Email is a powerful tool for finding new audiences, deepening relationships with readers, and converting loyal readers into paying subscribers. Publishers have total control over the tone, timing, and user experience, and access to important consumption data that can be used for better, more efficient, and more effective subscription acquisition.
Generally speaking, it’s important to think about all three phases of the “audience funnel” here:
- At the top, attract the largest possible pool of high-quality known users (i.e. email addresses) and keep a clean list.
- In the middle, deepen engagement among those users via onboarding, outstanding email newsletter products, and stewardship.
- And at the bottom, use email newsletters and dedicated marketing emails to drive subscription starts.
Here are 15 tips from Talis Lin, a marketing executive and former managing director of Performance Media at The New York Times.
Lin spoked to executives from 14 U.S. metro news publishers who gathered at Facebook New York on March 28th and 29th to learn and share best practices for building and growing digital subscriptions, as part of the 3-month Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator. The first of the three in-person sessions focused on foundations, including setting and aligning goals across the enterprise, embracing audience-first discipline, organizing teams and processes, and optimizing existing marketing channels. Over the next three months we’ll be sharing lessons, ideas and inspiration from these gatherings. To start, we’re posting some tips and tactics about one of the most important arrows in the subscriber acquisition quiver: Email.
- Grow your list. Use all of the tools at your disposal to grow your registered user base: On-site overlays, embedded newsletter sign-up modules on article pages, referral programs (e.g. sign up and get something of value in return), registration walls (e.g. sign up to access additional content), etc.
- Personalize, personalize, personalize. Relevant emails generate 18x more revenue than broadcast emails, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Segment your email list and customize your message. Segment by demographics (e.g. location or gender), level of engagement (i.e. new registrant/subscriber, former subscriber) or reading behavior.
- But don’t personalize for the sake of it. Personalization only works when you’re confident in your data and can be accurate. It can also be difficult to scale. When in doubt, save it for the largest opportunities, like a welcome series for new subscribers. Onboarding new registered users and encouraging them to explore content or features helps fuel the middle of the funnel (engagement and loyalty).
- Manage your list. Keeping an efficient and clean email list is critical for deliverability.
- Create benchmarks. Constantly track performance of all emails, editorial or marketing.
- Automatically remove hard bounces. Create rules for soft bounces. Emails that bounce for temporary reasons (i.e. mailbox full). Consider a user with a set number of soft bounces (say, 5) a hard bounce and remove them.
- Protect against spambots. Consider — and weigh the pros and cons of — using double opt-in process.
- Identify and suppress users who never open your emails. Create rules as to what qualifies “your graveyard,” e.g., no opens in the last month.
- Beware of spam traps. Major Internet Service Providers use faux email addresses to identify spammers. Routinely clean your list to avoid sending emails to spam traps that may get you labeled as spam and damage deliverability.
- Never buy email lists. It’s ok to rent, but don’t buy. You may run the risk of questionable email addresses and recipients not knowing who you are. That could hurt your overall send rate and reputation. Plus, it’s against many email service providers’ terms of service.
- Know the anti-spam laws in your region. Be familiar with anti-spam laws, like CAN-SPAM in the U.S., CASL in Canada and GDPR in EU, and understand the required rules and process for email consent, opt-out, and the penalties for violating them.
- Optimize for mobile. Reach people where they are. More than half of emails are opened on mobile devices, according to ReturnPath, an email marketing firm. There are several ways to create mobile friendly email designs. Choose what’s right given your creative and design resources.
- Make data-driven decisions. Your idea of the best send time, subject line, or call-to-subscribe language may or may not prove true. Make sure your data is valid and listen to it. Pay attention to best practices in the industry (e.g. ReturnPath suggests optimal mobile subject line length is 65 characters.) But recognize that every market is different and there are no absolute truths.
- Test, test, test. Test different elements of your email, such as subscription offer and placement, subject lines and calls to action (but not all at once!) Test with a small portion of your list and send the winning creative to the remainder. There are email vendors that allow for dynamic creative, so you can update to the winning creative in real time.
- Challenge all best practices. Don’t rely on what’s worked in the past. Constantly assess your email performance. Test new things. Learn what’s working and refine.
The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a pilot program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project.
Former Managing Director of Performance Media at The New York Times Talis Lin shared email optimization techniques.