A good failure: Changing our newsletter promos

Newsletters have increasingly become the go-to resource for engaging and growing audiences. Most organizations see slow, steady growth in newsletter signups. Many of you have been encouraged to work on improving the wording, website placement and visibility of your pitches to readers to sign up.

At the Columbia Missourian, we tried — yet failed — to get a dramatic bump in newsletter subscriptions. Will our tactics work for you? The good news is that our email signups continued to grow, so our experiments didn’t cost anything but a little time. We were averaging a net gain of about 50 new subscribers a month. But the pace didn’t significantly increase from previous months after we made the email signup changes.

NewslettersWhy did we feel the need to switch? We felt that our email signup prompt was static and buried at the bottom of a rail of ads on the right side of our homepage. “Sign up for newsletters” was the simple header with a link for readers to select which newsletters they wanted. The signup also came up as a prompt when a reader registered as a new user on the site.

Our goal was to bring more prominence to the signup prompts and to focus on driving subscriptions to the daily newsletter with the latest headlines.

There certainly was a lot of advice on the internet for steps to take to improve email signup rates. We reviewed a slew of suggestions, some dating back a decade, and found some consistent recommendations from a number of email wonks that were touted as effective.

We settled on following a common suggestion to tighten and focus the wording of the signup. We also adopted several common recommendations for better locations on our site for placement of the email signups. Here are the changes we agreed to try and that were made by Elizabeth Conner Stephens, outreach director for the Columbia Missourian:

Stay informedWe modified the prompt itself. We went with larger type and a more direct message — “Stay Informed” — a more aggressive approach that signaled the importance of the newsletters to readers. This too followed advice we saw from multiple sources: be direct, be aggressive in your pitch. The example here is how our prompt has been tweaked to focus on our coverage of COVID-19.

We moved the signup promo higher in the right-hand column on the homepage. It helped ensure the signup box wasn’t lost in the slew of items in the right-side rail. More prominent positioning on the homepage was one of the most frequently recommended changes in the advice we reviewed.

We added a promo in the homepage footer and in the “About Us” page. Both are places for people who are seeking more information about our organization. If we have info there on how to submit a letter to the editor, why don’t we include our own (news)letter link as well? That suggestion resonated with us as those are areas of websites we often go to for additional information on an organization.

Missourian footer

We added a scroll up promo that appeared when a reader who isn’t subscribed to the newsletter got to the end of the story. The thinking and the advice from those who focus on newsletters was that this sort of signup prompt targeted a reader likely to respond positively because they had cared enough to read to the end of a story. But we didn’t want to bother readers already subscribed to our newsletters so we set the signup to only be shown to persons who weren’t already email readers.

In the end it was disappointing and a bit surprising to us to not see more of a boost to the signups. On the other hand, we know that we sharpened our pitch to readers and made the signup more accessible in more logical locations on our website. That can’t hurt in the long run.

Fred AnklamFred Anklam Jr. is senior editor of the Columbia Missourian and writes for the Reynolds Journalism Institute about innovative steps being taken in that newsroom. Comments and suggestions for other innovations to try out can be sent to anklamf@missouri.edu.

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