What's the deal with email newsletters?

An independent study by a UNC journalism student

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Q&A with Claire Moses, BuzzFeed News Newsletter writer

BuzzFeed gets the same amount of traffic from their newsletters as they do from Twitter. Not *their* Twitter, ALL of it

I analyzed the BuzzFeed News newsletter a few weeks ago and wrote my own version of it.

After that, I got to speak with Claire Moses (who writes the BuzzFeed News newsletter) about her writing process.

1. When did Buzzfeed start doing newsletters and why did they decide that was a good way to reach people?

We started the BuzzFeed News newsletter about a year ago. BuzzFeed, as you may know, has a lot of newsletters — from parents, food, and health to “Dude A Day” and “An Occasional Bunny,” which is exactly what you think it is: an occasional bunny in your inbox.

2. How do you write them? Is one person in charge of each one? Does it go through edits like a normal article?

Different people work on the newsletters. In the case of the BuzzFeed News one, I work together with the rest of the mobile news team and we compile, curate, and present the news in the most clear and comprehensive manner. We pick stories from BuzzFeed, of course, but also from other outlets. We like focusing on international news as well as U.S. news, since our audience is spread across the globe.

3. How do you decide what content to put in the newsletter?

What we put in depends on the news of the day, we use our judgement to decide the day’s biggest story. Sometimes it’s clear — when major news breaks, such as for example the Paris attacks in November — and sometimes it’s less clear, and we use our judgement to pick the most interesting story that we can present in an informative way.

4. Is there anything you could see changing in the next few years?

Lots of things can change, but that’s hard to predict! The beauty of working on a daily product like the one I work on, is that it’s a work in progress. We hear from our readers all the time, and we take feedback very seriously.

5. How did you find a voice for the newsletter?

The voice goes hand in hand with news judgement. We want to make sure that the newsletter is enjoyable for news junkies like myself, as well as people who don’t necessarily read the news all the time. We want it to be well explained, interesting, and comprehensive.

Analysis: The Edge by Elite Daily

This week’s newsletter is Elite Daily. The latest edition isn’t online, but here’s the signup link.

The text on the newsletter signup site says “We tell you the news, and you impress everyone at company happy hour. Because Olivia Pope isn’t the only pope worth mentioning.” I love that.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? Elite Daily is “the news site for generation Y.” It’s got a reputation for publishing millennial garbage, but I think it’s pretty unique. They’re not submission-based like some other similar outlets like The Odyssey or HerCampus, and I can tell their editorial staff is trying to be relatable but still reliable.
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter? I’m not sure. They don’t give credit to whoever it is.
    • Which stories are chosen? A mix of self-promotional stuff, news and original content.
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) Each story is broken down into a headline, then who/what/when/where and “The Edge.” The Edge is the gist of the story, basically.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) Each story has a photo and multiple links. They link to outlets other than Elite Daily all the time.
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) It’s short but playful.
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) Honestly, most of the time I just look at the pictures. It comes late in the day when I’m already caught up on news. If I see something I haven’t read yet, I read it.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? About 500 words
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? About 100 words
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? This Friday’s edition was supposed to be a little different (it was supposed to just feature stories that could be conversation topics at bars) but it truly didn’t seem any different. The content varies, but it’s the same format every week day.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet? Just this one.
    • How does the newsletter end? Pretty abruptly. The bottom has links to social media, but there are no names or parting words.
    • When is the newsletter sent? At 9 p.m.
    • My thoughts: At first, I thought it was really interesting to break the information down into the 4 W’s, but now that I’ve written this newsletter myself I think that you don’t always have to know all of that about a story right off the back. Like, if you read the lead, you’re going to get that information. Give me something that makes me want to click the link, not just assume I know everything already.

Analysis: The Ann Friedman Weekly

This week’s newsletter is The Ann Friedman Weekly. Check out the latest edition here and the archive here.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? It doesn’t belong to an outlet at all, actually. It’s written by Ann Friedman, who is a successful freelance journalist. She writes regular columns for New York Magazine and LA Times and she is the queen of the pie chart. More about her here.
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter? Ann does. She started the newsletter three years ago, long before the email newsletter frenzy started up.
    • Which stories are chosen? She does a lot of self-promotion but also shares what she’s reading. There are several sections:
      • “This week” — The stuff she’s worked on this week
      • “I’m reading” — Some of her favorite articles from the week
      • “Pie chart” — This is a paid section. She makes hand-drawn pie charts that you have to pay $5 a year to be able to see
      • “DVR” — Things to watch, and not just TV and movies
      • “I endorse” — Something she really loved this week, be it an article or a book or something by a friend
      • “GIFspiration” — an inspiring gif, of course.
      • “Live!” — Any live tapings or performances for her podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend”
      • “The classifieds” — More $$ opportunities for her! People can pay to get classified ads in her newsletter
      • “Testimonials” — positive feedback about her newsletter
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) Most of the sections are single sentences, but some can be lengthy paragraphs. It’s interesting, the “enter” key doesn’t seem to be her friend.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) There’s a random photo at the top of every newsletter and I’m not sure where it comes from. Links galore!
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) She gets to use her own voice, which is funny and smart. Her company is called “Ladyswagger” which is actually a pretty good representation of her voice.
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) I read the whole thing and pocket all of the links. The testimonials I’ve read show similar tactics across the board.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? 500 to 600 words
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? It varies dramatically (see “how are stories presented” question)
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? It’s a weekly newsletter, and it’s pretty much the same format from week to week. I think the classified section is relatively new.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet? There’s a paid option and a regular option without the pie chart
    • How does the newsletter end? With a witty call to forward the newsletter and links to find “more Ann”
    • When is the newsletter sent? Before the end of the day on Friday.
    • My thoughts: I’ve loved learning about how media outlets do newsletters, but this newsletter is my inspiration for a personal newsletter. Ann Friedman is so freakishly cool. I’m finding that my favorite newsletters are the ones with lots of sections — it keeps things entertaining.

Analysis: The Slatest

This week’s newsletter is The Slatest.

I chose this newsletter of all of Slate’s other newsletters because it seemed to cover the most broad topics (in comparison to culture, events, advice and all of those podcast newsletters. To view all the newsletters, click here. Here’s a link to an example of The Slatest’s newsletter.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? Slate — an online current affairs, politics and culture magazine
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter? It’s not entirely clear on the website. The Slatest is also the name of Slate’s news blog. The newsletters I could find were written by the editor of that blog.
    • Which stories are chosen? It seems to be the most important few stories from that specific blog from the week.
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) It’s simple. The first story is a longer paragraph followed by five other stories summarized in bullet points, a single sentence each.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) There’s a spot for one photo at the top. Since the summaries are so short, linking is extremely important for this newsletter.
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) Slate is a site that already plays with voice a lot, but I’d say this newsletter is mostly just informative. There’s not much you can do when you only have one sentence to work with per story. Still, sometimes it’s interesting, like for example this sentence from Tuesday’s newsletter — “Have a good day out there. The animals are coming for us. They are coming for you.”
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) It’s so short! But I’ll admit, sometimes I skip over it entirely when I’m not interested in what’s in the photo at the top.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? About 200 words
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? About one sentence
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? The content. It’s the same every weekday and doesn’t run on weekends.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet?  Several, see link and description above
    • How does the newsletter end? With a sign off, and a link to subscribe to Slate’s other newsletters
    • When is the newsletter sent? Between 5 and 6 p.m.
    • My thoughts: I like it. Short, sweet and to the point. One thing I don’t like is that it seems to be so packed with election news right now, but eh, that’s politics for ya.

Analysis: The Atlantic Daily

This week’s newsletter is The Atlantic Daily. Here’s a link to the latest edition.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? The Atlantic, a magazine with a striking visual presence. In my opinion, it’s the most beautifully-presented news website in the game. If it were 2015, I would say #goals.
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter? I’m not sure. They don’t give credit to whoever it is.
    • Which stories are chosen? It’s an interesting mix of trending stories and long-term ones.  I think it’s indicative of the balance The Atlantic tries to strike every day between being a magazine with longform content as well as a relevant digital media website.
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) Of all the newsletters I’ve read, this one has the most variety. It presents the stories of the day in paragraph form, through quotes, through excerpts, with a news quiz, a quick list of verbs in the news and finally a list of the top 5 most popular stories on The Atlantic that day.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) There’s a spot for one photo. Also, this isn’t quite multimedia, but the section headings are very visually appealing to me. They make it more likely for me to stick around.
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) The paragraphs are voiceless, but all of the alternative formats they throw into this newsletter make that okay.
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) I bounce around to whatever section I’m in the mood for. I usually skip over the paragraph section to a more interesting one, like the news quiz.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? About 900 words
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? It varies so dramatically, an average wouldn’t really be accurate.
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? The content. It’s the same every weekday and doesn’t run on weekends.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet? There are weekly and monthly options as well as newsletters for new photo galleries and the best videos of the week. Plus, there’s a newsletter solely for daily politics and policy coverage.  Here’s the list.
    • How does the newsletter end? It ends with links to other Atlantic newsletter subscriptions, the app and to the magazine subscription page.
    • When is the newsletter sent? At 6 p.m.
    • My thoughts: I love this newsletter because it has so many different sections that it stays interesting. I just wish the voice was more pronounced.

Analysis: BuzzFeed News

In case you missed it, I’ll be analyzing a different email newsletter every week. This week, it’s Buzzfeed News.  I can’t find the latest edition, but here’s the subscribe link.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? BuzzFeed — probably the most interesting outlet ever due to its wide scope of viral millennial content and hard longform news.
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter? I’m not quite sure. I know they have a team of newsletter writers and different people write different ones each day. I sent the team a bunch of questions and they should have them back to me in a few days. I believe their “mobile” team is the one in charge.
    • Which stories are chosen? The most popular and important news stories of recent as well as some fun and viral news stuff at the bottom. They link to their own content but they also link elsewhere when it’s necessary to tell a story.
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) The first paragraph has one sentence per important news story that will be explained later in the newsletter as a sort of TL;DR. From there, stories are broken down in paragraphs with background information as well as bullet points when that’s the best way to break something down. There’s a “quick things to know” bullet point section at the end. The exact format completely varies every day.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) There’s a photo for every story, and sometimes there are even gifs.
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) It’s always easy to digest, but the language is serious for serious stories and playful for playful ones.
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) It’s pretty long and I often skim, except I always read the headlines. I’ll slow down if I see an interesting picture.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? 1500 words, which is pretty aggressive.
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? 100-200 words.
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? The format and the content. This newsletter goes out every day.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet? Tons. Everything from this to a roundup of listicles to DIY to Health & Beauty to the Dude a Day to This Week In Cats.
    • How does the newsletter end? It ends with an email address where you can send story ideas that you feel like they missed.
    • When is the newsletter sent? Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. every day. This is the latest of the morning newsletters I read.
    • My thoughts: I don’t always read this newsletter, but I would definitely recommend it. It has something for everyone while keeping a consistent voice. It keeps you fully in the loop, I think. My only qualm is that it’s pretty long.

Q&A with Andrew Dunn, Editor-in-Chief of the Charlotte Agenda

Charlotte Agenda is one of my favorite newsletters even though I have never lived in Charlotte, N.C.

It’s absolutely fascinating, and I don’t want to cheapen the sheer coolness of this hyperlocal newsletter talking about it myself. At least not yet, anyway. I’ll definitely be analyzing it at some point.

Read my Q&A with editor-in-chief Andrew Dunn below, and if you like it, subscribe to the Charlotte Agenda here,

1. How was the Charlotte Agenda born?

The Charlotte Agenda was launched in April 2015 as the brainchild of Ted Williams, who previously worked in digital advertising and strategy at The Charlotte Observer. He believed that tomorrow’s media companies were being born today and wanted the freedom to run hard and create new things rapidly. The Agenda obsesses over being useful in people’s everyday lives and covering our community from the inside. The Agenda’s newsletter, website and social media channels grew rapidly, and the business soon brought on Katie Levans as senior writer (May), myself as editor-in-chief (August) and Cristina Wilson as COO (November).

2. What made you think, hey, a hyper-localized newsletter is a good idea?

As much as people complain about email, it remains one of the few essential means of communication in today’s world. Our readers tend to be between age 25 and 45 and work in professional jobs. The first thing they tend to do when they wake up in the morning is grab their phone and check email, and we always wanted to be right there waiting for them.

Email allows us to have much more of a personal relationship with our readers — and we take that responsibility seriously. We never do anything spammy or scammy. Our readers are smart and they’ll leave if they don’t trust us anymore (as they should).

There are a lot of high-quality media companies in the national space. We believe we can be best in the world at producing a hyperlocalized product, so that remains our sole focus.

We believe our newsletter is the most important thing that we do. Our reader statistics show that we’re on to something. Our daily open rate is about 60 percent and click-through rate is around 30 percent — both significantly higher than industry averages.

3. Who writes it? What are your backgrounds, and how did you all get involved?

Three of us on the team write the daily newsletters. I handle Monday and Tuesday. My career has been in traditional media. I was a journalism major at UNC and editor of The Daily Tar Heel in 2009-10. I started at the StarNews in Wilmington and then spent four years at The Charlotte Observer covering a lot of different things but primarily banking/finance and education. I met Ted when we both worked at the Observer, and we quickly developed a relationship getting nerdy about media. As the Agenda grew, the timing worked out for me to join, and I jumped at the chance.

Katie Levans writes the newsletter on Wednesday and Thursday. She has a professional background in marketing and social media management, and had already built a significant following to her lifestyle blog and Instagram before joining Agenda. She came on about 60 days into the Agenda’s life.

Ted Williams sends out the Friday newsletter and our new Saturday product. I’ve already mentioned a little about him.

4. How do you find your newsletter content?

I don’t want to say our newsletter is formulaic, but it always has the same basic structure. The top is a personalized lead-in from the person writing the newsletter that day. We use it to write about issues weighing on our minds, minor scoops, fun experiences, or just about anything going on in our lives. It’s hard to describe where exactly this comes from.

We all collaborate on most of the rest of the newsletter. Every afternoon, we have an email chain where we all share interesting or important local stories we’ve seen in other media, reporting we’ve done on our social media channels, or other newsworthy items we’ve come across for our “Talking Points” section. One of us — usually Ted or myself — will come up with the lineup of original stories we want to publish the next day.

5. How did you turn email newsletters into a lucrative business?

With our large and dedicated following, advertisers recognize our newsletter as arguably the premier advertising spot in Charlotte.

We spent the latter half of 2015 recruiting a slate of about 20 sponsors, and the advertising model is to have deep relationships with all of them. Our readers have just begun this month to see how the newsletter plays into that. Our bigger partners like Bojangles’ and Hendrick Automotive have had their logos incorporated into the header of our newsletter, and we’ve also had shoutouts to advertisers in the text at the top of the newsletter. We’ve also started a “partner photo” in the middle of the newsletter.

6. Do you think email newsletters are ~the future~?

I won’t promise that email is going to be the dominant platform 20 years from now, but I do believe it’s going to be vital for the foreseeable future. Email is so entrenched in corporate life that it’s going to be a part of our lives for a while.

7. Have you guys changed in ways you haven’t expected? What’s next on your radar?

We’ve considered a lot of things as the business has grown. Take a look at the “growing pains’ section of this article. The biggest new thing on our radar is an event series. We’re planning out a slate of 10 speakers on important topics, with a “happy hour” type meet-and-greet wrapped on both sides.

8. How did the newsletter take off?

We’ve been fortunate to have grown rapidly since launch. We had about 500 people on the newsletter list on Day 1 thanks to a splash page and social media promotion. Our reach has grown primarily through word-of-mouth. Our Instagram page in particular has been vital for funneling people toward our newsletter. A lot of people discover Agenda for the first time after being tagged by a friend on an Instagram picture of ours.

9. What’s the writing process like? How long does it take?

We spend a lot of time making sure our newsletter is top-notch. Most of us begin writing the newsletter in the afternoon after we’ve had the discussion of what’s going in it. On average, I’d say it takes several hours to put it all together. Most of it we do the night before. But the person sending the newsletter also gets up around 5 a.m. the day-of to fine tune it, make sure all the links work and to actually hit send.

If you just found this post all by its lonesome, read more about my newsletter independent study here, and sign up to get my personal newsletter with updates on my project here.

Writing theSkimm: My Thoughts

Okay, that was really fun. Also way harder than I expected.

PROS:

  • Writing in a fun millennial women targeting voice is super fun. Probably because it’s my natural voice.
  • I talked in my analysis about how some people think the tone is talking down to them, but I actually had to research a lot of things very in-depth to understand the topics to a point where I could talk casually about them.
  • I liked writing fun headlines for everything.
  • I loved the quotes section, it’s so fun!

CONS:

  • This newsletter format is pretty specifically designed to talk about current news events, and I won’t really be using that in my final product.
  • theSkimm is in NYC and hiring summer interns but they are unpaid 🙁

Analysis: theSkimm

In case you missed it, I’ll be analyzing a different email newsletter every week. This week, it’s theSkimm. Here’s a link to the latest edition.

    • What kind of outlet does this newsletter belong to? Not an outlet. It’s an independent newsletter-only startup.
    • Who is in charge of the newsletter?  From what I understand, they have a whole staff that works on it.
    • Which stories are chosen? Whatever popular stories are burning up other media outlets. They especially like to pick the complicated or international stories that other news outlets don’t touch, and they do a great job with explaining them.
    • How stories are presented in writing (blurbs? summaries? teases? bullet points? paragraphs?) The first thing in the newsletter (after the sponsored logo) is a quote of the day and a quick explainer. It’s often an effective way of explaining a whole story. Then there are a few stories, each with an intro sentence in bold, and then the explanation of the story is in one big chunk of text. Then, they have recommendations in the same format, and finally a list of all the names of subscribers and ambassadors with birthdays that day.
    • How is multimedia used? (photos, links, gifs) There are no photos, just a logo at the beginning, usually with some reference to Chase, a big sponsor. There are a whole bunch of links, though, to news outlets all over the place.
    • What kind of voice is used? (humorous, informative, brief, etc) It’s extremely casual, and definitely girly, potentially to a fault. It does make the news easy to understand, though, so the voice definitely lends itself to the newsletter’s missing?
    • How do I interact with the newsletter? (do people click or skim?) It is designed for skimming, and that’s what people do. A win-win. Every story has the option to “skimm this,” which means share on Twitter and/or Facebook.
    • What is the length of entire newsletter? About 800 words long without the huge list of names.
    • What is the length of each mentioned story? Around 100 words.
    • What varies daily about the newsletter? The content. It’s the same every weekday and doesn’t run on weekends.
    • Are there any other newsletter options at the media outlet? Nope, all or nothing.
    • How does the newsletter end? It ends with an email address where you can send story ideas that you feel like they missed.
    • When is the newsletter sent? Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. every day.
    • My thoughts: I love this newsletter. I read it every single day regardless. I’ve heard people say they don’t like it because they feel like it’s “talking down to them” but I understand it’s just very targeted toward millennial women — it even says so on the website.

Writing the NYT Morning Briefing: My Thoughts

Wow. That was hard. After my analysis, I knew writing like the New York Times would not be easy for me.

You can read my sample newsletter here.

PROS:

  • I had a lot of content ready to share personally that was kind of easy to group up.
  • I like the bullet points and the use of bold. It’s clear and not too fancy.
  • Having a lot of different sections of varying length is nice.

CONS:

  • It’s really hard to write in that in-depth, wordy style without  having just one media outlet to pull from. I had to shape my explanations based on what links I had.
  • I found it really hard to write in a serious voice. The NYT newsletter can have a playful tone, but I found myself trying to perpetuate it the whole time.
  • I think my version was way too short, but I’m not sure what I would have added.

Ultimately, this newsletter ended up being a length that I would read. There are definitely elements about it that I love and would like to copy, but it’s definitely not the most user-friendly newsletter out there.

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