Two mysteries centered on The New York Times

I actually don’t know everything, even about the areas of expertise I’m 100% focused on in my business.

OK, now that you’ve cleaned up the coffee you just spit out on your phone or keyboard, allow me to explain…

Of course I don’t know everything there is to know about positioning, lead generation, and email marketing for self-employed software developers. Nobody really could, even if they focused 100% on it for years like I have.

But that’s really what keeps it interesting. There’s always more subtleties to discover, even when you go narrow and deep.

In this email I want to direct your attention to two phenomena that are still sort of mysteries to me. I understand parts of them but not all of them, particularly why they work the way they do.

Mystery #1: Email Marketing

I came across an article from 2015 on Digiday about how The New York Times is using email marketing. Some relevant quotes from that article:


The New York Times has caught the newsletter fever. In the past year, it has launched a dozen of them — it now has a total of 33.

But with everyone seemingly launching a newsletter these days, the Times has to be mindful of the competition for inbox attention. That has meant taking a closer look at what readers are actually interested in.

“Historically, the newsletter has just been based on our sections,” said Dork Alahydoian, executive director of product at the Times. “We realized that’s not necessarily what people are interested in. So we’ve been exploring two ways of looking at it — going beyond sections to lifestyles and different themes. The other approach is going much narrower. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all.”

The Times wouldn’t say how many subscribers it has but shared some numbers that suggest its approach is paying off. Subscriber volume has grown 14 percent in the past six months, with the number of newsletter subscribers ranging from tens of thousands to several million depending on the newsletter. Average gross open rate (which, unlike the uniques open rate, which is typically lower, counts duplicate opens) for weekly newsletters is 50 percent, with some of its newer ones including Kristof’s, the Times Magazine, Booming and Motherlode have gross open rates topping 70 percent. The gross open rate for media and publishing newsletters is 38.5 percent, according to email marketing company MailChimp. (The Times wouldn’t provide its unduplicated open rates.)

Times users are twice as likely to become paid subscribers if they signed up for a newsletter first.

“Inbox clutter is something we’re sensitive to,” said Nicole Breskin, a digital product director at the Times. “Because it’s so saturated, it’s important we produce something of value.”

The key takeaways for me:

  1. Times users are twice as likely to become paid subscribers if they signed up for a newsletter first.
  2. The emphasis on going narrow and producing something of value.

I see similar patterns in my business when it comes to email marketing.

The mystery to me is exactly why the highly saturated venue of the email inbox so dramatically outperforms other also-saturated marketing channels like social media. I think I could cook up some bullshit theories about why, but at the end of the day it’s still largely a mystery to me. I know what works, but I’m not 100% sure why.

Drip interviewed me today for an article they’re writing on people who email their lists every day.

I speculated a little bit about this question, but at the end of the day I honestly don’t know exactly why anyone from little ole’ me all the way up to behemoths like The New York Times can make effective use of email marketing by going narrow and striving to provide value, but I do know it works.

And you could be doing it too, if you’re not already. 🙂

This leads me to the second mystery.

Mystery #2: The Trust Reservoir

This bit of info from Adexchanger earlier this year:


The New York Times saw its highest subscriber increase since 2011, the year the publication introduced digital subscriptions, following the November presidential election.

It added 296,000 digital subscribers in the fourth quarter, up 19% from the previous quarter and a 45.9% increase year over year.

CEO Mark Thompson said digital subscriptions had accelerated even prior to the election because consumers will pay for quality news products. Providing content worth paying for is part of the Times’ long-term strategy. Subscriptions now account for half of the Times’ revenue.

The broader cultural environment–at least among the subset of people who have the ability and inclination to think critically about issues like where you get your news–included a lot of concerns about political propaganda and thinly veiled advertising, otherwise known as “fake news”. If you think that your problem is fake news, how do you find a solution?

I theorize that you seek the “high ground” of trust. In other words, you ask yourself “who do I trust the most to not publish fake news?”. If that’s the question, then I think The New York Times is the answer for many.

The Pew Research Center put this chart together in 2014:

Trust Levels of News Courses by Ideological Group

The New York Times is not the most trusted news source across the board, but if you look at news sources that appeal to liberals more than to conservatives and those that emphasize subscription revenue (this excludes a lot of the more trusted-by-liberals news sources that are purely ad-revenue broadcast models) you’re left with a small group that includes The New York Times.

Whether or not this fully explains The New York Times recent explosive growth in subscribers, what does this imply for your business?

What could you be doing to develop a reservoir of trust with your ideal clients?

I’m pretty sure building up a reservoir of trust will work very well for you in the long term.

The New York Times is pretty clearly focused on the audience of liberals. What type of client are you focused on serving? If you don’t know, how will they find you? How will you know when you find them? Get some answers to these critical questions: http://thepositioningmanual.com

Talk to you soon,
-P

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