Although there has been plenty of talk of a renaissance in email newsletters in the media, inspired, by the success of platforms like Substack, in reality they have never gone away. Mainstream publishing and news companies have been harnessing newsletters’ unique attributes to deliver promotions and paraphrase their premium content on their sites for decades.

If there has been an evolution it is that media companies are recognising the potency of bespoke person-to -person content from their key writers direct to consumers’ inboxes in maintaining communities and loyalty to the brand.

The Financial Times is one of the key email newsletters innovators. It operates a series of newsletters penned by its key journalists, many of which deliver high-quality content and opinion that is literally not available anywhere else.

The brand has also been experimenting with the format too, It has launched academic courses by newsletter, and earlier this year debuted, One Must-Read, a round up of key stories, which unusually for UK media, is delivered in the evening not the morning. 

As Head of Newsletters at the FT Sarah Ebner is the person tasked with managing the editorial output that goes out via email. In this interview Sarah talks about her background and her passion for newsletters, as well as outlining the FT’s strategies for the platform, and how the brand might take newsletters in the future.

Give me a little of your career background, were you a journalist, or in another part of the media?

I’ve been a journalist my whole career, and still am! I’ve worked in the media (national newspapers mainly, with a stint as a producer and occasional reporter on the BBC’s Newsnight programme) for many years now. I have been a graduate trainee, news reporter, feature writer, blogger, digital editor, deputy editor, head of newsletters and now executive editor, so I’ve done many different things.

And how did you end up as Head of Newsletters at the FT?

I set up my first original newsletter, Times Woman, when I was at The Times, although I was already working on some existing sports newsletters and had set up a pop-up email for the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Times Woman showcased the best of our female writers across the Times and Sunday Times, as well as offering exclusive extra content, and was great to work on. When I went to the Jewish Chronicle (the oldest Jewish newspaper in the world) as deputy editor, I not only launched a new website but also a regular daily lunchtime newsletter. I could see how important the newsletter was, as traffic went up hugely each time we sent it. After a few years at the JC, I went to The Telegraph to be their first ever head of newsletters, before moving to the FT.

What would you say is the core strategy underpinning the FT’s approach to newsletters?

Newsletters really are key to any subscription or membership business. We know they are hugely valuable to the business and drive reader engagement, but they are also vital when it comes to retention, loyalty and slowing churn, as well as promoting our brilliant writers. Plus, they turn readers into what we call “super fans”.

I’d say our core strategy is to keep ensuring people sign up to them, as well as to keep the quality high. I’m also always keen to see if our own talent can highlight areas of opportunity. For example, we didn’t have a proper UK politics newsletter until the brilliant Stephen Bush arrived and we launched Inside Politics. Similarly, it seemed crazy to have the fashion journalist of the year in Lauren Indvik, but not give her a newsletter – she now writes the excellent Fashion Matters. Both these newsletters are really popular with our readers.

Do they have different roles – say are some more marketing focused than others?

Our editorial newsletters are all valuable editorial, rather than marketing, products. We only have one newsletter which is directly set up to acquire subscriptions and it’s still popular with its readers (our registrants) as we can tell from our reader survey. 

What do you think the appeal of newsletters are from a reader’s perspective?

I think the direct relationship with the writer is key; we know this from our reader survey and also the number of emails that our writers receive (and reply to). For the FT there is also a huge value-add when it comes to newsletters: our readers are getting exclusive, relevant content written by world-leading experts, and they wouldn’t be able to get this anywhere else. I also think readers appreciate the finite nature of newsletters (the internet can be an overwhelming place). 

How important is the individual relationship? Do the writers, for example, respond to return emails?

As mentioned above, the individual relationship and the personality of the writer is hugely important. And yes, our writers do respond to emails. I think you have to do that if you want your newsletter to work – the readers are obviously crucial.

And what do you believe makes for good newsletter content?

I think this is a question that needs to go back a step as it really depends on the aim of your newsletter. Newsletters can, and do, have different purposes, so what makes good newsletter content depends on your aim. Do you want to send people to your website, for example, or is it all about high-quality content that should be read in the inbox? You should always be thinking of the reader, but alongside the aim you have for that newsletter.

You’ve really started experimenting with running courses by newsletter – how does that work and are there plans to experiment with newsletters in other ways?

Our first-ever newsletter course is MBA 101 (rankings.ft.com/newsletter), a readers’ guide to applying and getting into business school. It’s written by our in-house experts, Andrew Jack and Wai Kwen Chan, and features interviews with admissions officers, business professionals and successful MBA alumni. It’s evergreen, which means you can sign up any time, and lasts for six weeks. 

The course is obviously different from any of our other newsletters as it’s a series of sequential emails that teaches subscribers about a specific topic or skill. It also promotes the FT’s MBA Rankings which are a useful resource for those applying to business school.  One of our goals with MBA 101 is to boost awareness of the FT  among a younger demographic and encourage new student subscriptions. The course is free to read.

I do like to experiment with our newsletters and have plans for another course, but I’m not sharing more details of that for now!

What advice would you give to other media brands looking to expand their newsletter output?

I think you need to make sure everyone is on board, not just in editorial, but among product/tech, commercial, data and the audience engagement teams, because you need their support to launch a successful newsletter programme. Newsletters take time to set up, launch and maintain, so you will need buy-in from the writers and their ongoing commitment. The work doesn’t stop when the newsletter is launched.

Where next for FT newsletters? 

I want to continue growing our brilliant newsletters because it’s great to see them continue to work so well for us. I really love how they showcase the depth and breadth of the FT, as well as our finest journalists. When there are big news events (like the current banking crisis), our newsletters can really come into their own. For example, we have run special issues of our Due Diligence newsletter, including a weekend one, to tie in with the strong news agenda lately. Meanwhile, when it was the UK budget, we ran both our usual morning issue of Inside Politics and then gave our readers a special afternoon, post-Budget version too. Newsletters are incredibly flexible and give you so many options.

I believe there is more we can do to increase acquisition – especially from a product perspective – and want to keep on increasing sign-up numbers and expanding reach, while keeping engagement high. Although we’re in the early stages of experimenting with this, newsletters are proving to be a powerful tool for converting registered users to subscribers. The conversion rate is higher than other traffic sources, which suggests an increased quality of prospect traffic coming from newsletters.

We have some interesting projects in the works this year, including linking newsletters to podcasts. We have also started an experiment selling individual newsletters as products in themselves, so that’s exciting too.