CN#16. Gardeners' World: Great newsletter, but the website hurts my head



TYPE: Consumer, specialist

PURPOSE: Traffic generation

SUBSCRIBERS: Not disclosed, but see social media data (below) for an idea of scale.


SENT FROM: Gardeners’ World.

SUBJECT LINE: Plants to prune now

DESIGN. Modular blocks, big colour pictures, professional graphics, sans serif fonts, clean, regular layout.

Gardeners’ World is a good example of content repurposing to reduce editorial costs and really squeeze value from evergreen material. (No gardening pun intended.)

The lead piece is about pruning. Just 39 words before a neat “Chop chop” call to action, which takes you to the website. The article on pruning was written in April 2021, and why not use it again, it’s completely relevant and will not have aged in 2 years or perhaps even 10.

The same editorial formula and layout of picture, headline, short text, call to action is used throughout.

There are three other editorial teasers like this, all useful reminders of what to do in the garden.

  • Your March veg plot jobs
  • How to refresh compost in pots
  • How to grow sweet peas

These click through to original articles on the website, full of interesting and relevant content, with more on the same subject available through links.

The newsletter’s editorial elements are mixed with house and affiliate ads in the ratio of 2 editorial to 3 advertising.

The ads are a rich and (as a gardener myself) interesting variety of offers including in-depth guides, events, e-commerce and a competition.

It’s worth highlighting the editorial attention to detail in the calls to action. They’re uniform and consistent with emphasis on taking action immediately, each one directly related to the subject matter rather than a generic "click here" instruction.

The adverts are as follows:

  • Gardens Guide 2023
  • Buy April back issue with free seeds
  • Alan Titchmarsh podcast
  • BBC Gardeners’ World Live
  • Save £15 on sweet peas
  • Competition. Win a cruise to Norway

The newsletter is a vibrant and useful experience, a showcase for the brand and its related products which enjoy a “national treasure” reputation in the UK thanks to the eponymous and long-running BBC TV programme and its high-profile and well-loved presenters.

Gardening is a massive market with almost half of the 64m UK population involved.

Given there are so many eyeballs out there it’s no surprise that the email falls into the Traffic Generator category, as opposed to an Engagement Email (sole purpose to engage) or a Sales Email (sole purpose to sell, usually one product).

It looks great. Simple and modular, comprising 10 sections each with quality imagery, graphic design input, short headlines and 20-50 words of text. There are only 459 words in total and the format works particularly well on mobile without swivelling to landscape.

List growth through social media

There is no shortage of social media followers to get people to sign up for this colourful offering. Gardeners’ World has 462,000 followers on Instagram, 482,000 on Facebook, 121,000 Twitter and 17,000 on YouTube.

Then there’s the print magazine itself with an ABC verified circulation of 240,000 and a page-flipper digital edition where the newsletter can be promoted at will.

Multi-revenue business model

Like many large publishers, the magazine’s owner Immediate Media is embracing a business model of multiple revenue streams. The main ones are subscriptions, web advertising, affiliate commissions and events.

I spend three days writing each of these deep dives; it’s a labour of love and no one regularly goes as deeply as I do into what makes a newsletter successful. It would be great if you could become a paying subscriber to support me and guarantee receiving every issue. Thanks, Andy. (Paid members, just hit subscribe to read on). Subscribe to continue reading and take advantage of the $5/month Founder Offer and access the archive.

A few seconds after clicking through to the website, I’m hit with a pop-up with a magazine subscription offer. This is the right ad to put up first, harvesting valuable recurring subscription revenue, and seems like a reasonable offer.

Sadly, now I've left the newsletter, the user experience takes a bit of a dive to say the least.

Comment: Better newsletter than a website

The newsletter is doing a ton of work generating traffic in a neat and easily replicable way. Any magazine publisher could follow this method, or even a cut-down version as a starting point for a newsletter to support a magazine brand.

Familiarity of format, pleasing pictures, timely hints and special offers are an engaging mixture that will get any email like this opened.

What’s missing is a conversational relationship with the reader, a newsletter personality. The newsletter doesn’t come from a human, or even have any kind of introductory message from a person. And that’s why the engagement potential is limited, ultimately because the intention is not to engage but to encourage a clickaway.

That means there’s no room for persuasive copywriting with the single objective of selling a single product, with the proven higher conversion rates that this approach brings.

When I click to the website it all goes wrong for me. I know this is a newsletter review but the destination is also part of the experience.

The site editorial is high value, authentic and an encyclopaedic amount of information about gardening, no question.

But each pruning article has multiple links leading to further pages with multiple links. There's a competition, read more, take this offer, listen to this podcast, more from around the web, buy this guide, buy these seeds, it goes on - more than 100 click options in front of me.

Aaaargh. I'm mesmerised and confused. Where do I go next? How do I decide?

It makes my brain hurt!

I love the newsletter and all its enticements. I can scroll down, knowing where my attention is being taken - to the end. On the website I have to employ massive personal discipline to stop myself disappearing down attention-stealing rabbit holes, where I DON'T know where my attention is being taken next.

It’s hard, annoying work, and I'm starting to feel manipulated.

How much better to select a link in the newsletter and I arrive at a single landing page that delivers and converts me to the action that the publisher requires and which I have expressed an interest in?

I understand from a commercial viewpoint why a website, and particularly a high traffic website, is like this. It’s built to maximise search engine traffic at all costs. One of those costs is user experience.

To that extent Gardeners’ World is a click addict, and the newsletter is, sadly, one of the runners bringing in the latest fix.

Website visitor numbers are 3.4m a month according to Similarweb. But 64% of them only view one page, and the average time on the site is lowly 2.5 seconds. This is not a picture of high engagement.

I won’t go on about the click-bait ads mixed in with the gardening articles and the unsavoury programmatic tracking, other than to say:

I’m in Plymouth, Devon but for some reason the “tracking” software thinks I’m in Exeter, and serves me these delights:

  • Exeter: Dental Implants For The Elderly Are Almost Being Given Away
  • Exeter: Unsold Furniture Is Handed Out For Almost Nothing
  • Belly Fat Removal Without Surgery in Exeter, The Cost Might Surprise You

OK, they make the brand money, but at what cost to reader trust and loyalty? Maybe the publisher doesn't care about the latter.

Is this aspect of the business model sustainable? Similarweb estimates an annual revenue range of £4m-£8m ($5m-$10m) for the Gardeners’ World website, which ranks 2nd in the UK gardening category after the Royal Horticultural Society and is rising.

I have no idea if these numbers are realistic, and they seem high, but if they are at quarter of this level, they are hard to argue against from a commercial perspective. These and similar magazine high volume websites won't wean themselves off this model easily.

My sense is over time loyal but time-pushed readers will increasingly recoil at the sensory assault greeting them when venturing out of the newsletter, and page impressions and conversion rates will dwindle.

Now, back to my pruning...

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