During the past decade or so, The New York Times has built a massive portfolio of around 100 newsletters across a wide range of topics from a daily briefing to health and wellness, parenting, the climate crisis, politics and sports.
There are also personality based newsletters built around their star columnists, as well as ones aimed at helping readers find great books and music, and what they should be watching, streaming and much more.
“Newsletters can play many different roles,” said Paige Collins, Senior Product Manager at The Times. “They can bring people back to the website. They can expose people to all we have to offer, because there is so much The Times is doing every single day that it’s impossible to see it all just from the homepage or social media feed.”
The company’s largest and most popular newsletter is The Morning, a daily briefing that has a subscriber base of 16 million.
During our recent Digital Media Europe conference in Vienna, Collins offered an in-depth look at how The Times’ has adjusted and refined their newsletter strategies over time as they aim to have their newsletters support the company’s overall goals.
Aligning newsletter strategies with company goals
The Times as a company wants to be “the essential subscription for every curious English-speaking person in the world,” Collins said.
To do this, they have a 3-part strategy:
Build on their lead as the world’s best news destination
Become more valuable to more people by helping them make the most of their lives and passions
Put those two ideas together in a more expansive and connected bundle that makes The Times indispensable.
Above, each icon represents a different NYT newsletter – and there are many more of them than shown here.
Refining their overall newsletter strategy
“One of the things we have really been working on is honing in on the strategy: What are all of these newsletters for?” Collins said.
More specifically, she said, they are routinely asking themselves questions like these about their newsletter portfolio:
Editorially what are they for?
For the business what is their role?
What makes a good newsletter?
How do we decide we don’t need a newsletter anymore, as we already have so many?
The answers they came up with helped them to create three main “buckets” for their newsletter offerings:
Free briefings newsletters: Intended to make readers aware of The Times’ offerings and build habit.
Automated or semi-automated emails: These deliver a single link and are aimed at bringing weekly users back to The Times’ website more often
Subscriber-only newsletters: Introduced in August 2021, these are meant to drive subscriber retention
See also: WAN-IFRA’s report on Next-level Newsletters, tips and strategies from around the world
Key principles for subscriber-only newsletters
In developing this last one, The Times began by asking what they could do for subscribers.
“What would be different about a subset of newsletters that would be for subscribers only?” Collins said.
They came up with a few central principles.
“One of them was that we really believed the newsletter had to go beyond curation. It needed to feel premium and worth paying for,” she said. “Many of them have full narrative pieces in the inbox, you don’t have to click to get the value.”
“The second idea is that we wanted to make sure each newsletter had a specific focus: either it goes into a very specific topic, or it connects to a really strong editorial voice,” Collins said.
For example, they have newsletters from their opinion writers, which are named for the writers, such as John McWhorter. In these cases, The Times is building a brand around the writer’s personality, she said.
Community is also a key area where there is a great deal of opportunity, Collins noted.
“It’s different than somebody just wandering around the website,” she said. “You are reaching the same people over and over with the newsletter. The people who follow Jessica Grose, who writes about parenting, are used to being asked questions and then seeing their answers reflected back at them. They submit tiny victories all the time, which are these lovely little parenting stories that are usually funny. They love to contribute to this and feel they are part of her audience, not just The New York Times audience, so it creates little subsets within our bigger brand.”
See also: How The Mill is using subscription-based newsletters to build communities.
Newsletters improve retention, especially the subscriber-only ones
Today, more than a year and a half after The Times launched their subscriber-only newsletter programme, they are seeing a clear link between the subscribers who receive the newsletters and their retention rates.
“We are seeing that the people who have these newsletters do retain better,” Collins said.
While she said she could not go into specifics, she noted that in general people who don’t receive any newsletters are the hardest to retain. People who receive one free newsletter are a little more likely to keep their subscription than people who don’t receive any. People who get two free newsletters retain better than those who receive just one.
However, if a reader gets even one subscriber-only newsletter, they are much more likely to retain their subscription than those receiving a couple of free ones. And if a person is receiving two or more of the subscriber-only newsletters, they are even more deeply engaged, and therefore, much more likely to keep their subscription, she said.
See also: How The New York Times is growing subscription products beyond news
Collins said a lot of this makes sense logically because people who subscribe to these additional newsletters are likely to have more engagement.
Requiring registration a key component of success
A key part of the foundation for The Times’ overall success with newsletters goes back several years.
Conventional wisdom for most news publishers looking to build their newsletter subscriber base has been to make it as easy as possible for a reader to sign up for a newsletter: Ask for their email address and nothing more. Get them onboard, goes the reasoning, and then build up a relationship.
The Times, however, owes its newsletter success to taking the opposite approach.
With The Times, a reader needs to create a free account in order to access any stories on their website or sign up for any newsletters.
This registered account gives The Times more information than just the email address. With it, they know whether a reader is a subscriber, what the reader does when she/he is on the NYT site, the types of stories they are interested in and so on. This in turn provides The Times with the kind of information they can use to suggest newsletters that a reader is most likely to be interested in.
The 16-million strong readership base for their daily briefing newsletter, The Morning, is also a direct result of the registration process.
The Morning then helps to showcase a wide variety of the content available across The Times.
“And if we hadn’t done that to begin with, that registration moment, the rest would be much more complicated,” she said. “We needed for them to have an account for all the rest of it to be possible.”
Lessons learned that can benefit all publishers
While The Times is undeniably in a league of its own in many respects, Collins also noted there are some overall lessons they have learned that can benefit other publishers regardless of their size.
“Obviously most newsrooms can’t launch 100 newsletters or 22 subscriber-only ones, but there are many things about this project and this whole collaboration that could be applied at a much smaller scale,” she said.
Among these, the biggest one is having trust between the product and editorial teams.
At The Times, when they saw that their service-related newsletters, such as Well and Watching, were doing better for subscriber retention, their editorial team focussed on coming up with more service-related topics.
“The newsroom has a million ideas,” Collins said. “They could have launched something totally different, but they saw the service ones were doing better and that made their service ideas rise to the top. They wanted to mimic the Watching model and launched the books one and the music one.”
She also noted that a couple of their newsletter related plans had failed. “So learning from small tests matters, even at The New York Times where we have so many people,” she said.
Specifically, The Times had considered a series of short-run newsletters that would be written by well known people for a short duration of around 10 weeks.
“Well, by the time we launched the newsletter and built an audience, the thing would end. It was a lot of work for not a whole lot of payoff. So we learned that after a couple of tries and then we culled it. We don’t need to keep spinning our wheels on that idea just because we thought it was a good idea,” Collins said.
Have a clear strategy, and keep the readers’ needs at the centre
Another important lesson is having a clear strategy for any given newsletter.
“Why from a business perspective do you think this is worth doing? Why from an editorial perspective do you think this is worth doing? And if it doesn’t pay out within a few months, maybe you hedge your bets and do something else,” she said.
Most importantly: Keep the readers’ needs at the centre.
“There’s a million different ideas out there,” she said, “but why should something be a newsletter? What is it about delivering it to their inbox that makes it different than finding something on the site? And what role does this journalism play in their lives? That’s ultimately what we decided the subscriber-only newsletters needed to do differently.”
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