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How The Onion Turns Funny Headlines into Great Emails

The Onion has been poking fun at our dumb world for close to 30 years now. Started by a couple wise guys at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the satirical newspaper was first distributed throughout Midwestern college towns, then grew to include a website, an arts and entertainment wing called The A.V. Club, and an internet clickbait parody site called ClickHole. Although the print paper ceased publication in 2013, "America’s Finest News Source" has a number of books and a growing online presence, including its hilarious, satirical video content.

They also have email newsletters. Until about a year and a half ago, Onion Inc. Digital Manager Jordan David says those newsletters would be deployed from within their content management system. Their emails were RSS-based and populated by recency. But after a while, they began to wonder if there was better way to go about things—one with more opportunities for customization and tracking.

Enter Mailchimp.

“Our CMS-based system didn’t allow for easy viewing of open and click-through rates, so we now keep a close eye on those,” Jordan says. “Our product and design teams definitely take advantage of how easy it is to create and house new templates within Mailchimp. It’s made it easier to develop one-offs for more highly targeted marketing emails that go out to various segments of our lists.”

The Onion has a daily and a weekly email. A.V. Club sends daily and also has a weekly television vertical. ClickHole just launched in June 2014, and only has a weekly newsletter (so far).

“The thinking behind the frequency of The Onion’s lists is based on the musings of a long-dead, ancient people whose reasoning has been lost to the sands of time,” Jordan says. “The A.V. Club has a large, dedicated following but we felt the success of their television vertical called for some specialization within our email marketing. The vertical has its own tone and community and we wanted our emails to reflect that. As for ClickHole, we wanted to launch with a weekly so that we could cherry pick the week’s best content and deliver the best product possible.”

The Onion averages 8 new pieces of content per weekday. Their daily newsletter is simple—just five stories—and what goes in depends on what’s published and ready to be promoted. For the weekly campaign, though, traffic dictates curation.

“Almost all of the content in our newsletters has already been socially promoted, so we already have a strong sense of what we should include based on prior performance,” Jordan says. “The weekly newsletter is a collection of the best performing content from the previous week.”

Just like headlines are a crucial part of any Onion story, good subject lines are essential to their email marketing.

“Our standard news headlines are agonized over and subject to a strict approval process by our editorial staff,” Jordan says. “They are our bread and butter. However, as expected, our simpler infographic headlines perform much better as subject lines—IE, ‘Blizzard Survival Tips’ or ‘The Onion’s Guide To Gym Etiquette.’ As a result, I’ll use these to lead off our newsletter whenever possible.”

Though Jordan’s team has dabbled in newsletter advertisements in the past and are considering more aggressively selling spots in the future, the main objective for The Onion’s email campaigns is to drive traffic, not make money directly. But it’s an ongoing experiment, and something they’re tinkering with going forward.

“The most exciting thing we’ve discussed recently is the possibility of an Onion, Inc. newsletter,” Jordan says. “One that houses all of our various properties’ content. It would be a branding challenge and might require some re-training of our audience, but it would allow us to build a more cohesive and active relationship between our brands. In short, The Onion’s satirical voice can cause some interesting challenges when it comes to sharing or even acknowledging content from other sources, whether they’re our sister publications or external. This new newsletter would be an important step forward for us in that regard."

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