Who’s LOLing Now?
How the most innovative media companies make bank from your mailbox.
When Oshinsky set his initial goals for the newsletters, BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen — then working as the site’s vice president of growth and data — didn’t think he could meet them. But less than four years later, BuzzFeed draws more than 2 million subscribers for its dozen core newsletters, which cover topics ranging from current events and books to lighter fare like This Week in Cats. Earlier this year, Oshinsky’s division sent its 100 millionth referral to BuzzFeed.com. The newsletters are now among BuzzFeed’s top five sources of traffic, matching the number of readers who come from Twitter — and newsletter subscribers spend three minutes longer on the site per visit than the average reader.
In retrospect, Nguyen doesn’t find this surprising. “Different people want to hear about stuff in different ways,” she says, “and BuzzFeed’s strength is leaning into a particular platform’s dynamics and its audience’s desires and preferences.”
The newsletters are starting to generate cash, too. “Last summer, we started thinking significantly about driving revenue,” Oshinsky says. “We’ve started rolling out in newsletters our ‘Buy Me That’ feature, which has Amazon or other affiliate links.” That’s leading to purchases, Oshinsky says. Although he can’t share numbers, he expects the program to grow as BuzzFeed rolls out more products like its twice-a-month gift guide newsletter.
BuzzFeed didn’t invent the newsletter business, of course. Depending whom you ask, email is either having a resurgence or it never really disappeared. But there’s no question that media companies increasingly want to maintain a presence in consumers’ inboxes. For all its uncoolness, email is stable: One tweak to an algorithm in Menlo Park — like Facebook’s recent adjustments to its news feed — can throttle a publication’s web traffic; email doesn’t change much. “Email is such a powerful delivery tool because it’s a stream people already check,” says Ben Thompson, founder and author of the popular tech newsletter Stratechery. “To be invited into a place people live — and to know you won’t be filtered by an algorithm — is a very powerful thing.”
Email gives companies a route around the online platforms that have become high-tech middlemen of sorts. An email list belongs to a publisher alone — as do the resulting data and revenue. “There’s nothing more measurable and trackable than email,” says Nicco Mele, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, where he developed the publication’s newsletter strategy. “For media organizations, email is the single most powerful performance-based tool that they have.”
The decision to subscribe to an email newsletter shows such interest on the part of users that the marketing firm Smart Insights found that more than half of marketers believe email is the best digital marketing channel. “When you look at traffic, email does make up a small portion,” says Marielle Habbel, director of customer strategy and optimization for the marketing-technology company Sailthru. “But when you look at the quality of that traffic — from a time-spent-on-site standpoint, from how many pageviews they drive per visit — it’s significantly higher.”
This makes email a valuable asset. “When I was at the LA Times, my mantra was that email should be our most expensive ad unit because it represents the greatest share of users’ repeat attention,” Mele says. “Email should be our best vehicle for conversion to paid subscriptions and email should be the top referrer to our website. The measure of our email product was whether those things were true.”
Email newsletters can also get readers to open their wallets. “Email is a great action-based medium,” Oshinsky says. “Click a link. Take a survey. It’s the reason political campaigns love email so much. The call to action can be huge.” In August 2015, Digiday reported that readers of the New York Times, which offers almost 50 newsletters, “are twice as likely to become paid subscribers if they signed up for a newsletter first.” Since 90 percent of the publication’s digital revenue comes from just 12 percent of readers, driving subscriptions is a must. At a time when the media business relentlessly focuses on the new — Instagram! Snapchat! Pokémon Go! — the value of email addresses has stayed surprisingly high.
“Facebook is breaking the laws of physics,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti wrote on May 17, 2012, the day before Facebook’s initial public offering. The platform “simply blows away every other social site when it comes to engagement,” he said, adding, “Facebook is used by more people, more regularly, with higher engagement than anything we have seen in the history of the web.”
Peretti’s excitement about Facebook proved infectious. Most publications race to join every Facebook initiative they can — producing content designed to accrue likes; joining Instant Articles (the New York Times, National Geographic, and The Atlantic were launch partners); reorganizing their newsrooms for Facebook Live. The social network seems to grow only more important on mobile; Forrester Research found its app commands the largest share of American smartphone users’ time. Facebook, it sometimes seems, is eating the media.
There’s just one problem with the narrative about Facebook’s dominance: It may not be true.
The Forrester report that fueled the belief that Facebook is the most popular smartphone app excluded pre-installed apps — like those most people use for email. Smartphone users spend about one-fourth as much time using the Gmail app as they use Facebook’s, according to Forrester’s study, but Gmail accounts for less than one-fifth of emails sent from smartphones, according to email marketing company MailChimp. Assuming that other email users spend as much time emailing as Gmail users, email would account for a larger share of smartphone use than anything else — by a significant margin.
That’s why email is mobile’s killer app. A full 91 percent of smartphone users check their email at least once a day, according to a 2014 report from Salesforce; only 75 percent of them use a social network that often. For all the predictions that smartphones would bring about the death of email, the opposite may be happening. “Broadly speaking,” Mele says, “email is the best bang for your buck for your mobile device in terms of experience and penetration.”
SOURCE: SALESFORCE 2014 MOBILE BEHAVIOR REPORT
Readers who arrive through email are also typically more valuable than those sent by Facebook. Visitors who come from social networks account for 1.1 to 1.5 pageviews per visit, while newsletter readers consume between three and four, according to Keith Sibson, vice president of product and marketing at the email newsletter company PostUp. The company’s media clients, which include brands like NBC and the Denver Post, on average receive about a fifth of their total traffic from email.
In his article praising Facebook, Peretti reminisced about the early days of email. “A message created by one person could get forwarded from friend to friend and reach millions of people through sharing,” he wrote. This shareability may be the single biggest advantage of an email newsletter. “The power of that forward button is incredible,” says Dany Levy, founder of DailyCandy, a shopping and style newsletter she sold to Comcast in 2014 for a reported $125 million. “The way people pass around newsletters is amazing.”
Levy’s newsletter grew to more than a million subscribers with almost no marketing, simply on the strength of forwarding. And such sharing isn’t just for entertainment content. A Quartz report found that 80 percent of executives said they would pass along email content they found useful; just 30 percent said the same of content from Facebook.
All of that engagement is trackable. Using the latest analytics tools, companies can see how many consumers open a newsletter but don’t subscribe, according to Todd Haskell, senior vice president and chief revenue officer at Hearst Magazines Digital Media. That tells Hearst what kinds of content resonate with nonsubscribers, which helps them broaden the newsletters’ appeal. Oshinsky says BuzzFeed uses an internal tool to get a 10,000-foot view of what’s happening once their emails hit inboxes. So far, the company has learned that subscribers are the second likeliest BuzzFeed readers to share stories (behind app users) — and that no readers share more content than those of This Week In Cats.
No one can accuse “Girls” creator Lena Dunham of being a social-media slouch. The Facebook page for her HBO show has 1.9 million likes. Her personal Instagram has 2.7 million followers; her Twitter account, 4.74 million. But last year when Dunham and “Girls” showrunner Jenni Konner decided to launch a publication, they decided email was the best vehicle for their ambitions. The result was Lenny Letter, a twice-weekly newsletter described in Dunham’s and Konner’s welcome note last September as “a snark-free place for feminists to get information: on how to vote, eat, dress, f***, and live better.”
The format was recommended to Dunham and Konner by former Slate editor David Plotz. “He suggested that maybe a newsletter was the best idea, because it’s manageable,” Lenny editor Jessica Grose told Nieman Lab back in March. “Also, newsletters are such an intimate medium, and they hold your attention in a way I think websites deliberately don’t. Websites are always trying to get you to click on this and reroute you to some other article.”
Dunham’s tendency to share her personal life made the one-to-one nature of email a perfect it — as well as an immediate success. Lenny already boasts more than 500,000 subscribers, as well as an open rate of about 65 percent, well above the industry average of 15 to 20 percent. “You need to make the reader feel like you’re speaking just to them,” Levy advises. BuzzFeed’s Oshinsky agrees. “I love that people have such a personal connection to our emails,” he says. “They think about it not as an email from a brand, but one from a friend. That’s really important to us.”
That personal connection also has business beneits. Haskell oversees the Hearst team that sells ads for Lenny, and some of the newsletter’s content appears on Hearst sites like Elle, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Marie Claire. Haskell says advertisers are increasingly looking for products that have strong connections with consumers, and email certainly qualifies. Haskell and Lenny CEO Ben Cooley declined to discuss ad rates, but Levy says DailyCandy had a CPM of $60, and that “we generally sold out once we hit critical mass.”
Newsletters aren’t without their own problems, however. The biggest is scale. Consider a company like Quartz, which has about 200,000 subscribers to its Daily Brief. Mia Mabanta, the company’s director of marketing and revenue products, says the ad rates are “very, very high.” But there’s only a single ad: a paragraph of text, which the company found to be more effective than a display ad. That’s not much advertising real estate. And there are limits on how big an email list can grow organically. “I don’t think we could credibly have a 10 million subscriber base with a 70 percent open rate,” says Cooley, Lenny’s CEO. “That’s ridiculous.”
Buffeting subscribers with too many emails can destroy a newsletter, too. In a 2009 interview with Harvard Business Review, Levy described DailyCandy as “one simple thing in your email inbox that told you one thing you needed to do that day.” But when Comcast took over, it attempted to boost revenue by dramatically increasing the number of emails — and ended up alienating the core audience to the point where even Levy unsubscribed. In 2014, unable to mass-produce DailyCandy’s magic, Comcast shut it down.
Some experts believe that the next step is automated personalization, allowing newsletters with huge audiences to still feel targeted to an individual. “It may be coming sooner rather than later,” says Oshinsky. Charlotte Fagerlund, who produced a white paper last year about email newsletters for the London School of Economics, wrote that publications she spoke with were working on algorithms to personalize news blasts. The Washington Post has experimented with sending newsletters that populate content based on users’ past reading habits, and the click-through rates on them are three times the average, Post newsletter and alerts editor Jennifer Amur told the Nieman Lab in May.
If such tools allow newsletters to scale, they could become even more lucrative propositions. At DailyCandy’s $60 CPM, a million newsletter subscribers could generate $60,000 in ad revenue per day. If Lenny Letter were getting DailyCandy rates, it would only need to send five emails to bring in the $150,000 that Dunham reportedly earns per episode of “Girls.” Even at a CPM of $25, the usual rate for a newsletter publisher who preferred not to be named, there’s serious money to be made.
Add high CPMs to minimal creation costs and the economic case for newsletters looks even stronger. Newsletters are often one or two-person businesses, so they make an impressive amount of revenue per staffer. Three-quarters of BuzzFeed’s newsletter production, for example, is handled by Oshinsky’s four-person team in New York.
“Every time you see a success story like a Lenny, it sends a message to the media ecosystem and to readers that there is great stu being delivered via email,” Oshinsky says, “and we can be a very valuable part of your day.” Earlier this year, his team launched the 21 Day Strong Core Challenge newsletter, which drew 100,000 subscribers in five days without much promotion. The company should soon be able to generate revenue from such projects by partnering with brands — gyms or nutritional-supplement makers, for example. For now, though, BuzzFeed simply watches as its number of email subscribers mount. And every so often, with a few clicks of the mouse, it sets a new newsletter off and running.
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