

As mentioned earlier, measurement is key. Email newsletters require significant investments of time to create and manage. Track your open, click-through, and conversion rates, as well as bouncebacks, forwards, new signups, and unsubscribes. Define the segments that are meaningful to you, and use Google Campaign Tagging to link content in your newsletter so you can parse out how much traffic comes to those pages via specific email products. And be sure to loop your metrics back into your content planning process so you gain a refined sense of what content appeals to your email audience and drives relevant conversions.

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