A 201 guide for taking your newsletters to the next level — growing the lists, making money, and more.

Check out our open source newsletter templates here.

Read the guide below


This guide was written, developed, and edited by: Emily Roseman, Caroline Porter, Joseph Lichterman, Jacqueline Boltik, Charley Bodkin, Francisco Rivera, Abigail Hartstone, and Bobby Courtney.

In 2009, The Wall Street Journal declared email dead. “Email has had a good run as king of communications,” the newspaper wrote. “But its reign is over.” Then nearly a decade later, in 2018, Fast Company proclaimed email “the next great media platform.”

Both are correct.

The simplistic definition of email for news organizations is, however, obsolete. Sending an automated digest of stories is no longer effective in the increasingly crowded and competitive inbox. 

But if executed strategically, newsletters are ideal for reaching readers directly and for building regular engagement habits. Most of us live on our smartphones these days, and newsletters are the preferred mobile-first platform for offering readers unique coverage they can easily access during their commutes, in line at the coffee shop, and at home on the couch.

To experience email’s renaissance as the “next great media platform,” news outlets must adapt to meet the changing definition of the email newsletter and the raised expectations of their readers, or risk falling behind.

Since applying email newsletter best practices can be surprisingly cumbersome, the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Lenfest Institute teamed up with Yellow Brim to produce a series of open source newsletter templates. 

The templates can be found here.

But because the best newsletters are born out of so much more than templates alone, we also wrote this guide. We’re thinking of the guide as Newsletters 201—this isn’t an intro-level course. Section by section, it frames the activities and strategies required to elevate your newsletter to the next level by sharing best practices, examining what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next.

The Newsletters Guide includes the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Section 1: Why Newsletters Matter
  • Section 2: Getting Started
  • Section 3: Different Types of Newsletters
  • Section 4: Newsletter Workflows
  • Section 5: Growing Your List
  • Section 6: Email Monetization
  • Section 7: Evaluating Success—Metrics and Health
  • Conclusion
  • Additional Resources

One important note while reading the guide: It is meant to be a living, collaborative toolkit. Assembling its initial contents relied on contributions from a community of newsletter editors, writers, product managers, and developers.

To that end, when you see a box like the one below, it means we want to hear from you! If you wish to make a contribution to our guide by citing an example from your experience, please also include your email address. We are happy to keep you and your organization anonymous if you wish, but we will need your contact information to verify the information you provide.

Section 1: Why Newsletters Matter

Over the past decade, social platforms have become all but omnipresent, chat apps continue to proliferate, and Slack has taken over workplace communication. And yet, the core function of email persists. Today we see its staying power most clearly in email newsletters.  

For consumers, email can be a refreshing antidote to the onslaught of constant content. In a world overrun by endless algorithmic feeds, the email list and email inbox make for the only democratic platform: users retain full control of the coverage they choose to consume in finite, curated reading spaces.

For media organizations, email (and specifically the email newsletter) enables direct control over how to reach an audience they own. This is an audience with whom they can establish a deeper relationship through consistent, repeated interactions that build consumption habits.

On average, six percent of Eaters page views come from newsletters, and more strikingly, up to 23 percent of loyal users page views come from those same newsletters, said Emma Merlis, director of newsroom analytics at Vox Media.

The rise in popularity of using newsletters as a method for reaching consumers is in part a reaction to organizations’ reliance on social platforms to engage with audiences. News outlets have found that ability drastically impacted, however, by numerous platform algorithm changes over which they have no control, say, or warning.

Over the past several years, media organizations of all sizes have built businesses and brands via email newsletters. TheSkimm is perhaps the most famous example, but other outlets and individuals such as Quartz, What the Fuck Just Happened Today?, and Ann Friedman have used email to grow a captive audience, develop diverse revenue streams, and establish new content formats.

As direct revenue from readership becomes more crucial to sustainable business models, legacy news organizations and startups alike increasingly depend on email to drive paid subscriptions or memberships. Once readers begin paying, newsletters act as a critical retention tool. Email is also an effective medium for driving other revenue sources, such as events and advertising.

“Thinking about all the ways a newspaper is trying to convert digitally, we have to work a lot less hard to convert a newsletter sign-up than a Facebook user or something else,” said Seattle Times email product manager Kristi Waite. “We’ve learned that getting people into our newsletter funnel, often times through the Morning Brief . . . and then trying to get them on more emails has helped to convert those to subscriptions.”

Whatever your goals (discussed more in Section 2), anchoring your digital communication strategy in email persists as the most reliable and cost-effective method for capturing and communicating with an audience online.

For more information on the existing and leading resources on email newsletters, please see the Additional Resources section.

Section 2: Getting Started— Choosing the Right Approach for Your Newsletter

Properly launching a newsletter takes time and strategic thought about the type of email you want to create, the audience you’re trying to reach, how you’ll manage workflow, and more. News products, including newsletters, tend to succeed if they offer clear value to a specific audience. If you already have newsletters, answering (and revisiting) these questions is still a helpful exercise.

We’ve combed through existing resources, conducted interviews, and created our own guide to help you assess which approach makes the most sense for your newsroom:

Before you begin work on creating a new newsletter or refining an existing product, it is critical to define three things:

  1. Value proposition
  2. Goals and measures of success
  3. Resource constraints

Each of the following resources will help you to address these issues.

Opt In’s Diagnostic Survey

Opt In, a helpful diagnostic survey tool developed by the Seattle public media outlet Crosscut, will guide you toward deciding which type of newsletter strategy is sensible for your organization. The quiz starts by asking whether you are launching a new newsletter product or optimizing a current one, and in total takes about an hour to complete.

Matt Kiser’s Three Questions

Matt Kiser, founder of What The Fuck Just Happened Today?, shares the three main questions he recommends you consider when launching a newsletter:

  • What is the value proposition of your email/s to your reader? In other words, what is the problem this product solves? By flipping the question into one that is reader-centered, you’re forced to align your organization’s incentives (i.e., solving a problem readers actually have) with delivering value to your reader. You know you’ve delivered sufficient value when you have a product-market fit. Here is a good overview of product-market fit.
  • What is your primary goal as a media organization for your email initiative? What are you trying achieve? Examples of goals could include: drive reader consumption habits, increase page views, increase time on site, or learn more about your audience. These goals should align with the value proposition outlined above.
  • What are your resource limitations? Determine which email product(s) best serve your readers, and what is feasible from a production workflow perspective (more on this in the Newsletter Workflows section). Here are a few different framing techniques for these questions based on one of our favorite productivity tools, the Urgent-Important matrix, which is described in more detail in this blog post.

Framing techniques for matrix

  • Which “features” are both urgent and important (i.e., launching an event-based newsletter is urgent and important because there’s a timing issue; launching with an ambassador/referral program is likely important, but not urgent).
  • Desirable: does the reader need this problem solved?
  • Feasible: is the newsletter project technically possible?

McClatchy’s Checklist

The newspaper company McClatchy has developed a checklist that anyone in its 30 newsrooms who is thinking about launching a new newsletter must consult before moving forward. The checklist was developed by Tim Grieve, the company’s former vice president for news. Prior to joining McClatchy, Grieve was was editor in chief of National Journal and POLITICO Pro, and the checklist reflects his experience developing newsletters for those organizations. (Grieve recently was hired by Politico Publisher Robert Allbritton to head up a new organization.)

You can find the full questionnaire (along with seven tips for writing better newsletters) here. Below, we’ve included an abbreviated version of McClatchy’s must-answer questions.

  • Who’s your audience?
  • How will you serve that audience?
  • Why do we care about that audience?
  • No, really, what’s the payoff?
  • Who will write the newsletter?
  • Who will do the design/development/production work required, and how will we pay for it?
  • How will you promote and market the newsletter?
  • How will you track your progress?

How and when will you decide whether you’re succeeding? The specifics of each of McClatchy’s points reflect the priorities of a metro newspaper, but every news organization—no matter its size or business model—should answer a variation of these questions.  

Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement

Elizabeth Hansen and Emily Goligoski gathered the below necessary questions and considerations for launching an email newsletter in their “Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement”: 

  • In your research with audience members, ask about the gaps they see in their personal news and analysis diets that your organization might be uniquely prepared to fill. You may get ideas to meet those needs that transcend email!
  • If you decide to pursue an email newsletter, first ask which audience segment(s) you intend to reach. Which specific audience member needs are you looking to meet? How will you know if you’re succeeding?
  • How often will you publish? What will the tone of the newsletter be?
  • Be very specific about the workflow for producing your newsletters. Who will write, copyedit, produce, and send your newsletter(s)? Who will analyze analytics?
  • How will you pay for producer time and email management software? How can you best balance effort and effectiveness to ensure long-term viability of your choices?
  • How will you monetize your email newsletters if at all? How does that monetization strategy mesh with the tone, timing, and schedule of the product?
  • How will you maintain a healthy email list and monitor its performance?
  • How will you collect feedback from newsletter subscribers? How often will you revisit your strategy?

Section 3: Different Types of Newsletters

Once you determine your value proposition, your goals, and your resource constraints, next consider the different types of newsletters you can create.

Newsletter innovator Annemarie Dooling, who currently serves as product lead for newsletters at The Wall Street Journal, takes a reader-centric approach when thinking about what constitutes a newsletter. “I think about how people use email—what happens in an inbox—rather than thinking about a newsletter as what you close your eyes and think about when someone says the word newsletter.”

To help contextualize the expanding landscape, we’ve plotted out a spectrum that illustrates different types of newsletters based on their goals, the time commitment required to produce them, and their longevity. These are just a few examples of possible newsletter formats. We hope you’ll experiment with new ideas and expand on these examples.

Organizations that are resource constrained should consider using a digest template, which is often a lighter lift; whereas organizations with enough resources to allocate time for a journalist to compose dedicated email content should consider the editorially driven template style. If you run any experiments, or have feedback on the templates, let us know! We’ll update this section of the guide.

The Emerging Spectrum of Email Newsletters

Drag to change perspective

ABOVE: This spectrum graph is akin to a scatter plot, with the the circles representing specific newsletter examples and the three axes measuring a) newsletters’ goals, b) production time commitment, and c) newsletters’ longevity. Hover your mouse over the circles to see where newsletters land on the graph.  

Editorially Driven: These newsletters are more of a standalone product and are designed to be read in the email client.

Goal: Publishers use these types of emails to offer a finished product that can build loyalty.

Workload: Given their bespoke nature, editorially driven emails are the most time-consuming and resource-heavy.

Example: The Christian Science Monitor Daily is a subscription product that features five stories each day from the Monitor. Every issue includes an introduction from one of the site’s editors, which outlines each story. While the Monitor also links out to the story on its website, the digest is designed to be read entirely in the email. The Monitor Daily has more than 10,000 subscribers and an average open rate of more than 50 percent.

Link Digest: These newsletters are link-heavy and designed to provide readers with information, but also to drive them to full stories on the web.

Goal: Publishers use link-heavy newsletters to drive traffic to their websites. This can be a useful method for promoting digital subscriptions or memberships.

Workload: It can vary. Some newsrooms produce RSS-based newsletters that are totally automated, while others create hand-produced digest newsletters. Others have a hybrid approach where editors adapt an automated feed to make sure the generated content is relevant to readers.

Example: The Seattle Times’s morning newsletter is curated with about 30 different links. Stories are selected by a Times journalist, who writes unique headlines and summaries for each item. The newsletter is designed to encourage readers to click on the stories, directing them back to The Timess website. Ideally, readers will eventually hit the site’s meter and become digital subscribers.

Link Digest and Editorial: These newsletters tread the line between link digests and standalone editorial newsletters. Often, they’ll include an introduction written by a staffer and then list links to coverage.

Goal: Publishers use these newsletters to provide more context and insight in addition to trying to drive traffic back to their websites.

Workload: They require more work than a fully automated newsletter, as you need staffers to actually write and edit the editorial component. However, you can frame it as a relatively moderate task by just including a paragraph or two.

Example: The New York Times’s Opinion newsletter is a balance between a link digest and an editorial newsletter. Published each weekday, the top of the newsletter features a short analysis from columnist David Leonhardt and then includes links to the day’s opinion coverage.

No End in Sight: These newsletters are key components of a news organization’s product lineup.

Goal: No-end-in-sight emails are used to build an ongoing relationship with audiences.

Workload: It depends on the type of content, but it’s critical to publish these newsletters on a regular basis to drive habit among readers.

Case Studies: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s morning newsletter is published every morning. (More  on the Inquirer’s newsletter in the Newsletter Workflows section.)

The New Yorker publishes The Sunday Archive, a weekly compendium of articles from the magazine’s abundant archives.

To try and reach more women readers, the Financial Times created Long Story Short, a weekly newsletter written by female journalists that sums up the top stories of the week.

Ephemeral: These pop-up newsletters are produced for only a short period of time. (Sometimes these newsletters are a short-term experiment that turn into a sustained operation, as was the case with Daniela Gerson’s and Elizabeth Yana’s Migratory Notes.)

Goal: These can be used to cover limited events or breaking news, and can be useful to introduce readers to your coverage and more permanent products.

Workload: The workload can vary depending on the type of newsletter, but generally they require sustained focus and dedication for a short period of time.

Examples: CBC News created a pop-up newsletter for the most recent royal wedding.

Editorially Driven and Ephemeral: These newsletters are viewed as their own defined editorial products, however at the outset they are created as short-run products that have a set end date.

Goal: Short-run newsletters are used to provide short-lived but comprehensive coverage of a specific topic or event to reach new audiences.

Workload: These newsletters are time-consuming and resource-heavy, though only for a limited amount of time.

Examples: The Washington Post ran a newsletter for the duration of the 2018 men’s World Cup. Editor Scott Wilson recapped all the action and provided additional insight into the geopolitical narratives of the tournament, which was hosted in Russia.

Quartz creates short-run newsletters for events and conferences such as Davos, SXSW, and the UN General Assembly. In 2018, the site planned to run eight pop-up newsletters. The newsletters are written by reporters on the ground, and they’re designed to be useful for readers both at the event and those following it from afar. The pop-ups are written in a similar fashion to its daily email—and Quartz uses them to introduce readers to its daily newsletter, the Quartz Daily Brief.

“The goal for pop-up newsletters for Quartz is to expose people to the Quartz Daily Brief as a product, as a brand, as a solution for receiving their news,” said Eva Scazzero, Quartz’s product manager for newsletters.

At the outset, readers opt-in to receiving both the pop-up and the Daily Brief. At the end of the event, Quartz sends an email to the pop-up subscribers letting them know that they’re being added to the Daily Brief list and that they can unsubscribe if they want. The topline metric Quartz uses to judge success of the pop-ups is the number of new subscribers to the Daily Brief. The site declined to provide specific figures, but it said 61 percent of subscribers to the CES Daily Brief, 38 percent of subscribers to the Davos Daily Brief, and 24 percent of subscribers to the Cannes Daily Brief converted to the main Daily Brief newsletter.

Semi-Permanent Alert Newsletters: Other times pop-up newsletters live somewhere between an alert and an ongoing newsletter. This relatively new type of hybrid newsletter is ripe for experimentation.

Goal: These are used as a tactic to increase subscriber acquisition while meeting a reader’s expressed interest in following a particular event or topic.

Workload: A new breed of newsletter, these are often in response to a relatively unanticipated event such as a hurricane or fire. Resources and processes need to be in place in advance in order for organizations to respond rapidly.

Examples: CNN’s Hurricane Alerts newsletter for Hurricane Florence is a great example. The list grew to 40,000 subscribers over a two-day period, with a unique open rate of around 50 percent. Alan Segal, vice president of audience development and analytics at CNN, stated that the pop-up experiment “exceeded expectations and we will absolutely do more breaking news alert newsletters. CNN as a brand is known for breaking news, and we are happy to see that brand recognition transfer to success in newsletters. The next step is smartly serving this highly engaged audience after the initial breaking news moment has passed.”

Procuring Email Templates

Once you have a clear vision for your newsletter content and monetization strategy, the next step involves making an email template. Email templates can be a surprising lift for even the most experienced tech teams. Email code is very specific and can create seemingly mysterious issues that hamstring your efforts. Improperly coded newsletters can cause emails to go to spam, or display issues in certain email clients that make your content unattractive to readers (Outlook, Gmail, etc., all render HTML slightly differently).  

Yellow Brim created custom-coded open source email templates for media organizations. These templates can be adapted to meet the needs of your news organization and used on an ongoing basis, or as inspiration. If you would like to download the templates or contribute to the repository, you can do so here:

No matter which email templates you use, make sure they pass the one arm, one eye, one thumb rule for mobile friendliness: hold your phone one arm’s length away, cover one eye, and see if you can read the email. If there are any calls to action, click on the them using one thumb. (Credit goes to Fabio Carneiro for this practical exercise.)

Section 4: Newsletter Workflows

Once your strategy is crafted and your template is ready, the next major piece of the puzzle is to optimize the email newsletter workflow. This is a place where many newsletter strategies get snagged.

Email newsletter workflows are frequently cited as a major source of tension across publishers, especially among small to mid-size sites with limited capacity, where team members wear many hats.

That being said, results from a Shorenstein Center survey on single subject, nonprofit sites completed in 2018 highlighted just how much newsletters are prioritized in newsroom workflows. For instance, each newsletter discussed in the survey has at least one editorial review before publication, and in some cases involves draft sign-off by upper management, including by those in the editor in chief, publisher, and editorial director roles.

Half of organizations surveyed described newsletters’ place in the organization charts as sitting in the audience team, engagement and growth team, or digital team, while the rest used editorial or newsroom labels.

This highlights the in-between nature of newsletters. They are both editorial and business products, and unlike an advertisement or news story, their place within news organizations is an open question.

You can read more about the insights from this workflow survey on the Single Subject News Project’s blog.

Four Workflow Examples

One of the major findings from our survey was that workflows to produce newsletters vary widely, even among newsrooms of similar size. To illustrate this point, we spoke to a few outlets in depth about their step-by-step processes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is a morning daily newspaper that serves the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Its Morning Newsletter is a daily roundup of local news.

  • CURATION and WRITING: A new newsletter cycle starts when the newsletter editor, Aubrey Nagle, attends the morning meeting at 9:15 a.m. to assess the news going live that day. The newsletter editor takes notes and confirms the details of the stories in WebSked, The Inquirer’s budgeting tool, which is a part of The Washington Post’s Arc system. Once the 9:15 a.m. meeting ends, through to around 3 p.m., Nagle reads Inquirer coverage, selects which of the paper’s stories will appear in the next day’s newsletter, and writes brief summaries. The aim is to get 70 percent of the newsletter finished in three-plus hours.
  • RISE and SHINE: Starting at 5 a.m., Nagle collects stories that went live overnight, updates the news, and gives a final proof to the draft newsletter.
  • PRODUCTION: Then Nagle writes an introduction and produces the entire newsletter, adding links and formatting it to fit the template layout. It’s a total of 16–20 stories, with 20–30 links.
  • EDIT: The newsletter draft goes to an editor. While the editor is editing, Nagle dives into the Campaign Monitor details, adds links to the template, and brings up the RSS feed before going through the testing and sending process.
  • SEND: It almost always goes out between 6:45 a.m. and 7 a.m.
  • TOTAL: In summary, Nagle’s newsletter schedule is 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the office.

This nonprofit, digital native newsroom focuses on education, with special emphasis on inequality and innovation in the industry. The weekly newsletter serves as a roundup of the organization’s reporting for the week and curates germane stories.

  • WRITING: The newsletter process kicks off with an opening note from Liz Willen, editor in chief. This piece might highlight a recent story by The Hechinger Report, Willen’s personal observations, or something topical in the news. Meanwhile, senior engagement editor Nichole Dobo writes up any promotions that run in the newsletter. Both Willen and Dobo write their pieces sometime between Thursday and Monday of the next week.
  • EDIT: Willen’s letter—internally referred to as the “Liz Letter”—goes to either the managing editor, Lawrie Mifflin, or senior editor, Caroline Preston, for content and line edits. Dobo’s promotion piece gets sent to Preston for an edit. All new copy for the newsletter is finalized Monday and placed in a folder in Dropbox as Word documents.
  • PRODUCTION: From there, it goes to the web editor, Davin McHenry. McHenry assembles the parts of the newsletter in MailChimp, slotting in “Liz’s Letter” and Dobo’s promotion. At this point, all stories that The Hechinger Report has published in the last week are added to the newsletter as links. McHenry takes special care with ordering the links, especially in choosing the first story after Liz’s note.
  • SEND: The final deadline for newsletter updates and information is Tuesday at 1 p.m. McHenry uses MailChimp’s time optimization tool to determine when to send the newsletter—generally no later than 2 p.m. on Tuesday. 

The nonprofit digital native newsroom reports on criminal justice and produces two core newsletter products, a daily roundup of relevant news—both in-house and aggregated—called “Opening Statement” and a weekly roundup called “Closing Argument.”

  • CURATION and WRITING: Throughout the day, senior editor Andrew Cohen is online, finding and curating the smartest and most comprehensive articles about criminal justice. TMP’s team helps by also looking for news and analysis that may warrant inclusion in the next day’s Opening Statement. Usually Cohen wakes early and finishes the newsletter at 3:00 a.m. MT.
  • RISE and SHINE: At around 5:00 a.m. ET on the day the newsletter will be sent out, the editor in chief, Bill Keller, wakes up and gives it a final edit.
  • PRODUCTION: Once Keller is finished with his edit, the newsletter is produced by Yolanda Martinez, a web producer who backstops both Cohen and Keller. This usually takes about 30 minutes or so thanks to TMP’s tech team, which initially set up the templates.
  • SEND: Opening Statement usually hits inboxes around 7:45 a.m. each weekday morning.
  • TOTAL: In total, Cohen spends 50 hours per week on this process.
  • CLOSING ARGUMENT: For the weekly newsletter, Closing Argument, Martinez usually spends an hour or two toward the end of the week copying and pasting Marshall Project stories from the preceding days. TMP staff also contributes to this product by sharing the best stories from other outlets they’ve seen recently. Closing Argument is prepared Friday and then delivered to inboxes Saturday morning.

The nonprofit media organization is home to the only newsroom exclusively dedicated to reporting on gun violence in the United States. Its Daily Bulletin curates news of the day for readers who are professionally or personally invested in the issue. The weekly newsletter The Canon aims to inform and engage a more general audience with a roundup of The Trace’s latest original stories and the most significant coverage from other outlets. One reporter does the Daily Bulletin, and then another reporter handles the Saturday email (The Canon). For the daily:

  • CURATION and WRITING: The copy starts in a Google Doc (contributor Beatrix Lockwood or Jennifer Mascia, The Trace’s engagement writer, works in this format). In the early afternoon, the newsletter writer pitches that day’s stories and then writes a two- or three-sentence entry distilling the critical details. An edition of the Daily Bulletin will share five to 10 news briefs. The Canon tends to be longer and may include “newsletter exclusives,” content created for and shared first with subscribers. The work tends to take up a half day, each day.
  • EDIT: In the late afternoon or evening, a Trace senior editor reviews the copy and works with the writer on any changes.
  • PRODUCTION: Once the copy is final, the editor moves the copy to a MailChimp template and gives it a final formatting and copy proof with the writer.
  • RISE and SHINE: In the morning on the day the newsletter will be sent, founding editor and managing director James Burnett gives it a final edit.
  • SEND: It hits inboxes between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m each weekday. A team member later converts the newsletter to WordPress and posts it to the website as a way of promoting the briefing to new subscribers. The Canon goes out Saturdays at 10:00 am.

Four Workflow Challenges You’re Probably Frustrated about

Four main frustrations related to email newsletter workflows emerged throughout our surveys and interviews. We describe these frustrations below, and also offer potential solutions. Do any of these sound familiar? If so, what are your solutions? Are we missing any of the tension points?

1. Underestimating how much time and energy a daily newsletter takes to produce

The Problem: Teams and upper-management underestimate the amount of time a well-curated, daily newsletter takes to produce.

One Solution: Set the expectation that producing a well-curated, daily email tends to require at least half of a full-time person’s job. This is what we heard across our conversations. Weekly newsletters take about a half (four to five hours) to a full day or more (10 hours) of work to produce. If the daily is a crippling amount of work, consider transitioning to a biweekly email, or focus on producing an excellent weekly email instead. Or, consider incorporating a form of automation—like an RSS feed with an introductory paragraph written by a reporter. 

2. Balancing the need to maintain your core audience, while expanding your audience by slowly bringing newcomers into the fold

The Problem: Particularly for topical or geographic-focused newsletters, there’s the question of how to maintain your core group of “insider” readers while growing and widening your readership base. Often, that core group of readers are subscribers to your daily newsletter and work in a profession that requires them to stay up to date on a niche topic—like criminal justice reform, politics in Philadelphia, or innovation in education.

One Solution: Clarify the intended user persona or market of each product with your teams—typically, we see the daily email aimed at “insiders,” or those professionals we note above, and the weekly aimed at users one step away from insiders (the civically engaged, for instance) to the general public. That weekly audience requires a separate editorial product from the daily.

Some teams set up a welcome series for new subscribers of the daily for retention purposes (by introducing them to a few key definitions that are used in the daily email, or sending a few explainer pieces). Others choose to change the tone or voice of the weekly email to be more approachable to a civilian hoping to learn more about a complicated subject matter. 

3. Internal clarity and communication

The Problem: Newsletter production touches several different teams, all the way to the top editor (who sometimes wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to give it a final edit). As a result, bottlenecks happen.

One Solution: Break down every activity associated with your email newsletter and make sure it is clear who is doing what. For example—who is browsing the web and collecting stories? Who is curating stories? Who is writing the personal blurb or write-up of the story? Who is setting up the template? Who is adding in links? Who is giving it initial edit? Final proof? Hitting “send”? Posting on site archive? Tracking analytics, audience, and engagement?

A tool like a RACI chart can be useful here—who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed? 

4. Metrics bringing you down or stalling action

The Problem: There’s confusion among teams around which metrics related to email you should focus on or report out during your weekly staff meeting.

One Solution: Know that metrics are hard and that nobody has a perfect answer to this. If you need a few metrics to focus on, see the Evaluating Success section. We recommend that people focus on subscriber count as the number of current subscribers who have opened an email in the last year, the distribution of user open rates (what percentage of your list opens 80 percent of the time or more?), and the list composition (percentage subscribed, unsubscribed, pending, cleaned) rather than overall open rates or an ambiguous list size that may contain many stale records. For a deep dive into email metrics that matter, check out the Shorenstein Center’s research guide on email audience analytics.

Section 5: Growing Your List

In this section, we describe various acquisition methods and sources in depth.

Here are three concepts to keep in mind throughout our discussion on acquisition:

Concept #1: Legal and ethical considerations

When thinking about email acquisition, first make sure you are not accidentally breaking any laws, and that your acquisition practices are in line with the ethics of your organization.

Legal considerations

No matter where your organization is based, you must follow the email and data privacy laws of the countries where your subscribers reside, including:

  • If your organization is based in the United States, but you email subscribers in Europe and the United States, you must comply with the US CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, as well as any relevant US state laws such as the recently passed California data privacy law (which takes effect in 2020).
  • Of course, there’s been a lot of confusion after the passage of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). We will not go into depth exploring the GDPR or any of the specific laws regarding email acquisition, but since many publishers are grappling to comply with GDPR in particular, if you have any lessons you’d like to share, please tell us! If there is enough material, we will compile and share it.

No matter the country your subscribers live in, there’s one main takeaway: acquisition must be done with the user’s express permission and knowledge. We do not advocate for buying or selling lists. We recommend building your list thoughtfully, consistently, and organically over time. The many and varied ways different newsrooms are approaching email acquisition — described in more detail below—is truly remarkable.

Ethical considerations

Email service providers automatically collect data about your subscribers, down to the location where each subscriber opens each email. What you see through the user interface when you log in to look at reporting is usually only part of the information that is being collected on the backend—which can be accessed through your ESP’s API. You can leverage data collected through your ESP to strengthen your acquisition efforts, or even pay to enrich your data to find out more about your subscribers. But this is against the ethics of some organizations, which strive to protect the data privacy of their readers. Make sure you gain buy-in from stakeholders in your organization before you leverage consumer data to strengthen your email acquisition efforts.

Concept #2: Track the source where subscribers found you

Does your organization know how each subscriber joined your list? Source tracking refers to tagging where subscribers found you in a way that can be used to gather insights over time. Where do your most engaged subscribers come from? Where do subscribers who never open an email come from? There is more on source tracking in the Evaluating Success section, but while reading the acquisition strategies below, keep in mind each strategy should have a source tag so you can assess the effectiveness of each onramp.

Concept #3: Bucket analogy  

Imagine you have a bucket you are filling with drops from different faucets. Each drop of water is an email address. Each faucet represent various sources where you acquire email addresses—your website, social media, events, etc. Each source can be broken down even further—your website’s lightbox, your website’s in-line sign-up, etc.—but even rudimentary tracking beats nothing at all.

The bucket has three cracks at the bottom where water escapes.

The first leak is caused by unsubscribers—subscribers who take an action to be removed from your list.

The second leak is caused by bounces—email addresses that due to a number of potential reasons are unable to receive your email. Most email service providers automatically remove bounces from your list, labeling them as “cleaned.”

The third leak results from practices associated with keeping a clean list. Part of keeping a clean list means eventually removing inactive subscribers. You’ll want to run a re-engagement campaign first, but inevitably some subscribers will become inactive, remaining on your list unless you manually remove them. Rather than simply unsubscribing these emails, make sure you add a tag that notes they were manually removed as a result of unsuccessful re-engagement efforts. Organizations that pursue aggressive acquisition strategies also need to be aggressive about their re-engagement and list hygiene, or risk having a list with so many inactive subscribers that ALL of their emails start going to spam.

Next, we outline various acquisition strategies employed by media organizations. Be sure to keep each of these three concepts in mind as you evaluate which are a fit for your organization.

Email Acquisition Tactics

On Platform Acquisition

Email acquisition embedded into your website design is a no-brainer.

There’s a spectrum of email acquisition aggressiveness when it comes to design choices on your site. It’s up to you and your organization to test what works and what doesn’t for your users (and also, importantly, what will get approved by your leadership).

Many nonprofit sites we spoke to cited a spectrum of website-based email acquisition obnoxiousness  as looking something like this, going from least to most aggressive:     


The range of acceptable behavior, we think, varies widely within each category. For example, an easily closable pop-up on the middle of the page might discourage fewer readers than a poorly designed and placed email box. What matters is that your site is willing to experiment and track which designs affect users’ behavior and how. While it’s tempting to think of a website as desktop-first, more and more people are reading on mobile, so it’s imperative you test your email acquisition tactics on mobile as well. 

Email box: The email subscription sign-up form you place on your site, appearing in-line. On article pages this method usually converts readers who tend to be more highly engaged than more aggressive methods (e.g., lightboxes).


Things to consider when adding a box to your site:

  • Placement: Will the box live on your homepage (like the example from Politico?), or on story pages, both? Near the top or bottom of the page?   
  • Function: How much friction will the reader encounter in order to signup? One-click-signup is not always easy with the configuration of some content management systems and email service providers. 
  • Tone: Will the language be neutral, urgent, or hopeful?  
  • Color: Your email box should stand out on the page.
  • Frequency: How many boxes per story page?
  • Mobile: What is the experience like on mobile? 

Email pop-ups: an often dreaded topic of conversation at your newsroom has to be email pop-ups. If your revenue model includes reader revenue, we recommend using one. They are best utilized when they are OPTIONAL and easy for the user to exit. You may also want to consider a fixed-position mobile-only pop-up that appears once a reader has scrolled to a certain point on your page. Synonym—lightboxes: usually, the same thing as a pop-up or modal, but the term sounds a bit “nicer” when you approach whomever on your team has to clear this decision.

  • Scrolling: You can choose pop-ups to appear only after the user has scrolled down your page for a few seconds. This design choice usually mitigates fears that a user will exit a page if they are immediately hit with a pop-up when the site loads.
  • Placement: Another opportunity for nuance comes with the placement of the pop-up. Not all pop-ups have to be front and center on your homepage. Some newsrooms opt for a pop-up that appears at the bottom of the page, or that only appears on a story page (instead of homepage).

Paywall-style pop-up: a pop-up that requires the user to enter an email, or that is difficult for the user to exit without providing an email. We don’t think this is the right avenue for nonprofit news, but this could be a good option for publishers pursuing a digital subscription strategy.

Here are three recommendations we have across pop-ups and boxes alike:

  • Desktop first: We recommend experimenting with pop-ups on desktop users first. Mobile is a trickier terrain, as it is sometimes more difficult for the user to navigate around the pop-up or exit. And, adding a pop-up on mobile is usually a more difficult sell to your team.
  • Double opt-in: If you must employ a double opt-in process, make sure the actions the user needs to take to subscribe are extremely clear and repeated throughout the process. Too often users will enter their email address and fail to take the second step, thinking they are already subscribed. This results in a large pool of users getting trapped in ESP purgatory, as pending users.
  • Set up source tracking properly so that you can track and test the effectiveness of your various design and language choices. See the Evaluating Success section for more information on this.

Example Popups  

1. War Horse (middle of homepage, a few seconds into session)

2. Shorenstein Center (middle of homepage, immediately, with effect)

3. Trace (scrolling box on bottom of homepage, options)

4. Marshall Project (top of homepage)

5. ProPublica (three standstill asks in a story: top, middle, bottom)

6. The Marshall Project (when scrolling, appears at the bottom of a story page—a “toast” pop-up because it pops up like toast out of a toaster)

A note on reader signup friction and technology. In general, you want to remove as much friction as possible in order to allow readers to subscribe with just one click to your newsletter, and to only serve relevant offerings to your readers. For example, if a reader is logged into your website and already subscribes to your daily newsletter, ideally you would want to prompt them with a different offering, and not a newsletter to which they already subscribe. Unfortunately, technology lags in this area because subscriber data is decentralized between various systems. The company Pico offers some of the more seamless integrations available for small to medium-size organizations that allow readers to sign up for newsletters with less friction than traditional methods. 

In addition to the various methods of collecting email address discussed above, you may want to consider the following approaches, which cast a wider net beyond your website. 

Boosting Acquisition Beyond Your Website

Facebook Lookalike Audiences: Facebook generates bigger audience groups based off sample-size groups. These initial sample-size groups are built off the newsroom’s current email list or a Facebook pixel. The newsroom can then target the bigger audience group with advertisements to increase the number of supporters, donors, or subscribers. One general caveat: confirm that these tracking tools align with your company’s privacy policies.

Facebook Lead Ads: Facebook embeds a form (such as a newsletter sign-up) directly into the news organization’s advertisement and pre-populates the form with the targeted viewer’s information. The idea here is that this removes friction in the conversion process on behalf of the viewer (e.g., not needing to type in one’s information or click out of Facebook), resulting in a higher conversion rate. One general caveat: confirm that these tracking tools align with your company’s privacy policies. To read more on this subject, check out this article here.

Partnership cross-pollination: When two newsrooms give a shout out to the other newsroom’s letter in their own newsletter. Check out the example below from Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s cross-pollination with The Hechinger Report.

List chaperoning: When two partners co-host an event or webinar, and then share the email sign-ups for that event. For example, Newsroom A and Newsroom B host an event together. The RSVP form that both newsrooms send to their audiences to attend the event asks for an email address. After the event, both newsrooms have a new batch of email addresses that came from the other newsroom’s audience. We recommend sending an email to that new list of users to promote your newsletter, or consider adding them to your weekly list and sending a note saying they are subscribed, and to opt-out “here” if they would like to be removed from the list.

Events: In-person gatherings are an increasingly popular way for news organizations—especially local publishers—to connect with readers and also generate revenue. They can also be a convenient way to grow your email newsletter list. In its early days, the Philadelphia local news site Billy Penn would station a staffer with a tablet at the door of its events and ask attendees to join its newsletter list.

Publishers can also use event registrations to acquire email addresses for their newsletter. When someone buys a ticket or registers for an event, you can give them the option to opt-in or opt-out of your newsletters. (Privacy laws may dictate what publishers can do in this regard.)

For an excellent example, here’s a deep dive into how one organization, The New Tropic, uses event listings to grow its email newsletter:

Every day in its morning newsletter The New Tropic, a local Miami news startup, lists more than a dozen events happening throughout the city—from walking history tours to salsa classes. In each issue, The New Tropic also highlights a few Partner Events at the top of the listings for organizations that have a deal with the newsletter.  

But unlike many newsletters which have paid event listings, The New Tropic takes a different approach for its Partner Events: in exchange for prominently listing an event, the publisher asks that the organizers share attendees’ email addresses so they can be added to its daily newsletter list.

“The primary method through which we grow at this point is events around town. We are really focused on making sure that they’re aligned with our interests,” said Ariel Zirulnick, The New Tropic’s former editor. Zirulnick is now the Membership Puzzle Project’s research operations manager.

“Either they’re communities we have a lot of overlap with and it’s a big event so we have a good chance of acquiring new subscribers, or we also look for events that are in communities or spaces of the city that we think would like The New Tropic if we could get The New Tropic in front of them. That’s been a really great way for us to grow into new communities,” she said. 

When someone decides to buy a ticket or register for one of the partner events, they’ll see a notice at the bottom of the checkout page: “Your ticket comes with a free subscription to The New Tropic, Miami’s essential newsletter.” The checkout flow varies differently from event to event depending on which platform the organizer uses, but typically people can opt-out from receiving the newsletter on the checkout screen.

Once the event is over, the organizers will share the confirmed email addresses with The New Tropic, which then adds them to its newsletter list. The site sends a welcome email to the new additions, and also gives the new recipients an opportunity to unsubscribe if they don’t want to receive the newsletter.

This type of list sharing might not pass muster with stricter privacy laws such as GDPR, but it has enabled The New Tropic to drastically grow its list. The site began aggressively pursuing the partnership strategy earlier in 2018, and it now has 27,000 subscribers—an increase of about 10,000 since January. About 85 percent of the growth has been from partnerships.

“If the partnership is well aligned we do see better retention,” Zirulnick said.

The New Tropic’s parent organization, WhereByUs, has developed a metric to determine whether partnerships are worthwhile. The metric, cost per acquisition, measures how much work it requires to sign up a new subscriber. For instance, setting up and manning a booth at an event has a much higher acquisition cost than adding an email sign-up to an event registration page.

If the cost per subscriber is too high, The New Tropic, or any of WhereByUs’s other sites, won’t pursue a partnership, said WhereByUs Partnership Manager Briana Brown.

“It’s a calculation that involves the hours of effort for us to complete something: that’s doing all the pre-work, phone calls, as well as staff time,” she said. “At the end of the day, we came up with a company-wide metric . . . per subscriber when that hours of effort is calculated with how many subscribers we actually receive from the event.”

WhereByUs, which also publishes newsletters in Seattle, Orlando, and Portland, is experimenting in a number of other ways with email acquisition. It recently signed a deal with a local Miami events space so that anyone who signs onto the public Wi-Fi there agrees to share their email with The New Tropic. (Many of the people who sign on are tourists who don’t live in Miami, but The New Tropic aggressively cleans its list and those people get culled off. The New Tropic also lets readers opt out.)

The company is looking for similar ongoing partnerships across its markets, because they are more efficient and effective.

“Ongoing partnerships take less time, they decrease the hours of effort, because once it’s set up it’s just a matter of plugging in the event dates in our calendar,” Brown said.

Referral programs: Referral programs are one of the tried and true ways to grow your email list by leveraging your most loyal fans. At the most simple level, here’s how referral programs work: publishers offer rewards to readers who sign up a certain number of other readers to the newsletter. The more people you sign up, the better the rewards.

Here are a few examples of newsletters that have successfully utilized referral programs:

  • The Skimm’bassador: Perhaps the most well-known example of a referral program is theSkimm Skimm’bassador initiative. The female-centric, millennial-focused daily newsletter now has more than six million daily subscribers, and the referral program has been a significant driver of its growth. Users who join the program can get access to a members-only Facebook group and other exclusive content and events. Skimm’bassadors get birthday shoutouts in the newsletter. They also get Skimm swag when they hit certain sign-up thresholds. “They’re just an amazing force, made up of primarily our target demo. They love the brand and want to help us get the word out. That’s been a big part of our growth,” co-founder Danielle Weiseberg told Nieman Lab in 2015. TheSkimm has since taken steps to encourage people to become Skimm’bassadors. For example, it created a guide that offers tips for how people can best share the newsletter on social, via email, and even in their offices. 
  • The Hustle: A daily business and tech newsletter from the group behind Hustle Con, a conference for startup founders. In December 2017, Digiday reported that the newsletter had more than 500,000 subscribers. About 30 percent of The Hustle’s subscribers signed up as a result of the referral program. The Hustle first offered referers t-shirts and other swag. However, the program has evolved. Now, if you refer at least 10 people, you can join The Hustle Ambassadors, which includes a private Facebook group that includes access to other members as well as the company’s investors.
  • WhereByUs: Also in 2017, the company launched an ambassador program in its markets in Miami, Seattle, Orlando, and Portland. WhereByUs has three levels of the program, and the more people a reader refers, the cooler swag they get. The company also tailors the rewards to each of its markets. Readers in Miami, for instance, can win a beach towel, while readers in Portland can get a fleece. The program had mixed early results in each of the company’s markets, but Monica Guzman, editor of The Evergrey, WhereByUs’ Seattle site, said it had energized the site’s readership. “The best thing was the ability for your community to know what impact they’re having,” Guzman said. “If they really have decided that they really like you and like what you do and like being a part of it and are going to put some work into sharing it out and making it bigger, it’s a lot lost if they can’t tell how successful they’re being.”

Swag: Free stuff (normally, with your brand on it). People love free things, which is why giving away swag is often a popular choice for referral programs. However, actually acquiring the t-shirts, stickers, mugs, or whatever else you’re giving away requires an up-front investment. You also need to think about fulfillment. Swag, however, isn’t the only way to incentivize readers to subscribe and stay subscribed. Some newsletters create extra content or engagement opportunities for readers who reach certain thresholds of their referral program.

Rewards: The Morning Brew, a daily business newsletter, offers a mix of added content and tangible goods from its Rewards Program. If readers sign up three new subscribers, they get access to a weekend version of the email. For five referrals, readers get a sticker. At 10, they can join Insider, “a community of talented professionals in all fields.” The rewards continue with increasingly expensive swag.

A note: Like anything, different approaches to referral programs and email acquisition strategies more generally will work for different publishers. If you’re a smaller news organization without a budget for rewards, there are also things you can try that won’t cost a lot of money. For example, you could offer your super fans discounted or free registration to events, or you could have an open house in your newsroom or a local coffee shop for them to get to meet your reporters and editors. The only way to know what will work with your readers is to run experiments and see how your readers respond.

Vanity Metrics: How to Approach

When we talk about newsletters, acquisition—the act of building an email audience—is one of the hottest topics. We ask, “How many subscribers do you have?” and, “What is your open rate?” The truth is, this approach has created pressure to cite large numbers. These often include the largest number possible for any list size (including subscribers who have not been active in over a year) and the largest number possible for open rate (which includes multiple opens by one person and/or opens from forwards to a listserv).

At the end of the day, these numbers are not very insightful and encourage chasing short-term gains that can be counterproductive to growing an engaged audience. As an industry, in talking about email acquisition we’ve fallen into a trap similar to one we faced before with website traffic. We can and need to do better.

Sharing real insights about audience acquisition—instead of summary statistics that are all too easily manipulated—requires a shift in mindset. When thinking and talking about acquisition, we need to focus on why, such as:

  • Why are you trying to grow your list in the first place?
  • Why do new subscribers join your list?
  • Why do they stay engaged?
  • Or why do they become disengaged (i.e., stop opening your emails)?
  • Are your engaged subscribers your target audience?

Being able to answer these questions and share insights across organizations about acquisition and engagement requires the development of new metrics and benchmarks (more on this in the Evaluating Success section).

The important thing to remember for now is that all subscribers are NOT created equal. The point of growing your list is NOT to amass the most emails possible. Again, the point of growing your list is NOT to amass the most emails possible. You can have a very successful email with a small targeted list of the right subscribers.

Email acquisition is about learning what motivates your audience. It’s OK if you don’t have answers to these questions now, but email acquisition includes testing hypotheses for the following questions:

  • How do new subscribers find you?
  • What drives them to sign up?
  • Why do they stay engaged (or not)?

Answers to these questions directly relate to furthering the raison d’être of your newsletter. If at conferences and panels we asked these questions instead of asking about list size, we would learn much more about audience development. Let’s start now.

A note on source tracking and setting up your platforms and tools properly

The success of email acquisition campaigns often hinges on how you use your platforms and tools to track user behavior on your site, as well as the source of email sign-ups.

For example, most ambassador programs use unique URLs that link the new sign-ups to the person who referred them.

Many outlets, including theSkimm and WhereByUs, have developed their own platforms to manage and track sign-ups. If you don’t have the budget or resources to build a bespoke referral platform, there are a number of off-the-shelf tools such as Maître, Talkable, Buyapowa, and many more.

You can also hack together a referral program. Before building its own platform, WhereByUs ran tests using Typeform.

“That was really successful and taught us a lot about how to explain a referral tool to people; things as simple as how to copy and paste it and where it’s going to show up in the browser,” Zirulnick said. “There’s a lot of minutia to teaching people how to use a tech tool. Using Typeform helped us figure out when our instructions weren’t as clear as they could have been. We would get emails from readers asking, ‘How do I do this?’ or ‘Did my 10 people sign up already?’ We had a lot of opportunities to test out how to speak clearly about it, understand how people use it . . . and see where the breakdowns might happen.”

The importance of source tracking and using technology to track where your users are coming from is a vitally important part of email acquisition efforts. See the Evaluating Success section for more information.

Section 6: Email Monetization

How can your news organization make money from email newsletters? There’s a wide variety of opportunities in the space, but methods of email monetization—and the degree of success of these methods—vary widely based on organization reach, sales structure, and membership models.

Here, we highlight reader revenue and membership strategies, advertising and sponsorship, as well as paid newsletters and more.

We’ve also created a questionnaire (which you can find here), that you can use to help figure out which strategies make sense for you and your news organization. The document also includes some additional examples of how outlets are monetizing their newsletters.

Reader Revenue and Membership

Several nonprofit newsrooms rely on email as a means of converting readers to members or small-dollar donors. If you’re in the nonprofit news fundraising or development field, chances are you already know about NewsMatch, the Institute for Nonprofit News, the M+R Benchmarks Report, the News Revenue Hub’s services and work, and The Membership Puzzle Project’s research. We’ve briefly summarized these stellar resources below.

  • NewsMatch is a matching-gift campaign for nonprofit newsrooms. Now in its third year, NewsMatch has helped nonprofit newsrooms raise more than $5 million and engaged tens of thousands of new donors to nonprofit journalism. NewsMatch was originally created by the Knight Foundation in 2016 and is now supported by a growing group of other foundations and donors. You can register your nonprofit newsroom to participate in next year’s NewsMatch campaign here.
  • The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) is a consortia of nonprofit newsrooms that offers several trainings on building a list and fundraising via email.
  • The M+R Benchmarks Report is a fantastic resource to measure your reader revenue metrics against other nonprofits (including public media). Based on findings from the most recent report, the Single Subject News Project at the Shorenstein Center hosted a webinar with Common Cause’s Jesse Littlewood to highlight the metrics that matter for newsrooms’ email campaigns. Here is a write-up on the major takeaways from Jesse’s webinar. The gist: most likely, you should be emailing your newsletter readers asking for donations more often.
  • The News Revenue Hub is a service-provider that we like to think of as a newsroom’s outsourced, one-stop shop for all things reader revenue and small-dollar fundraising. Their services are available to nonprofit and for-profit models of newsrooms alike. Recently, their team launched a learning laboratory that leverages the aggregated data from its client base in order to report on findings on what works and what doesn’t for revenue-building newsrooms. This post reports that: “adding a prominent email signup call to action (CTA) tended to bring in approximately $4,000 more a month, compared to clients who didn’t” and “setting up an automated welcome email series earned organizations $10,000 more per month, on average, compared to clients who didn’t.”
  • The Membership Puzzle Project out of NYU studies different models of membership, both across the news industry and beyond. The team compiled this beautiful database on different membership tiers and structures.

Paid newsletters

In addition to reader revenue and membership, there are several examples of high-quality newsletters that are paid or only available for paying members. The best description of this model can be found in the Tow Center’s “Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement”:

“There are a few notable examples of publications that are growing subscription revenue with paid email products on top of free-access membership models. The politics and public policy site The Texas Tribune publishes The Blast, a premium daily newsletter’ that is used by elected officials, lobbyists, consultants, and political junkies looking for insider intel beyond what they can get on the site for free. Likewise, Politico publishes Politico Pro, a paid ‘policy news service offering indispensable policy news in real time’ which includes two exclusive daily news letters, breaking news alerts, and special events.

The tech news and analysis site Stratechery founder Ben Thompson chooses the term ‘subscriber’ to refer to his paying readers, as he sees the arrangement between them as a direct exchange of well-defined value, a concept he’s written about in detail. ‘The greatest commitment I ask of my readers is for money,’ Thompson said. ‘They give me money, and I give them value,’ referring to the three weekly posts he writes for a subscriber newsletter in addition to one free weekly post.”

Advertising and sponsorship

How you approach advertising in your newsletter should depend on the makeup and size of your readership, the resources available to you as a publisher, and the type of newsletter you produce. Here is an overview of a few different types of newsletter ads and some examples of publishers that utilize them:

Display ads: These are the image-heavy banner ads that run throughout many newsletters.

Before deciding to add display ads to their newsletters, publishers should ask:

  • Is my list big enough? Display ads often aren’t worthwhile unless you have a large enough list to monetize. Though sometimes there are exceptions, we’d typically recommend having a significant list before considering display ads. Unless your email lists are in the hundreds of thousands, it’s unlikely you will break six figures in revenue from display advertising. 
  • Do I want to use programmatic ads or sell them myself? Working with an ad tech provider means they will sell and insert programmatic ads into your newsletter based on the reader’s interests and browsing history. These are an easier lift from a staffing perspective, though you do have to add extra code into your newsletters and the ads aren’t always the best quality and you give up a level of control over what ad content your readers will be served:

Note: Selling the ads yourself requires additional work on your end, but gives you more flexibility with what the ads look like and with which sponsors appear in your newsletter. You can also use these display ad spaces for house ads to promote your own subscriptions or membership program (usually for a small fee):

  • Where should I put my ads? This may seem like a simple point, but you can insert ads practically anywhere in a newsletter. You should think about what makes for the best reader experience and choose a design that isn’t too obtrusive. You can also, as always, run tests and see what works best for your publication and audiences.

Native ads: These are advertisements that look like editorial content, but are labeled explicitly as sponsored posts.

Here are some questions publishers should ask themselves before diving into native newsletter advertising:  

  • Do I have the resources? Though they typically offer higher returns than banner ads, native ads require more resources to sell and produce. You should think hard about whether investing time and resources into developing native newsletter ads makes sense for your organization.
  • Do they fit into my newsletters? Ideally, native ads shouldn’t look that dissimilar from your editorial content, but you’ll want to make sure that they’re clearly labeled as ads. In Axios’s newsletters, for example, the sponsored content looks like the rest of the content blocks, except it has a header that says it is a “A MESSAGE FROM” the advertisers.

In Politico’s daily digests, the ads match the text-only in the style of the rest of the newsletter.


Text-only ads could make sense for your outlet. The Seattle Times, for example, has taken this approach in its daily newsletter and it says it gets higher CPMs than for traditional banner ads.


Sponsorship: This is when publishers sell sponsorship of an entire email to an advertiser.

In these cases, the advertiser’s logo or name will appear next to the email’s title and will often say that the email is  “brought to you by . . . ” or “supported by . . . ” the advertiser. Some publishers will also include native or banner ads to accompany the sponsorship throughout the newsletter.

Here’s what you should ask yourself if you’re thinking about selling newsletter sponsorship:

  • Do I have a passionate audience? If you want an advertiser to sponsor your newsletter, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have a healthy, passionate readership. If you don’t, you might want to try some of the other monetization techniques or scroll up to earlier areas of this guide for tips on how to build your newsletter readership.
  • How much real estate am I willing to give over? Would you put a sponsor’s name in a subject line? Would you turn your newsletter list over to a sponsor so they could send a message to your readers? We’d advise against allowing standalone sponsored emails, but again you should test and see what works with your readers.

Classifieds: These “old school,” text-based ads are on the rise (see HotPod, Ann Friedman)

Classified ads are a largely overlooked revenue stream for email. Partly because “classifieds” are perceived as out of fashion, and partly because operationalizing digital classifieds may seem like more effort than the expected return. Digital classifieds can feel nostalgic and higher value than a cube ad. Newsletter readers are accustomed to reading copy, and even when set in a different font, the classifieds can fit in very nicely design wise with the rest of the email.

Most importantly, classifieds can bring in very real revenue that is probably a surprise to most media outlets. Below, please find words of advice and encouragement from Ann Friedman.

“I make about as much from classified ads as I do from subscriptions. But they are so much easier to manage than recurring payments from subscribers. And they allow me to be much more nimble. If they’re selling quickly (as they tend to in the fall), I can increase prices. If sales are slow (as they tend to be in summer), I can drop prices or run a sale. I love that they are an affordable rate for micro-businesses like mine (as low as $70 for 140 characters of text), but also that bigger companies can buy a bunch of them in bulk and cut me a big check.

I had many people warn me not to pursue classifieds. ‘They’ll be too much work for too little money! Just do single-sponsorship with a banner ad.’ I heard that a lot. But I don’t think my subscriber base is big enough to command the kind of dollar amount I would need to pollute my newsletter with a banner ad. UGH, I hate banner ads. And I get feedback all the time about my classifieds, which almost always come from like minded businesses.”

Questions to ask yourself when considering email classifieds:

  • Does my email audience have a potential marketplace of individuals who want to place ads, and individuals who may be desirable viewers of those ads?
  • Do I have a large enough list of subscribers for advertisers to pay at least $50–$100 per ad? Usually this number is 10,000 subscribers or more.

Section 7: Evaluating Success—Email Metrics and Health

Once you’ve decided on your newsletter strategy, how do you know it’s thriving and reaching your intended readership? Which metrics do you use to measure the health and success of your email product?

Apart from maintaining a healthy list, it’s also important to leverage the massive amount of data you are acquiring through your email newsletter to inform your priorities and workflow. The data embedded in your email list can give you invaluable insights on your audience’s preferences and behavior, so you can craft strategies for how to best grow, engage, and monetize your audience moving forward. Unfortunately, many newsrooms only rely and report on their overall list size, open rate, and click rate. We want to help you change that.

Email Research Guide and Python Notebooks for MailChimp Users

In 2017, the Shorenstein Center published a paper, “Using Data Science Tools for Email Audience Analysis: A Research Guide,” delineating a sophisticated data science framework for analyzing email newsletter performance in MailChimp accounts, including open source code for using Jupyter Notebooks to access, calculate, and visualize data sets that illuminate patterns of user behavior among subscribers. The output of the notebooks is a series of charts and graphs that give you in-depth analyses on the performance and health of your list composition, acquisition campaigns, your sign-up process, retention, and more. It signified a push away from looking at open and click rates alone (what we call your “vanity” metrics) to more sophisticated metrics like the user unique open rate and the distribution of your unique open rates over time.

Email Benchmarking Tool for MailChimp users

This tool, which launched in November 2018, is a more accessible service for deriving actionable insights from the analytics. Specifically, after providing your MailChimp API key, the tool will send you a “report card” of the following six key metrics that matter:

A note from the authors: We encourage you to apply to join so you can try this service, and also give us feedback. If you are a developer or designer, we also welcome your contributions to help us in the building process. The source code is available on Github.

Overall List Size: This is a metric traditionally used for email (the total number of users subscribed to your list) and is one that we call a “vanity metric.” Why? Because your overall list size doesn’t tell us much about the quality or value of the users on your list.

What You Can Do: A better way of thinking about your list involves taking into account the current status of every email address you’ve ever acquired via your list composition (see the next metric, and work with your teams to move beyond overall list size as your measurement of email success).

List Composition: This metric breaks down the total number of unique email addresses from the entire list into percentages of users who are Subscribed (current subscribers), Unsubscribed (subscribers who removed themselves from list or whom the list owner removed), Cleaned (subscribers removed from the list, typically by a service provider after email bounces), and Pending (semi-subscribers stuck in the limbo of double opt in—or, someone who gave their email address but did not hit the confirmation button in their email inbox). By looking at this metric, you can see whether you have an Unsubscribed or Pending problem that needs to be addressed.

What You Can Do: A list composition with a large proportion of the list “pending” or “unsubscribed” requires further analysis. Pendings can be caused by a number of factors, including confusing language around confirmation for double opt-in, bot traffic, or deliverability. Consider using a service like NeverBounce to test which of your pending users are valid and active email addresses, and consider reaching out to your unsubscribers with a survey request to learn more about why they didn’t love your email product.

Overall Open Rate: This metric, another “vanity” one, shows your list open rate. While list and campaign open rates are the traditional ways of looking at your email performance, a better alternative for examining your list open rate is through a distribution of your subscribers’ individual unique open rates (see next).

What You Can Do: Similar to our advice on “list size,” challenge your team to measure your list’s performance by the distribution of list open rate (below). We encourage groups to focus on growing the portion of their list that opens > 80 percent of the time.

Distribution of List Open Rate: This metric shows the distribution of user unique open rates for current subscribers on your list. For example, you can see what percentage of your list opens zero percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, all the way up to 80 percent of the time. We think newsrooms should focus on retaining, growing, and monetizing that segment of 80 percent-plus openers; on moving users with lower levels of engagement along the engagement funnel; and on removing the users who stay inactive over time.

What You Can Do: Next time you conduct audience surveys, consider segmenting the surveys and results based on the segments provided in this metric. For example, we recommend learning more about your hyper-engaged audience (users who open > 80 percent of the time), and your semi-engaged audience (users who open ~30–70 percent of the time) who might be better served with a different newsletter or product from your newsroom.

Percentage Open > 80 Percent: This metric zeroes in on that portion of your most engaged subscribers—those who open between 80 percent and 100 percent of your emails. These subscribers deserve greater scrutiny, and it is worth trying to figure out how to move more of your subscribers into this portion of your list.

What You Can Do: Survey this segment of users. We recommend coupling surveys with an option to speak to someone from your newsroom on the phone for an in-person interview. Who are they? What are their habits? What else do they like to read? What do they want out of an email product? What might compel them to support or contribute to your work? Then, develop a few user personas.

Percentage Inactive in Past Year: This metric shows you the percentage of current subscribers on your list who haven’t opened one of your emails in the past 365 days. Inactive subscribers can cloud your metrics, affect your email’s deliverability, and make it harder to understand your list dynamics.
If you fail to clean your list regularly (by routinely removing the inactive users) and a larger proportion of your subscribers stop opening your emails, your email deliverability (e.g., not relegated to spam) will suffer over time.

What You Can Do: We recommend that newsrooms routinely and manually remove those inactive users from their list (after sending them a re-engagement campaign). This is also called “cleaning” your list. If you have never cleaned your list, we strongly recommend that you set aside some time to do so. Then, monitor to see if and when the inactive or pending segment grows. We generally recommend a list clean twice a year (around every six months).

Source Tracking

In addition to email metrics, it’s also important to set up source tracking.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about your email newsletter strategy and staffing.

TRACKING YOUR WEB TRAFFIC FROM EMAIL: In Google Analytics, there are several predefined query parameters you can use to track traffic that comes from your email. The chief among them are source, medium, and campaign. Because these can be user defined, there is not always a consistent meaning. However, when they are not set by the URL, Google will also provide some fallbacks for source and medium. This page from Google Analytics provides more details.

For instance, you might set the source to be email (indicating the traffic came from your weekly email newsletter), the medium to be the organization that sent the email, and the campaign to be the name of the particular email that generated the traffic. Luckily, MailChimp and other email vendors can help you to automatically create those full URLs. The resulting URL might look like this:

TRACKING EMAIL ACTIONS TAKEN ON SITE: Within Google Analytics you can also set up goals as useful measures of calls to action taken on the site (like signing up for the email newsletter). While front-end web developers can set up custom goals based on more technical criteria, often organizations will set up goals based on whether or not someone comes to a specific page.

TRACKING THE EMAIL ACQUISITION CHANNEL: If goals and events are set up correctly, they can also be attributed by acquisition channel, in analogous reports (including for ROI calculations). Google Analytics tracking does not preclude including other forms of URL tracking.  Most mailers have systems that will allow you to record how an email address joined your list. MailChimp, for instance, records if an email joined your list from a manual import, as opposed to a Facebook page or different kinds of web pages you might have on your website. MailChimp’s defaults tracks these categories (manual, FB, etc.) at a high level.

Note: If you are interested in tracking the effects of a particular Facebook campaign, consider setting up different pages so these records an be tied back to the specific campaign.

Building Source Codes: Most mailers have tools that will allow you to add Google Analytics URL parameters to links in emails that are sent from Google Analytics. MailChimp again has built in tools to build these into your URLs. However, these tools will not necessarily create source codes for you. There are two very important considerations when creating source codes:

  • Uniqueness—This is the single most important factor. Ensuring that each piece of content that is meant to drive traffic to your website has a single unique source code allows you to understand what of your efforts is driving users to your site. If all of your content has the same (or no) source code then there is no way to differentiate.
  • Human readability—You could simple create a sourcing system where you used a timestamp for when each piece of content was published. However, no one could really understand what that source means in a report. It’s better to use words which require no complex translation to be understood and are much more easily digestible for readers. Redundancy in sourcing is not necessarily a problem—erring on the side of including more information rather than less is a general rule of thumb.

Testing Email

Email testing (also known as A/B testing) can be used to optimize your newsletter campaigns. Even varying the subject line in an email can lead to statistically significant improvements. In general, it is a best practice to test something on every email, even if it is something as trivial-seeming as a subject line.

Most modern email databases (including MailChimp) have tools to split email audiences into randomized segments. This allows you to vary the content across mailings. When you see the results from the different mailing segments, you can be more confident that the difference is due to the variation in content and not underlying population differences.

If your newsletter client does not provide you with any ways to see results, there are also a number of statistical significance calculators available online. Constantly refreshing results to check significance is generally a bad practice. Choosing to stop an experiment the moment a result has become significant can be misleading. There is variability throughout the experiment and sometimes, as more results come in, a seemingly significant result may not hold. Check the results only at the end of the experiment.

Modern programs test many different aspects of the email experience: subject lines, tone, and topic are important to test on an ongoing basis, since it is unlikely that one answer will always work going forward, even if it achieved statistical significance. Similarly, a tactic that works well for one goal may not translate to another goal, for instance the difference between acquisition and fundraising. And there are other design elements, even things like font size and layout that are important to revisit from time to time.

Understanding who your audience is can have an impact on which tests to prioritize—for instance, an elderly audience might favor larger text, whereas a young audience may shy away from it. The only way to discover what will and will not work for a given program is to run a battery of tests.

A note on A/B testing: In July 2018 the Shorenstein Center and the Lenfest Institute disseminated a Google Form to get a sense about what the field wanted to know regarding email. We asked all survey-takers: “Within the last six months, which of the following areas has your newsletter team A/B tested or experimented with?” (we received 47 responses)

  • 25, or 53% tested the subject line
  • 24, or 51% tested frequency and timing of their newsletters within the last 6 months
  • 18, or 40.5% reworked design font or images, etc.
  • 14, or 30% tested voice or tone of the content
  • 7, or 15% tested the sender


Thanks so much for reading. If you’ve made it this far, we know you are equally obsessed, if not more, with email newsletters. So please sign up here to get occasional email alerts or updates to the Guide and the Email Benchmarking Tool.

As we mentioned at the very beginning, this is a living document. If you have something related to email content, strategy, acquisition, monetization, retention, or health that you’d like to share, please give us a shout at or We would love to hear from you.

Thank you to the following people for their thoughtful feedback as this guide was created: Sarah Garland, Sue Cross, Tim Windsor, Jules Shapiro, Elizabeth Hansen, Nicco Mele, and Hong Qu.

This guide was produced as part of the Shorenstein Center’s Single Subject News Project, which is funded by Knight Foundation.

Additional Resources

Our work builds on an outstanding canon of best practices literature and tools designed to help news organizations improve their email strategy. Below, please find our curated list of the heavy-hitters.

But first, a timely plug: our friends at The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) are offering two modular training series on email newsletters to build audience, one starting in February for news sites early in their newsletter development, and a series in May on how to amp up established newsletters. These are open to all news media. Check them out:

If you find a helpful resource you’d like to add to the list, please let us know.

  • Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab produced an email newsletter guide (January 2017) based on a workshop Josh Stearns gave to graduate students at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. The guide is a smart summary of email reading lists, and guidance on building and monetizing your lists.
  • Jacque Boltik and Daniela Gerson offer this webinar ($19) on “How to Launch a Killer Newsletter.” The training is designed for those who are thinking of launching a personal or professional newsletter, or for someone who wants to start growing their list.
  • The American Press Institute’s Better News Hub has a section on newsletters that is an excellent curation of preexisting newsletter write-ups and resources, sorted by “Big Picture,” “Plan,” and “Do.”  Better News is a project of the American Press Institute and the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, funded by the Knight Foundation.
  • The News Revenue Hub put together these Quick Tips for Building Audiences with ideas on how to build audience (make signing up easy—they note that a good goal is 400–600 net new subscribers per month), loyalty (welcome series), and reach (SEO, platforms).
  • The Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School wrote a research guide called “Using Data Science Tools for Email Audience Analysis” that calls for readers to consider a deeper level of analysis on their email list (and move away from focusing on open, click, list size rates alone). The paper was published in tandem with these open source Python notebooks that can be run through a MailChimp list.
  • The Single Subject News Project at the Shorenstein Center publishes blog posts on email newsletter learnings from their research cohort of single-subject, nonprofit newsrooms.
  • The Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter takes a series of deep dives into newsletter strategy at The Seattle Times, The Washington Post’s World Cup newsletter, and WhereByUs’s email newsletter referral program.
  • The New York Times wrote about the secret sauce to their email newsletters in this piece by Melina Delkic: “know your audience, have an expert write it, design it beautifully, maintain it with best practices in mind, and, perhaps most important, offer something valuable that you can’t get anywhere else.”
  • Really Good Emails (RGE) is a site that curates and showcases examples of email design and resources on the web, powered by community submissions and its own obsessive drive to find the best email examples out there.
  • The Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom Crosscut created a tool, Opt In, that helps newsrooms build a newsletter playbook to either create a new newsletter or optimize their current offerings. Opt In features a diagnostic quiz, that takes about an hour to complete, that will help publishers decide the format and strategy for their newsletter.
  • The Tow Center’s “Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement” includes excellent information on email newsletter tactics to build audience engagement and revenue.
  • NPR Training created a short guide on how to think about starting a newsletter.