April 16, 2013
Case Study

Email Marketing: CNET increases engagement by cutting nearly half of newsletter portfolio

SUMMARY: Newsletters are an outlet to provide information to consumers, but at a certain point, newsletters can stop informing and begin to overwhelm subscribers.

In this case study, read how CNET came to recognize the issue, the steps it took to cut down the editorial portfolio from 30 to 16 newsletters, and the criteria it used. Plus, learn how the team communicated the changes to all stakeholders -- from management to subscribers.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter


Every time an editor, product manager or content producer, among others, wanted to create a newsletter, "it was just added to the portfolio," said Diana Primeau, Director of Member Services, CNET.

Even though CNET conducts regular and stringent list cleansing for its newsletters, Primeau said they had never assessed the portfolio as a whole. There was never really a need — engagement rates had remained strong.

Upon the suggestion of her general manager, Primeau was committed to looking over the portfolio as a whole. Her team soon realized there were issues affecting more than the one or two newsletters they initially considered eliminating.

Soon, the team was developing a plan to consolidate newsletters containing duplicate content, and completely shut down others. Tightening the program from a bloated portfolio of over 30 newsletters down to just 16 was a process the team was confident could result in renewed opportunities for growth and engagement.

However, those opportunities were contingent upon clearly and strategically communicating the changes to subscribers, and ensuring they would understand the renewed value this newsletter overhaul would provide.

"A lot of people subscribe to multiple newsletters, so we weren't as concerned about losing subscriptions as we were subscribers," Primeau said.


The goal for this campaign was to review CNET's 30 editorial newsletters and decide which were relevant. Eliminating redundancy and unwanted content was its eventual goal.

Because these are editorial newsletters that aren't "selling someone something," but are avenues for CNET to provide content, Primeau said it was important to reevaluate relevancy within them. From there, she said the team looked at which areas were receiving engagement, and removing areas that were stagnant.

Sections of an email that aren't receiving engagement, or newsletters that are repeating content is "wasting our users' time," according to Primeau.

If a newsletter was cancelled, her team decided they wanted to "give [subscribers] something great in replacement."

She and her team went through all 30 newsletters looking for these elements, and working with the editorial team, consolidated newsletters and built a slimmer, more dynamic portfolio that would continue to appeal to subscribers.

Step #1. Communicate process with all stakeholders

"It's huge, and it's huge on two levels," Primeau said of working and communicating with all stakeholders on a campaign like this one.

The first level, she said, starts with higher-ups. The impetus for this campaign actually came from Primeau's general manager.

"I was challenged by him," she said, adding he "happens to know a lot about email, which is great because that's normally not the case."

He was the one who brought up the idea CNET might have too many newsletters, she said.

"I had heard that all the time," Primeau said.

She argued because the team regularly cleansed their list, people signed up for the newsletters, and engagement metrics were strong — the number of newsletters wasn't an issue.

"Most people kind of go with that, but … he wasn't going for it. So, he pushed me — he said, 'I really encourage you to look at everything,' and it was kind of a wakeup call for me. He was right," Primeau said.

Since the idea came from the top, it was especially important to keep him in the loop, she said, but added it also ended up being important because the scale of the project changed from what she initially thought.

"Before we started really digging into it, we were just going to cut back one or two newsletters," but the project ended up being far more substantial.

So, it was helpful to keep upper management in the loop to ensure there weren't "any concerns on his part, so we thought it was really important for him to understand what our methodology would be."

To ensure her team and management were together on the project, Primeau made a presentation showing what the team had found, their methodology as well as the steps moving forward — the first of which was to get buy-in from the general managers.

Needed buy-in from editorial staff

The second step for Primeau was to engage the writers and the editor-in-chief so Primeau could make sure the team was "putting the right spin, for lack of a better word, on the messaging to customers."

Also, Primeau said they needed some buy-in from the content creators because they discovered the newsletters in the portfolio featuring an editor's presence in the form of a picture and contact information had better performance metrics.

"So, it was really important to us that we were able to surface [the editor-in-chief's] team and make sure we could have an editor's presence in all of our newsletters," Primeau said, adding they have that in all of the current newsletters except one.

The coordination was necessary because Primeau was asking for a time commitment from the editorial staff, and the changes to the newsletter portfolio would affect their process with the newsletter content as well.

"These folks aren't just working on newsletters, they're writing content for the site, they're doing live events and all kinds of different things," she said.

Step #2. Set up criteria to assess portfolio

Looking at the portfolio, Primeau said it became quickly obvious "just looking at the names of the newsletters, some of it felt really current, relevant and modern, and some of it felt really old."

From that point, another aspect they considered was which newsletters could be consolidated. Primeau gave the example the team couldn't find much difference between CNET's wireless report and mobile newsletters.

Once the team started diving into consolidation, Primeau said they realized many newsletters included repeated content on the same day, and they had to ask, "how many people get both of those newsletters?"

The biggest aspect of determining which newsletters would remain was understanding the user experience each one provided. Primeau's team looked both at what content was running in the newsletter, and where that content mapped back to on the site.

"That kind of gave us the touchstone of the wrapper that goes around the newsletter. Is it continuous with the experience the user has when they go back to the site?," Primeau said.

From there, the criteria began to involve these aspects:
  • Removed newsletters left over from an acquisition that "didn't make sense" currently

  • Reviewed the names of newsletters

  • Reviewed the descriptions of the newsletters on the sign-up page

  • Reviewed the metrics — "how many people are subscribed, what are the open rates, what's the click rate … and there were a couple that were pretty low across the board."

Throughout this process, Primeau's team wanted to ensure all the content they sent out was relevant. Newsletters that were found to have overlapping or related content were merged, Primeau said.

Other newsletter topics were considered to be "a small universe" and although the engagement rates would be high, the subscription rate wouldn't be growing, she said.

"We had a few newsletters that were started with great intentions, but it wasn’t our wheelhouse," she said.

Primeau gave the example of a newsletter called "Green Tech," while that subject was talked about across content, it wasn't specifically focused on in the site and was taken out of the portfolio.

Step #3. Develop a plan for communicating with subscribers

"It was a giant spreadsheet, and it started out way complicated, and then we realized that people were in these simple buckets," Primeau said about the process of looking at how to communicate the coming newsletter changes to subscribers.

Primeau said as the project developed, "it got pretty simple as to how we were going to message to those people."

"We really looked at it through the eyes of … when do we just move people, and when do we need them to opt-in to get the new newsletter," she said.

The sets of users they needed to communicate with were:
  • Users subscribed to both a kept newsletter and the newsletter that was merging into it.

  • Users subscribed to a discontinued newsletter, but the content was being injected into a different newsletter.

  • Users subscribed to a newsletter that was being discontinued, and the content was not relevant to another newsletter on the site.

The communication plan became about clearly informing about the change, but also reaffirming the value of CNET’s newsletters.

If two newsletters a user subscribed to were being merged, CNET let those subscribers know the content was being streamlined. But even if a newsletter was being cancelled without an obviously relevant replacement, Primeau said the team didn't want to cut off the opportunity to still engage with those users.

"We never said, 'Hey too bad, so sad, your newsletter is being sent away.' We always gave them other opportunities, and in most cases we tried to give them two," Primeau said.

If a subscriber's newsletter was being canceled totally, or if that content was going into another relevant newsletter the user wasn't subscribed to, CNET would suggest another newsletter to them and "all they would need is a one-click sign up, because we already know who they are," Primeau said.

Making it as simple as possible to subscribe to a new newsletter was an important part of the goal to lose as few subscribers as possible, "we didn’t want to lose anything if we could."


"It's really about creating a high-value user experience. Sure, we lost subscriptions. But I can tell you right now, we're going to have more engagement this year with fewer newsletters than we had last year," Primeau said.

All of the newsletters in the portfolio were very healthy, Primeau said, adding the team embarked on this campaign right after a list cleanse.

Primeau said her team was able to successfully move many users to new newsletters, and from the "good handful" of users who were subscribed to two newsletters that were merged together, and she said, "the engagement is higher now. My hypothesis on that is, they only have to look at one newsletter now."
  • Went from 30 to 16 editorial newsletters

  • Increase in open rate: 3.32%

  • Increase in clickthrough rate: 7.62%

  • Less than 5% drop in subscribers

  • Editor presence now in all but one newsletter

An unanticipated, but extremely positive result of this campaign in Primeau's estimation was the collaboration between her team and the editorial team.

"It was another stepping stone in building a great relationship with that team. We couldn't do what we do without the great content they provide," Primeau said.

She added sending out less newsletters lightens the editorial team's load and "allows them to spend more time where they know the payoff is right," she said.

Diana Primeau will be speaking at MarketingSherpa and MarketingExperiments Optimization Summit 2013 in Boston, May 20-23, in a session entitled, "Content Optimization: Reduce redundancy, improve relevance and increase engagement."

Creative Samples

  1. Email to merged newsletter subscribers

  2. Email to merged content subscribers

  3. Email to cancelled newsletter subscribers



Related Resources

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2013 Wrap-up: Top 5 takeaways for email marketers

Mobile Marketing: 7 tips based on CNET’s mobile newsletters

Email Marketing: CNET win-back campaign sees 8% subscriber re-engagement

Email Marketing How-to: 5 steps to improve your email newsletter

Email Marketing: Weekly newsletter sees 400% lift in reactivation of inactive subscribers with personalization

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