Despite being one of the internet’s longest-serving communications tools, email newsletters have rarely been out of the media news over the past 12 months as publishers upgraded the newsletter’s place in their publishing portfolios. Peter Houston rounds up the year in newsletters as part of our Media Moments 2022 report.

Adweek’s Mark Stenberg told us 2022 is the year of ‘newsletter ‘normalisation’, the year when every major publisher came to understand that email must be a component of their editorial strategy. There were several reasons for that shift.

The number of people actively avoiding the news is growing. Whether they lack trust in the media, fatigued by the negativity of the modern news cycle or simply overwhelmed by the amount of information available across their social feeds, they are selectively staying away from news coverage.

Email newsletters are increasingly being positioned as a counter to the constant ‘firehose’ of the social stream, as Reuters noted in this year’s Digital News Report, the first with a chapter dedicated to email. The report says 65% of survey respondents across 10 countries listed convenience as the biggest factor in consuming content via email.

Whether that’s about receiving a finite content package, regular delivery straight to the inbox or the ability to pick and choose which content to read, email newsletters represent a welcome return of control over the modern information tsunami.

For publishers, newsletters are a real opportunity to rebuild the relationships lost to social media and search. They are habit forming, a key component in the digital audience development strategies that have driven much of the attention publishers have paid newsletters recently. 

Audience data

Newsletters are also a powerful conduit for first-party data capture. With the eventual loss of third-party cookies, hashed email IDs, although not without their own problems, are in the running to become a popular solution to the anonymised audience-targeting conundrum.

On the monetisation front, paid newsletters have been slow to take off outside the US, according to the DNR 2022. That doesn’t mean publishers are not using newsletters as a part of subscription incentive bundles. From Quartz to the New York Times and The FT, access to subscriber-only newsletters is being touted as a significant benefit of membership and key to subscriber retention efforts.

And while newsletter marketing has been around forever, newsletter advertising is being seen as an emerging monetisation opportunity. Describing email advertising as ‘an underdeveloped area’, Andreas Jürgensen of solutions provider Passendo told us: “When you have your email newsletter, you’re waiting every morning to see the latest business or sport news… that’s a trusted channel.” 

Looking ahead, Stenberg thinks publishers will use newsletters to introduce a ‘premium’ advertising experience to newsletters. Echoing Jürgensen, he said: “I think we are in the early days of email ad tech; there will likely be a lot of room for change as publishers seek to bring the premium ad experiences of their sites and apps to their newsletters.”

Listen: One of the oldest digital delivery systems has continued to dominate industry headlines. AdWeek Senior Media Reporter Mark Stenberg joined us to explore the year’s biggest stories. Listen here, or search for Media Voices wherever you find podcasts.

Engagement metrics

Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection update made measuring email user data more challenging for over 50% of respondents to a Hubspot survey, pushing publishers to move beyond open rates and clickthroughs to find other ways to measure engagement. The FT looked to audience surveys, The Guardian shifted toward newsletters that are more or less self-contained.

The Guardian’s newsletter team is now promoting original content in a range of niche subject areas ranging from technology to women’s football. It describes these as the closest thing in the digital space to a newspaper with “the kind of information readers would want to pass on when talking with friends in the pub.”

The wave of solo newsletter creators that arrived in 2021 appears to have peaked, stymied in part by publishing houses finding ways to support talented staff. The Atlantic in particular made notable efforts to bring on dedicated newsletter writers, rolling out a program that allows writers to rack up significant bonuses if they converted readers to Atlantic subscribers.

Recent reporting has described initial subscriber acquisition targets as ‘too ambitious’ and The Atlantic is said to be reassessing its position. However, Nicholas Thompson has said the company will extend the contracts of its newsletter writers until they develop a better understanding of the impact newsletters have on subscriber retention.

A primary platform

Email-first news publishers have continued to go from strength to strength, with Axios and Industry Dive both acquired this year for a combined price of over $100 million. Hyper-local newsletter publisher 6am City – now in 25 US cities – rolled out a ‘launch playbook’ that allows it to launch in new locations in just two months.

Social-first news start-up Roca news, is focused on coverage that lowers the blood pressure, abandoning the ‘24/7 food fight culture’ that they believe is responsible for much of the news avoidance we’re seeing. They have leveraged their 1 million-strong Instagram following and a charitable giving strategy ($1 given to charity for every new subscriber) into a subscriber list of 10,000, with 100,000 their next target.

On the platform front, Meta has binned its Substack challenger Bulletin after just over a year and Twitter’s Revue newsletter platform looks likely to be a casualty of the Muskian tragedy enveloping the bird app. Ironically, Substack appears to be distancing itself from newsletters, expanding its feature set beyond inbox delivery to include podcasts and an app that moves consumption away from the inbox and introduces a new chat function.

This chapter is an extract from our Media Moments 2022 report, sponsored by Poool and published in partnership with What’s New in Publishing. To read the full report including case studies, key facts and more, please fill in the form below:

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