Publishers revamp their newsletter offerings to engage audiences amid threat of AI and declining referral traffic

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Newsletters are the darling of the digital media industry again.

Publishers like Axios, Eater, The Guardian, theSkimm and Snopes are either growing or revamping their newsletter offerings, tailoring new emails to specific audiences with more personality-driven content (and, in some cases, with the help of automation to produce more newsletters) designed to get subscribers to sign up for more.

Publishers are changing up their newsletters strategies to engage audiences as a wave of generative AI advancements increase the need for original content and referral traffic declines push publishers to find alternative ways to reach readers.

For years now, publishers have been investing in their newsletter portfolios to build-up their first-party data, create their own channels to drive traffic back to their sites and develop additional revenue streams. But some publishers are tweaking their newsletter strategies now to accelerate some of those initiatives.

“We are less reliant on social platforms. We are going to be less reliant on search… we have to make sure we are catering to our most loyal audiences, which are newsletter audiences, and catering to a platform where we have a lot of control… to build community [and] offer first-party data for our advertising clients,” said Amanda Kludt, group publisher of Vox Media’s lifestyle publications Eater, Popsugar, Punch and Thrillist.

Just for the newsletter reader

Vox Media’s Eater and Punch titles are creating newsletters with more personalization to engage specific segments of its overall audience.

While Eater and Punch previously offered mainly digest newsletters (a list of links to stories published that day), the titles’ newsletter strategies have evolved to include more personality and extra content not found onsite in the emails, said Kludt. Open rates range from 50-65%. The average open rate for newsletters in the media and publishing industry is 34%, according to email service provider MailChimp.

Last month, Eater launched a “Dining In” newsletter timed to the relaunch of its Eater at Home site section. It’s written in the first-person by Eater at Home editor Rebecca Flint Marx. Eater and Punch are also co-producing a newsletter tailored to industry professionals called “Pre Shift,” which launched in August.

Related Insights

However, Kludt noted that while these new newsletters are important for developing a relationship with loyal readers, the old-school, link-based digest newsletters are still driving the highest site click-throughs. She did not share specific figures before publishing time.

TheSkimm has developed new email features and products to make their newsletters more engaging, adding more features beyond just text, such as clickable image carousels with unique links, video teasers, live countdown clocks and a store locator that shows where products mentioned in the newsletter are available, according to Mary Murcko, CRO of theSkimm.

One of the newest integrations to its weekend newsletter is a section for games, with interactive puzzles. TheSkimm relaunched its weekend newsletter in February to focus on more lifestyle categories such as food, travel and books.

“The challenge is to continuously push to make our newsletter feel fresh and new,” Murcko said in an email. As part of a way to add some personalization to its newsletters, theSkimm has developed a way to tailor its messaging to various audience segments, by sending out different creative in its newsletters to different groups of subscribers.

Or, more automation

Snopes is taking a different approach by adding more automation to its newsletters. In the next three months, Snopes will double its suite of newsletters to five or six, according to Justin Wohl, CRO of Snopes and TV Tropes. The publisher is in the process of creating more emails that automatically curate stories on specific topics or journalists that readers can follow, he said.

“This is not a new concept — but it’s just as important as ever — having a robust newsletter offering is a way to shore up your recurring traffic to keep visitors coming back,” Wohl said. “Referral traffic going down from platforms and search all points to needing a more loyal audience and for the lifetime value of the audience that you have, versus trying to go for a huge scale increase at this time.”

Not to mention the fact that every newsletter click-through to Snopes’ website is an authenticated visit, “which means that a publisher has what they need to generate deterministic IDs that benefit the programmatic business,” he added.

New products to accelerate the user journey

The Guardian, meanwhile, is building more U.S. newsletter products to engage one-off visits from users coming from other platforms like Facebook or Google, said Tom Johnson, head of audience development at The Guardian U.S. The Guardian has launched about a half dozen newsletters and emailed columns in the past year. Total global subscribers to the Guardian’s U.S.-produced newsletters has grown by about 680,000 in the past 12 months, he added.

One of the main goals behind The Guardian’s newsletter strategy this year is to move sign-ups from the more short-term newsletter sends to longer-term, always-on offerings like weekly newsletters. For example, The Guardian debuted the five-week email “Reclaim Your Brain” at the beginning of 2024 (which now has 146,000 global subscribers), and then launched the “Well Actually” weekly newsletter on March 7 to try to get people to sign-up after they were done with the course. “Well Actually” has 30,000 global subscribers.

Subscriber-only products for more revenue

Last month, Axios launched its first paid membership tier from one of its free newsletters, Axios Communicators, for an annual fee of $1,000 (a product separate from Axios’ Pro subscriptions, which have been around since January 2022). In the next few months, Axios will launch similar memberships for its free Media Trends and Axios Pro Rata newsletters, said Aja Whitaker-Moore, editor-in-chief of Axios.

Whitaker-Moore said memberships will be built off of newsletters that have high engagement (such as open rates) and demand for related events. Axios’ newsletter open rates are consistently in the 45% range, she added.

“We are thinking about the new AI world and how that’s going to impact not just us as a business, but how our readers digest, interact, rely and consume news,” Whitaker-Moore said. “In order to prepare for that, we are laser focused on subject matter expertise and how we deliver that to our subscribers… and we think that’s what’s going to differentiate us in a new world that is a little more cluttered than the one we have now.”

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