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Since retooling its newsletter strategy in 2019, the Vox Media title New York Magazine has seen its email readership—as Succession’s Kendall Roy might say—go supersonic.
The publisher, which topped 1 million subscribers across its 30 email products in December, has achieved its growth through a multifaceted strategy: one that blends traditional newsletters with five subscriber-only pop-ups. These pop-ups include its popular new offering, Succession Club, a weekly analysis of the most recent episode of Succession, featuring writers from across the New York Magazine ecosystem.
Combined, the investment in newsletters has yielded both a boost in list size—up from roughly 500,000 in 2019—as well as a 10% improvement in annual digital subscription retention in 2022, according to Priyanka Arya, the senior vice president of consumer revenue at Vox Media.
The publisher declined to provide its specific retention rate or its total number of digital subscriptions.
The uptick in retention and total email readership comes as publishers are placing more emphasis on subscriber loyalty, seeking to improve the lifetime value of their readers by reducing turnover. Amid the backdrop of a depressed advertising climate, recurring revenues have become increasingly critical to media companies.
“Part of the value of a subscription business for a company like Vox Media is that it is counter-cyclical, in that it can buffer a bad advertising period,” said editor in chief David Haskell. “That was part of the bet that Vox made on New York Magazine when it acquired us, and it has paid off.”
Boosting retention by juicing engagement
With its pop-up, subscriber-only newsletters, New York Magazine has placed its focus on subscriber retention and engagement, rather than acquisition, according to Haskell.
The publisher is actively exploring possibilities surrounding sponsorship and advertising with the pop-ups, but it currently monetizes them through programmatic advertising, a passive means of generating a small amount of ad revenue on a product it planned to send regardless.
To determine which subjects could thrive as pop-ups, the newsletter team at New York Magazine, which consists of three full-time editors and one full-time writer, uses a blend of audience data and intuition.
The editors use site traffic, comment volume and social media interaction as proxies for interest, then spin up newsletters that offer fervent audiences a vehicle to go deeper on subjects they love.
As a result, the pop-ups generate far higher rates of engagement than standard email products.
Succession Club, for instance, which reaches 23,000 subscribers, has an average open rate of 80% and clickthrough rate of 50%, according to Arya. Queries, a newsletter exploring copy editing and grammar, boasts an 80% open rate.
Across its broader newsletter portfolio, the publisher averages open rates of 39% for general readers and 64% for paying subscribers.
Although pop-ups like Succession Club reach only subscribers, the audiences still differ in makeup, according to Arya.
For example, whereas 63% of Queries readers have been New York Magazine subscribers for more than two years, 43% of Succession Club readers subscribed only within the last three months.
As subscriber-only pop-ups, the newsletters naturally reach a far smaller audience than general market products, according to Dan Oshinsky, the founder of the newsletter consultancy Inbox Collective.
But keeping subscribers engaged drastically reduces their likelihood to churn, making the investment worthwhile from a cost perspective.
“A great newsletter should have a really specific audience in mind,” Oshinsky said. “And if that audience is paying, you know that by super-serving them, you keep them more engaged and therefore far more likely to stay subscribed.”
Pop-ups introduce new use-cases, advertising opportunities for newsletters
The success of the subscriber-only pop-up newsletters, which include Succession Club, Queries, New York Helpline, The Holiday Edit and a product following the Sundance Film Festival, has also introduced new commercial and editorial opportunities, according to Haskell.
For example, after an editorial package in February exploring the new rules of post-pandemic etiquette sparked a web-wide discourse, the publisher transformed the concept into its New York Helpline newsletter.
Now, when the magazine prepares new packages, the newsletter team takes into consideration how the subject might transform into a limited-run newsletter if it receives outsized interest. Likewise, the success of The Holiday Edit, a newsletter that helps New York Magazine subscribers navigate the holidays, has led the publisher to consider other seasonal offerings.
Both tactics build off of a preexisting strategy, exemplified by its Court Appearances newsletter, in which the publisher dusts off—and later shelves—capsule products to capitalize on moments of heightened interest.
The tactic highlights another benefit of pop-up products, in that they provide a low-risk method for the publisher to test out new editorial concepts and formats, serving as a kind of minimum viable product, according to Madeleine White, the head of international at the subscription software firm Poool and co-editor in chief of The Audiencers.
“Pop-up newsletters can provide a testing ground for future, more-regular newsletters and content,” White said in an email. “If it attracts a large readership and, better still, readers who go on to bring value to your business (through subscribing or retaining for longer) then you consider developing this editorial focus beyond the short-run newsletter.”