For our latest season of the Media Voices Podcast, kindly sponsored by Poool, we’ll be publishing ten episodes exploring the biggest trends of 2022 and how they affect publishers; from subscriptions and membership to advertising, platforms, emerging technology and more. Our fifth episode explores the year in newsletter trends, from worldwide readership to how creators are driving publisher strategies.

One of the oldest digital delivery systems of all has continued to dominate industry headlines in 2022 as publishers rethink the way they work with email newsletters. Email-first news publishers have continued to go from strength to strength, with Axios and Industry Dive both acquired this year for significant sums. As overwhelm and news avoidance has grown, email newsletters have been seen as a solution to the firehose of content available online, as Reuters noted in this year’s Digital News Report.

The trend of journalists leaving outlets to go solo has definitely peaked, with fewer making the move than anticipated. Stability, and the realities of making a living from just a newsletter have stemmed the tide of people taking it from a side hustle to a career. But publishers have responded by finding ways to support talented staff, with Forbes and The Atlantic both having made notable efforts to bring on board dedicated newsletter writers.

That’s not to say it’s been all plain sailing. Facebook (Meta) has binned Bulletin – its Substack competitor – after just over a year. The industry has also been struggling with Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection Update, which has made measuring email open rates particularly challenging. This in turn is forcing innovation, and we’re likely to see a substantial evolution of both metrics and email advertising over the coming years as publishers seek to bring the premium ad experiences of their sites and apps to their newsletters.

Overall, there seems to be an acknowledgement that newsletters have been a long-underserved medium that can actually be incredibly effective for publishers. As the hype has faded, there’s a ‘more realistic attitude’ in place about the format and the business that can be built around it.

Joining us this episode to discuss the biggest newsletter trends of 2022 is Mark Stenberg, Senior Media Reporter at AdWeek in New York. He’s reported on some of the biggest newsletter-related media stories of the year, and also has his own newsletter Medialyte.

Here are some highlights:

The biggest newsletter trends of 2022

Mark: Semafor launched earlier this week, and they have this template, the Semaform, that they’re trying to extend into their newsletter. So even the newsletter follows this proprietary-looking aesthetic. You can clearly tell when you’re reading a Semafor newsletter versus a Morning Brew newsletter.

You’re seeing a little bit of, how can the email channel grow to evolve and reflect the aesthetic and design concerns? Publisher have put a lot of thought into their websites. Now we’re starting to see that being applied to the newsletter form.

Esther: There have been a lot of factors that have come together. We can’t discount the disappointent platforms have given publishers. There was hope even 5, 10 years ago that platforms like Facebook and Instagram would provide a way for publishers to build audiences and reach new people. As that has gone up in flames, email has been chugging along in the background for over 30 years. There are spam filters and things, but in general, if you want to keep in touch with your audience, email has remained a very steady, very stable place to do that.

What’s changed recently and especially this year is…this productisation of email. It has really come to the forefront for a lot of publishers who are saying, hey, if these newer publishers and solo operators are seeing such success with this really cranky old format, can we look at what we’re doing and be a lot smarter with it? Can we treat it as a product, not as a marketing arm?

Chris: Talking about that in terms of solo creators, there’s a lot of parallels here between what’s been going on with podcasting, what’s been going on with newsletters, in that it’s that democratisation of content creation. And now that ad tech has caught up, or to some extent has been developed specifically for these formats, there is the ability for people to monetize themselves, whether that’s through subscriptions or advertising on those different media.

Is the age gap a problem?

Chris: Something that came out of the Digital News Report was that more than 80% of everyone in the US who uses email as their main source for news is 35 years and above, whereas just 5% of 25 to 34 year olds and 3% of 18 to 24 year olds rely on email access as a main source for news. That, to me, speaks to a format that really hasn’t necessarily found a way to market itself yet to a new generation.

Peter: So this idea that ‘kids’ don’t have an email address, it just blows my mind. Or it’s not that they don’t have an email address, they just don’t use their email. And I believe it, I 100% believe it – my daughter’s 25 and all her messaging is on Tiktok and Instagram. The only time she ever uses email is for official documents and getting a dentist appointment or something. So I believe it, and I think it’s a problem for for publishers looking at the long term, but I don’t know what to do about it.

Mark: I think there’s a lot of statistics where you look and you say, young people prefer to get their news on social media, how do we get them reading on email? How do we get them opening apps? I don’t have data to support this, this is purely a hypothesis, but I don’t think that young people go to social media looking for news, I think they go to social media, and there’s news on it, and they consume it there. And then when they respond in a survey, ‘Where do you get your news?’, they say social media.

I think that the movement of people toward reading their news on apps or reading their news in a newsletter – which is a far more intentional way of getting your news – that I think happens as you get a little bit older, and you get to an age where you start thinking, ‘I really do want to be a news consumer, this is important for my job, or for my personal finances,’ or whatever. And then I think you read less on social media.

So I don’t think it’s so much like, ‘We need to get the younger generation off of social media and onto news or onto newsletters,’ so much as it is, ‘As people grow more serious about consuming the news – and it’s a small portion of the population, I would imagine – they’ll start gravitating toward the channels where they can do so with consistency. And I think newsletters, that’s their strongest case to make.

Solo creators as a US trend

Esther: So many examples [of solo newsletters] we think of are US-based. You’ve got the big names like Casey Newton, you’ve got Charlie Warzel, you’ve got these people that almost all the big names you can think of are US-based. Is that just how we report?

But actually, the subscription rate to these individuals is about five times more in the US than it is the UK. So in the US about 18% of people do subscribe to an individual creator, which is a pretty decent number. And in the UK, that’s 4%. So I don’t know whether is the US a bit ahead, are we going to see more of that pick up across the UK, Europe, some of the other markets, or is that just because the US gravitates much more to those individual personalities?

Mark: My general assumption in these matters is that the US has less of less sentimentality about how things have been done historically. And so whenever there’s some new trend, or some new disruption, or some new tech, not only our news consumers, but our news producers, I think we’re more likely to jump on that more quickly.

Peter: What many of these solo creators have in common is that they’ve all come from a huge brand, and they’re publishing to the market that that brand was publishing to. So it’s really a brand extension, in a weird sort of way. I’m not saying that they’re not clever, and they don’t put a lot of work in. But there’s a lot of people that are clever and put a lot of work in that get nowhere.

This topic will be one of the chapters we explore in detail as part of our Media Moments 2022 report, launching on November 30th. Find out more and pre-register here to receive the report.

This season of Media Voices is sponsored by Poool, the Membership and Subscription Suite used by over 120 publishers from around the world. The team behind Poool are industry experts who have put everything they know into the product, ready to respond to your ‘how’ of launching & developing a reader revenue strategy. | @PooolTech

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