Smashing Through the Open Rate Barrier
How email newsletters from Time and Quartz are doubling industry standard performance.
As traffic drivers and vehicles for reaching targeted audience segments, email newsletters went through a period of proliferation. In fact, they’re still considered a reliable way to pull consistent site engagement while taking aim at pockets of an audience that also have a constellation of advertisers seeking to reach them. But at least two major brands, Time and Quartz, are finding better than average success with a mass single daily newsletter.
“Less is more” is the underlying theme for both. In a world where readers are inundated with information, the brands felt a single, predictably formatted daily news product could cut through the clutter.
“Ultimately, it was a reflection of the times and thinking through people’s general day-to-day of having so much information coming at them,” says Callie Schweitzer, editorial director of audience strategy for Time and Time Inc. “We felt creating one editorially curated product was a better value proposition.”
Time launched The Brief at the same time it redesigned and relaunched its website in early 2014. Ten algorithmically-generated newsletters across a variety of categories such as entertainment and health were combined into a single, editorially curated newsletter with a simple content formula: the 12 most important stories of the day.
The 10 newsletters combined for a huge number of subscriptions, says Schweitzer, but engagement was so-so, with open rates averaging between 17 and 23 percent. That’s at or slightly below industry standards, and the team thought they could do better.
The Brief is modeled after the site’s section of the same name and stories are collected into three tiers. Hard news is first, followed by more general stories and then fun, light-hearted stuff.
Headlines and decks are optimized, but the subject line gets the most attention.
“The one thing we are incredibly focused on is the subject line,” says Schweitzer. “Will the reader feel we delivered on what we promised? Delivering on that promise is absolutely crucial.”
The newsletter now has about 650,000 subscribers and open rates average 45 percent.
The articles are also available in audio format via a partnership with SpokenLayer, which has added a new level of engagement, particularly on mobile.
With the SpokenLayer network, which includes Stitcher and AudioBoom, plus iTunes and Soundcloud, The Brief has amassed more than 25 million article downloads. Listeners spend an average of 16 minutes per session on the SpokenLayer network and 14 minutes per session on Time’s mobile site. On the mobile site, listeners average five or more articles per session.
The utility and curation are important qualities that strengthen the value proposition, says Schweitzer. “We’re focused on offering it as a distinct product. It should not resemble an RSS feed in any way.”
That distinction is also an important consideration for the team at Atlantic Media’s global business news site, Quartz.
For starters, Quartz’ Daily Brief is not set up primarily to drive traffic back to the site. Quartz senior editor, and main editor on the Daily Brief, Gideon Lichfield, says the product is designed to behave like a standalone publication, or an appendage to the site.
Like Time’s The Brief, Quartz’ Brief is curated by editors, but it also includes links to stories from other outlets. Only 25 percent of the Daily Brief’s stories link back to Qz.com.
Nevertheless, consistency is once again a top priority. Timing, tone of voice and format never vary. Dependability in an inbox of noise has emerged as a key value proposition.
Being predictable pays off. The newsletter currently has about 130,000 subscribers and open rates fluctuating between 40 and 50 percent.
“It’s very consistent,” says Lichfield. “It comes at the same time every day. It’s the same length and has the same sections. Readers know what to expect and it offers a very clear value proposition. Read this and in a few minutes you’ll be set up for the day. It has the news you just missed, an agenda for the day and some surprising things we’ve come across.”
The newsletter is lengthy, with roughly 30 story links, but some are grouped around a single event or topic. The top section, for example, has a few links to stories around particularly noteworthy events. Single links are employed as the reader gets to the bottom, where stories are more light-hearted.
And while much of the news is hard, the tone is not. Lichfield says the team ensures the newsletter maintains a distinctive voice.
“The voice of it is very important for us,” he says. “A lot of newsletters are very functional, but dry. For us, it’s important the newsletter feels like it has a voice of its own. It should read like you’re getting an email from a well-informed friend.”
The Daily Brief is modeled after The Brief, which sits on the Quartz homepage. A writer is focused full time on that section and ports it to the Daily Brief newsletter as well. A version is written for the Americas in the afternoon and then sent out to the Asia and Europe teams who update it and deploy to their respective regions.