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On May 17th, the Financial Times launched its 26th currated newsletter – Unhedged, a daily column on American markets written by chief US financial commentator Robert Armstrong.  In April the FT appointed Sarah Ebner, previously in a similar role at The Daily Telegraph, as head of newsletters. How important are newsletters at the FT and what should corporate communicators know?

Each newsletter can be easily subscribed and unsubscribed on the FT website. Since they’re all part of a subscription package, there is natural stickiness. Unsubscribing requires a rigorous approach to spring cleaning online.

Many of the newsletters, but not all, go online on the FT site. Some of the curated newsletters have substantive content written first for the newsletter, while others are essentially repackaged FT news and comment content together with some introductory text. In addition to the curated newsletters, there are automated “news briefings” like “UK morning headlines”.

Those with substantive content written first for the newsletter include Martin Sandbu’s Free Lunch, (the only one named after a columnist), the ESG focused Moral MoneySwamp Notes by Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce on the intersection of money and US politics, and Due Diligence by the global M&A team. These, along with the excellent Unhedged, are the most interesting for me.  Trade Secrets on trade negotiations also stands out in being deliberately international – it’s written each day by different correspondents from Seoul, Washington, Brussels.

17 of the newsletters, largely those with the most newsletter-first content, are only available with a premium subscription. 

It’s worth seeing what the FT’s job advert for head of newsletters described its strategy: “Newsletters are a core part of the Financial Times editorial and subscription model. With a portfolio of 25 newsletters covering topics from markets to the business of sports, dealmaking to culture and ideas, and property to economics, and with new products being developed and launched, newsletters are some of our most valuable journalism and powerful tools for engaging with our audience.” 

Newsletters represent another growing facet of the FT’s multi-channel content distribution, while not providing any new journalists to target. Some newsletters do quote third party sources, if not extensively.  Most of the newsletters with original content have some element of comment as opposed to news. It’s important to be aware of who is writing for a newsletter, alongside their other roles. Most importantly, you need to deploy experts or executives who might be genuinely interesting long-term to these senior FT writers/columnists, without every interaction feeling transactional around possible quotes.

Ultimately newsletters are about engagement and loyalty, and how they contribute to growth in readership, giving readers another way to read content.  Perhaps the lockdown has been good for newsletters generally, as readers have had more time to organise and control mailboxes.  The FT does not currently publicly supply subscriber numbers by individual newsletter.

Ebner, when still at the Telegraph, provided some views on the newsletter scene earlier this year: “Newsletters have always been that strange thing – a hybrid of the old and the new; a relic of the first days of the internet and a focus for the 2021 iteration.” 

She said we might see: “Experimentations with design, metrics and curation…design might become simpler, tying in with the focus on the “letter” part of the newsletter, to emphasise that one to one relationship…There will increasingly be a pull between curation and personalisation and an issue of what is of more value to the consumer, including the issue (for big publishers) of whether you want that value to be more original content in the inbox or for your reader to click back onto the site...people are coming to realise the importance of different kinds of metrics beyond open rate and click through rate”. 

It's interesting the FT’s Alphaville blog has never been promoted as a newsletter.  Probably because it is more about immediacy of markets coverage, plus a certain insider vibe that those who care enough about markets nerd-ery will find their way to the Alphaville site.

A big editorial staff makes experimenting with newsletters quite easy, if visible.  The job spec talks of experiments and new types of newsletter products, in order to “to build communities, leverage reader contributions and insights, create dialogue and build more personal relationships.”  Ebner will spearhead that along, perhaps, with some tidying up of the current newsletter range, which seems to have grown somewhat higgledy- piggledy.  You can imagine many thrusting FT journos seeking to write new newsletters, and the job spec intriguingly includes the need to “offer a constructive and strategic consideration of all proposals for new newsletters”. 

What might the FT add?  I offer a few places where I see gaps: 

  • Wholesale finance/debt capital markets.
  • A UK version of Swamp Notes – money and politics interacting.  Greensill makes this timely.
  • An HR-focused return-to-hybrid-office one; perhaps the current Coronavirus Business Update will morph into that
  • The Business of Arts – from Frieze to philanthropy.
  • Future of the Union – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland coverage.

Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman