Dan Oshinsky runs Inbox Collective, a consultancy that works with news organizations, non-profits, and brands to grow audiences, build relationships, and convert readers to subscribers, members, donors, or customers via email. He also writes Not a Newsletter, a monthly Google Docs-based guide to sending emails that has since become one of the most-read briefings in the industry.
Dan was the founding Newsletter Editor at BuzzFeed and the first Director of Newsletters at The New Yorker. At BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, his teams launched more than 40 newsletters, creating growth strategies to build some of the most-read emails on the web. As a cross-functional team they developed Courses, an automated email series and built custom ad products and consumer revenue strategies for email.
Dan shares with us his best advice for publishers to build, grow and convert an email audience.
Publishers are always asking how to build an email audience, engage an email audience, turn that email audience into paying subscribers, members, donors… and a lot of times they’re looking for tricks, or hidden tactics or shortcuts to figure out how to do the things they want with email. The truth is, for most publishers in 2022, the answer to all of the questions “How do I build, grow, engage, and convert an email audience?” is really simple. It’s in listening to your audience.
And so let me explain what that means. Most publishers think what happens when you launch a daily newsletter is you go out and [as you go] you’ll figure out what the format is for that daily newsletter. Usually what I find is that publishers tend to copy a newsletter that they like or a newsletter they think is a competitor to theirs, and they’ll use that as the model. Now that sometimes works, but it often doesn’t.
I would encourage most publishers to be creative about how they want to structure the newsletter and what kind of job the newsletter is going to do for their audience, making sure they understand that once you’ve launched the newsletter, whatever it is. Then comes the exciting part which is actually talking to your audience, and by talking to your audience I mean opening up to asking specific questions, and encouraging readers to reply. They should be telling you what they like, what they don’t like, what they want more of, and in particular, what this newsletter needs, how it’s feeling for them. Then also doing it through surveys.
Surveys and calls
Surveys could be the one-click kind of surveys. Offer some feedback – Let us know. Do you like this? You want more of this? You know, just a single click and give us feedback there. Or it can be through longer, more detailed surveys around the needs of the audience. What you’re doing well, always asking what could we do better? For many publishers this might even mean asking your most engaged readers if they feel comfortable hopping on a Zoom call or the phone to answer some questions about what they like, what they don’t like, what they want more of: all of these sorts of things. And what you’ll find is, if you spend enough time listening to your audience, talking with them and asking questions, you’ll start to notice themes.
You’ll start to notice that there are certain trends in terms of what the audience says they like or don’t like. You’ll start to notice that there is a certain language they use. Your challenge, once you start to learn what the audience likes or doesn’t like, is to then figure out:
- How to adapt the newsletter, to adjust to the formats they want, to offer more content they want,
- How to adjust the marketing on the website, on a pop up, on a sign up form, to really express to readers “Here’s what this newsletter does best.”
Think about utilizing the language that your audience is using and then using that feedback from your audience to adjust.
“How do we market a potential subscription, membership, donation-based approach based on what the audience says?”
The more that you spend time listening to your audience, the more that they will direct you towards opportunities to build a better newsletter product: to grow an audience, to convert an audience. I find overwhelmingly that the publishers that struggle the most in this space, the ones that struggle to convert an audience, to build an audience, to engage an audience, are the ones who also spend the least amount of time actually talking to the audience.
Finding the time
I know every publisher says: “I don’t have time for this. I’m so busy. There are so many things to do”. But this is essential. It is core to what you do as a business. If you are not going to make time to listen to your audience, to ask them questions, try to figure out how to better serve them well then you need to think about what your role is as an organization Ultimately, we’re all here to serve our readers, to serve our listeners, to serve our subscribers, and to tell stories that are going to impact them, create change for them, and do right by them. If you’re not making time to listen to your audience, that says to me you’re not making time to really build the best possible product that you can. That’s the biggest thing. All of the channels for growth, engagement, conversion, all of these are tied to audience listening. And there is no real shortcut other than to say; we’re going to make time for this every day, every week, every month to make sure that we’re building a great product for them.
Tools and tips
What tools are out there to help you collect information to listen to your audience?
There are the obvious ones; the survey tools like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey or Typeform. These are all great for one click, really simple surveys.
There’s a tool called Feedletter that’s lovely, really easy to implement for any type of newsletter, and there may also be other sorts of products out there that you’re using. I’m thinking of the team at Hearken and the forms they’ve built to do audience listening. These are all tools that are out there, that you can adapt and use to build the right forums, to collect feedback, and to listen.
The most important thing, though, besides these types of forms is just making sure that you have a place that readers can reply to if they have questions and they want to share feedback. Set up a shared inbox among your team and make sure that the inbox is actually manned by your team, that people are checking this on a daily basis. Check that they’re writing back and replying to readers. We find that often teams will set up some sort of email address where people can write back, but then they never check the emails, which of course, defeats the point of all of this. Make sure that you’re putting your subscribers first. You can’t do this work without them, so make sure you’re making time for them every single day.
At the New Yorker, for instance, we had a shared inbox, and the first thing I did every single morning when I came into the office was to spend a few minutes going through emails from readers and replying. It took a lot of time, but that was OK. We knew that the New Yorker was a subscriber-driven business, and if we weren’t going to spend time listening to those subscribers, we were in trouble as an organization.
I would encourage you to do the same. Make it a priority. Whatever you’re working on, if you launch an inbox like this, make sure you’re actually making time to listen and reply to that audience.
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