Over the past year or so I have switched to consuming a lot of content on email. Well, to be precise, email newsletters. The poor little newsletter has, for long, been consigned as a necessary relic, especially in news organizations and content publications. This started during pre-post-PC era (I know it sounds funny and it is intentional) when mobiles were still primarily voice (than data) devices, RSS aggregators were for niche audience and much of content consumption started at the primary gateway of a publication’s homepage.
Newsletters, at that point in time, added little value to homepage-centric consumption pattern. Moreover, they were seen first as places to sell advertising inventory if you had huge subscription numbers, as an add-on to the primary ad slots on the website. Something like a buy-two-get-one-free kind of deal, a sweetener that cost the publisher nothing much and made the advertiser feel good. Since email-on-mobile was still not a widespread phenomenon, majority of consumers used to access their email on their laptops or desktops, limiting the visibility and utility of the newsletters.
Enter Data On The Move
The switch-over of handheld devices to becoming primarily data devices (that could also handle telephony) has been a game changer for every industry. I prefer to look at this change in the nature of the devices as a better distinction regarding the various eras in computing, than as a pre/post PC thing. The mobile phone, for a large chunk of its life, was a device that handled telephony and telephony-related functions. The switch-over turned them into generic computing devices that could handle wireless data natively and efficiently, while delegating functions related to telephony as one of the many applications that the device could run.
Death Of Branding And Context
This development dovetailed nicely with the emergence of social networks, whereby content was suddenly stripped of the context and branding at the point of origin. In the pre-social/mobile world, a consumer’s path to a particular piece of content was clearly defined. For example, this would mean (more often than not) I would know that I am reading an opinion piece on a particular publication because I went seeking out something specific to read on that publication’s website.
The main contexts for me in that example are 1) a publication that I like to read 2) a section/topic that is of interest to me and 3) a visual representation (design etc.) that is familiar to me. Part of the reason why some content properties can command a premium in advertising rates is because of this degree of certainty that is provided about the context for their audience. The emergence of social and omnipresent data has decimated this certainty.
The growth curve of Facebook and Twitter (and other niche social properties) is captured best in the referral section of the audience numbers for content websites. Save the gated and private networks, the top sources of traffic for almost every site now is social at top with organic search and direct traffic below it. Contrast this with the pre-social era where direct was the primary driver of traffic, followed by organic search.
Even within social there is no predictable path that is possible. The publication’s own pages on the platforms may drive the the traffic. The traffic may come from a much-followed curator’s page. It may lead from a link going viral, which means tens and thousands of pages may be generating that traffic.
Why Email Newsletters?
The greatest downside for content websites of these developments in social and mobile is that they no longer have a constant engagement with their audience, as represented by direct traffic. And it is only going to drop further as the volume and ability to publish more content ramps up, driving more people into the hands of social and content aggregators. The resulting loss or alteration of context (ranging from appreciation, to ridicule and a variety of other not-so-nice things) also impacts advertising options, which in-turn negatively impacts viability of the business itself in the long run.
This is where the humble newsletter becomes a key factor. One application that has weathered all this data and social onslaught is the old school thing called email. Strangely, email has wound up being an off-app notification aggregator of sorts; emerging as a high-engagement app of its own. And unlike the earlier times when email was accessed a lot over browsers in laptops and PCs, it is heavily used in mobile devices. Some of the key numbers regarding use of email on mobiles read like this.
- Daily we spend 9 minutes on email via a mobile device, that is 7,6% of the total 119 minutes we use our phone per day. O2 – “Mobile life report” UK (2013)
- Mobile email opens have grown with 21% in 2013, from 43% in Jan to 51% in December. Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)
- More email is read Mobile than on a desktop email client. Stats say 51% of email is now opened on a mobile device Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)
You can read more of those stats in this excellent post on EmailMonday. And these are numbers that should make every content producer sit up and take notice.
It is not that nobody is taking email seriously. As pointed out by Nikhil in a recent offline conversation, it is a good source of revenue for some of the trade publications. Similarly, e-commerce sites make extensive use of email as a sales funnel. The former is more a fire hose approach, while the latter — e-commerce — has many years of evolution in both methodology and technology that enables them to segment and target customers effectively for acquisition and retention. There is no such thing that is present with the content domain.
What Should Publications Do?
Firstly, they should consider the audience as customers of a product they are selling. The product here is content, which has a tiny ticket size compared to other (especially transaction-oriented) businesses. The desired outcomes here are a) acquisition b) retention and longer term engagement c) transaction. For content plays, the juicy bit are in (b) as (a) is too volatile a number to reliably build anything on. (c) is also a hard one for most as the options are limited to subscriptions, affiliate models or events.
Secondly, they need to have clear-cut retention strategies for the difference audience segments. Presenting the same recommended articles or email sign up forms for all first time users is not the smartest way to go about retaining a horde of new visitors from a link that has gone viral. I can bet my bottom dollar on the assertion that only a tiny percentage of content publishers anywhere will have a handle on conversion percentages from the last viral spike they experienced. This is unacceptable situation if survival is key for you.
This is also the place where email finds a lot value in building an engaged audience where the publisher has at least some modicum of control over the context. But, to get started on that path, publishers have to both market and put together their mailers better. While the automated solutions like Feedblitz are easy to integrate, they also generate incredibly big blind spots. While email can work as a high-engagement platform, it can also quickly wind up in the death folder (spam) or remain unread if you don’t make the best of the tiny window of opportunity a consumer gives you.
It is vital to recognize that the email context is different from anything else. As a result, you have to re-purpose content for it. In the email app, you are not looking for a quick fix. Other than spam, every email in that item already has an established relationship with the reader. It is the publisher’s responsibility to leverage that relationship and trust to meet the aforementioned objectives.
Lastly, it is important to understand the numbers. What are the open rates and referrals from your email campaigns? What is the bounce rate from the email like? Which form factor represents the largest consumption percentage? Is your email layout responsive?
All the points only touch the surface of a good email strategy for publications. While I hope that most publishers already have in place a strategy that covers all this and more, the reality is that most would struggle to answer even basic questions regarding their email strategy. Even so, right now is a good time to start work on it and leverage a tool that allows for persistent engagement, in a world where prolonged engagement is nearly impossible to find.