From inbox to impact: five key tactics for newsletter success

By Catherine Komp

Newsletter Editor

What’s the secret behind newsletters that see steady growth, that keep readers hooked and turn them into financial supporters? There’s an art and science to it, says David Grant, head of growth with Blue Engine Collaborative.

David Grant, Blue Engine Collaborative

“A newsletter is not just a newsletter. It’s the way that you capture a relationship or start a relationship or keep a conversation going with somebody who really cares about the work that you’re producing,” said Grant.

Here in North Carolina, readers have some terrific newsletter options. Many are waiting in your inbox each morning with a rundown of local news. Some are the primary platform for original reporting. Others help you navigate, enjoy or feel connected to your town or region. 

For publishers, newsletters are increasingly playing a bigger role in audience and revenue strategies, where email is gold.

“A thread that runs through almost every aspect of local news business models today is ‘How many emails you got? How quality are they? And what are you doing with them?’” said Grant.

Blue Engine Collaborative has worked with 1000+ publishers around the world on audience and revenue strategies, and recently designed a newsletter bootcamp for the NC Local News Workshop. Six local news and information organizations took part in the six-week-long program, including NC Local. Some were optimizing existing newsletters, others were focusing on launching new ones. 

Today, we’re sharing some of what we learned to help inspire you to give your newsletters a closer look and see what changes might spur growth, engagement and revenue for your news and information organizations. 

More control, more data

First, a bit of the why you should be directing time and resources to your newsletter(s). We’ve all seen social platform engagement and reach tank at the whims of big tech companies and their algorithms. You may have mastered SEO, but Google’s new AI summaries threaten news-related search

But with email, the “original push notification,” you are in much more control. You decide what your newsletter looks like, how much content it has, the tone and frequency (even pressing pause if your team needs a break). The data is richer, providing you with information on when people are reading, what’s being clicked and who your most engaged subscribers are (which you can then leverage through targeted campaigns). You can gather demographic and psychographic information about your audience, helping you better understand them and meet their needs.

And, while some publishers are monetizing their newsletters through subscriptions, sponsorships or funding appeals, Grant says news organizations are just scratching the surface when it comes to using them to generate revenue. 

“It’s a really powerful space for local news organizations and we think it has a lot of promise, especially as they start thinking about revenue expansion, geographic expansion, etc. It’s a really great place to start building,” said Grant. 

Five building blocks for newsletter success

This Spring’s newsletter bootcamp kicked off with two intensive trainings led by Blue Engine Collaborative’s Tim Griggs, Cierra Hinton, and David Grant (who was NC Local’s coach).  We covered a lot, too much to tackle during our six week bootcamp, but it lifted the curtain on some of the proven tactics to help your newsletter grow and thrive and gave participants plenty of options for our punch lists.

Rose Hoban, NC Health News editor

NC Health News Founder, Editor and Lead Reporter Rose Hoban says their twice-weekly newsletter saw a big bump in subscribers during the pandemic. And every so often, they’d carve out time to refresh the format. But they knew they could do more. 

“We really felt like we needed to use the newsletter more effectively. We hadn’t really made a lot of changes in the past couple of years,” said Hoban. “We just needed to use the newsletter better as a tool, and so we were looking to help that process along.”

We’ll cover five of the building blocks we learned about during the bootcamp today, using NC Health News and NC Local as mini case studies and sharing insights and advice from Blue Engine Collaborative. 

1. Build a strong foundation

One of the most important building blocks is getting your audience value proposition right. Saying you offer a “free daily/weekly newsletter” isn’t enough, says Grant.

“If our services are going to go where we need them to go, we need to make them attractive to people that aren’t already interested in journalism products,” said Grant. “That’s our mission to our communities, to get many more people engaged— not just the people that believe in journalism already.”

An audience value proposition (AVP) is a statement of why customers (or readers in our case) should choose you. Bootcamp teams reflected on existing AVPs: Were they clear? Compelling? Relevant to the audience? Did they communicate what’s unique about your newsletter? 

Before the bootcamp, the AVP wasn’t on the radar for NC Health News. They had one, but hadn’t given it much thought. They ended up spending about three weeks with Coach Cierra Hinton drilling down on what they wanted to communicate. Here’s the transformation:


Keep up with the latest health news.


Good health is more than your diet and exercise routine or the medications you take. 

It’s affordable insurance. It’s safe drinking water. It’s knowing what to look for in a home for your aging parent. It’s accessing quality care when you need it from a trusted, local provider. 

It can be hard to figure out what complicated laws and corporate policies mean for your everyday life: Your health, family, care choices, and your wallet. NC Health News is here to break down how health policies ultimately affect you.

“It was among the most valuable things that we got out of it as a team,” said Development Director Anna MacDonald. “It’s simple but not easy to switch from talking about how we work to why our work matters for our readers. It’s become part of grant applications, a part of our fundraising materials, pretty much any public facing communications that we’re doing, we’ve quickly integrated that in.” 

Want to audit your own AVP? Check out these resources from The Audiencers and Membership Puzzle Project.


2. Metrics matter

You probably check your open rate in the hours/days after a newsletter goes out. But what other other data points are you looking at? Are you tracking these over time? Here are a few things you should be measuring:

✔ Where are people signing up? 

✔ How many are signing up and leaving your list each month?

✔ How many are clicking through?

✔ What’s your conversion rate?

✔ How many are most or least engaged? 

✔ How many of your emails are bouncing?

NC Health News said after they started looking at more metrics, they saw some opportunities for “list maintenance.” One of the biggest ones was the growing number of bounce backs, spurred by Google and Yahoo’s inbox changes (read more about that here and be sure your SPF, DKIM & DMARC are up to date). 

Hoban says when they discovered 20 bounce backs were coming from one health-focused organization, she called them up and asked them to “whitelist” NC Health News. 

They also deleted subscribers who hadn’t opened emails since January 2023 and sent a “don’t go away” appeal to about 2800 others, getting 200 of them to re-engage. 

The results, their open rate shot up. 


3. Your audience knows best

Looking at the data helps you understand what your audience is doing, but are you making efforts to get to know who they are and what they think? 

“There are a lot of ways to help somebody that you care about, but the number one way is to listen to them,” says Grant. “There’s passive listening, which is looking at the analytics, we see what people are doing, so you can sort of understand their behavior right now. But a deeper way to show care for them is to ask them what they think, see what you can define from that and see if you can give people more of what they want and less of what they don’t want.” 

That can take the form of an audience survey, call outs in your newsletter, a pop-up on your site, listening sessions and one-on-one conversations. But the value, emphasizes Grant, isn’t in gathering these insights.

“The value is in using it for something, so you have to gather it, then use it to inform what you’re covering, or inform how you’re doing your marketing or your events,” said Grant. 


4. First impressions 

Bootcamp participants also took a look at the user experience for discovering and signing up for a newsletter. Where and how is it promoted on your site? (Nav bar? Buttons? Pop-ups? In-article ads or toasters?) Is your AVP prominent and consistent? How many steps does a user have to go through to sign up? 

For NC Local, we needed a newsletter landing page. Without this, we didn’t have a compelling way to promote the newsletter to potential subscribers.

After getting some guidance and inspiration from David and studying some examples, we wrote some calls-to-action, gathered testimonials, worked up some easy-to-skim copy and made new graphics. Here’s what we were using before (Mailchimp’s archive link) and our new and improved glow-up

But first impressions need more than a newsletter landing page. Another strategy NC Local, NC Health News and others looked at was the onboarding experience for new subscribers. How did we welcome them? Was it one email or a sequence? How could we use that sequence to not only introduce our product but to do some of that listening we talked about in #3. 

“We’ve initiated a whole new five email welcome series,” said Hoban. “The first email, then one 48 hours later, then two weeks, then a month, and then at three months we ask people to participate in our survey.” 

Once you write that sequence, the rest is automated in your email provider platform. You just need to set a reminder to refresh or update the copy every few months. 

Grant says this is one of the ways of building that healthy habit of checking in with your audience.

“It’s a step along a journey of being a listening organization, being an audience-centric organization,” said Grant. “See how they talk about your service, see how they conceptualize what they’re getting from you. That helps you understand the value you’re delivering and helps you speak to them in a way that matches the value that they’re getting.”


5. It takes a team

Newsletter products shouldn’t be the responsibility of one staffer or department, even at a small news and information organization. It can be tricky, even uncomfortable to establish new workflows across teams but the benefits are numerous, says Grant. 

“These are cross functional projects. The main thing is having a commitment to that, that we all have to work together to make this thing useful,” said Grant. “Newsletters require collaboration and we think that’s a very good thing and requires people to stretch into new disciplines, which also is more work. But also it’s fun. For people that like learning new things, this is a really rich area to grow and expand into.”

NC Health News brought a team of four staffers to the bootcamp who don’t normally work closely together, including Hoban, MacDonald, Children’s Health Reporter Jennifer Fernandez and Engagement Director Tyler Auffhammer. 

“It is so much better to have more people giving input into the newsletter,” said Hoban. “You need a couple sets of eyes on it to sort of say ‘Hey, you know what, let’s try this?’ and you need to also empower them to say ‘Let’s try this.’”

MacDonald says the collaborative work is also helping the team see the newsletter as a flexible tool, rather than “this is a thing that we do.”

After the bootcamp wrapped up, NC Health News started a Slack channel to keep the momentum going on newsletter strategy and optimization. They use it to share resources, get feedback and chat about new approaches. 

“We can experiment with this and gauge whether something is working or not and if it’s not, we’ll just move on and kind of check that box. And if we do hit on something that works and we keep rolling,” said MacDonald. 

A big thank you to Blue Engine Collaborative and coaches David, Cierra and Tim (read their post on the bootcamp here), as well as Shannan Bowen and the NC Local News Workshop for organizing and subsidizing this bootcamp.


Want to learn more from the participants? Sign up for their newsletters: 

➡️ The Assembly

➡️ Border Belt Independent

➡️ CityView

➡️ NC Health News

➡️ WUNC (which just launched their new Politics newsletter)

Looking for more inspiration? Read 52 Ways to Grow Your Email List and 25 Ways to Measure the Success of Your Newsletter from Dan Oshinsky’s Inbox Collective. Learn from international publishers’ expertise with The Audiencers. And keep your eyes out for next year’s second annual Newsletter Conference.

NC Local News Workshop