SRCCON 2019 • July 11 & 12 in MPLS Support the SRCCON team

← SRCCON 2019 Session Transcripts

Game of Newsletters: A song of inboxes and subject lines

Session facilitator(s): Emily Roseman, Joseph Lichterman

Day & Time: Thursday, 4:45-6pm

Room: Johnson

EMILY: Hello, everybody! Everybody ready to start?

JOSEPH: Thank you for coming.

EMILY: Welcome to our session: the Game of Newsletters. My name is Emily.

JOSEPH: And my name is Joseph. And we’re going to just to get a quick temperature check before we kick things off. Raise your hands if you’re involved in the production of a newsletter or have been. Okay. Awesome. And raise your hand if you watch Game of Thrones. Let’s see. Split up the rooms. I think it’s pretty well distributed.

JOSEPH: I think it’s good if we’re at tables or five of six. But it seems like…

EMILY: So we’re going to kick things off with why we’re so obsessed with newsletters and then we’re going to transition to a newsletter game that we designed…

JOSEPH: That we hope works okay. We’ve never done this before. It’s a little bit of an experiment so thanks for being our guinea pigs. So we didn’t see, but we should have said that this is based on a newsletter that we wrote at the beginning of the year at And we wanted to highlight a few of the findings and why we think newsletters are a ground in starting to talk about this thing. So first of all, they control the experience. You maintain data ownership over it you don’t have to deal with the whims of the platforms. They build loyalty. I don’t know about you but probably the first thing I do every morning is check my email and my phone so it’s a habit-building. People spend a lot of time in their email inboxes so if you could be there regularly, they can appreciate that. You can keep coming back. And that makes money. The Seattle Times found that people that come to their site via newsletters as opposed to Facebook are 25 times more likely to actually subscribe. That it’s important.

Similarly, there was a study at Northwestern that came out earlier this year that building habit not the number of patrons is the most important predictor whether someone is going to subscribe or not. And, again, being in the inbox and providing that regular habit is really key not only getting people to subscribe or join your membership program but getting them to come back and remember they like what you do and appreciate your coverage. And so as we think about going through this game and trying to figure out to create your own newsletter product, I wanted to share, one guy named Matt Kiser who wrote, “What the fuck just happened today?” Is these are the things to think about when launching a newsletter.

So the first one is: what is your primary goal as a media organization for your newsletter? You should never launch an email newsletter just to launch an email newsletter. That’s sort of a recipe for disaster. So you should have kind of a goal of what you want to achieve with it and what you would want to use it for. At the same time, you want to hit the clear value proposition for your reader. Why would someone want to subscribe for your newsletter. What would they gain well what job would be done for them by subscribing? Is it they’re going to get to the daily news? Are they going to get insiders from their favorite columnist or personality. That’s also an option but you should have a clear valuo proposition. Email could be a lot of work. I missed a session this afternoon to get my newsletter out today. So it could be a big burden and the way that you decide your email you might want to think about based on what staffing resource levels you have, as well. So that’s, yeah. So that’s our —

EMILY: So that’s our quick crack course. If you want more on newsletters, you can go to So to get the game started, Josi here is going to walk around with cards and each table is a newsroom. So each one of the tables is a newsroom teams. The card that Josi gives you tells you what your newsroom does. So if one person from your group could read aloud to your table, that would be great. So once you learn what your newsroom does, you’re going to come up to the panel area and have we’ll hand you one more card and a worksheet and Josi and I will hand you a workshop.

JOSEPH: Also, these are all Game of Thrones related. But if you aren’t Game of Thrones people, you don’t have to stick to the Game of Thrones theme. You can stick to whatever direction you want just to be clear with it what’s sort of related a thing you have. Emily is much more of a a Game of Thrones expert than I ever was. So I will walk around. So who wants to… all right. So once you’ve picked up your card, you’ll pick up more details over there. We’re going to give you about 15 minutes to go through this workshop together and come up with an initial sketch of what your newsletter looks like.

[ Group Work ]

JOSEPH: Hi, everybody; we have about five minutes left!

[ Group Work ]

All right. We have two more minutes. Hey, everyone. We’re going to go on to stop two of our newsletter. Hello, hello, hello, hey everybody. All right! Time for step two. If you’re still trying to finish up the descriptions, you can keep doing that after I walk through what the next step is or Emily explains but we want to get started on the game part —

EMILY: Yes,. So right now, you’ve all launched these beautiful newsletters. Congratulations. Now pretend a few months have gone by. Business as usual for a few months. We’re going to throw a few with reference into your plans and see how you all adapt as a team. And so I’m going to ask one person from each group to come up to the panels again and pick up — next these fake candles — pick up one of the blue cards, and read the next two. So pick it up and respond on the worksheet number two.

JOSEPH: So you’ll 20 minutes for this part of the game. So we’ll let you know for ten minutes if you want to keep working on the first one. Or if you finish it, you can keep going. So it’s flexible in terms of none of those challenges but it’ll help you keep you on track.

[ Group Work ]

So you have about one more minute in theory for this process. But you can go up and get a second one. In about a minute we’ll switch but you can keep working on it.

AUDIENCE: We’re on our second newsletter.

JOSEPH: So you’re good to go! Also if you’re done and worked out your issue, don’t feel like you have to keep talking through it. Go through as many as you want.

[ Group Work ]

Wanted to give you a five-minute warning for this. And then I’m going to ask everyone to share back. Five more minutes.

EMILY: All right. Two-minute warning!

[ Group Work ]

JOSEPH: Hi, everybody. We’re going to come back together. I hope this was fun, and interesting and worthwhile. I’d love your feedback on how this went after work. But in the meanwhile we thought it would be fun to hear from each group the product you created and the challenges that you overcame to create outstanding newsletters. So does any group want to go first? I can call on you. Why don’t we start here?

AUDIENCE: Am I doing this?

AUDIENCE: You’re the author!

AUDIENCE: Hi, I’m Bobby. We thought of the Iraq Digest. So there’s a lot of leisure time. So we’re making a leisure newsletter for them to spend their time with. So we initially came up with the idea of a walk-away weekend newsletter like shows, parties, bottomless mimosas like that, a Netflix-and-chill weekend, we came up with a prototype of an average and we described them as a frat boy.

AUDIENCE: We said tribal frat boy.

And the name of this newsletter was the Thrill and Kill List. We decided it would take no more than two or three hours to produce a week. We’re an extremely small staff. So we wanted it to be small as possible. We would promote the channels. We would also have a biyearly book that would have the best balls and places to party, and it’s sponsored the heck out of up the wazoo. We have events that are sponsored and addresses and we have a forward to a friend deal, as well. The method for tracking would be month-over-month growth. And track the subscriber quality by the relative open rate and click frequency. And in terms of sections we had, like, event lists, mainstream highlight that could be sponsored or sold. A rodono, a guide to staying in, and Netflix and chilling, and guide to CTA, and party fillers. Should I go into Charles?

AUDIENCE: So one of our challengers was the problem was to make a welcome newsletter and a four series welcome newsletter. Evergreen guide you can use, and then a secret behind the scenes intel. The speakeasy, the codes you need to get in. How to sweet-deal the bouncer. And the next one is action items like ways to get features on the newsletter.

EMILY: Awesome. Anyone want to go next? Group in the back.

AUDIENCE: All right. So… so we… we are WDO Public Radio which is a chartered member of the Southern-most region of [Inaudible] a couple things of note. Staff size is 50. So a decent sized operation but it’s not like we’re overflowing with hundreds of people and our business model is 30% membership drives, and 20% corporate sponsors, and foundations and universities for the rest. And it’s a sister podcast newsletter considered by two well respected journalists aired daily from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and the air times are posted directly on the website. So the vision for the newsletter is really how do we sell the show. Both tout what’s coming up on the shows, tout for people who have missed it, what’s coming up. And provide scenes for the missing content and also preview what is coming up.

We actually just had a little time of what’s the frequency of this because we may actually want to do some tests knowing that there’s not a lot of staff size. One hypothesis is that it’s a once-a-week thing. That here’s what a publisher takes what happens during one week. But it’s also cool trying to figure out what we could do on a smaller daily basis to figure out what people can do and the effort that that’s worthwhile putting into it. We tried to keep it at zero to four hours of work per week. Thinking about the audience of both current listeners who listen to it. But also less engaged listeners who you want to come back and really get a habit of them. Growing the newsletter. On show, obviously, if you say popular radio show, we want every episode to have a shout-out to this but also how do we produce cross-promotion both on the website and on the radio shows. Other metrics.

Really want to pay attention to, like, what’s the size of the list. Do people actually click through. How long do people listen. With it also, trying to do some tracking of do a behind-the-scenes pieces cause people to listen more than the other pieces that were coming up. And also how can we use this to grow membership and really call out and say, you should donate and subscribe type of things. Our channel niche was around, the open rate was atrociously bad and so what we should do to actually test to do that.

So we were sending it out under the name of the station: WDOR, given some of the other newsletters, we thought it would be an easy thing to do. Something also, the last subject line that we sent out, the subject line was, “Livestock in grains near you.” Which is spelled also, like, there’s a fair amount of room to improve on that but also a lot of room for frequency.

JOSEPH: Awesome.

EMILY: Thanks.

JOSEPH: How about you guys up front? You’re on deck.

AUDIENCE: So we’re the Seven Kingdoms Post. We’re a staff of seven in Kingslanding. And we’re some part in advertising orbit, but 30% digital and 30% print. And our task was to create a newsletter that exclusively covers the new rain and the — so we decided to come up with Throw and Watch Pro which is a paid product targeted at essentially the people who are within the red heat with content that comes straight from themselves, very extreme, very whispery, very wompy. Our target audience like I said is a small council, people who are in core attendance and member of the five houses. We didn’t get at some of these, like, success measures but we did know that we wanted this to be a public oriented publication. Have a high-profile journalist coming exclusively for this newsletter. So it’s a name-brand newsletter. And it’ll be editor by peripheral staff and support will be built right into it and because we have the resources, we should be able to support it within that. We actually did two challenges. The first one was email acquisition. So how do we promote this thing online and the thing is we actually didn’t want to do that because it’s such a targeted audience. So we instead launched a free version of Throw and Watch. So as opposed to Throw and Watch Pro, it’s just Throw and Watch. And it’s sponsored by an advertising model and it’s not sponsored by someone who’s as high up but someone who is STKAOEPBLT high up in our political paper. The goal of it is to convert from free to paid. So within the free one, it will be predominant, the paid one.

And we have to write some marketing copy. So one of the other ones that came up was how do we promote our subscriptions and so we came up with subscribe posts to get one month free of throw and watch pro, your custom source of random and broken.

JOSEPH: Awesome, thank you. Up here?

ALEX: We’re all day the Winterfell Free Press. And, actually, we are a legacy metro newsletter for profit located in Winterfell. Staff size is 250. Our existing products are daily print paper, regularly updated website and two podcasts and our model is 25% advertising, and 25% audience, and 50% other. And our plan was we wanted to be kind of like alt weekly new digital publication-ish?

JOSEPH: What was your challenge?


AUDIENCE: Underserved.

ALEX: Yeah, it’s an underserved. We’ve been sending it for more than six months. Wait, is that what you mean? Not that challenge. Sorry — sorry. No, this is wrong, too! Wait.

AUDIENCE: There’s an underserved population, especially.

ALEX: You’ll want you think this audience is currently underserved by the more mainstream coverage. So we wanted to be, like, conversational, more diverse, casual, meme-y, sort of have a community vibe to the newsletter but sort of time-baked to the news issues. Things going on in the main campus. Our target campus is Wild Links, and our newsletter is called WoW the Now. We said that it would take — we were saying about ten to 15 hours because we wanted to produce ten to two things that were original content, not totally aggregating especially because we don’t cover this group of people yet. We intend to grow our newsletter with content that reflects their perspectives and issues like bringing, of course, paid advertising, like, against those plays and trying to incorporate Wild Link influencers in interviews and Q&As in every newsletter. Our metrics were open rates, the list size, and clickthrough rates. Location analytics if we can get them. That would be helpful for our particular case. Or if anyone is sharing them or linking to it on social media. You don’t want this, right?

JOSEPH: No. That looks great, though.

ALEX: And then our challenge… I’m sorry, so many cards. So we had a large portion of our list that never opened the newsletter after sign-up and it’s been six months and we’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with it and what did we say? Yeah… huh. Oh, yeah, we had a lot of fun subject ones. We realized really the problem was we couldn’t put anything in email because if they’re not really opening it, they’re not getting past the first subject. And so we came up with some subject lines, “You up?” Come back from the dead, we miss you.” “And you don’t need us; we don’t need you either.” And just sort of a list of things they missed so they can catch up.

JOSEPH: Thank you so much. And the last group in the back.

AUDIENCE: So we are Inside Exploration News, a non-profit single subject site which is located on Aria’s boat of Discovered Lands. We published one major investigative story per quarter and one or two short stories per week. Most of our money comes from foundation. 85%, 10% from membership, and 5% from events. So we decided to do a newsletter focused on Aria called the Needle where some text at the top has guidelines for how to be a better aassassin. Running kill list of people she’s interested in killing, and then an aggregation of our big story and then the two shorter pieces and then absolute drive or die at the bottom.

Let’s see… we expect that it — what did we decide? 5%…? In large part because we have to track down Aria for assassination advice. We want to grow our list through onsite placements, also partnerships with aassassin groups, people who make weapons, blacksmiths, et cetera. We also might do some events that might involve Aria perhaps involving a particular person or lesser-known aassassins. We would track this list of known female aassassins if we increased our size so we’re not dependent on foundations. We’re assuming that this is the star-family foundation. And if we see an increase in assassinations as a result of people learning from the guidelines…

[ Laughter ]

… so our first challenge was to do a survey of our readers so we can learn more about our audience. Uh, let’s see. We ask basic demographic questions, reading frequency, favorite content. What you’d like to see covered — those kinds of things but we would segment our survey based on loyalty and low engagement. The other challenge because we have a high unsubscribe rate even though the rest of our metrics around newsletters look pretty good, 40,000 subscribers, 30% open rate and things like that. And the other challenge was around A/B testing. So we decided we would test send time along sender name. We added the same subject line as you guys but since our newsletter is about killing people, we decided we wouldn’t change much except for put, “Livestock and grains” in quotation marks to imply some sort of killing joke and add some emojis in the subject line.

EMILY: Well done, yeah.

AUDIENCE: And then our other challenge was around branding and so we came up with headers that linked the needle more explicitly to our newspaper’s name, which is inside Exploration News. So that’s a — we have desktop and mobile versions.

JOSEPH: Amazing. Thank you all. You guys did such great work. Thank you. So we want to come back from this and just sort of talk broadly amongst all ourselves sort of looking back at the challenges you just completed: was there maybe anything that you can apply to your own newsrooms or is there any existing product that you have that you’re thinking of starting — yeah, how can we sort of apply this framework or thinking to what you’re already doing? Or… yeah?

AUDIENCE: So I was wondering why this was so much fun and worked so fast compared to what is, I don’t know, a day-long dragging workshop in a regular working environment and our feeling was that the trick to say that this is all about Game of Thrones might even work in, like, a professional environment because it takes off the pressure off people and they can pretend that probably they don’t have to do it, and then, at the end of the day, you can have a look at the discussion and see what would actually work in your local newsroom or your newsroom. So I think this might be even a super productive way to do it in the real world.

JOSEPH: And we’re happy to post on the etherpad sort of the templates and the workshops and the cards themselves. We’re happy to — we’ll be happy to take them from you if that would be helpful.

EMILY: Anything that you learned or discussed as a group that you’re thinking of bringing back to your newsroom or any lingering questions that this exercise left you with? And you guys are all pros. All right. So we have just a few more slides here.

So, basically, we did this all because as Josi said at the beginning, did this guide called and we tried to kind of organize the game around the primary sections in the guide and so if there was any challenge that you were working through that you might feel that you have at your own newsroom, please check out our guide and we’re super curious to hear your feedback on how we can make it more helpful. We want to make it a kind of a living document as the field learns more and more about newsletter best practices.

JOSEPH: And the other thing is that there are free, open-source templates for MailChimp that you can take and do what you wish that are optimized for editorial coverage as opposed to marketing coverage. I’m not a technical person so I wasn’t able to figure it out so…

EMILY: But yeah, so if you have any questions or if you have any feedback for us on the workshop or on the newsletter guide, please let us know, and thank you guys so much for coming.

[ Applause ]

JOSEPH: We’ll be around for a little bit. We’re not going anywhere. But we’re happy to chat.