Email's Next Act: It's Still About ‘the List' Wasn't It Supposed to Be Dead by Now?

For two decades, digerati positioned every peer-to-peer communication innovation as a modern replacement for that creaky, ancient inbox. From chat rooms to IM, social messengers to SMS, chatbots to mobile alerts, we were told, new generations of—(pick one) Gen-Xers, Millennials, Zs—were poised to embrace anything but their parents’ email...

For two decades, digerati positioned every peer-to-peer communication innovation as a modern replacement for that creaky, ancient inbox. From chat rooms to IM, social messengers to SMS, chatbots to mobile alerts, we were told, new generations of—(pick one) Gen-Xers, Millennials, Zs—were poised to embrace anything but their parents’ email habits.

And yet, far from creaky or dead, magazine newsletters especially are enjoying an ever-expanding, data-infused role driving not only traffic but retention, subscriptions and e-commerce.

“In December, we had the highest amount of traffic from email ever in the organization,” Meredith’s executive director of growth, Andrea Reynolds, tells Folio:. The share of overall traffic to individual brands varies widely (as low as 2 percent in some cases), but also goes north of 20 percent for others.

This comes as the email channel overall struggles with ISP spam filters and inbox clutter. “Open rates are pretty down in recent years as are even click rates,” says Bryan Jenkins, director of sales for email validation and data services provider EmailOversight.

Not so much for magazines, which bring to email their traditional strengths in compelling content and careful list management. “We have seen the opposite,” says Andrew Perell, director of email strategy and operations at Condé Nast. “We see an increase in open rates over the last few years.”

Email remains the golden channel for magazines because these opted-in subscribers continue to be the most broadly valuable to the company. They come more often, read more pages and can be aimed more precisely at content and promotions, says Reynolds.

“And now more than ever, with ad dollars waning and social traffic patterns changing, it has become very important to diversify our revenue sources,” says Perell. As Condé Nast adds metered paywalls to more titles, and affiliate revenue plays a bigger role, email readers are the most pre-qualified customers for a number of offers.

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“Newsletter visitors convert at a higher subscription rate across desktop and mobile,” says Dwayne Sheppard, VP of consumer marketing at Condé Nast. Mobile subscribers to the Vanity Fair newsletter, for instance, are three times more likely to convert.

“There is a big push this year to convert our less engaged audiences from search and social to email,” Perell adds. “Email is the gateway.”

Teaching an old list new tricks

But for publishers to keep ahead of the pressures on the email channel, traditional magazine list management is getting an upgrade. “It is all about email acquisition quality over quantity,” says Reynolds. “We evaluate different sources and try to capture email addresses as people exit the site. Then we layer on top of that where they come from and maximize the sources that are giving us users that are engaged over time.”

This sort of list hygiene and oversight of user experience is critical for anyone using the email channel, says Jenkins. “The misconception in email has been that if they are first-party-generated leads, then it doesn’t matter how often I send or what I send. You have to make sure it is the most optimal and deliverable list before sending.”

At Penske Media, new subscribers are often segmented as they board, says Matthew Kirkwood, senior email manager. “One way is to acquire them through different verticals. has content for political, country music and so on, so when we see a user on those pages, we try to promote them to sign up for that newsletter.”

Keeping content relevant and the email cadence right for each brand is critical. Kirkwood says that subscribers to their Deadline Hollywood product can handle 10 or more breaking news alerts a day without damaging engagement. But at Rolling Stone, they will send a daily email and direct users to an “opt-down” preference page so users can regulate the amount of messaging they receive. “It does decrease our opt-outs by a significant amount and overall increases engagement,” Kirkwood says.

E-commerce buying guides and affiliate links have become increasingly important to publishers this past year, but this additional messaging can put even more pressure on the list. Most publishers, like Meredith and Condé Nast, have found ways to incorporate affiliate links into the standard newsletter editorial. “That is found money that we don’t need a new product for,” says Perell.

Condé Nast has been experimenting with including e-commerce content in content newsletters and inviting users to opt in to new newsletters. And Meredith’s Reynolds stresses that it is critical to distinguish content and commerce experiences. “Purely shopping-focused promotion emails have a distinct cadence and separate opt-in. If you want to consume content from a brand, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to shop from that brand.”

But when it comes to converting free content users into digital and print subscribers, which will be centrally important to Condé Nast this year, content is undisputed king.

“Marketing subscriptions used to be all about transactions, with little personality,” says Sheppard. “It was almost cold.” But with an online content product that includes magazine, apps, web content, podcast and video, “it is important to get that information out to subscribers to let them know the value of their subscription,” he says. At Condé, marketing and content are coming closer together to good effect. For instance, during a 12 week trial offer for The New Yorker, Sheppard has shown that getting that user back to the site even once or twice during the trial increases retention 7 percent.

How personal is personal?

Vanity Fair’s Hive: The Players newsletter

While content is magazine media’s biggest edge in the email channel, the tools are becoming more sophisticated. “Our content strategists look at the data to understand the content that most resonates with that audience and writing it in a way that is specific to email,” says Reynolds. Article headlines in her titles’ newsletters, for instance, are often different from those on site. Online editors are maximizing search engine keyword visibility—“which isn’t what resonates from an email, which is more of direct marketing channel” where action-oriented headlines perform better, she says.

Magazine media also have a trove of detailed behavioral data about site use and content interactions they can leverage with a host of new tools for dynamic content insertion and the like. Condé Nast is starting to explore what Perell calls this “third level” of personalization beyond basic segmentation and targeting. “It takes editorial content and tailors it to individuals based on content consumption history.”

But while email is technically capable of hyper-personalization, the jury is still out on whether it’s worth publishers’ effort. For a large multi-title publisher like Meredith, Reynolds finds that the most efficient personalization is at the level of “lifecycle contact,” or the cadence and types of emails a user sees from the company based on their interactions with the sites. While Meredith has tested more detailed personalization of email content, “it never really had enough of a lift for us to justify the expense and complexity it added into the process.”

Jenkins says that hyper-personalization is not always best for large publishers with massive data-sets. “You get into conversations about is it cost-effective to be so specific that you are almost creating campaigns for that user.” Often smaller brands and niche publishers will see a bigger lift from these techniques.

Self-personalization is a promising approach at Condé. It is seeing tremendous response to Vanity Fair’s “The Players” section, which lets users sign up to follow and receive email content about specific celebrities and to nano-niche e-letters like “Royal Watch.”

“It is our highest performing newsletter at Condé Nast,” says Sheppard.

Still no contenders

While many peer-to-peer messaging channels vie for user attention, magazine publishers remain focused mainly on email with only tentative forays into emerging media. Penske’s Kirkwood says that he would like to explore synchronizing email and mobile app alerts. At another company, he experienced a 10X lift in conversion rates when customers got push and email in tandem.

At Meredith, Reynolds says that alternatives like social messaging and chatbots tend to take people away from their sites, “but one channel we are really excited about is push browser notifications. We have done some testing recently and seen some really good success. We will be spreading it across the portfolio this year.”

But generally, email remains at the core of the modern magazine’s new vision of “the list” because it has survived and thrived against countless contenders.

As Jenkins quips, “Email is the cockroach of communications. It will never go away. The cockroach always comes back no matter how big the explosion.”

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