How The New York Times Gets 70% Email Open Rates

By Jordan Teicher September 8th, 2015

Raise your hand if you check your email more than 25 times per day. Raise both hands if you check it more than 50 times every day—then take a step back from your device and admit you’re addicted. Point is, regardless of whether you fight to hit Inbox Zero or you’re the person with 15,243 unread messages dating back to 2006, our inboxes are the center of life on the Internet.

And while email has always been an important part of the way we communicate and do business on the web, The New York Times seems to have realized something that other publishers are still trying to figure out: Email has become more than just a personal communication hub—when it comes to newsletters, email has essentially become the new homepage.

While most publishers are comfortable with one digest, the Times now produces more than 30 newsletters, most of which run weekly or biweekly, to meet consumer demand in an uncertain media landscape. The transition came out of necessity, after last year’s leaked “Innovation Report” revealed that homepage traffic for the Times had fallen off by approximately 50 percent since 2011.

With so much information out there, users are looking for customized curation to help find the best, most relevant stories for their needs; in other words, they want to create a personalized homepage directly on their email.

“The news is able to reach them,” said Nicole Breskin, director of product management at the Times. “Readers don’t necessarily have to seek it out.”

What readers want really depends on the section. There’s no one-size-fits-all gameplan for email engagement, as Breskin put it, but the big-picture philosophy for the Times evolved during a time when many publishers were using their newsletters as a sideshow rather than the main event.

“We thought that there was huge value we could add by thinking much more in terms of reader segments, their interests, and their lifestyles,” Breskin explained. “Just taking a much more user-centric approach, adding value by thinking about what our readers actually want.”

Instead of just listing relevant articles walled off by section (e.g., an Arts newsletter, or a Business newsletter), editors have begun to think outside the box. For example, the “What We’re Reading” newsletter, sent out twice a week, includes noteworthy articles from other websites recommended by Times editors and reporters, a move that would’ve been unheard of a few years ago. And Nicholas Kristof, the op-ed columnist, recently launched his own newsletter that gives subscribers access to “exclusive commentary” in addition to his columns. Kristof’s newsletter drew more than 50,000 sign-ups after just six months.

The number of subscribers ranges from tens of thousands to several million, depending on the newsletter, per a New York Times representative.

Building up such a buffet of newsletters took patience. First, editors and developers had to make sure people would want to subscribe before they committed the time and effort to another email product. They spent weeks gauging interest with sign-up pages, social posts, and paid promotion. And while a few newsletters, like breaking news round-ups, go out multiple times per week, most start out on a weekly basis to prevent the cadence from turning off readers before a list gains momentum.

Since ramping up the number of newsletters, the Times has seen an incredible response. Newsletter subscribers are up 14 percent over the last six months, and they’re checking out twice as many stories as non-subscribers. Weekly newsletters have a gross open rate of 50 percent, a number that doubles what competitors are driving.1 Open rates for a few newsletters like “Motherlode” (a blog about family and parenting), “Booming” (a section dedicated to baby boomers) and “T Magazine” are even topping 70 percent.

Can this astronomical engagement last? Perhaps, but it won’t be easy.

According to a study by the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, the average business email account receives 88 messages per day in 2015. By 2018, that number is expected to jump to 97. And once other publishers start to take a similar approach to email, the battle for attention will only get more competitive.

But the Times does have an significant advantage: its reputation. The paper’s brand may not be as strong as it once was, but receiving a message from The New York Times still carries a certain cachet that most other publishers just don’t have. And to the credit of the publisher’s editorial and product teams, they’ve been trying to find ways to capitalize on that stature.

A crucial step in this process was developing the site’s internal email service product, so employees could make smarter decisions about what was working and what needed to be improved. (It’s worth pointing out the Times uses a third-party ESP, or email service provider, for marketing emails.)

“For the first several years, there was probably not a lot of innovation. [The email service] could handle a lot of capacity and we sent out a mass amount of emails, but it was very limited in terms of bells and whistles,” said Dork Alahydoian, executive director of product at the Times. “Over the last year, as newsletters have become more important, we’ve invested a lot more in the underlying technology, making it much more flexible in terms of being able to create custom newsletters, and being able to test newsletters. And I think we’re just on the tip in terms of where we can go with it.”

The staff is now testing everything from headlines to image size to whether to include letters from the editor for certain newsletters. And as people increasingly turn to mobile devices to access their news, the Times is using their A/B testing to stay ahead of changing consumption habits. For example, the publication has found that email subject lines should be no more than 30 characters to drive the most engagement on mobile.

Breskin also stressed the importance of “radical flexibility” as the publisher continues to think about how email can impact the overall direction of The New York Times. “We see newsletters as a very cool data testing ground for new products, ideas, and experiments with tone and voice,” she explained. “We’re really working with the newsroom to make sure the tools are available for any broader ideas or visions about content strategy.”

As part of that testing ground mentality, the Times also created features that let users customize email alerts based on keywords, indexed topics, stocks, and even specific reporters. With such an emphasis on email, the goal is clear: to establish a more personal connection with readers that gives them precisely what they want, where they want it.

“We’re thinking about how newsletter fit in more broadly about how we communicate with customers when they’re not on our site,” Alahydoian said. “It’s thinking about how to communicate holistically with readers about breaking and interesting stories… We’re trying to tie that all together.”

  1. Industry open rates for media newsletters vary—Poynter cited one study that claimed the average is 25 percent; Digiday credited a different report that claims 38.5 percent is the norm.
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