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The newsletter renaissance and its ad placement issue

Newsletters are enjoying a renaissance among media companies, thanks in part to their ability to build habits in readers and collect valuable data without relying on the fickle distribution of social platforms. In fact, according to Nicole Perrin, the vice president of business intelligence at Advertiser Perception, advertisers are truly embracing newsletters as a commercial channel. Across three surveys of 250 U.S. marketers—in August 2021, February and August—the percentage of respondents who said they advertised in newsletters rose from 37% to 49% to 65%, respectively.

Unfortunately, however, some publishers have monetised their newsletter programme with programmatic display ads, automated solutions that place little emphasis on design, perform poorly and devalue their audience.

As a result, the industry has found itself in the oh-so familiar predicament; the need to strike a more sustainable balance between monetization and user experience. Otherwise, as they funnel readers toward their newsletters, publishers risk shoehorning subscribers into a product whose misaligned ad experience could create negative sentiment toward not only their brand but the medium in general.

Sadly, even as publishers have begun to prioritise user experience across their websites, many risk repeating their old mistakes in the channel of email newsletters. Vendors monetising newsletters circumvent the technical limitations of the channel, such as its inability to support JavaScript or iFrame, by creating programmatic display products that serve targeted ads based on reader behaviour and the context of the placement.

The temptation to monetize newsletters with mediocre ad products affects legacy publishers in particular, as many developed their email programs long before the potential of the channel became apparent.
A handful of newer publishers like Semafor, Axios, Puck, Morning Brew and Industry Dive largely eschew programmatic display ads, opting instead to populate their newsletters with direct-sold products, many of which feature custom copy and rich visuals. 

For most, however, retooling their newsletter monetization strategy would require new tech, as well as creating the organisational infrastructure necessary to sell ads directly, write copy and oversee campaign logistics.

Even if a publisher crunched the numbers and determined the investment would be worthwhile, such a project would entail a larger, existential shift, according to Adam Ryan, the cofounder and chief executive of Workweek. 

Newsletter-first publishers drive attention to their emails, whereas legacy publishers drive attention to their websites.

Nevertheless, “publishers are getting smarter about their overall advertising strategy and how email ties into it,” said Dan Oshinsky, the founder of the email consultancy Inbox Collective. “They are starting to realise that it may be more profitable to make some short-term sacrifices in revenue if it means they can do a better job of attracting, engaging and keeping their audience through other channels.”

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