Surprise, delight, growth and value: Why news organizations love newsletters
And the best newsletter links of the past year.
Welcome! Let’s talk about how to create value in nonprofit newsletters with some lessons from how news organizations are using newsletters.
I’m also dropping in a bunch of the most useful stories I found last year on audience growth, newsletter revenue, testing and more.
First a quick story about surprise and delight. Recently, a colleague and I advised a client to send a small gift - in this case a sticker - to everyone who gave any amount to their membership campaign. This included folks whose membership amount didn’t “officially” earn a premium.
But we’re building a program here and talking about a few hundred folks. Not thousands.
Our thought was that with little cost and effort you can earn some loyalty and a smile from a new member. You can also get your brand’s logo out in the world.
You’re never wrong to surprise, delight and spread some joy with your email list.
But we already have a newsletter. Wait. Maybe not. Let me check…
A few questions about newsletters arise while working with nonprofits on their email programs:
Should we even have a newsletter?
What should be in our newsletter? Should it be links to our stories? Original stuff? What should it look like?
How do we get people to click on our newsletter?
What should the newsletter do? How do we even tell if it’s doing that?
I think we have a newsletter already. Wait, maybe not. Let me check.
First, step back a second and consider the email you send. Your email program is probably the greatest connection you have to your audience. It needs purpose and value.
If that purpose and value is only about asking for things - money, action, time, attention - you’re probably getting shut down quick.
Newsletters can fill a big void in email and communications programs. They can also play a role in list growth, fundraising and retention.
How news organizations use newsletters
News organizations make greater use of newsletters than most nonprofits. Newsletters are at or near the center of news communications, fundraising and membership strategies. Why is that?
News organizations are built on member/subscriber relationships. The daily newspaper only worked if people read (or at least bought) the product daily. Advertisers depended on the regular audience so news companies built stories and sections like sports, lifestyle, cooking, business to provide changing and relevant content to the community.
Put more simply: news organizations are in the business of telling stories. They generate a lot of content and creating newsletter content seems easy enough.
But this positions newsletters as marginal - a byproduct of the story process.
The reality is that news orgs rely on newsletters and often create newsletter-specific content. 
News orgs are creating new newsletters, testing them and measuring newsletter performance. They’re hiring newsletter editors and writers.
News organizations are also creating newsletters intended to reach new audiences. Bangor Daily News and others use pop-up short run newsletters to test interest in a new topic. Pair a test newsletter with some clever inexpensive search ads and you can get a sense of a new audience.
Most news organizations have multiple newsletters. This goes for big national media companies (think New York Times and Axios) all the way to smaller city and state news orgs (Colorado Sun in Denver or Cap Times in Madison, for example).
Some typical newsletter options include:
Daily news recaps which are sometimes scheduled 2 or 3 times a week.
Weekly recaps, often with more of a story focus.
Weekend events - concerts, theater, festivals, movies.
Newsletters focused on arts, music, outdoor activities.
Newsletters hosted and written by a leading columnist, reporter or community voice.
Fixed-term (or ongoing) newsletters focused on a news topic of particular community interest like schools, policing, land use, or political campaigns.
You can also find food and dining newsletters, recipes and cooking (the Times has gone big here), and newsletters that are more niche (climate) or serialize story or accompany a podcast. The latter often accompany a series of stories and/or podcast. WBUR in Boston has several newsletters including a 12-edition newsletter, Cooked, that looks at climate change through the lens of sustainable food in New England
What is the point of so many newsletters? Two things are happening:
Growth. Newsletters aren’t just for current subscribers. Newsletters give audiences of readers, subscribers, users and supporters a reason to engage. You have little or nothing to offer people except content - ideas, stories and tools to make life better. Newsletters can have an online home for subscribing and archiving content which helps with search results. Newsletters can also be advertised on social media, search ads and in other newsletters.
Value. Newsletters (and any content, really) can offer value to the user. A news recap newsletter summarizes top stories in one place giving the value of being quickly and reliably informed first thing in the morning. An events newsletter shows you the best things to do this weekend. Now you’re the valuable one who knows where to eat and which show to go to. Maybe a topical newsletter starts with a small audience. But that audience is going to be highly engaged and value your content. Speak to a niche nobody else reaches and you may find some of your strongest supporters.
Growth and value are essential to any organization’s member, reader or supporter revenue program.
Meanwhile, many organizations are struggling to grow their email list and email filtering - and general noise - makes it even harder to build good lists. Newsletters offer opportunities for growth and value. I’d encourage you to think expansively about the content you already have and the ways newsletters can reach and grow new audiences.
 When I say newsletters I’m primarily referring to email newsletters. But there are other newsletter distribution channels that work as well or better depending on the audience. There are WhatsApp newsletters and content creators (and a few news organizations) are creating video newsletters that work on channels like Instagram Reels, TikTok and YouTube.
Primo newsletter material. 2023 edition.
If you’re even a little serious about better newsletters we should talk but first here are some of the best articles, guides, resources and case studies about newsletters I bookmarked in the past year.
What I wish I’d known before launching my newsletter [Dan Oshinksy / Inbox Collective] Dan Oshinsky is one of the most strategic newsletter thinkers around. Here Dan shares hard-earned lessons from over 20 newsletter operators - independents, news orgs, nonprofits, publishers, writers, artists and more. Some of my favorites:
I wish I’d built audience research into our strategy sooner.
Keep things simple rather than trying to do everything.
The value prop of what a newsletter adds to someone’s day really matters.
What gets missed — and what I wish I would’ve known — is that newsletters can be a tool to build a community around.
Big hits only contribute so much in terms of the growth of your list compared to a steady, consistent pattern of output.
Make sure you give people a reason to open your newsletter other than what you’re selling.
Experimentation can’t stop.
Get inspired: Newsletter Signup Page Round-up (March 2023) From the 99 Newsletter Project, a great compiler of newsletter examples, insights and tips.
How to grow your email list on LinkedIn - a conversation with Jess Campbell [Campfire Circle podcast]
How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar uses hyperbole to write the best newsletter in the world. Kareem talks about the process, consistency and creativity that’s helped his newsletter earn (at the time I’m writing this) over 109,000 subscribers.
Audiences, retention and revenue
This is a favorite because the biggest hurdle in digital fundraising and revenue isn’t getting people to subscribe, it’s getting them to stick around and do something. In Unlocking Customer Lifetime Value: The power of personalized subscriber onboarding at The Washington Post, Anjali Iyer, who runs lifecycle marketing at WaPo, talks about how optimizing for early engagement benefits long-term retention and how WaPo uses triggers, driving people to apps, and personalization to help new subscribers build retention habits. [The Audiencers]
Subscriber engagement is the key to retention, but how to make the case for investment? Use data and test hypotheses to make a case that putting time and money into engagement produces programmatic results (revenue, actions, etc.). [Pugpig]
Here’s what happened when the Texas Tribune sharpened its newsletter strategy. A thorough assessment of newsletter performance coupled with a clearer vision of newsletter goals and workflows produces more sign-ups, conversions, audience growth and more. [Katie Hawkins-Gaar / News Revenue Hub]
“Even from the beginning, the Tribune understood philosophically that newsletters are an absolutely crucial component of their product strategy, their reader engagement strategy and their reader revenue strategy, because all those things are intertwined,” Mackinder said. “It’s the uniqueness and strength of newsletters that helps newsrooms to pull in more and more membership dollars at the end of the day.”
– Evan Mackinder, News Revenue Hub
Find your niches is part 3 of a mini-series on how to succeed in the next era of content discovery. The folks at Attention Matters talk about the big power of small audiences and how those small audiences can teach you to grow.
Comments, raffles & hiking: how Blick.ch has acquired over 600k registered users. This isn’t specifically about newsletters but still shows us how innovative approaches can find and engage new audiences. [Madeleine White / The Audiencers]
Newsletter strategies to build retention, trust and revenue. Notes and video from a webinar run by American Press Institute that covers how to gauge audience interest in newsletters, testing and feedback, and revenue. When and why do you paywall a newsletter? How do you turn newsletter readers into paid subscribers and members?
Let’s deep dive into The GIST, a newsletter with over 650,000 subscribers. An extensive case study about how a sports media brand built its flagship newsletter. Yet another useful piece from The Audiencers. Some takeaways:
Memorable and cohesive branding.
The whole site drives you to the newsletter. Email sign-up is the goal.
A sign up flow that leverages audience data.
Building revenue streams from content readers value (e.g. a jobs board).
Personalization through surveys.
Why the future of digital-only local news may be small, focused and based on email. Editors of digital-only publications discuss the value of email newsletters, how useless pageviews can be and why quality beats quantity when it comes to audiences. [Jim Edwards / Press Gazette]
What’s it take to make a great daily newsletter? Axios’ Kendall Baker is planning to bring one to Yahoo Sports. A conversation with Kendall Baker who ran the Axios Sports newsletter, Sports Internet and a daily newsletter at tech site The Hustle. Interesting to hear Baker talk about newsletters as editorial products not just tools to drive clicks to a website and drive pageviews.
In other words, the newsletter is what people want. The action happens at the newsletter, not on some later hoped-for page three clicks down the line. If you can get and keep attention in a newsletter you can show ads, pitch membership/fundraising or other products right in the newsletter. [Joshua Benton / NiemanLab]
For a lot of publishers, the thing they’re valuing, their KPI, is how many people can we get to click out of this email and onto our site or our app or whatever. So I think some publishers still view newsletters in the same bucket as, like, email marketing. It’s about driving traffic back to the site, versus creating the best editorial experience you can in the email. So they end up creating a newsletter that’s not really a newsletter — it’s a funnel. It’s not meant to be a great editorial product that stands on its own.
– Kendall Baker
Reclaim your brain. A free 5-email serial newsletter that can engage users, reach new people and provide value. All without huge investment and overhead. A user can sign up anytime and automation takes care of the rest. There are countless ways news and community orgs can run similarly tangible on-brand short-course newsletter products. [The Guardian]
Sahan Journal is using voice-note newsletters to reach Somalis in Minnesota. Not every audiences needs, wants or can deal with written email. Sahan Journal, serving a largely Somali immigrant audience in Minneapolis, created a weekly audio newsletter delivered by text as an audio file. [Hanaa’ Tameez / Nieman Lab]
Find the full Future Community jobs list here. These are a few of the newest (and most intriguing) roles on the list.
Journalism, media and content strategy
Engagement Editor : Convergence Magazine [Remote in the US]
Senior Editor (Science, Technology, Sports and Gaming) : Vox Media [Remote / New York City preferred]
Senior Digital Editor : National Geographic [Washington, DC]
Membership Engagement Senior Specialist : Colorado Public Radio [Denver]
Editor in Chief : The Chronicle of Philanthropy [Washington, DC]
Civic Science Fellow : Science Communication Lab [Remote in the US]
Assistant Editor, Digital Development/Newsletters : BBC [London]
Nonprofits: fundraising, leadership, tech
Digital Director : F Minus [Remote]
Associate, Leadership and Training : Council on Foundations [Remote]
Executive Director : Northwest Abortion Access Fund [Remote / Alaska, Washington, Oregon or Idaho preferred]
Director of Marketing and Communications : Cortico [Remote in the US]
Director of Fundraising and Communications : Engineers Without Borders [Remote / Preference for Denver]
Head of Programs : New Energy Nexus [Hybrid in Berkeley]
Senior Director of Digital Strategies : Sierra Club [Oakland / Remote]
Communications specific roles (mostly in nonprofits)
Director of Communications : Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders UK [Hybrid in London]
Digital Communications Officer : NEON [Hybrid in London]
Director of Communications : Digital Promise [Remote in the US]
Communications Manager : New Energy Nexus [Hybrid in Berkeley]
Senior Director of Communications : As You Sow [Berkeley / Remote]
Foundations and philanthropy
Global Electricity Initiative Director : Climate Imperative Foundation [San Francisco / Washington, DC / Remote]
Climate Solutions Program Director : Confluence Philanthropy [Hybrid in New York City]
Event Production Manager : Skoll Foundation [Palo Alto / Remote possible]
Program Officer, Civic Engagement and Government : Ford Foundation [New York City]
Strategic Partnerships Director : Proteus Fund [New York City]
Politics, products, projects and more
Lead UX/UI Designer : Zero Homes [Denver]
Retention Marketing Manager : Rewiring America [Remote]
Executive Coordinator : Advance Native Political Leadership Action Fund [Remote in the US]
Head of Platform & Community : Pollen [Remote]
Product Manager, Digital Products : Planned Parenthood [Hybrid in New York City]
Senior DevOps Engineer : Movement Infrastructure Working Group, Democratic Data Exchange [Remote in the US]
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