Four years ago, email newsletters would be all the rage. Every brand had one: each was designed to push short, offer based messages to consumers. Email was considered one of the best ways to communicate consistently with audiences.
Out of this came serious attempts at cracking the digital media market. Thrillist, launched by Adam Rich and Ben Lerer in 2004, was the first major guide to city life in New York City for young males. It positioned itself as a media brand, publishing the biggest and best guides for a young, male demographic in an urban environment.
The company had strong growth, seeing profits in year four with around $5 million in revenue. Not bad for a small, email based business.
In 2010, more spam filters were introduced. Gmail, with one of the best spam filters in the world, began to seriously take form. Other email services, like Yahoo! and Hotmail, played catch up.
In short: Gmail had recognized a key consumer demand (among a myriad of other things they did exceptionally well): consumers were getting tired of email newsletters. Open rates declined a full 5% year on year until 2012. And click through rates, as a trend, also declined – a full 20% from their previous figures.
For something so prevalent, this became quite significant. Throw into the mix a slowing rate of receiving emails, and it became clear that the platform was looking at a subtle reinvention of itself from 2011 onward.
And companies like Thrillist responded. In 2010, Inc Magazine named Thrillist as number 93 on the fastest growing privately owned companies. In May 2010, Thrillist recognised that it’s reach could drive e-commerce sales, acquiring online retailer JackThreads, tying it to the Thrillist subscription service.
This all happened to coincide with the growth of another medium: social media. Social media began to rapidly replace email as the daily social communication tool, and this accelerated in 2010 – with more people visiting Facebook than Google in March of that year. This became indicative of the dominance of social media.
Email became, then, the medium of choice for one to one, longform communication – important information that a user would want to be aware of on a day to day basis. More consumers place value on an email over a Facebook message – a fact which should not be ignored by advertisers fixated on social media.
2011 saw Thrillist go to new heights, with the company seeing at least $40 million in revenue that year with projections skyrocketing. E-commerce through the JackThreads brand had suddenly become a huge growth area, with the buying impulse created by Thrillist linked to the transaction provided by JackThreads.
Credit to Colin Morrison here – who aptly put it as ‘media is retail and retail is media’.
Emails were generally used to promote articles by the major media brands – IGN, for example, sent out regular daily updates with articles that were segmented by audience. They had not yet followed the example of Thrillist in providing a targeted offering for their audiences, linked to daily consumption habits.
That isn’t to say email publishing was all rosy in this period – in fact, one of the declining stories has been the DailyCandy brand, another New York e-newsletter. Launched in 2000 and picked up by ComCast in 2008 for a cool $125 million, it quickly became one of the biggest stories.
In late 2009, however, it was forced to shut down much of the overseas operation, including the flash sales arm of the site “Swirl”. Why? Likely because it didn’t gel with the operation – the direct buy was too forced. That isn’t to say this is a venture without growth, just at this stage, it needs to reinvent.
Thrillist saw the opportunity to create a club, or a members lifestyle, around e-commerce – allowing members to feel as if they were buying into a brand. Swirl (DailyCandy), with their flash sales, didn’t allow the level of trendsetter exclusivity that their brand offered.
In short, flash sales were incongruent with the ‘trendsetter’ view that DailyCandy had of itself – hence, the launch never kicked off properly. For an audience that placed a high value on being socially aware, flash sales did very little to prove that they were in a ‘trend-setter’ environment.
Contrast this to Thrillist, and you can see the difference. Thrillist created a brand, DailyCandy looked for alternative revenue models.
With email increasingly becoming more valuable, more of these trendsetter type emails are beginning to appear. Email is remaking itself into a form of premium communication – with social media handling the day to day, email suddenly becomes the source of all your ‘need to know’ information.
And as spam filters have become increasingly stricter, consumers have begun to trust the medium as providing what they genuinely would like to see.
Urban Walkabout launched Urban Talkabout in 2011, an email only page of ‘editorial’ which placed emphasis on places to go out, to see and things to do. It was email only, and designed to reach into the inbox of people every day – part of a growing strategy to surround audiences in digital for their products.
Using their already paid for distribution, they promoted this heavily, using it to gain a daily, unique traction for their audience. As a concept it had two major strengths: one, it had a greater value to advertisers (daily reach, digital metrics), and two, the audience would appreciate the communication more.
In 2011, Shortlist Media saw a similar opportunity, recognizing the power of a daily reach without the traditional print production costs media dailies used to rely upon. Shortlist already published two targeted (and free) weekly magazines, Shortlist and Stylist, but in digital it did not have the same day to day presence.
The concept was simple: create a page of day to day editorial that would be appreciated as a guide by consumers. And it recognized a big flaw in digital strategies thus far: they relied upon users to come to them, rather than going out to users instead.
Emerald Street became the first launch: a daily email for working women in the ABC1 target market. It played off as a splinter brand to Stylist, launching off the strength of the group to promote it.
Giving a page of consistent editorial that was kept to a high quality meant that users had a reason to be familiar with the brand and look at it, being in their inbox every morning meant they didn’t have to actively search for it. With a time poor audience who had so many options in digital, this was critical to ensuring they revolved around the Emerald Street (and therefore the Stylist) brand.
Strategy director Tim Ewington summarized the opportunity as such “Email is a medium with which young women spend more time than even television than the working week.” What he neglected to say, but what he likely knows, is it is also a medium which is has seen an increasing value with the contrast against social media.
And with over 80,000+ subscribers, combined with open rates between 42% and 48%, the medium clearly works.
With the increased value of email, it is clear that the medium is being reinvented into a premium form of communication. With the right content, editorial and strategy, email promises to be the best way to reach on audience on a daily basis.
Building it into a channel in it’s own right is critical to engaging time poor audiences who have little to no need to navigate toward a central website. Getting it right is about making the email the go to source of information – whether that be hear it first gossip, best places to go out, or any number of other topics – email has to be about being ahead of the trend.
In 2013, look for the growth of well targeted email dailies that exist in their own right. It is one growth area that for media companies, cannot be ignored. It’s value as a first in, cheap and effective way of reaching an audience cannot be understated, and the premium nature of the medium is increasingly important in a fragmented landscape.
A quick summary: email is back. It isn’t the offer driven medium it was, but rather the trendsetting medium it should have been. And it’s something that brands, and publishers, must consider to revitalize their digital strategies.