From NJ.com To Oregon Live, Newsletters Are Popping During The Pandemic

LiveIntentPeople just can’t get enough news during the coronavirus pandemic – and it’s not just national coverage. Local newsletters are experiencing record sign-up numbers.

Advance Local, which operates local news sites including Syracuse.com, MassLive.com, OregonLive.com, LehighValleyLive.com and NJ.com, moved quickly to provide newsletters to people seeking frequent updates about the pandemic.

Most of the publishers owned by Advance Local created brand new coronavirus newsletters that focus on how COVID-19 is affecting their communities, while others rebranded breaking news blast lists or morning newsletters. Some subscriber-only newsletters were converted to free versions, leading to several hundred thousand more sign-ups to those lists.

In three markets particularly affected by the pandemic – NJ.com, MassLive.com and LehighValleyLive.com – the total number of newsletter subscriptions increased by 25% from February to March (the latest figures available). Open rates increased from 28% to 33% and click rates went up by 50% (from 6% to 9%). Newsletter impressions rose 32%.

And though programmatic CPMs have been on the decline the past several weeks across the industry, these newsletters are proving to be the exception to the rule.

Despite advertisers pausing or cancelling campaigns, overall newsletter revenue for the NJ.com, MassLive.com and LehighValleyLive.com markets went up 39% in March. MassLive.com even saw a 21% increase in its eCPMs.

The rise in engagement, coupled with identity signals coming from LiveIntent programmatic ads embedded within the newsletters, are likely what led to the rise in revenue, said David Rowley, senior director at Advance Local.

He’s grateful for the rare bright spot: “We’re definitely not immune to everything that’s going on across the industry right now,” he added.

But the opportunity goes beyond advertising. Strong newsletter engagement supports a second area where Rowley is optimistic: digital subscriptions.

From sign-up to digital sub

Advance Local is thinking long term about how to turn this short-term feeding frenzy for its local pandemic content into long-term, sustainable revenue. Digital subscriptions could be the answer.

Every market within Advance Local launched digital subscriptions during the pandemic, even ones that didn’t previously use a paywall, to give readers a chance to support local news media.

Letters from the editor sent to coronavirus-related newsletter lists have proven particularly effective in driving subscriptions.

The editor of Oregon Live sent one such update, offering a behind-the-scenes look into its newsroom, that single-handedly drove more than 200 subscriptions within 24 hours. An update from NJ.com’s head of content explaining the critical work its reporters are doing led 160 people to sign up within a single day.

“From a digital subscriptions perspective, it’s having a much larger impact than we could have imagined,” Rowley said.

Longer term, Advance Local will continue to prize its newsletters as a way to create engaged segments of people who value their content but might need an extra little nudge to subscribe.

“Over the past year plus that we’ve had subscriptions, everyone has understood that one of the best things about newsletters is that they increase engagement and the frequency of a user interacting with your brand,” Rowley said.

Keeping the newsletters going

The new, larger pool of subscribers to these newsletters means that some are reaching critical mass to the point where advertisers could sponsor them. “When the market comes back, which could be Q2, early Q3, there will be more of a focus in direct sales from a newsletter perspective,” Rowley said.

Meanwhile, Advance Local’s projects to improve its newsletters have become a priority.

On the tech side, it recently started migrating to an email service provider that offers more dynamic, personalized messaging. With the switch, Rowley expects advertising revenue from newsletters will rise, giving its publishers a dual revenue stream of direct-sold and programmatic ads.

There’s also emerging evidence that the interest in local newsletters will continue even after some states start to ease their shelter-in-place restrictions.

Although traffic is peaking or plateauing, depending on the market, Rowley doesn’t expect traffic to go down all that much.

But what will change, however, is the messaging, he said, as newsletters pursue different coronavirus-related topics in order to keep the content fresh.

Stories about the reopening of markets, heartwarming features of people on the front lines and profiles of stores successfully reinventing their business model have all been among the strongest newsletter performers – and there are plenty more of these stories to tell.

The dramatic increase in signups and high engagement with content during the coronavirus pandemic is reassuring.

It also validates Advance Local’s core mission and underscores the potency of one of its best-performing email subject lines to date: “Please support the journalism you rely on.”

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