Throughout 2020, the media industry has seen an accelerating trend of writers leaving legacy publications to start their own newsletters, monetizing their personal brands, social followers and expertise while celebrating the autonomy of an editor-less endeavor. The rapid rise of platforms like Substack, Tinyletter and Revue has allowed more and more writers to deliver their unvarnished perspectives to readers inboxes, while also circumventing the algorithms of social platforms that have frustrated news organizations in their efforts to drive traffic to content.
The model for writers is appealing: more freedom and flexibility and a chance at significant monetization if you successfully convince enough readers that your premium content is worth it. Food writer Alison Roman, progressive politics reporter Matt Yglesias, investigative reporter Matt Taibbi, tech journalist Mike Isaac and columnist and commentator Andrew Sullivan are some of the big names who have recently delved into the freemium newsletter business. The authors of the renowned Politico Playbook announced they would be leaving the publication to start their own newsletter venture. And Patch, the local digital news company, has developed "Patch Labs,” which lets local news reporters publish their own newsletters and websites.
So how should public relations programs approach this growing landscape of newsletters and what is the potential value to clients?
When I was previously the general manager of local tech and startup media publication DC Inno, a public relations executive once said something that I considered the highest compliment for our product: For her and her startup clients, a placement in our daily newsletter or on our site was often more valuable than placement in The Washington Post. That’s because she knew that with our albeit smaller audience, she was reaching the right readers, versus The Post where the large readership wasn’t necessarily or measurably useful in elevating her clients to the target audience.
For vertical-specific, local press or companies with a softer differentiating factor that sets them apart from competitors, a newsletter that gets delivered directly to the ideal audience could represent a much more effective use of PR budget and time than targeting writers at a large national publication. For instance, a startup with a female founder would find huge value in being featured in Sarah Nöckel’s Femstreet, just as a security industry executive would gain from having her company featured in Bob Sullivan’s Red Tape Chronicles.
Of course, some clients may need convincing that a six month old Substack with 11,000 subscribers is a more attractive outlet than TechCrunch, so this new landscape might present client relations challenges in addition to media relations ones.
Some other challenges of this new landscape include deriving accurate subscriber numbers and open rates (though ancillary services like Newsletter Spy are already cropping up to assess reach of some platforms), whether we will reach a point of newsletter fatigue where people have too much in their inbox each day and stop opening newsletters, and from a pure budgetary standpoint, it opens up a whole new level of subscriptions an agency may need to pay for in order to effectively pitch and monitor for news.
And in terms of advice for public relations professionals when considering pitching newsletters?
As someone who wrote a daily newsletter every day for almost two years, I can tell you it’s quite obvious when someone reads your newsletter and when they don’t. Familiarize yourself with the flow, sections and tone of the newsletter and author you are targeting. Because this format allows for authors to write with a much more personal voice than a traditional media article, you as a PR representative have the ability to hyper-tailor a pitch so that the author knows you understand the tone of how your news might be communicated to their audience.
Additionally, as this new revenue model is tied to subscriber growth, not advertising dollars, the relationship between PR and newsletter authors could prove more symbiotic, particularly if you are pitching a client with a large online audience. If your agency or client can share or amplify coverage in a newsletter to followers or distribution lists, it may be that your own reach could strengthen your pitch.
As with more traditional outlets, do your research, develop personal relationships and you will be better positioned than your competitors to elevate your clients in this emerging media segment.