12:36, a daily Toronto based lunchtime tabloid, has an average 52 percent open rate. Screenshot by J-Source.

Secrets of a successful newsletter

David Topping, digital strategy and product manager for Toronto Life, 12:36, and Torontoist, explains St. Joseph Communications’ newsletter strategy. By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor David Topping thinks newsletters are one of the easiest things an organization can experiment with. “Newsletters are not revolutionary,” the digital strategy and product manager for Toronto Life, 12:36 and Torontoist…

David Topping, digital strategy and product manager for Toronto Life, 12:36, and Torontoist, explains St. Joseph Communications’ newsletter strategy.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

David Topping thinks newsletters are one of the easiest things an organization can experiment with.

“Newsletters are not revolutionary,” the digital strategy and product manager for Toronto Life, 12:36 and Torontoist explained in an interview with J-Source. “But the fact that they are not revolutionary is actually to their great benefit.”

“You can take a day in MailChimp and send out the first edition in the afternoon. And then if it doesn’t work, nothing’s lost,” Topping added.

One of those experiments is 12:36, a daily Toronto lunchtime tabloid written by Marc Weisblott. At Topping’s last count it had just under 5,500 subscribers, and an average open rate of 52 percent—much higher than most newsletters, which typically average around 20 percent. Total weekly ‘opens’ hovers around 25,000, telling Topping that subscribers are forwarding the newsletter on after they open it.

Toronto Life also recently started The Hunt, a real estate-focused newsletter for people who can’t get enough of talking about—or bemoaning—Toronto’s real estate market.

J-Source spoke to Topping about where newsletters fit into Torontoist’s and Toronto Life’s digital strategy and what has made 12:36 a success. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

J-Source: Why now why decide to put your attention back to newsletters?

David Topping: I think it’s a bad idea to be responsible for anything that you’re kind of just leaving alone. For a while all of our editorial newsletters, the purpose of them was just to drive traffic to our site. We sold ads in them and it took work every week for an editor to fill them out with everything, and they had grown to very impressive-sounding sizes.

But if you actually looked into the data the percentage of people who were actually opening it every day was not as high as we might like. The percentage of people who were actually using this wasn’t that high. The subscriber numbers were actually like kind of inching down.

And that’s because we weren’t really focusing on promoting them or thinking about what their purpose was and how to serve that purpose better, because you know we’re a small staff. We don’t have the resources of some bigger publications, or frankly most publications that we compete with. So we just left well enough alone for a while.

But since 12:36 launched, that gave us and, in particular, me, an opportunity to really focus on developing a new product and launching it and learning from it in terms of what works and how you could grow subscribers.

J-Source: So from 12:36 what have you learned?

DT: We learned a bunch of different stuff in terms of growth. One of the things that was interesting for us, as we tried a few million different methods of getting more subscribers to 12:36, we tried pretty much everything we could possibly think of. That included publishing an excerpt on Toronto Life’s website and having a newsletter sign-up box at the bottom. And we had tweets and sometimes those tweets were an excerpt from the newsletter, or the tweets were just really vague and said, ‘Want to see what you are missing out on? Sign-up for 12:36 today.’ We tried Facebook posts and then we tried boosted Facebook posts. We tried promoting 12:36 on the Toronto Life home page.

The purpose of this was just to try absolutely everything that I possibly thought could have any effect on increasing subscribers. It’s kind of a crazy way to do it but it’s also a really, really useful thing, because pretty quickly you learn what you can stop doing and pretty quickly you learn we need to do more of.

We found that actually the most effective way to get subscribers for 12:36 was with a boosted Facebook post and with ads in our other newsletters. It turned out that those two were far away the most successful. We could pretty much stop doing everything else we were doing and focus on those to make them as good as possible and as effective as possible.

J-Source: 12:36 has a very specific editorial voice. How much does the content matter, especially compared to some of other Toronto Life’s newsletters?

DT: 12:36 is very much a product that is built around Marc Weisblott. The audience for it, I think it’s probably fair to say, sees that as pretty indispensable. So the content in it might change day-to-day. The fact that half the people get it just keep opening it every day tells you something about the dedication of the audience and the degree to which they see the potential.

If the open rate was super conditional on the subject line then you could say, ‘Oh, you know, what the specific content was that day really, really matters.’ We were curious about this. We decided to spend a week or two where we tested the subject line. Sometimes we wrote a really big one. Other times we wrote a really punny one, and at other times we wrote a really straightforward hard news kind of headline. It had no effect whatsoever on the opens.

The people who like this thing like it regardless of what we call it, which is super helpful because it meant that we didn’t have to necessarily stress out about the title. You know one of the nice things about again having this kind of data is you learn what you don’t need to worry about.

J-Source: In terms of a broader digital strategy, is it that you want these newsletters to be bringing people to the website, or are you viewing this is sort of like a new platform in itself? Is the clickthrough as important?

DT:  The best way to answer that is that every product is different and has a different goal. There are some newsletters that we have right now where the primary goal of them is to sell ads in the newsletter and drive traffic to the website. And those are what traditionally our newsletters have been.

12:36 was the first newsletter the goal of which wasn’t just to get us traffic to the site. It was built to be self-contained. It was built to attract advertisers who were interested in doing more like a ‘brought to you’ approach to sponsorship, not just like big box ad or something.

The new newsletter we just launched, which is called The Hunt, which is our real estate newsletter. It’s sort of somewhere in the middle. There’s stuff in there that you can only get from subscribing to the newsletter. But there’s also links to content on Toronto Life’s website.

Toronto Life has very, very healthy online readership. And we are not hurting for page views right now. We are always happy to get more.

The strategy behind launching a newsletter like The Hunt which is we know that our readers are interested in a real estate. We know that they want more. We know that we have this platform that is especially good at reaching them—that particular kind of reader—and and we think that there will be enough people interested in it that advertisers will also be interested in it.

That’s the kind of approach we’re taking. It’s just too early to say for sure what ads we’ll put into it and how those will work. But when we are creating a new product we’re doing it with a particular audience in mind and obviously we’re also keeping our eyes on how it will make us money. Because that is that more important than getting page views right now for a company like ours.

There’s no short answer to any of these questions unfortunately because it’s journalism in 2016.

J-Source: So you’ve got The Hunt launching. Are there any more planned changes for any of the other newsletter products that you oversee?

DT: I think you’ll see Torontoist doing a bit more with their newsletters soon. We have one called Newsstand and that is sort of like a daily news round up right now. It’s for Patreon supporters only. But I think you’ll see that being made open to the public pretty soon. And I know there are plans for others—nothing we are ready to talk about but we are we are working on one now. For Toronto Life, I think we’ll probably see a few more sort of in different subject areas soon.

There’s nothing fancy about an email newsletter. But there are things that websites do, that if you take a step back from it and think for a second you realize would much better serve their intended audience by getting it to them directly in their inbox as opposed to putting it on your site once a week and hoping people find that.

So it is just thinking, what is the best way to reach this particular audience? What is the best way to get them what they want?

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.