A few questions about newsletters arise while working with nonprofits on their email programs:
- Should we even have a newsletter?
- What should be in our newsletter? Should it be links to our stories? Original stuff? What should it look like?
- How do we get people to click on our newsletter?
- What should the newsletter do? How do we even tell if it’s doing that?
- I think we have a newsletter already. Wait, maybe not. Let me check.
First, step back a second and consider the email you send. Your email program is probably the greatest connection you have to your audience. It needs purpose and value.
If that purpose and value is only about asking for things – money, action, time, attention – you’re probably getting shut down quick.
Newsletters can fill a big void in email and communications programs. They can also play a role in list growth, fundraising and retention.
How news organizations use newsletters
News organizations make greater use of newsletters than most nonprofits. Newsletters are at or near the center of news communications, fundraising and membership strategies. Why is that?
News organizations are built on member/subscriber relationships. The daily newspaper only worked if people read (or at least bought) the product daily. Advertisers depended on the regular audience so news companies built stories and sections like sports, lifestyle, cooking, business to provide changing and relevant content to the community.
Put more simply: news organizations are in the business of telling stories. They generate a lot of content and creating newsletter content seems easy enough.
But this positions newsletters as marginal – a byproduct of the story process.
The reality is that news orgs rely on newsletters and often create newsletter-specific content.1
News orgs are creating new newsletters, testing them and measuring newsletter performance. They’re hiring newsletter editors and writers.
News organizations are also creating newsletters intended to reach new audiences. Bangor Daily News and others use pop-up short run newsletters to test interest in a new topic. Pair a test newsletter with some clever inexpensive search ads and you can get a sense of a new audience.
Most news organizations have multiple newsletters. This goes for big national media companies (think New York Times and Axios) all the way to smaller city and state news orgs (Colorado Sun in Denver or Cap Times in Madison, for example).
Some typical newsletter options include:
- Daily news recaps which are sometimes scheduled 2 or 3 times a week.
- Weekly recaps, often with more of a story focus.
- Weekend events – concerts, theater, festivals, movies.
- Newsletters focused on arts, music, outdoor activities.
- Newsletters hosted and written by a leading columnist, reporter or community voice.
- Fixed-term (or ongoing) newsletters focused on a news topic of particular community interest like schools, policing, land use, or political campaigns.
You can also find food and dining newsletters, recipes and cooking (the Times has gone big here), and newsletters that are more niche (climate) or serialize story or accompany a podcast. The latter often accompany a series of stories and/or podcast. WBUR in Boston has several newsletters including a 12-edition newsletter, Cooked, that looks at climate change through the lens of sustainable food in New England
What is the point of so many newsletters? Two things are happening:
Newsletters aren’t just for current subscribers. Newsletters give audiences of readers, subscribers, users and supporters a reason to engage. You have little or nothing to offer people except content – ideas, stories and tools to make life better. Newsletters can have an online home for subscribing and archiving content which helps with search results. Newsletters can also be advertised on social media, search ads and in other newsletters.
Newsletters (and any content, really) can offer value to the user. A news recap newsletter summarizes top stories in one place giving the value of being quickly and reliably informed first thing in the morning. An events newsletter shows you the best things to do this weekend. Now you’re the valuable one who knows where to eat and which show to go to. Maybe a topical newsletter starts with a small audience. But that audience is going to be highly engaged and value your content. Speak to a niche nobody else reaches and you may find some of your strongest supporters.
Growth and value are essential to any organization’s member, reader or supporter revenue program.
Meanwhile, many organizations are struggling to grow their email list and email filtering – and general noise – makes it even harder to build good lists. Newsletters offer opportunities for growth and value. I’d encourage you to think expansively about the content you already have and the ways newsletters can reach and grow new audiences.
1 When I say newsletters I’m primarily referring to email newsletters. But there are other newsletter distribution channels that work as well or better depending on the audience. There are WhatsApp newsletters and content creators (and a few news organizations) are creating video newsletters that work on channels like Instagram Reels, TikTok and YouTube.
Surprise and delight
Recently, a colleague and I advised a client to send a small gift – in this case a sticker – to everyone who gave any amount to their membership campaign. This included folks whose membership amount didn’t “officially” earn a premium.
But we’re building a program here and talking about a few hundred folks. Not thousands.
Our thought was that with little cost and effort you can earn some loyalty and a smile from a new member. You can also get your brand’s logo out in the world.
You’re never wrong to surprise, delight and spread some joy with your email list.