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Essential metrics and diagnostics for effective newsletters

Your newsletter subscribers are trying to tell you something, but are you tracking the right metrics to hear them?

Learning from and iterating upon even the simplest elements of your newsletter can lead to powerful insights and improvements for your newsletter and audience, as we discussed in Designing a Data-Driven Newsletter.

Curators traditionally rely on three standard metrics to gauge newsletter effectiveness: open rate, click-thru rate and subscription rate. Yet these alone don’t provide a complete picture of newsletter health. Conversely, collecting every possible data point does not guarantee fitness. Too many curators waste time collecting data simply for the sake of collecting, rather than using analytics to diagnose and improve.

“Too many curators waste time collecting data simply for the sake of collecting, rather than using analytics to diagnose and improve.”

So how should you efficiently monitor the effectiveness of your newsletters? The answer depends on your response to one question: Why is it that you want to curate a newsletter in the first place?

Not every metric is valuable for every newsletter, so below we’ve outlined recommended metrics to help you achieve your specific desired newsletter outcomes. We’ve noted which intentions each metric is most relevant for, what known industry standards you can use to judge progress, and suggestions for testing and iteration if and-or when your analytics leave something to be desired.

However, while industry standards can be a helpful gauge, the most successful newsletter curators have left them in the dust by building data into every decision, striving for constant improvement and iteration rather than a status quo.

Metrics and analytics can help you improve deliverability, relevance or growth of your newsletter — but only if you use them. Poor performance in any of these data points is a symptom, not a diagnosis. For example, in “Diagnostics and testing” you’ll find suggestions for testing and iteration to get at the heart of low performance. The diagnosis may be any number of possible issues, which are easy to narrow down through A/B testing. So, if your analytics aren’t telling you what you want to hear, use these suggestions to begin improving.  

“Metrics and analytics can help you improve deliverability, relevance or growth of your newsletter — but only if you use them.”

Spam and blacklisting

Especially important to track for: All newsletter intentions.

Why you should track it: Tells you the percentage of delivered email messages that generate spam complaints. Of the 11,680 messages the average email user receives each year, roughly 74 percent are automatically filtered into spam or junk folders, according to TechCrunch. However, many newsrooms focus on growth in list numbers rather than inbox placement, reducing the likelihood of regular list hygiene that would reduce spam or junk folder filtering. Bernice Fung of Return Path explains that “major mailbox providers like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! rely on both sender reputation and subscriber engagement metrics to make spam-filtering decisions. A high bounce rate is seen as a strong indicator of poor sending practices and low engagement, which can prompt mailbox providers to filter or even block email.”

Industry standard: No known standards.

Diagnostics and testing: If your spam or blacklist rate is high, it might be your:

  • List hygiene: Do you regularly clean your newsletter subscriber list to remove hard bounce or dead emails?
  • Design: Is an “email preferences” or “unsubscribe” button clearly visible at the footer of your template?
  • Trustworthiness: Are you seen as a reliable and legitimate source to open?
  • Heavy marketing: Does your newsletter appear to be a sales pitch?
  • Frequency: Are you sending your newsletter more often than subscribers want?
  • Bulk subscriptions: Did you pay to add subscribers to your list that have no idea how they got signed up?
  • Relevance: Are you sending content that is interesting to your subscribers?
  • Single opt-in sign-up: Are subscribers required to confirm that they want to receive your email in the first place (double opt-in)? 

Open rate

Why you should track it: Tells you the average percent of subscribers that open your newsletter.

Especially important to track for: All newsletter intentions.

Industry standard: 22.08 percent for media (MailChimp).

Diagnostics and testing: If your open rate is low, it might be your:

  • Subject line composition: Is it relevant, urgent or of interest to your subscribers?
  • “From” contact name or email: Do your subscribers recognize who it’s coming from?
  • Timing: Are you sending it at an ideal time for your subscribers?
  • Frequency: Are you sending it too frequently? Not frequently enough?
  • List hygiene: Are spam filters, blacklists or filters getting in your way?
  • Relevance: Are you sending content that is interesting to your subscribers in the format they want it in?

Subscription rate

Why you should track it: Tells you how easily new subscribers discover and sign up for your newsletter.

Especially important to track for: All newsletter intentions.

Industry standard: 1 percent to 2 percent is slow, anything over 10 percent is robust (SilverPop); aim for linear growth, not exponential.

Diagnostics and testing: If your subscription rate is low, it might be your:

  • Marketing: Is it easy for prospective subscribers to learn that your newsletter exists? 
  • Sign-up: Is your newsletter sign-up form obvious to find? How many steps is the sign-up process? Do you require a single or a double opt-in sign up?
  • Call to action: Are you galvanizing current subscribers to help you recruit more?
  • Social media shortcuts: Have you made it easy for subscribers to click and share content directly from your email?

Unsubscribe rate

Especially important to track for: All newsletter intentions.

Why you should track it: Tells you how many subscribers no longer find your newsletter relevant or necessary.

Industry Standard: From 0.069 percent (IBM) to 0.12 percent (MailChimp).

Diagnostics and testing: If your unsubscribe rate is high, it might be your:

  • Relevance: Are you sending content that is interesting to your subscribers in the format they want it in?
  • Marketing: Do your newsletters deliver on the promise of your current marketing?
  • Subject line composition: Do your subject lines relate to the content included in your newsletters?
  • Bulk subscriptions: Did you pay to add subscribers to your list rather than inviting them to opt-in? Did you require a subscription to access a one-time perk?

Click-thru rate

Especially important to track for: Curators of newsletters intended to drive traffic to a separate, primary news platform.

Why you should track it: Tells you how many email messages draw at least a single click. You may also chose to track click-to-open rate, a quick and dirty measure of subscriber engagement, determined by dividing the number of unique clicks by the number of total recipients.

Industry standard (click-thru rate): From 2.7 percent (IBM) to 6.10 percent (Smart Insights).

Industry standard (click-to-open rate): From 13 to 30 percent (Smart Insights and IBM).

Diagnostics and testing: If your click-thru rate is low, it might be your:

  • Design: Are your hyperlinks obviously hyperlinks? Is it clear where each URL will lead the subscriber?
  • Trustworthiness: Do your links look reliable and legitimate to click on? Do you have a high spam rating?
  • Relevance: Are you sending content that is interesting to your subscribers?
  • Content length: Is content in a format that incentivizes clicking to learn more? Can a subscriber read everything they need to know in the body of your email or does it require them to click to a different platform?

Read rate

Especially important to track for: Curators of newsletters intended to:

  • Increase audience loyalty or branding.
  • Serve as the primary platform for informing subscribers.

Why you should track it: Tells you how much time subscribers are actually spending reading your newsletter, or how far through in the newsletter they scroll. Considered to capture the true “open rate” of an email by distinguishing between reading, skimming and glancing. This is an essential metric for self-contained email models.

Industry standard: While industry standards for read-rates are evolving, IBM suggests a 25 percent for glance (less than two seconds), 22 percent for skim (between two and eight seconds), and 53 percent for read (eight or more seconds) as possible standards.

Diagnostics and testing: If your read-rate rate is low, it might be your:

  • Relevance: Are you sending content that is interesting to your subscribers?
  • Layout: Is your template structured for a positive user experience?
  • Content length: Is content in a format that incentivizes continued reading of the email to learn more? Can a subscriber read everything they need to know in the body of your email, or does it require them to click to a different platform? Is there enough content within the body of the email to keep subscribers engaged for more than eight seconds?

Sharing (email and social)

Especially important to track for: Curators of newsletters intended to:

  • Increase audience loyalty or branding.
  • Convert readers into paying subscribers or donors.

Why you should track it: Tells you how actively engaged subscribers are with your newsletter product and brand.

Industry standard: No known standards.

Diagnostics and testing: If subscribers aren’t sharing your newsletter or content, it might be your:

  • Calls to action: Have you asked subscribers or incentivized sharing in any way? Do you call out or reward subscribers who share your content?
  • Social media shortcuts: Have you made it easy for subscribers to click and share content directly from your email?

Curators that carefully track metrics relevant to the specific intention of their newsletter have an advantage: They gain valuable insight into what their subscribers want from their product without ever needing to ask directly. By using the diagnostics tool above, any lagging analytics you encounter become an opportunity to discover what your subscribers want, and how to best deliver it. Whatever your intention, you can turn to these metrics to diagnose, test and achieve specific goals to improve the health for your newsletter.

We’ll be back in two weeks with monetization opportunities to turn your newsletter revenue neutral, or even revenue positive.

Fourth in a series to help newsrooms curate effective newsletters.

  1. Why send a newsletter at all?
  2. The Ann Friedman Weekly: How one freelance journalist created a massively successful newsletter
  3. Test, test, test! Designing a data-driven newsletter

Newsrooms can no longer afford to distribute poorly curated newsletters. Yet executives from many modern newsrooms say they lack the financial and staff capacity to do otherwise.

In early 2017, Crosscut Public Media, in partnership with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, will be releasing a new, free tool for newsrooms and newsletter curators to begin addressing this challenge. The team has bundled a powerful package of best practices, strategies and resources into one digital newsletter wizard, which walks newsrooms and independent writers through the essential planning, considerations and decisions needed to curate effective newsletters.

Leading up to this release, we’ll share weekly posts to help prepare your newsroom for the tool, and to highlight teams and individuals who are succeeding at curating effective and engaging newsletters.

Tamara Power-Drutis  
   
Institutional fellow

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz  
 
Guest blogger




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