The Skimm reached seven million subscribers in seven years. The Hustle hit half a million subscribers, growing by 5X in just 12 months. Morning Brew announced their one millionth subscriber last February and grew revenue by $10 million in one year.
The media industry is no stranger to this email product wunderkind. Publishers have seen the success stories of the early aughts (like beloved DailyCandy) and more recent brands that began as standalone newsletters, such as Goop, Tasting Table, and Thrillist. The recent explosion of profitable businesses founded once again on email marketing can’t be ignored, either.
Yet for many media companies, email is still an afterthought — a stale, under-resourced part of their business.
In Support of Email
Despite its long tenure as a digital stalwart, email is growing. The global email audience is projected to increase from 3.8 billion in 2018 to 4.4 billion by 2023. Not only that, more than 60% of people say that email is their preferred channel for communication from companies, more than all of the other channels combined. This includes Millennials and younger generations.
Perhaps the most important point about email is that it’s a fully owned channel that gives publishers a direct line to their readers, thus creating an opportunity to collect and target using first-party data.
So why haven’t all publishers done more to nurture these relationships? Legacy uses, like subscription marketing, often take up a lot of send volume. Email databases often sit with the marketing team, leaving content creators with virtually no access to performance metrics. Any content innovations get squeezed into a publishing schedule that already stretches a small audience too thin.
Growing that small audience is a classic “chicken or egg” problem: It’s hard to justify the resources needed for a better email product without the revenue to back it. Growing your list (and revenue) is near impossible without a good product in place.
Treat Email as a Product
Of course email is a channel, but it’s also a product, and to grow your list, it should be treated as such. There are small steps publishers can take to start productizing email.
Find one or two people who straddle creative and strategy and hand over the keys. Give them the control to centralize all email activity going to the email database and track the value over the long term. Understanding what to get rid of can free up space to start sending more interesting new emails to the current list. Even better, try performing a longitudinal analysis. It might become clear that email subscribers have a higher potential lifetime value than social media fans, and resources can be moved over.
When it comes to your content, what gap can the email product can fill? It’s time to stop cutting and pasting from the website. The Skimm was created for educated millennials that wanted a hit of breaking news that they could read on the way to work. The Hustle promises to make people smarter in five minutes with quippy news about tech and business. NextDraft is written by one man, Dave Pell, who visits about 75 sites each morning, pulls the 10 most fascinating stories he can find, and then distills them in a witty way.
These newsletters are succeeding because smart product owners are filling a niche with email-specific content for a like-minded audience. This concept is not groundbreaking, but it is smart, and can be replicated.
Compose a Growth Strategy
Sweepstakes bait is not the answer to growing your list. Nor is forcing people to submit their email in order to finish an article. The point is to grow organically by building relationships with the people who like what you have to say, and want to hear from you by email.
The Skimm’s famous Skimm’bassador program rewards fans with real items like t-shirts and tote bags because they know that word of mouth really is the best path to organic growth. (Now compare the cost of a decent t-shirt to your CPA from Facebook and start taking this seriously.) If your email owner happens upon a great content niche, engaged fans will let you know. Involve them in a dialogue. The Skimm gives shout-outs to readers in the newsletter and on social channels. Find your brand’s way of connecting to your audience that excites them and engages them. You might be surprised how excited they are to hear from you.
Borrow from marketers who create multichannel engagement with their customers. Find ways to convert your social fans into subscribers by highlighting great bits of content from the newsletter and poignant feedback from subscribers on social. You can even share podcast series recaps, similar to how The New York Times offers behind-the-scenes of its podcast, The Daily, via email, along with an online overview that includes links to related reading and a place for listeners to comment. They even take it one step further with a private Facebook group called The New York Times Podcast Club, “basically, a bookclub for podcasts.”
The best thing about email is also what makes it so overlooked: It’s stable, safe, and it’s been around a while. These qualities have led publishers to undervalue an important channel for too long. Yet email is the one channel (after a website) that is wholly owned by the publisher, and it’s the best channel for creating lasting and personalized relationships with readers. When you think of it this way, carving out some extra love for email makes a lot more sense than the multi-million dollar investments needed to turn out video, branded storefronts, custom merchandise, or swat teams dedicated to new platforms like TikTok.
Now’s the time to unleash a creative junior staffer. Bring insights together to reevaluate the content you send. Convert loyal subscribers from other channels. Find a niche and place a bet with a new email product. Don’t have the resources? Sailthru and other ESPs focused on media and publishing often have customer-facing staff available to help with this kind of initiative. Try something, anything! Then give it time to grow.
Taking a leap of faith on a channel that has proven to grow and provide ROI for countless other industries should be an easy decision.