From — April 9th, 2018
An interview with Annemarie Dooling of Vox Media on how they use email to drive more readers back to their sites.
I never would have guessed a book about burlesque could teach us something about newsletter engagement. Or that one person could successfully wrangle over 400+ monthly newsletters across 8 brands. But those are just some of the ways that my conversation with Annemarie Dooling, self-described “reader whisperer” for Vox, kinda blew my mind.
Before Annemarie stepped into the newly-created role last fall, she told me that “newsletters at Vox were sort of a tertiary project to work on when you had extra time. And every brand in the company was figuring it out on their own.” But after Annemarie and her team’s aggressive reader acquisition tactics for Racked grew their list to over 230,000 subscribers, Vox put her in charge of applying their strategies to all Vox brands.
Our conversation touched on successful growth tactics, attention to traffic sources, successful re-engagement campaigns, and how newsletter subscribers are amongst the most engaged readers online.
I was running the programming at Racked.com, and we had done some experimental things with our newsletter because we were small and no one was watching us. So we changed our newsletter completely — first from an RSS feed to a curated newsletter, then from a curated, handwritten newsletter to something that was more seriously pegged on shopping. So, we had affiliate links, we had discount codes, we had shopping recommendations, we had product reviews, and then that’s sort of the point when the newsletter really started to hit its stride. And soon our list ballooned up to 230,000 subscribers! We had a Facebook group for our readers to discuss things with each other, and we were making money off the affiliate links too. That was sort of the moment when the company was like, “Okay we need that to happen across all the brands,” and so they made this position.
So now I sort of do that with all of them, although it seems like most of my job is things like deliverability, and sender reputation, and templates, and things that no one else at the company understands. So my job sort of spans between that. And, it’s just me. Each brand has someone who is responsible for putting their newsletter together, and only Eater.com has a dedicated newsletter editor. All of the other brands have editors who have a myriad of other duties who also put the newsletter together. So it’s not always forefront in their mind, which is why I do a lot of hand-holding — everything from helping them build a complete strategy, to technical troubleshooting. So my role is sort of unique in the company in that I am embedded in each brand, and what I do for each brand is completely different.
A lot of training. I had to train our editors on how to respond to newsletter readers, which I didn’t anticipate. I started as a community manager, so I always come from this place of you have to reply to people when they email you or respond to you. But it’s been really interesting, and I’m hearing from a lot of other news sites that you actually do need to sit down with someone and be like, “This is a person that you respond to. This is just aggravating, do not respond to it.” So that’s been really fun for me.
Well, first of all, you do not have to respond to every single person. Recently, I heard that one editor got several hundred replies to a newsletter and she did respond to every person. She made a Google spreadsheet and made checks next to them. And I wasn’t aware she was doing it ’til she was done and I was like, “Oh my god you must have spent so much time on this!”
But I also teach people to reply in a way that’s just like you’re talking to your friend. Don’t think you’re replying to a business or a marketing email. And also, asking yourself if that might lead into any other content? Is there anything this person is saying that we can use to hook them in a tiny bit more? Are they giving you a quote that we can use somewhere? Is it a nugget of an idea for a story?
I wrote for Racked about a year ago how much I hate jeans. I hate them, they’re so uncomfortable. And I wrote this whole missive about it. And I got 20 replies, most of them from older women, which was great because it was an audience we had not considered. Ever. And I got all these replies from women 60-plus who were just like, “I haven’t worn jeans since 1965.” So, first of all it was adorable, but it also gave us this really good idea that there are people reading our content that we hadn’t even considered in this different age group that are shopping and looking for specific things.
I’m a pretty aggressive audience development manager, and I knew we had to grow it fast. We put newsletter sign-ups across every single post on the site. We did pretty much everything that you can do to alert people that we had a newsletter. Because, the list was maybe eight years old but it was dormant for quite some time. And the people who had initially signed up for the list had signed up for a sample sales list, which is really nothing like what we were doing anymore. It took a lot of re-engagement campaigns, and weeding the list so it was healthy enough to arrive in inboxes again.
Our success was a big combination of just being super aggressive and smart about strategy and not quite so much about nitpicking about content. Obviously the content is super important, but there’s this whole other realm of things that no one at the company was even thinking about because they were more technical or a little bit more marketing-y.
It’s very different for each brand. But the thing I like to always tell the brand is that they should utilize every single tool that they have at their disposal.
We try to figure out where the bulk of traffic is coming from and how we can, in a way that’s native to that platform, seamlessly encourage people without being too pushy. Without pop-ups, without that kind of thing. But like, “Hey you enjoyed this. Here’s this thing over here,” and get them to sign up.
So to that end, we saw that we were getting a lot of traffic through Google AMP. So we had our product team spend a very, very long time creating a newsletter sign-up that would work on Google AMP because our tool just did not work — it would disappear if you opened the post in Google AMP. The sign-up prompt would just go away. And that’s where most of our traffic was coming through, so it was mind-boggling and upsetting to me on multiple levels. So we created the sign-up prompt for Google AMP and sites that are using it are seeing an uptick in subscribers.
And then we did the same thing for Apple News, because we noticed that there were some brands (The Verge and Recode), that just kill it on Apple News. It’s totally their audience. It’s people who want to hear from them — every alert that they send out gets a great response. So we created a way for them to have newsletter sign-ups through Apple News and that’s been working really well for them, too.
Yeah, they’re mostly mobile readers. We tend to break our audience down by where they come from [in terms of traffic]. And newsletter readers spend significantly more time on-site than readers from any other platform.
I pulled the numbers last month and newsletter readers were spending about a minute fifty seconds [1:50] on the site, and about a page and a half, usually a little bit more. Whereas Facebook readers would spend 40 seconds on the site and weren’t even reading an entire page. They’re just zipping in and out, they’re clicking a link and then gone. Which, even for mobile, is very quick. So it was a pretty significant difference.
It became pretty obvious to me that the newsletter readers were a group that, although they were significantly smaller, we could put things in the bottom of the page that they might read or share. We can think a little bit differently about how they are viewing things.
And then of course this is obviously a group that likes to engage more. They want to speak to us. They want to talk to us. Vox.com had a video series called Borders and had a corresponding newsletter, and they had asked their newsletter readers, “we want to share this video in other languages on YouTube, but we cannot write the SRT files because we don’t speak these languages natively.” And their newsletter readers transcribed the SRT files in other languages for them. So that newsletter audience is not only more engaged from a statistical standpoint (reading, time on site), but just overall wants to have the back and forth, and the relationship with the news that they’re reading, more than our other audiences.
I certainly look at clicks as a measure of the health of the overall newsletter program. I look at open rates and click-through rates. And some of our brands do better in page views via newsletters than they do via other social networks. Eater gets more traffic from newsletters than Twitter. So that is certainly a measure to me that we’re healthy, but engagement is probably my top ROI.
I want people to return. I want them to share with people. I want them to respond to us and get a response back. So things like that are top KPIs for me. When I put my reports together for my executives, I will definitely put at the top that Sally from Curbed got 200 responses to her last email, over how many page views we got.
We use LiveIntent, which I think a lot of other people do. But we’re starting to experiment with using newsletters with our branded content. So we have branded content that lives across the sites and across other social networks, and we’ve just created templates for how it will live in our newsletters as well in a way that’s unobtrusive but also you know it’s branded content — it’s good content, it’s just also branded. So you might click on the Panera Bread ad, you might not. But you definitely know that it’s an ad.
We ran a test on Racked where we did a timed email, a journey. It was called, “Get your shit together,” and it was sort of a spring cleaning thing, but during the fall. It was like, okay you want to clean out your closet or get your bathroom together or just get your life together, and it’s going to be four emails. The minute you sign up you’re going to get the first one, and you don’t need to start any specific time. It starts whenever you start. And we wanted to see if that would continue as long as we promoted it, or if it would just keep going and keep going.
So we had someone on our team create one edition that was like, “How to clean out your closet,” and another one that was like, “Selling resale groups or tailoring your clothes, what should you do?” General get your life together stuff. And then at the end we invited them to sign up for the regular Racked newsletter or follow the Facebook page, join the Facebook group, any other number of ways to be in touch with us. And we did get the initial bump in sign-ups when we first started it.
I think that is largely related to the fact that we, as editors, were doing the program as it started as well. We were on Twitter, we were on Facebook being like, “I’m cleaning out my closet today. Here’s a photo,” or like, “I did this,” or “I just tailored these pants.” And of course, once we finished, there wasn’t that impetus there for people to follow along with us. But people still have done it, and we still get emails from people, and we’ll still see tweets sometimes that are like, “Just finished the Racked get your shit together challenge, and I did my closet and here’s a picture of the closet.”
So it does continue, and it has actually been a model for I think what we’ll be doing with some different brands going forward with some other kinds of time challenges like that. It had a very good open rate. More than half of the initial list opened the first two emails. And then something like 20 or 30% got to the very last email as well. So they stayed engaged through the entire program.
That’s a really good question. It’s something I’m thinking of myself. I think that people do get email fatigue, but I’m trying to see exactly how that line is drawn. Because our Eater brands send out two emails a day sometimes, and their readers are not fatigued. We actually did an entire dive into it — like, okay, for the time spent on this second email are you getting enough ROI out of it to continue, or should you use that time towards something else? And came to the agreement that it was fine, they could continue doing it. They were getting a lot of value out of it.
So, I’ve seen email fatigue in some of our bigger lists, the drop-off. The lists will reach 250 or 300 thousand and all of a sudden you’ll see large amounts of drop-off, and people aren’t reading as much. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t have to do with exactly how many sends, it just might be that your topic gets a little bit stale.
That’s another reason I’ve been experimenting with these time journeys. We can have something that you don’t need to spend everyday working on, that’s sort of a passive newsletter, and then just continues to amass a list. And then if it stops, you’re not working on it anyway. So I’ve been trying to think about time spent on this stuff, especially because I’m a team of one, and each of the brands doesn’t have a dedicated person.
All of them. I love them all equally. The two that I think that are really standout here are the
The Eater one is about what to read or watch that has to do with food. They have a corresponding Facebook group, and the Facebook group is so passionate — they get into heated debates over David Chang and are very, very polite but also heated. And it just reminds me how passionate people can be about food. It’s one of those newsletters that sucks you in.
And the Recode Daily newsletter is short, and the editor who writes it does it severely early in the morning because he’s up with a baby. And it’s like five links, and then something that he thinks is cool. But he writes it from his own voice, and it’s genuinely Peter Kafka, you can hear him in it. And it’s very good content as well. There’s just something about it that’s very special, and they have a really great readership.
We actually did a re-engagement campaign not that long ago and heard from several people who apologized to us for not opening their Recode newsletter, and said, “I’m so sorry I haven’t opened it. I just get so many newsletters. But I’m going to make an effort to start reading yours a little bit more regularly.” Which, we didn’t ask for that. We were just like, “Hey, you haven’t read. We’re just going to take you off the list.” And a public outcry happened, which I think says something really special about the brand and the editors there.
We segmented out people who were just not opening emails. And then we stopped sending to them for a little bit. Then we started sending to them a special version that was a shorter version of the newsletter and just said, “You haven’t been opening. If you forgot, this is the kind of thing that you can get from us. We will delete you from this list unless you tell us that you want to stay on it, and you can always send us any suggestions.” And, my god, the suggestions just poured in.
There were obviously a very small number of people who had blockers on who let us know, “I do read you but I have tracking turned off. Can you please make sure that you move me into an engaged list?” Of course, Recode is very techy and very newsy, so these are people who get quite a bit of news and like to stay immersed in it. So that’s really what we heard from them. Like, “I’ve reached 12 emails a day and I just can’t always get to you, please keep me on the list.”
Well you wouldn’t think it had anything to do with newsletters, but it’s actually The Burlesque Handbook by Jo Weldon — who’s the teacher at the New York School of Burlesque. And it sounds so far off, but performers who do that kind of work are basically audience development managers, where they are getting you to join in. People always wonder what’s the difference between stripping and burlesque, and of course the difference is that in burlesque your audience is part of the act as well. It’s not a passive thing, and that is really what newsletters are, too.
Your readers are part of the act as well. You need them to engage with you. You need them to actively open, and then what happens when they click out of the email? Are they still actively engaged? There’s a lot of nuggets in that book about how to engage with an audience that’s right in front of you that are so, so applicable to how to engage with an email audience. Just even things about human behavior and predictability, that are just so spot-on that it’s almost scary.
RGE co-founder. Speaker. Lame marketing guy. If you found a typo on the site, it was probably my fault.
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