Have We Reached Peak Newsletter? Nope!

We’ve heard the phrase “peak newsletter” tossed around a bit lately. With so many publishers launching them on every topic imaginable, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the market is saturated along with all our inboxes.
Jacob from A Media Operator is bullish on the format still though, writing in this great piece that:

The wrong newsletter strategy is not having a newsletter

(By the way, this is one of our favourite media newsletters. If you haven’t subscribed – you should!)
How do readers get to your site?
In an ideal world, the traffic would all be direct, from raving fans typing your site’s URL into their browser and diving into your articles.
Sadly, this is not the reality for most. Most of our traffic comes in through “the side door” from search engines and social platforms.
This is all well and good when the traffic is coming in heavy. The problem is that you’re always relying on a third party. Just a tweak of Google or Facebook’s algorithms can spell disaster and see that traffic river drying up.
This happened in June 2016 when Facebook announced a shift philosophy. The platform decided to give more weight to posts from family and friends and less on news outlets and brand pages.
You can read about Facebook’s decision three years back here.
Many publishers had been getting the vast majority of their traffic from Facebook, and took a huge hit as a result of this decision.
For example, Slate was hit particularly hard.

“Every time Facebook traffic would go down, we’d think, ‘OK, maybe this is the low point, and then it would go down even further.”
– Slate’s editor in chief, Julia Turner 

You can read the whole story of Slate’s ordeal in this article, for our purposes let’s just say it was a disaster for them at the time.
Google too can be fickle. Updates like Panda back in 2011, and penguin the following year, caused major problems for a lot of digital publishers.
They will always have control, and if you rely completely on platforms for traffic it can come back to bite you as it has for many before.
That’s why newsletters are a great option. An email list is something you control. Properly nurtured, it can pay dividends for years.
A newsletter is a direct line to people, and lets you communicate with them in a manner of your choosing. It’s also a great way to convert visitors from social or search.
Newsletter can work great for cultivating relationships with casual readers who become paying subscribers down the road. Mary Walter Brown talked a lot about this when we interviewed her on our podcast:

“We’ve found that email is the number one most effective method to convert readers to subscribers and paying members. It’s more effective than every other platform combined including social, website and text”

You can check out the interview here.
Overall, this is the main reason Jacob thinks that newsletters are valuable.

“They help you convert flyby traffic into known users. And, if you’re introducing a paywall, it’s a strong way to get users more engaged in a way that they’re likely to pay”

If you’re going to make a newsletter though, make sure it’s really good. Too often they’re treated like an afterthought. Really great newsletters are treated as important projects and are given the investment and commitment they need to succeed.

“If you’re not going to dedicate the resources to making it a great product, there’s no reason to do it”

The purpose of a newsletter should be to:

  • Save time: people are busy and a newsletter should help them to cut through the noise and stay current on your topic
  • Provide context: explaining the whys and the hows of news stories is really valuable to readers and helps them to think well about a topic.

Jacob argues that if he were starting a new media company today, building it around a newsletter would be a great idea.

“This is the strategy I would take if I were launching in a specific niche. Launch a weekly, curate with the idea of saving time and providing context, and when I’ve got some semblance of an audience, raise that first round and race to profitability”

Read more about his thinking around this by checking out the full article.
The overall point is that in order to build robust media businesses, channels that are 100% earned and controlled are vital. Don’t make the same mistakes as others did previously and rely on the fickle nature of third party traffic.
Newsletters are a great channel to engage and nurture your audience.
Another great avenue to pursue in tandem is building native apps. These fit in slightly differently when compared to newsletters.
Newsletters are a great way to capture casual readers, grow loyalty over time, and eventually convert them into members and subscribers.
Apps are a great “home” for loyal audience members further along. They give readers a direct route to your brand through their homescreen, and can make the value proposition of your subscription plans all the more attractive.