November 2, 2014

It seems like everybody’s starting an email newsletter these days. The web offers an endless stream of information, David Carr wrote in June, so “having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos.”

But the newsletter business is getting crowded now, too. The Financial Times and Vox have recently launched new newsletters, and Quartz’s has been widely celebrated. The New York Times recently made its “What We’re Reading” newsletter free for everyone.

(Ahem, you can sign up for Poynter’s new morning and afternoon newsletters here, by the way.)

Time’s newsletter strategy is different. While it’s trendy to offer links to stories your organization didn’t create itself, Time’s goal is to provide the best of what it has to offer every morning — “a snapshot in Time, as it were,” said Edward Felsenthal,’s managing editor.

When Callie Schweitzer was hired to be Time’s direct of digital innovation last year, the magazine offered RSS-generated emails for 10 different verticals, with open rates averaging about 17 percent. Time combined the readership of those 10 newsletters and started delivering just one, called “The Brief,” when the new website debuted in March.

Since then, the newsletter has achieved a 40 percent open rate — a figure Time Inc. boasted as twice the industry average when the company named Schweitzer its editorial director for audience strategy in October. Click-through rates after open are about twice the industry average of 16 percent, Schweitzer told me.

(One caveat: When the new newsletter launched, Time did some pruning of the list, removing bounce-back email addresses and subscribers who hadn’t opened a newsletter in six months. So dumping some of those who were dragging the old newsletters’ open rates down likely accounts for some of the increase in the current newsletter’s open rate. Its old newsletters had about 850,000 subscribers in total, but Time pared that down to 650,000. It’ll begin its first big promotional push, soon, using Time magazine and social channels.)

RELATED:’s bounce rate down 15 percentage points since adopting continuous scroll

“I think the biggest risk we took was assuming that people who had opted in to a vertical-focused newsletter list would want an editorially curated product,” Schweitzer said. “The Brief” offers links to 12 stories every morning.

I talked to Schweitzer and Felsenthal about how Time experiments with the newsletter and how they’ve arrived at best practices. The following lessons might not all apply to your newsletter strategy, but here are some things to think about:

Show restraint in your subject line

It might be tempting to pack your email newsletter’s subject line with lots of information to lure readers in, but Schweitzer said Time has learned through A/B testing that open rates decrease when subject lines are crowded.

Referring to multiple stories or adding language like “and more” to the subject line doesn’t capture attention like one tightly written headline does. So editors aim for 45 characters or fewer in subject lines, Schweitzer said. That means they’re readable in full on most smartphones (please forgive the dire battery life situation in this screenshot):


“In terms of the split between desktop and mobile, desktop is still leading, but mobile has drastically closed the gap,” Schweitzer said.

Deliver on the subject line’s promise

“I always think about the subject line as something that’s going to make a reader take an action,” Schweitzer said. “But that does not mean being sensational, or not delivering on the promise.”

What it does mean is giving readers a reason to click or tap the email to open it, and then providing them with what they expect. The story referenced in the subject line is generally the top story in the body of the email.

With some newsletters, Felsenthal said, “It’s hard to find the reason you clicked.” This jibes with Schweitzer’s notion of earning your news organization’s spot in readers’ inboxes: “I always say that inviting someone into your inbox is the new inviting someone into your home,” she said. “You have to earn the right to be there, but you also have to earn the right to stay there.”

Remember that newsletters aren’t opened immediately by everyone

Tweets fly by in an instant, but emails can linger in ways that even Facebook posts don’t. In fact, Schweitzer said, she sees a surprising number of subscribers opening the newsletter at night and catching up on the week’s emails during the weekend.

That doesn’t mean offering evergreen content at the expense of timeliness, but Felsenthal says Time tries to be mindful of the fact that stories won’t be seen right when the email is sent in the morning. “Theyre news-relevant, but unless something is truly momentous news that just happened,” the newsletter doesn’t pretend to break news like morning-after newspaper headlines often do.

For example, The morning after the first case of Ebola in New York, Time’s newsletter didn’t announce the arrival of Ebola. It assumed readers had already heard about the news, so the subject line was “Everything we know about Ebola in NYC.”

Keep experimenting — and track results

Time distributes its email with CheetahMail, which offers robust ways to test the effectiveness of various techniques.

Health stories, Schweitzer has found, perform well — maybe because they tend to have less of a news peg than other stories, but Schweitzer also stressed that “we abide by the fact that it’s a newsletter. The subject line and the stories in it are pegged to news.” The top article in Chartbeat when she arrives at the office in the morning is invariably the lead story from the newsletter, she said.

Time hasn’t done much testing in terms of the body of the email yet, but Schweitzer says she hopes to find out more about what drives readers to click certain stories, especially as Time considers offering more than just one newsletter.

“We’re just so hungry for data that we can take action on,” she said.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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