Email newsletters have taken a central role in the battle between upstart platforms, individual creators, and long-established media brands fighting to secure audience loyalty. Peter Houston takes a look at the key newsletter trends of the year as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

The power of email newsletters to drive audience engagement was fully exploited in 2021. Worries of peak newsletter expressed back in 2019 evaporated and, as Jack Shafer puts it in Politico: “Traditional media is going to ride this writers’ wave for all it’s worth”.

The endgame for publishers is wrapped up in a belief in the email newsletter’s superpower: building direct relationships with readers. With platform dreams dead in the dust, publishers are leveraging the intimacy of the inbox to connect with individuals, build media habits, drive traffic and in some instances monetise relationships.

New life for an old format

The Swiss Army knife of the publishers’ toolbox, newsletters are also seen as a major driver for revenue diversification and supporting insights from first-party data. The one wrinkle in what could have been a dream scenario for established publishing brands has been the rise of the newsletter branch of the creator economy.

Powered initially by Substack’s distribution and payment infrastructure, leading names like the Verge’s Casey Newton have been building their upstart newsletter businesses through 2021. Casey himself chronicled his success in growing his original free subscriber list from 24,000 to more than 49,000 just a year after he quit the ‘best job he ever had’.

On the audience side, as with many digital media trends, the pandemic has only cemented audience engagement with newsletters. And seeing that appetite, media has doubled down on newsletters. The Industry Pulse survey of 200 senior marketing and publishing executives showed 87% of publishers and marketers actively investing in email and 94% scaling their email programs in 2021.

A fight for writing talent

The closing months of 2021 have seen brands fighting back against the newsletter newcomers, as well as refining their existing newsletter strategies to optimise against their chosen business models.

Watching journalists depart for the greener grass of self employment has galvanised leading publishers into taking action to beef up their own newsletter offerings or bring individual creators a place under their brand umbrellas.

Reacting negatively to the idea of its staff writers producing newsletters on other platforms, management instead encouraged staffers to add their own voices to the NYT’s 70-newsletter portfolio. The paper has also brought independent newsletter creators on staff.

Ploughing a slightly different furrow, The Atlantic has initiated a newsletter programme that will let newsletter creators bring their audiences on to the Atlantic’s books. Supporting newsletter producers with a salary and a share of new subscriptions, The Atlantic has positioned itself well to hoover up leading talent. For its part it will get what Nick Thomson calls more ‘pithy’ content and a boost to paying subscriber numbers.

Elsewhere publishers are refining their newsletter strategies to support their chosen revenue models, from paywall to tip jar. The Telegraph is trimming its newsletter menu in a move to increase its subscriber conversion rates. The paper believes offering readers a more targeted list to choose from will deepen engagement and build loyalty in the long term.

News provider Axios is expanding its local news coverage with local newsletter launches backed by a city-specific membership programme that seeks voluntary contributions. Membership payments are voluntary, with suggested annual contributions ranging from $50 to $500, and are positioned as supporting the work of local newsrooms.

Paid newsletters are establishing a presence from the growing number of subscriber-only newsletters at the New York Times, to newsletter drive subscription programmes at Quartz and the newsletter only local news sites like the Manchester Mill.

What can we expect next year?

A proliferation in newsletter platforms will continue to fuel the creation of newsletters by individuals. Although Facebook and Google are planning to give the newsletter sector a good go, Twitter’s Revue with it’s timeline subscription integration looks well positioned to win among the social networks.

Apple’s changes to email privacy settings threatened to play havoc with newsletter metrics, and maybe monetisation, but have largely gone unremarked. Long-term, the focus that the changes brought to email tracking may simply strengthen premium personalisation plays in newsletter development.

The recovery in the advertising market will undoubtedly see newsletters develop as advertising vehicles, with Simon Owens calling early in the year to ads appearing on the ad-free Substack platform.

But the biggest revenue driver in the newsletter sector will continue to be in subscriber products as both brands and individuals look to monetise the communities building around their offerings.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.

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