Spinning up a highly focused newsletter? Keep these 4 things in mind

As the news around the coronavirus became overwhelming for readers and journalists alike, the Columbia Missourian — like many other newsrooms —  rolled out a coronavirus newsletter in mid-March.

The newsletter was curated by staff and rounded up the local and national news of the day and sent at 7 p.m. We sent the first few versions to our daily headline email list and encouraged sign-ups to continue receiving the newsletters. We built a separate list and started sending to those that opted in.

The list continued to grow. Throughout the month of April, subscribers increased by 60%, and the open rates remained high — averaging 53% for the month. During the height of the news, we continued to send it on the weekend and saw strong open rates. As the news developments slowed, we settled on a Monday through Friday schedule.

The newsletter was started in crisis, and we had to figure out a strategy on the fly. Here is how we moved forward and continued to adapt the newsletter:

Make a plan

Interest remained strong as we headed into May, but we would be facing staffing challenges to maintain the manual curation as our staff turned over for summer. The response to the newsletter made it clear there was a need for an evening newsletter, but we needed to make a change to the format to be able to continue serving those readers.

We were in the process of a newsletter redesign project prior to the pandemic and had put it on hold. We picked that process up again and finalized the designs for our sports and morning headlines emails. This process gave us an opportunity to revamp the coronavirus newsletter at the same time.

We transitioned the newsletter to an automated newsletter while keeping the focus on the coronavirus. On May 4, we rolled out all of the redesigned newsletters and automated coronavirus evening newsletter.

Tell your readers what you’re up to

In the revamped coronavirus newsletter, we pulled in the local and state COVID-19 stories published during the day. We know there is an overlap in subscribers between the morning headline email and the coronavirus newsletter, so we only use stories published after 6:30 a.m. when the morning newsletter is sent.

In addition to the local and state content, we highlighted our map tracking COVID-19 cases across the state and included the latest AP stories related to the coronavirus.

We flipped the switch on a Monday. It was also the day the state stay-at-home order was lifted, so there was already a transition of the news. It gave us a natural opportunity to make the shift, but we wanted to acknowledge the change.

The new format of the newsletter allowed for a paragraph introduction along with a personalized greeting (Good evening SUBSCRIBER NAME). We used the introduction to let people know the format had changed and provided contact information for feedback.

We are introducing a new format for our COVID-19 email today. You’ll continue to find the latest developments both locally and nationally in the newsletter. You can share any feedback with us at submissions@columbiamissourian.com.

Track the results

We tracked the transition and found the open rate remained high, but we also saw the click rate increase. In the new format, the headlines and links are more prominent than stories hyperlinked within the text.

Our open rate for May was 45%, and our click rate was 38% compared to 30% in April under the old format. Our subscribers grew by 27% during the month, and the unsubscribe rate average was 0%.

The response, in this case, was positive, but we could have adapted if the change wasn’t well received.

Don’t be afraid to adapt quickly

With the continued interest, it was apparent that the evening email would stay and evolve to include broader news.

Before the end of May, George Floyd’s death brought racial injustice and protest stories to the forefront. On June 2, we had very limited COVID-19 coverage for the day, but a lot of other news — aftermath of a local protest, the governor addressing protest violence, plus a municipal election.

It felt odd to send a newsletter out without these important stories from the day.  We quickly adapted to expand the newsletter for the evening and give the readers that important news.

We see this as the beginning of the pivot to a more general local news evening update newsletter. In the immediate term, we only shifted the local content. The Associated Press content stayed focused on the coronavirus coverage of the day. Over time, we will continue to adapt that content and even decrease it as we focus more on local stories.


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