Illustration by Sammby/Shutterstock

Breaking the Mold: Experimenting with New Ideas to Increase Engagement

5 min readJun 16, 2020


Email is an easy and inexpensive way to maintain audience relationships. The Urban Institute does this in two ways, through stakeholder outreach and newsletters. Stakeholder outreach takes a targeted approach to connecting with specific audiences, groups, and organizations. Newsletters, in contrast, are designed to reach a broader audience.

To better serve a wide array of interests, our audiences are segmented by policy centers, cross-center initiatives, and leadership. Currently, Urban has a total of 24 different categories and sends about six newsletters a week to thousands of subscribers. In 2019, our newsletters reached more than one million people and saw a 22.4 percent average open rate and a 5.2 percent average click-through rate, putting us above the industry average for nonprofit organizations.

We believe our success is attributable to two main factors: First, we’re consistent with our content, providing trusted and well researched information on a variety of topics. And second, we’re consistent in the cadence and timing of our newsletter sends.

Our featured newsletters highlight a research center’s specific piece of work, and we use this newsletter for outreach outside of the center’s regular schedule. We’ve never used different design techniques for these newsletters, but recently, the team has stepped outside the box and is experimenting. In this post, I’ll walk through a couple of these experiments and our assessment of their effectiveness.

Our first experiment: Animating newsletter content

Using the Tax Policy Center’s (TPC’s) and the Urban Institute Update’s newsletters, we tried new formats to try to increase engagement and saw promising results that encourage continued experimenting.

In January, TPC commissioned several short videos on tax expenditures and included a feature newsletter as part of their outreach plan. These videos proved to be a great opportunity to try something new with our newsletters: cutting a clip from one of the videos and converting it into an animated GIF for a header image. GIFs aren’t novel, but we had yet to find a project able to fully use the medium. GIFs are a great tool to help drive engagement and offer a fun surprise to subscribers who otherwise may not expect them. Urban isn’t known for producing light-hearted content, but we were impressed with TPC’s whimsical videos and sought their permission to experiment with a GIF.

Compared with what we normally see with these kinds of newsletters, we saw an unusually high number of total opens with this particular send. A few factors could contribute to these numbers: the newsletter’s content was more compelling than what readers are used to, the header image was impressive enough to warrant several viewings, or, and this is a hypothesis, subscribers were forwarding this newsletter above a normal rate. Regardless of the reason for the increase in total opens, the audience engaged with the content more than we’ve seen for TPC’s other newsletters. It showed us that our experiment was successful, and it’s opened our minds to finding other opportunities to insert GIFs into newsletters.

Our second experiment: Broad-themed newsletter content

Adding to our lists of firsts, another opportunity to do something new came up with our Black History Month newsletter. We decided to send this newsletter to our Urban Institute Update (UIU) audience, which consists of subscribers interested in the general overview of Urban products. We hadn’t produced a newsletter framed around a theme before, and with Urban’s focus on racial inequality, this seemed like a good time to create one. The content consisted of both past and present products to give older work new, relevant meaning and to promote our new research.

Producing a themed newsletter also allowed us a chance to work more closely with the Urban Wire team, who encouraged researchers to fast-track preplanned blog posts so they could be featured in the newsletter. The result was a longer newsletter than we usually send — an average newsletter consists of five to seven content pieces (such as blog posts or research products) — but this one consisted of eight sections and a lengthy introduction. Though longer, we were optimistic it would still perform well, given the relevance of the content to the month’s cultural significance.

Our Black History Month newsletter performed well, with 5,298 total opens (a 29.2 percent unique open rate and a 4.7 percent click-through rate), compared with the average UIU newsletter, which gets an average 3,407 total opens (a 30.1 percent unique open rate and a 6.7 percent click-through rate). Like our GIF experiment with TPC, we saw a spike in total opens. Again, although a number of factors could contribute to this increase, our subscribers responded well to this change in format, which encourages us to try more broad-themed newsletters moving forward.

Going forward

Keeping newsletter content and design fresh is a great way to maintain engagement with your audience and encourage new users to join your community. We’ve learned we can make some of the trends we see in our own, personal inboxes work with Urban’s brand — it just takes a little patience and strategy.

If you’d like to learn more about Urban’s work and our newsletters, please sign up on our newsletter page.

-Sarita Williams

Want to learn more? Sign-up for the Data@Urban newsletter.

*To clarify that our Black History Month newsletter was opened more times than an average Urban Institute Update newsletter, we added the number of total opens to the paragraph listing both newsletters’ open rates (updated 6/17/20)




Data@Urban is a place to explore the code, data, products, and processes that bring Urban Institute research to life.