The Washington Post Goes Global, and It’s A Newsletter-Led Strategy
Seventy newsletters might just be enough.
That’s what the Washington Post is thinking these days, as it harvests the business value out of that old-fashioned, now-new-fangled artifact, the newsletter. Emailed newsletters now rank among the highest subscription conversion rates for the Post, and that newsletter revolution, a trend confirmed by their increasing use at the New York Times [POLITICO: “The Times harnesses the power of increasingly personalized push”] and now dozens of larger dailies and magazine publishers.
Take this week’s latest launch, Today’s WorldView, which began life Monday. What may seem like a simple newsletter, growing out of the Post’s WorldViews section, is actually a little heat-seeking missile intended to make the re-born national Post a global player. As owner Jeff Bezos’ new investment has re-energized the Post, once again asserting its national coverage for Americans, WorldView serves as the first Post newsletter created for an international audience.
First published at POLITICO Media on Jan. 27, 2017
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“We obviously covered international affairs, but this is really providing a global view on what’s going on in the United States. It’s designed for an international audience to help explain what’s going on in U.S. and government, and policies, and how does that intersect with what’s going on with the rest of the world,” says Beth Diaz. Diaz leads the Post’s newsletter business and serves as well as vice-president for audience development and analytics.
With WorldView, we see the twofer value of newsletters in this digital age. First and foremost, they create engagement, the new holy grail of news companies; Facebook referrals are nice, but if publishers can capture the more loyal reader they increasingly find that’s where the revenue in advertising and subscription lies.
Secondly, WorldView test out the new global case for the Post. If the newsletter succeeds, the Post plans to more aggressively go after readers and subscribers drawn from the non-U.S. population, which makes up 95% of the world. Says Post publisher Fred Ryan, “It’s a first step in our effort to proactively reach more people around the world with The Post’s reporting and original writing.”
Consider Europe the major target for WorldView with the newsletter timed to “coincide with the start of a European business day.” It launches into a time in history that Doug Jehl, The Post’s foreign editor, may be tactful in describing: “Today’s WorldView will be a guide for understanding this critical question and will illuminate friction points as well as common ground between Washington and the world.” Indeed, if global readers’ antennae picked up at the fright night that served as the U.S.’s Presidential campaign, imagine what they are thinking now.
The Post conducted “intercept surveys” among 3,500 readers, by region, on its site in June to assess the kinds of coverage these readers want, and the new newsletter reflects that.
Having invested in content – especially political and policy-oriented content – how far can the Post stretch beyond its current 25 million monthly non-U.S. visitors, seeing first more readership and then global subscription? A later-entering, speedy new contestant in “global,” the Post follows newspaper peers like the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They have long plowed international territory. The FT now can count more U.S. subscribers than those in its native UK; the Times is closing in on 200,000 non-U.S. subscribers. In addition, major digital natives from Quartz to Huffington Post to Buzzfeed have all planted flags internationally, in one form or another.
In addition, newsletters generate a new platform for advertising or sponsorship.
The Post tracks page views generated from newsletters, and Diaz says they outperform other forms of bringing in readers. Newsletter-driven page views increased 89% for the fourth quarter of 2016, as compared to 2015. That compares to an increase of 53% in overall page view growth.
Another way to put it: “Readers that are enrolled in our newsletters consume an average of three times as much content as the average visitor to our site on a monthly basis,” says Diaz.
Don’t expect the Post to add too many more newsletters to its current count of 70. (The New York Times now offers 54, with seven promoted as “new.”). Now, it’s more a matter of tuning and, perhaps pruning, seeing what works best, and what the market doesn’t want.
Post Most, the Post’s compilation of stories from around the web, is “by far our most popular newsletter.”
Readers clearly crave the order that newsletters offer in this still-worsening age of overload [The Fix: “It was a week of a million headlines. That’s great news for Donald Trump”]. The seeming infinity of news abundance newly values an old craft: editing. That’s what newsletters do, reducing the booming, buzzing confusion to top stories or links you need to know, whether about your favorite sports team, leadership or, what many readers may now crave, optimistic stories. How do we know they like them?
“We’re seeing an open rate average of 50% on the newsletters, with a range between 10 and 60%,” says Post Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash. That means that of the newsletters delivered to an email inbox, half are opened, most leading to some news reading, the same rate of success cited by the Times. Though that’s a great rate, Beth Diaz says that among the most important metrics she counts are “total opens”. That’s a signal of referrals, which can lead to the gold of subscription.
The Post markets subscriptions three ways. Readers who hit its paywall are asked to pay up. Then, there are the various marketing initiatives on is own site or on Facebook and other third-party locales, including a new offer of $5.99 per month, delivered through Apple News. Then, there are the newsletters, which, says Diaz are performing best.
We can see the multi-part strategy at work here. The Washington Post is, famously within the news industry, one of the few publishers all-in on Facebook’s Instant Articles. Even as publishers report relatively small returns from that participation Bloomberg: “Facebook, Snapchat deal produce meager results for news outlets,” the Post maintains that presence keeping the wide top of its “traffic funnel” open.
Newsletter strategy can take a stealthier form for the Post as well.
Using the Post’s “Drawbridge” technology, the Post tests and tempts readers with newsletter offers. Those offers may pop up when a reader hits a paywall; anecdotal evidence suggests the Post’s is one the still-purposely leakiest in the business. Or Post analytics may suggest that a particular reader can be further engaged with a newsletter. In these, cases, consider a newsletter both a lure and a subscription alternative and on-ramp. Rather than shutting off consumption, the Post is betting that more reading will lead to still more reading, and eventually more subscription. How well will it work? Only Post data will tell over time, and we can expect the Post’s analytics product – part of its now-syndicated Arc platform, and named Clavis – to provide that learning.
Explains Diaz further, “Depending on what the audience is, what content we’re doing it on etc., we’re most likely going to auto-opt them into our Post Most newsletter. We’ve done it everything, depending on the audience, ranging from energy and the environment, to Today’s WorldView….You get auto-opted into it, and you’re welcome to unsubscribe the next day.”
Arc’s “Paloma” product, another part of Arc, manages the creation and deployment of the newsletters. Paloma has been architected, says Prakash, to minimize time in newsletter creation for editors and to resist spam filters, among other functions.
If engagement, and repeat usage, is now the new name of the game for news publishers, Shailesh Prakash says the Post had a lot to celebrate on Thursday, as it newly contests “who’s bigger” with the New York Times. (A Comscore restatement of fall traffic counts here.)
“We broke our single-day record for concurrent users,” Prakash told me late on Thursday. “Concurrent users” is a measure of the number of visitors on the site at any one point in the day. As politically oriented as the Post is, it was the Post’s breaking story on the top four managers of the State Department leaving their positions, apparently under Presidential request. How big was the story, and the traffic? Says Prakash, “ We were a 100% higher than Election Night.”