Four newsletter optimization tips to consider implementing

INN audited member newsletters earlier this year to better understand what email newsletter training and resources could help newsrooms year-round. The audit found that more than 90 percent of member news organizations have newsletters that could benefit from these long-term newsletter improvements in some way. Part I of the newsletter audit's findings that include six short-term newsletter tweaks can be found here.

INN will be announcing more training to help members create optimal newsletters in the coming weeks.

Long-term newsletter optimization recommendations:

Customize Subject Lines

1. Fifty-eight percent of newsletters audited (50 of 86 newsletters) could have a more livelier subject line, which would help increase open rates. Avoid subject lines that are the same as the headline of the first article or are the same daily (e.g. “Your Daily Read”). Try using a subject line that previews the newsletter’s content but leaves the reader wanting to open the email. Here are a few standout subject lines from the audit sample:

  • “One order of farm bill, on the House”
  • “Kansas Has A New Accent”
  • “[SPECIAL INVESTIGATION] Trapped: a three-part series”

Add Data Tracking

2. Try using Google Analytics UTM tracking or use this function within MailChimp or other email service providers. This feature can help members learn more about their readers and gain insights from the data they receive. Use this link on How to Use UTM Tracking Codes in Google Analytics from SEMrush for more information on using UTM tracking.

Describe Articles

3. Sixty-three percent of newsletters audited (54 of 86 newsletters) used a one-sentence summary as an article description, or have no description at all. Data from INN’s audit suggested articles with a description leave the reader wanting more, thus having higher click rates. Here are some examples:

INN Member newsletters with an optimal length for article descriptions.

Create Newsletter Brand Identity

4. Design of newsletters could be improved by including images, avoiding the use of traditional blue used for links as the headline font color, and finding color combinations that work well together to increase aesthetic, click-throughs, and donations. For example, colors such as red and green work well because they are complementary colors, and colors such as green and turquoise work well together because they are analogous colors. When choosing colors, newsrooms should first consider color combinations that reflect the organization’s color palette and brand guidelines. Test and see how well the enhanced design performs against key performance indicators. 

Here are some examples of newsletters with an evolved design:

INN Member newsletters with optimal designs.


Test Optimal Newsletter Length

5. To find the optimal number of articles to include in a newsletter, conduct A/B tests when sending newsletters. An A/B test is when two versions of the same content or message are created (in this case,
 newsletters) but with one variable being different in each version. Results on testing click-through rates will inform which version performed better and “won.” Many email newsletter service providers include this functionality, such as MailChimp. Testing can also be applied to other areas, such as testing subject lines for best open rates.


These tips were generated from a study of INN member email newsletters conducted by business student Nikita Advani at the University of Southern California in June and July 2018, working with the guidance of INN Communications and Marketing Director Jules Shapiro. Advani is an Emma Bowen Foundation fellow.

Advani surveyed 34 elements in 96 email newsletters, representing about 60 percent of INN’s members sites at the time. A sample of 21 newsletters came from participants in INN’s Amplify News Midwest project. The rest were randomly selected to generate a representative sample across local, regional, state, national, and global news organizations. INN also studied 13 members’ click rates and open rates in MailChimp.

Four categories of factors were measured: content, design, engagement and fundraising/marketing. They ranged from the frequency of publication to whether newsletters included an easy way for the reader to contact an editor. Advani compared newsletter elements such as subject lines and headlines with open rate and click rate data from MailChimp reports where available. Pivot tables were used to analyze what types of members needed improvement by category.