How Email Publishers Are Thriving and Adapting amid the Pandemic

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Covid-19 restrictions have left people feeling isolated and alone.

With measures designed to curb in-person social interactions in many states, millions of us are looking online for ways to connect. Social media use has skyrocketed, with recent polls showing that between 46% and 51% of adults in the US are using social media channels more since the outbreak began earlier this year. Daily time spent on mobile messaging services like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp is forecasted to grow by four minutes in 2020, to 24 minutes per day.

The growth in that type of two-way interaction makes sense during a global pandemic when people are experiencing chronic loneliness and craving human connection. But it doesn’t fully explain why email publishers in particular have seen such a major uptick in engagement.

There is no doubt email publishing was already popular before the pandemic. We also could not help but notice the growing interest from most industries in expanding email newsletter subscribers. 

But over the past eight months, while so many channels have faltered, email publishing has flourished. Email open rates grew by 13% year-over-year between January and April, while conversion rates rose by 17%, peaking in March. Media companies have increased their email frequency significantly since the pandemic began, and retail email volume has risen as well.

Rather than there being one singular reason for the momentum that newsletter publishers are experiencing right now, it’s likely that there are multiple factors at play. 

At the most fundamental level, we know that people are spending more time online. From the statewide lockdowns to the social distance learning programs still going on today, restrictions brought about by Covid-19 mean people are spending more time at home and more time on connected devices. The pandemic has also brought about an increase in online interactions, and brands that have communicated more via email have seen higher open rates and click-throughs.

A survey by Pew Research found that 71% of Americans say they need to “take breaks” from Covid-19 news, and 43% say the news leaves them feeling worse emotionally. With television and social media channels like Twitter and Facebook so focused on politics and the pandemic right now, email as a channel has gotten a major boost.

We’re also seeing the impact of the third-party cookies phase-out, which has led to a greater focus on email as a fully owned channel. Publishers are using email newsletters to increase trust among their readers. Those that have been most successful are now crafting authentic, human content in a bid to connect more directly with subscribers on a personal level. 

All of these changes help to explain a major newsletter acquisition that happened recently. The reported purchase of the business newsletter publisher Morning Brew by Insider Inc., parent company of Business Insider, would place the five-year-old email publishing company’s value at more than $75 million.

Of course, that kind of valuation isn’t based on subscriber growth alone. This is but one of a number of email publishers that have been able to capitalize on the increases in engagement during the coronavirus lockdown. 

Another reason for increased email engagement is a surge of news. More big stories and breaking-news events during the past year have meant publishers have had more opportunities to send out emails, leading to an increase in revenue for companies selling newsletter advertising space and subscriptions. Well-established publishers are pushing their newsletters harder in pitches to large media agencies or email monetization-specialized platforms, as email is now seen as a safe harbor during challenging times. 

A number of organizations have started treating emails as direct-to-consumer products. They are capitalizing on the increases in email activity and engagement this year by introducing programmatic native ads or sponsored content within their newsletters. They’re also using this opportunity to build deeper relationships with their engaged readers, in the hope that those readers will stick around long after the pandemic has passed.

When the Covid-19 crisis is over — and it will be at some point — the most successful publishers will be the ones who are still holding onto the email subscribers they gained during the outbreak. That means putting in the work now to build those human connections with readers when they need it most.

Laurentiu Vladan is the CEO of inboxAds.