Top Takeaways from Innovation in Newsletters: Finding New Life in an Old Medium

On September 26, the Ontario News Association (ONA)’s Toronto chapter hosted a panel discussion on how publishers are innovating and discovering new value in email newsletters – a platform that has been around longer than the web.

David Topping, our Media Group’s senior manager of product, served as one of the three panelists. David has led newsletter development at our Toronto Life – including the weekly The Informer, The Dish and The Hunt – and also helped launch 12:36, the successful lunchtime tabloid.  “We try really hard to give people something that’s different,” shared David. Engagement for 12:36 is high; open rates were over 85% when it first launched and today the open rate is 55%.  As ONA notes, this is “really good” for a newsletter that’s a few years old.


Here is a round-up of insight as shared by David and the two other panelists: Prajakta Dhopade, assistant editor, digital for Maclean’s, MoneySense and Canadian Business, and producer of the weekly MoneyFit newsletter; and Megan Griffith-Greene, a producer on the CBC News social team and editor of two newsletters, the Marketplace Watchdog and the CBC News Morning Brief.

What makes newsletters effective for publishers and brands?

  • Extending content’s reach and lifespan; Marketplaces’s newsletter Watchdog helps get user tips but also gives their stories a second life
  • Relaying an intimate, personal and personality-driven voice (in the same way that podcasts can)
  • Pushing readers to other digital content such as video; this was the case with Moneyfit’s newsletter, which started out as brand play
  • Delivering curated content a newsletter provides an organized collection of relevant content directly to the reader/customer
  • Providing straightforwardness; you send an email and it’s at the top of a person’s inbox

Why is email still so important in our ever-evolving media mix? 

  • Relevance – Email remains a key part of a lot of people’s day/worklife; other digital media trends such as social and instant messaging come and go but the working world still revolves around email
  • Access – Smartphones make email omnipresent; many of us check emails even before getting dressed in the morning

How do you measure newsletter success? 

  • 12:36 looks to subscribers (a lot came through Facebook ads), open rate and total opens (12:36 gets forwarded a lot)
  • CBC’s The Morning Brief uses open rate as the number one metric; traffic isn’t a goal
  • For Marketplace’s newsletter, driving traffic on a story and inciting user submissions are good success indicators
  • Moneyfit looks to clicks, open rate and list growth
  • Asking readers for feedback, looking at engagement to see what your audience wants, and having a system for actually testing changes are key

What’s an example of an email newsletter providing a novel approach?

  • The Washington Post’Read These Comments – a newsletter dedicated to the best reader comments that publishes every Friday afternoon

For additional tips, you can check out the ONA Toronto Twitter conversation here. We also followed up with David with a few more questions:

How important is design in a newsletter’s engagement rate?

DT: It’s definitely important! Open rates have more to do with things like subject lines than what’s in the body of an email, but what people do with a newsletter after they open it depends on how thoughtfully created it’s been. As always, form and content should work together there: some email newsletters will make more sense with big and plentiful visuals; others, like one of my favourites, Leah Letter, are only ever just text.

Did you conduct A/B testing in the initial stages of 12:36

DT: We did a ton of A/B testing with 12:36, especially at the beginning, yes. We wanted to find out what was most effective at getting users to open the email (did certain kinds of subject lines work better?), and what got them inclined to forward it to their friends (where did it make the most sense to ask? and how should we ask?). One of the things that’s good about testing digital products is you not only learn what works best for your audience—but you learn what you don’t need to spend any time worrying further about. We found out early on, for instance, that the email subject lines we used for 12:36 had little effect on their open rate; people opened 12:36 every day because they liked 12:36, not because the subject line drew them in that day. That’s meant we’ve gotten much less fussy with and worried about what we title each edition.

The content for 12:36 is generally self-contained within the email body so open rate would be the key metric; for Toronto Life‘s newsletters, do you look at both open and click rates? 

DT: That’s right, yes. For many of Toronto Life‘s newsletters, we care a lot about driving traffic to, so we pay more attention to click rates there. But that’s not the only purpose they serve. With Best Bets, our newish events newsletter, for instance, we serve our readers better there by not sending them elsewhere to read what we think is worth doing in Toronto that week; everything’s in the newsletter body.

You mentioned Leah Letter as a great newsletter example; what makes it so effective? 

DT: Leah Finnegan’s newsletter is simple: it’s a thoughtful, well-written column, usually about the internet and/or U.S. politics, that lands in my inbox every week. It ends up scratching an itch for me in the same way that a newspaper column of yore would do: I don’t know what it’ll be about, but I know I want to hear what she has to say, and I know that when the thing lands on my lap I’m going to make time to read it.

Are there any other brand-published newsletters you would point to?

DT: To be honest, there are none outside of St. Joe’s I’ve yet fallen head over heels for in Canada, but I haven’t read them all. I’d be willing to be convinced if anyone’s got one they really like. (So, tell me about it!)


Do you have a question about innovating through newsletters? Send it to us @stjoseph and we’ll get back with David’s response.

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