Why The Telegraph thinks retiring some newsletters will actually help grow subscriptions

The header image features an open laptop with an envelope on the screen and an alert bubble signaling a new email.

British publisher The Telegraph is betting that offering fewer, more focused newsletters will actually help grow the number of subscribers to them.

The media org is striking at an opportune time: The Telegraph reached 500,000 paid digital subscribers in October — up 30% since the start of the year. Already, the publisher used engagement rates, among other factors, to inform sunsetting about a half dozen newsletters and consolidating others due to “underperformance,” said Dan Silver, The Telegraph’s director of email and newsroom innovation.

“Newsletters can have a shelf life. It’s fine to unsubscribe to one newsletter and sign up for another newsletter. We have a very fluid attitude to these editorial properties,” Silver said. “Newsletters are easy to get out, on the ground, and test new concepts.”

The Telegraph also tracked newsletter readers’ habits and found overlaps among audiences and topics, such as Letter from the USA and Letter from the Middle East — foreign dispatch newsletters — that were combined into one global newsletter called The Dispatches. Elsewhere, three rugby newsletters were condensed into one.

Media organizations are increasingly turning to newsletters as of late to develop a habitual relationship with readers to receive and open emails from a publisher at a regular cadence, build a loyal audience to a newsletter product, drive additional traffic to its website and content via links in a newsletter and offer additional value to subscribers — all while growing newsletter sponsorship advertising revenue.

The Telegraph still has a significant amount of newsletters — more than 40 editorial newsletters (meaning not those sent by marketing); eight of which are exclusive to paid subscribers. Silver would not say how many total newsletter subscribers The Telegraph, but a company spokesperson noted that 300,000 readers are signed up to receive its flagship twice-daily Front Page briefing. In all, the publisher sent 800 million editorial newsletter emails to its readers in 2020, Silver said. Revenue from newsletters has increased 81% year to date, and are priced individually based on the open rate of each newsletter, according to a Telegraph spokesperson, who declined to share its newsletters’ average open rate. Depending on the frequency of the newsletter, sponsorship opportunities can run weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The spokesperson did not provide rates.

“We are seeing in a lot of newsrooms the newsletter explosion… but oftentimes it’s a product without a strategy,” said Mary Walter-Brown, the founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub, which assists over 70 newsrooms with fundraising business models. It’s important to “have a product strategy roadmap for every newsletter that you have, and a strong understanding of success and what that looks like… so you can pivot if you’re not hitting the mark,” she said.

One metric to rule them all

The Telegraph has a unique way of measuring the success of its newsletters. It uses an internal scoring system called Newsletter-STARS (or N*). The system was borne from a newsroom metric called Single Telegraph Acquisition and Retention Score that was introduced by Silver in 2019 to “codify the role that individual stories and pieces of content played in both acquiring subscribers and retaining subscribers,” he said. It is now the “default metric” for evaluating content for the Telegraph’s newsroom, he said.

Silver was growing “disillusioned” by the metrics used to measure the success of newsletters, such as open rate and click-through rate (even though open rate is what The Telegraph cites when setting its newsletters’ ad prices, as mentioned above). “They don’t really work in my opinion for editorial products. It doesn’t tell you how users are engaging with the newsletter,” he said. If a newsletter has 100,000 subscribers with a 20% open rate, it could be considered a low-performing newsletter, according to Silver. However, the open rate doesn’t show if one-fifth of subscribers are opening every email, or if everyone on the email list is opening one out of five emails.

So the STARS metric was applied to The Telegraph’s newsletters in January, based on three key metrics: subscriber conversion rate, onsite retention (what is driving a reader to the site or to content) and inbox engagement (how many times a reader is opening the newsletter). The data is displayed via a dashboard from the insight and analytics department and weighed by a “special sauce formula” to give each newsletter an overall score to track performance and compare them against other newsletters, Silver said.

When it comes to looking at different metrics to measure the effectiveness of email for publishers’ subscriber retention and acquisition goals, “what really matters is that you have a holistic measurement of the engagement of an email,” said Greg Piechota, researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative, the digital subscriptions-focused arm at The International News Media Association, a global media industry organization.

Walter-Brown is seeing the focus among some publishers “move away from clicks and open rates… and more deeply around engagement and loyalty and long term sustainability” of newsletters.

Newsletters as unrivaled subscriber conversion tool

Newsletters are converting Telegraph readers to become paying subscribers and helping to keep them. Those who have signed-up to receive Telegraph newsletters are more likely to convert to become a subscriber than from all other sources of registration, according to Silver. It’s The Telegraph’s “number one source of converting registrants,” he said. Telegraph’s registrants, unlike paying subscribers, have signed up online and can access a select number of articles and some newsletters for free. 

People who sign up to multiple newsletters have “significantly higher rates of conversion” within the first 30 days than those who don’t sign up to any newsletters, Silver added. Subscribers coming from newsletters have 30% better retention at three months and over 50% better retention at 12 months compared to the average subscriber, according to Silver.

As of this week, The Telegraph has gained more than 1 million newsletter sign-ups in 2021, an increase of 29% compared to all of the sign-ups in 2020, Silver said.

Seeding new newsletters

The Telegraph is in the process of reorganizing its newsletters into three buckets: newsletters that drive readers to its website and app (such as Front Page), newsletters that are designed to be read directly in readers’ inboxes and subscriber-exclusive newsletters.

In May, The Telegraph launched its Headlines newsletter product, which uses an algorithm to send personalized, vertical-specific content recommendation emails three times a week, based on an individuals’ browsing history. Its first one centered on Telegraph’s culture vertical. Three more rolled out this summer on news, politics and football. The Telegraph will launch four more in the next six months on business, money, opinion and travel.


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