#ThisIsTucson is the digital lifestyle property of the Arizona Daily Star, a nearly 150-year-old newspaper. This new online brand was designed as a spinoff of the legacy publication to allow staff the opportunity to experiment with digital-first journalism, do community-focused stories, and develop digital products. #ThisIsTucson has been a proving ground for these digital experiments, including what’s become a successful newsletter course developed with the News Revenue Hub.

The team from #ThisIsTucson first joined the Hub to learn how to build a membership program to help fund the organization’s local lifestyle reporting. In their first year as clients, they developed the framework for a successful reader revenue program — but quickly realized they needed to develop more products to grow their audience.

When the Hub started working with the #ThisIsTucson team on product development, staffers weren’t sure what direction to take. Through our product development work together, they landed on an idea: in a place with a rapidly growing population of newcomers, why not create a series of emails to introduce people to the city – and the #ThisIsTucson brand? The result is a successful, popular product that the newsroom has leveraged to increase sign-ups to ongoing newsletters and steward readers to become paying members.

Starting a newsletter from scratch

Newsletters are one of the most important tools newsrooms have to establish and deepen relationships with their readers. While many publications tend to focus their efforts on weekly or daily newsletters, some outlets are also experimenting with newsletter courses: a series of educational emails sent over a fixed period of time. Done right, newsletter courses show the value of a newsroom’s work and vision so that readers engage further with the publication through newsletters, social media, or memberships. 

In 2020, the News Revenue Hub worked with #ThisIsTucson to create an eight-part newsletter course. Called #HowToTucson, the course introduces new arrivals to the city, explaining what locals should know about the weather, food and arts scenes, outdoor recreation, the economy, and neighborhoods. The course includes an additional two emails cross-promoting the site’s weekly newsletters. To help determine which topics to cover, the team looked at top search terms to the site and stories with high search traffic from casual readers. 

The Hub’s vice president of consulting Evan Mackinder worked with then-#ThisIsTucson editor Irene McKisson and then-online producer Samantha Munsey to develop the product. Then the newsletter was written by #ThisIsTucson reporter Johanna Willett and illustrated by Arizona Daily Star graphic artist Chiara Bautista. “When we started, our only goal was to launch a new email product,” McKisson told us last year. “The Hub really helped us think through how to narrow that down to the newcomer’s newsletter course.” 

The Hub guided the #ThisIsTucson team through the process by taking them through a product development strategy that includes design exercises, weekly sprints and check-ins, using organizational tools, conducting an audience survey, and developing and hardwiring production workflows. “This process is designed to help newsrooms plan, think through resource allocation, and keep them accountable to their initial timeline and goals,” said Mackinder. The Hub helped #ThisIsTucson build a prototype to test, and the team then used feedback from the prototype to build the final product.

It wasn’t just the framework for building the product that helped; coaching and weekly meetings were valuable, too. “The quick weekly check-ins with the Hub help keep the project moving and on our radar,” Munsey said. “I left each meeting feeling motivated to keep researching and trying new things.” 

Plus, learning the product development methodology gave the team the knowledge they needed to develop new newsletters in the future, as well as ideas for the types of products they could develop.

The final piece of the puzzle was setting up the design and technical infrastructure. 

Thomas Hruska from the Arizona Daily Star’s Innovation Lab created CMS assets for the course and subscription asks. He then hooked them up to a custom drip campaign in PostUp, the email service provider for #ThisIsTucson.

“One of the really nice things about an email course like this is that once the drip campaign is set up and working it’s pretty much on auto-pilot. The only ongoing maintenance is to make sure the content stays accurate and fresh,” said Rob Wisner, Director of Digital Innovation at the Arizona Daily Star.

How I Learned #HowToTucson

#HowToTucson has special meaning to me, and in some ways I represent an ideal user for the newsletter. I had been familiar with #ThisIsTucson through the journalism world, but hadn’t engaged much with it. When I decided to move to Tucson, I signed up for the newsletter course, which I found really helpful in understanding what makes the city unique and fun things to do. (The summer heat is brutal, but there are tacos and monsoons to look forward to!)

After signing up for the course, I signed up for both of #ThisIsTucson’s newsletters and followed them on social media, and encouraged my husband to do so as well. Now, the weekly planner newsletter is my go-to for finding out what’s happening around town and discovering weekend activities. I read #ThisIsTucson on a weekly basis and often come across their content when Googling random local tips I need, like hiking guides.

Plus, it was only later that Samantha Munsey, one of the creators of the course, would join the Hub, and we’d work together!

–Rachel Glickhouse, Learning & Labs Director, News Revenue Hub

Evaluating success

It took three months to create and build the course, which launched on December 4, 2020. As of February 2022, nearly 19,500 people have signed up for the newsletter and received the first email in the series. Of those subscribers, nearly 85% received the eighth email. Average open rates for the first and last emails range between 31% and 36%, which is above the industry average. The course gets new sign-ups on a daily basis, so the team continually updates and promotes the newsletter along with its ongoing products.

Readers have provided promising feedback. #ThisIsTucson put a survey in one of the final emails to get ongoing feedback from newsletter course readers since launching the series. Since then, 96% of respondents said they felt more informed after reading the series. “Absolutely love these e-mails. Read every single one thoroughly,” one reader wrote. Also, while many readers found the newsletter on the #ThisIsTucson site, a fifth of respondents had actually found the newsletter on Google and 14% were referred to it by a friend. Readers described the course as “well written,” “concise,” “very helpful,” and “informative.” 

Not only does the course have a high retention rate, but it has also driven people to subscribe to other newsletters and become members. Close to 900 #HowToTucson subscribers have signed up for the site’s weekly events newsletter, and around 800 subscribed to the food newsletter. 

The newsletter course also was designed as a revenue driver, with local sponsorship opportunities built into the plan. For example, a local bank sponsored the newsletter for three months. Plus, the newsletter course has also driven memberships: 59 #HowToTucson subscribers became members within 30 days of signing up for the newsletter. 

“I’ve heard from a handful of readers that they signed up for #HowToTucson after moving to Tucson and found it extremely helpful in their journey to get to know the city,” said #ThisIsTucson editor Gloria Knott. “It warms my heart knowing that a product we made is helping people become familiar with the city I love.”