This week we hear from Jillian MacMath, Audience Editor at WalesOnline. She was chosen by the judges as the winner of the first ever Hero of the Year at the Publisher Newsletter Awards, so what better person to come and discuss everything newsletters with us.

Jillian talks about the opportunities she saw to get more strategic about the newsletter portfolio when she joined WalesOnline, what metrics should matter to anyone with a newsletter, and what dedicated newsletters like football and food look like with a local focus. She also tells the story of their pop-up Covid newsletter, explains how to get other members of the newsroom invested in newsletters, and how they’re using key names to build more personal relationships via the inbox.

Newsletters and publishers innovating in the inbox this year will be one of the chapters we explore as part of our upcoming Media Moments 2023 report. Find out more and pre-register for the report here.

Here are some highlights from the episode:

Transforming the newsletter portfolio

We’d already been using newsletters when I started looking after them. But it wasn’t really an area that any single person was owning at the time in our newsroom. We were just learning them as we went and sending them when we had big stories.

So when I took over looking after them, there was a period of time where we were just focusing on the basics. So making sure the newsletters we launched were being sent regularly, at optimal times, with the best stories, strong subject lines, that kind of thing.

We had to tackle those basics first, or there was no way we could have expanded. But once we had that covered, we could see that they were paying off and it opened the door to make it a much bigger part of our newsroom strategy.

So we started building a subscriber list for our three biggest city audiences. So that would be Cardiff, Swansea, Newport. And then after that, we expanded into some regional patches and some specialty content, like our food and drink newsletter, nostalgia, health.

And then at that point, when I first got there, we weren’t really doing any strategic promotion yet. So for a while, we just went crazy trying to work out how we could put our newsletters in front of as many people as possible. So writing promotion into stories, posting it on social, cross promoting in different newsletters, and really just pushing them as hard as we could until we found what worked.

We really saw it start paying off in the stats. Now we’re just shy of two dozen newsletters in the newsroom.

The metrics that matter

Which metrics are used to determine your success really depends on what your goals are. So in our case with news, there are a lot of things I think you need to look at to form the whole picture on your performance. With open rates, there are valid reasons to question the reliability of them. But they’re still worth looking at as an indicator of consistent performance; so you don’t want to see them fluctuating up and down to you. That’s that’s a sign something’s wrong. But I probably wouldn’t use a high open rate in itself to determine that a newsletter is successful.

So in our case, pageviews are quite important. Ultimately, we want as many eyes as possible on the stories that we’re writing in our content. So we do have pageview targets. In addition to that, I’m always looking at daily monthly new subscribers, our net gain, so how our new subs compared to our unsubscribers, and then our active subscribers to the people who have actually not only received our newsletter, but open them in the last 28 days.

All of that feeds into a bigger picture for us and tells us what people are interested in, and what’s working and what isn’t.

Getting the team interested in newsletters

It’s always a challenge, getting people invested in something new, because these days journalism isn’t just writing stories. It’s reporting, it’s using social media. So for WalesOnline, our daily news newsletter was the primary focus for a while. I was working to grow that and promote it until we were able to see the pageview return from it. That was really important, I think, and I feel like people had to see that success in order to want to get involved themselves.

What we did at WalesOnline was start feeding daily stats back to the newsroom about what was being clicked on in newsletters, what our top performing stories were from them, how many pageviews they were bringing in. And it was until that was ingrained into our way of working – in particular, we added a quick review of stats from the previous day’s newsletters into our morning conference – and that helped it start to be seen as an integral part of our strategy, and as a benefit to individuals as well as the brand.

That really made a difference. Now we have reporters running their own newsletters for their own specific patches. So the buy-in is there now, but it does take a very long time.

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