Ranjan Roy

@ranjanxroy

The Holy Grail of Email: What Analyzing 1,300 Axios Newsletters Taught Us

At theedge.group, we help our clients create incredible newsletters. As part of our work, we have a dedicated inbox where we subscribe to thousands of newsletters. This is the first in a series of posts where we analyze our inbox and identify the factors that make for a great product.

The Axios Way

Jim VandeHei and his two-time co-founder, Mike Allen, perfected the art of creating a digestible, must-read daily email with Politico’s Playbook. They are building their new effort, Axios, by taking the elements that made Playbook a success, and instilling them across an entire company. 
 
These elements are summed up in the term “Smart Brevity”, which implies no wasted words, and no wasted space. To find what factors make Smart Brevity “fly”, we parsed¹ over 1,300 Axios newsletters² stemming from a dozen authors.

We used several popular data science tools, including the excellent Natural Language Processing library Spacy, to inspect the HTML elements of each Axios email over the past nine months. What we found helped support the intuition we had about these email, but which we could never justify with extensive datauntil now. (Unlike feelings, you can measure newsletters.)

Here are the most interesting things we found:

  • The average word length per Axios newsletter was around 1,500 words. Yes, some of the most readable and succinct newsletters around manage to cram three blog posts worth of content into their body.
  • The bold phrase to appear the most, at 2,150 occurrences, was “Why it matters”.
  • Mike Allen doesn’t sleep and may be a newsletter automaton — he sent 474 newsletters in the span of nine months.
  • The top five named entities mentioned across all 1,300 emails are: “Trump”, “U.S.”, “China”, “NYSE”, and “Series (A, B, etc.)”
  • The sponsor with the most appearances was PhRMA, with 94 occurrences, in Sam Baker’s emails; the most ubiquitous sponsor was IBM — appearing in four authors’ newsletters.

Below we use the data extracted from the Axios newsletter corpus to teach us what makes for a great newsletter.

Bold Phrases:

Bold phrases are the lifeblood of Axios newsletters. They are like sign posts, pointing the reader in the direction the author is heading. And they’re one of the key components in shaping the Smart Brevity concept.

Let’s see how often the top bold phrases appeared in our dataset…

Bold phrases are vital to the Axios newsletter format. Here are the top phrases thoughout all their newsletters.

And how many words were in the paragraph with the bold phrase, on average…

Each bold phrase is followed by a corresponding paragraph and/or list. These are the average word counts of that corresponding content.

There’s something special about four of the five highest frequency phrases — “Why it matters”, “Be smart”, “The bottom line”, and “Yes, but” (“Go deeper” is a pointer to pieces that further explore a topic). Their corresponding blurbs all hover around a crisp 60 words
 
That means the most ubiquitous types of paragraphs in the newsletters are able to convey an idea in 1–2 lines. If that covers the latter half of Smart Brevity, where does the Smart stuff come in? For this, we explore the function of the four phrases.

“Why it matters”

“Why it matters” is the crux of most Axios event summaries. The three word phrase is an embodiment of the company’s goal to “help people get smarter, faster”. That means “resist[ing] all the traffic-based temptations to dumb things down”, and succinctly delivering serious news to a busy, intelligent audience.
 
“Every piece of content we produce will be broken and narrated with true expertise — and then summarized in one shareable element. You can decide whether to go deeper.”

“Be smart”

One of the benefits of wielding subject expertise is being able to candidly offer different perspectives when needed.

“Be smart” is that savvy friend — versed in politics, tech, energy policy, etc.—looking you in the eye and telling you what an event really translates to. Again: “help[ing] people get smarter, faster.”

“The bottom line”

“The bottom line” is peculiar. It’s sometimes used as a transition, rather than a tie-up, fleshing out the topic with further context:

And sometimes it really is “the bottom line”:

“Yes, but”

Counterpoints convey nuances in events, and nuances make for intelligent reporting. “Yes, but” is an exemplar in this regard.

Newsletter Haiku
 
Bold phrases and corresponding blurbs are essential to Smart Brevity. They manage to point you in the right direction, without using unnecessary words. To summarize:

  • Bold phrases act like sign posts, clueing the reader in on where the author is headed. For example, Sam Baker doesn’t need to spell out that he’s going to make a counterpoint. “Yes, but” is enough.
  • The blurbs following the phrases present a single, succinct idea. This is consistent across over 1,300 newsletters and a dozen authors.
  • Okay, we’ve been blabbing about the greatness of bold phrases and their blurbs, but what’s with the people who actually write them?

Author List:

Who are these venerate newsletter demigods? What do they write about? Well, they’re actually normal people (except Mike Allen, who may be an email automaton). Here are their newsletter subjects and total counts:

Each author's newsletter count from October 2017 to June 2018, as well the name and subject of their newsletter.

Ok, this officially confirms the lack of nocturnal processes for a few of these individuals. But what does it tell us about each author’s employment of Smart Brevity? Two words: worthy content.
 
Let’s take this a step at a time. We begin with our old friend, average word count…

Mike Allen pushes two posts a day — around 3,000 words of politics and tech that flies by. Jonathan Swan, despite publishing about once a week, delivers, on average, over 2,000 words in a single newsletter that “forecasts the week ahead for Capitol Hill and the White House”. 
 
Dan Primack, who covers deals and dealmakers across the U.S., is able to deliver over 1,800 words of startup, M&A, VC, and funding news every weekday (he’s mostly responsible for the ambulance emoji in the top 10 bold phrases chart). 
 
All the authors average 1,500 words per newsletters. That’s pretty meaty for an email.
 
First, this speaks to each authors’ strong work ethic, and second to their clockwork routine. Consistent quality and quantity, delivered when you expect it, builds reader trust; readers deem Axios content worthy of reading. This is literally part of the goal of Smart Brevity, as detailed in the concept’s manifesto section:
 
“We aim to make the [reading] experience more substantive and meaningful — and therefore more valuable. When we pull this off, it will free people up to spend time on content truly WORTHY of their time, on our platform or elsewhere.”
 
And it’s part of their mission statement: “[to] provide only content worthy of people’s time, attention and trust”.

Named Entities:

Frequent named entities (places, organizations, people, and basically any proper noun) found in text can act as a kind of barometer that indicates if an author is staying on-topic. Yes, we know that each newsletter already has predetermined topics. But the proof is in the bullet-point-riddled pudding…

(Side note: some named entities act as umbrella terms — U.S. includes America, American(s), etc. This is to capture the concept, not just the words, across all newsletters.)

Named entities are specific people, places, organizations, and essentially any proper noun.

Everyone gets an A+ for staying on point, so let’s get to the extracurricular activities, and dissect these lists a bit.
 
It’s fun to see the corroboration of cross-newsletter topic areas. The top named entities include “Trump”, “U.S.”, and “China”. Tech or pure politics, energy or health, industries are affected by the likes of “China” and “Trump” (who is in the “U.S.”).

The top five named entities throughout all newsletters.

NYSE and Series (A, B, and so on) are primarily used by Dan Primack, who you may remember delivers around 1,800 words of content on U.S. deals and dealmakers every weekday. (Side note: it’s inevitable that Mike Allen pushed “Trump” well beyond “U.S.” by his reporting alone.)
 
Back to the main chart. Note the frequency of big tech mentions in Ina Fried’s named entities: Facebook > Google > Apple > Amazon > Microsoft as the top tech companies. Can her Login newsletter be representative of the overall news landscape? Google Trends helps answer:

Comparing the order of frequency in Ina Fried's top tech company mentions to Google Trends data, we see a similar correlation.

Besides Apple, the mentions are quite representative. 
 
A few other observations:

  • While Mike Allen delves into tech, we see no evidence of this in his top named entities, which are doused in politics like excess salad dressing.
  • Ben Geman, who writes about energy, has “Obama” mentioned 88 times, with many of those mentions discussing Trump’s White House pushing against Obama-era policies.
  • Mike LeVine has “2016” mentioned 31 times. Is he, like Ben Geman, referring to the reversal of stance on certain political issues? Actually, not really. Many of the mentions about 2016 are things like: “In 2016, 51% of 25 to 54-year-old males in Flint, Mich., were unemployed”, and “U.S. convenience store industry racked up $550 billion in sales in 2016”. Hidden predilections?

Sponsors:

Ads — and their presentation — are actually a decent part of the Axios manifesto. They tie directly with the company’s beliefs. Let’s take a look again at the first quote we posted:

“If you think about your evolving habits for consuming news and information, you realize you have less time, and a shorter attention span. Our content, our ads and our platforms are designed specifically to adjust to these new habits and demands.”
 
Two elements of the “Axios Way” can be spotted in the way the company presents their ads: “never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars”, and “great content on clunky site [or newsletter]… with cluttered design, is a disservice”.
 
Their ad presentation is graceful, unobtrusive, and reminds us of Carbon Ads (example). Check these out:

Dan Primack (deals and dealmakers)

Steve LeVine (robots, artificial intelligence, jobs, and global economics)

Alison Snyder (medicine, space, neuroscience, physics)

One doesn’t need to mute 3 autoplay videos, cancel out of a full screen ad, and deny the publisher their email address before reading an article” on their site. The same minimalism is applied in Axios’ newsletters.
 
Since graceful, relevant ads are part of the Smart Brevity mantra, we explored top sponsors to see if they matched newsletter subject matter.

The top five newsletter sponsors per author.

With the slight exceptions of Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan, these companies can be comfortably cross-referenced with each author’s newsletter topics. As for the email automaton himself, he seems to simply have a medley of really big players who want to snuggle up with his prolific posting rate and popularity. 
 
And Mr. Swan’s sponsor, Koch, does many things (“manufacturing, refining, and distribution of petroleum, chemicals, energy, fiber…”). Perhaps his newsletter has a good deal of powerful D.C superfans, and Koch is making sure it’s seen where it needs to be.

Conclusion:

The aim of this post was to show, on a granular, analytical level, why Axios’ 1,500-word posts just work. We found it’s a combination of factors swirling around the Smart Brevity concept. These include:

  • Intelligent, 1–2 sentence blurbs that get to the crux of news events succinctly, and which are backed by useful context and great formatting.
  • Bold phrases that act as sign posts for the reader, helping them get a quick idea of where the author is going with the summary.
  • A consistent and at times prolific output that ensures readers get quality and quantity. This builds trust, and allows readers to deem Axios content worthy of their attention (the company name means “worthy” in Greek).
  • Each author is dedicated to their topics. While this may seem like a mundane fact, it opens doors for highly-specific audiences (and highly-specific advertisers).
  • The company’s ad philosophy is directly part of the Smart Brevity mantra. The ads don’t waste the reader’s time. They are subtle, highly-targeted, and well-presented.

An important note: what the Axios team is doing here is following good journalistic practices. This isn’t anything new — it’s just solid, proven practices delivered consistently. It’s remarkable that they’re doing it so well, and at such a prolific pace, though.

If you’d like to contact The Edge Group team to explore your own trove of newsletter data and analytics, contact info@theedge.group.

  1. Note: we measured authors we subscribed to in bulk last year, around October 2017. Thus, the stats don’t include newer newsletters from Joe Uchill and Andrew Freedman.
  2. Tools used: to crawl our dedicated inbox for Axios emails, we used Gmail’s Python API; the Pandas Python module to create a dataframe of the inbox’s contents; a few libraries for parsing html data; and Python’s natural language processing module, Spacy.
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