Some Follow Up on Newsletters

You’re just not going to convince me that they are better than a website.

I was a bit surprised at the feedback from my last post on Newsletters, not at the amount of feedback, as much as how black and white the issue seems to be. People were either in agreement with me, or were baffled by my conclusions. I asked those who responded in disbelief that newsletters could be bad, to provide me with longer thoughts, and there’s one article I think encapsulates the position in favor of newsletters well.

First, a point of clarification though: I used the term newsletter without specifying what the hell I meant. An error on my part. I simply mean an email newsletter that is filled with original content. What I don’t mean is emails, like this site’s daily email, alerting readers to new posts — in other words automated newsletters aren’t what I am talking about.

With that clarification out of the way, let’s look at an article titled “The Newsletter Brain Dump” by Hugh MacLeod. His post is excellent as it walks through the most common complaints I have heard from newsletter haters, and about social media in itself. Unfortunately MacLeod’s post further convinced me that I am right on this issue and he is not — that newsletters aren’t all that.

In the first part of the article, MacLeod talks about the most common weapon against newsletters, which is the idea that people have too much email coming in.

Most of the time your snail-mailbox is flooded with “demands” i.e. bills, jury duty summons, junk mail and people generally asking you for time, money and energy.
But occasionally you’ll get something really special, say, a handwritten letter from your beloved, a sweater that Granny knitted you, or that extra-super rare comic collection from Amazon. And you’re delighted when that happens.

I personally love the analogy to the physical mailbox, as I hate that as much as I do email, but more than that — I think it is a spot on analogy. I think people who regularly check their mailboxes are also apt to do the same with email. The problem with using mailboxes as a defense for newsletters is just what is said above: both are a shit show. Most of the time the things coming to your email or your mailbox are things you don’t really want coming there — sure you might need those things (like bills, or notes from your boss) but you sure as hell would rather just not deal with them.

The idea then that newsletters are good because of the fact they represent a nice little surprise, or gift, is absurd. To me this is like saying that I should love going to the Post Office, or the DMV because they are having a raffle and I could win something. It really doesn’t matter what that something is, because it won’t be worth it. And I’m not an email hater, my inbox is at zero every night before I go to bed, and I use email a lot.

Email is where important shit, and irrelevant shit happens, it’s not where I want entertainment. I got over than in the 90s with chain letters.

It’s a nice sentiment to put something quality in people’s inboxes, but you are doing it at the risk of people never seeing it. And I know that your analytics may show otherwise, but that is not taking into account how wildly inaccurate email analytics are.

It might be a nice surprise to get an email newsletter, but I still have to go to something which most people loathe in order to get it. I still have to wade through all the bills to see the nice note, and knowing that I am less likely to make looking at the mailbox (email or otherwise) less often.

MacLeod then moves over to talking about using social media to share you work instead of email:

So now, instead of a place where the world’s great ideas get to spread, social media has become a big machine that makes the world seem a lot more trivial than it actually is.

On this point we wholly agree. Everything he says about social media is spot on, and one of the reasons I largely have stopped bothering with promoting individual posts and only promoting the site as a whole. Tweeting a link to any one article I write is worth about 300 hits (based on what I did before turning off analytics), on an average day that was maybe a 15% boost in traffic. Maybe.

But then MacLeod moves on to these two lines which are baffling to me:

Which is why over at gapingvoid, we spend most of our social calories writing the email newsletter, with less time on social media.
Which is why our list has tens of thousands of people, far more than the number of people who read the blog, even back in the glory days.

This is such a one off data point to use as proof of anything. I can flip that right around: my RSS feed has 8,200 subscribers and my newsletter has 390. So RSS is king then right? Don’t use numbers for anything web related like this, they are a wild guess on the best of days. If you have 10,000 subscribers but only 800 are engaged, is that better or worse than having 800 subscribers, but 800 are engaged?

Further did you start with the newsletter or the site? Does your site direct to the newsletter or the the newsletter to the site? Does one or the other make the other irrelevant? Now I’m just talking gibberish, but you get my point.

And, it’s in the last section where I think MacLeod presents some of the most damning arguments against newsletters (keep in mind, he is arguing for newsletters). In talking about the original mailed newsletters he says:

Of course, the Newsletter owners weren’t writing just any old thing. They had specialist knowledge, like financial and stock market information. The model only worked because the stuff was seen as rare and valuable.

Yes. Exactly. This is part of the issue with newsletters. They came out as highly niche publications which contained information that could not be had elsewhere, and were distributed as newsletters because that was the simplest and safest way to distribute the information for money.

But that’s not the case now.

The easiest way to do that now is a membership website. Instant access to everything, harder to share (it’s easier to forward an email than a pay walled website).

And every newsletter I’ve subscribed to is a not a niche set of knowledge. Instead it is a potpourri of stuff with advertising in it for the person sending it. In other words, it can be nice to read on occasion, but it’s mostly not worth paying for.

Which brings us to MacLeod’s last thought:

Though I’d take it one step further. If gapingvoid has something important to say, we put it in an e-book AND THEN put the e-book in an email. Even better.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Your entire article is about how email newsletters are the bees knees and then, at the last possible moment, you admit that the seriously best thing to do to is email a link to an ebook? I can’t be the only person who sees the contradiction here.

“Email newsletters are the best way to engage people, of course when I have something I really want people to read I put it on my website and then email them a link to it.” 

I’m all for using email as a marketing tool: emailing people links to recent posts, or updates about your online business, but it’s not where your original content should be going. Put the original content on a website. Once on a website it is easy to move around hosts, it is easier to charge for it, and it is far easier to make it look fantastic on all devices.

Newsletters with links are a-ok. Newsletters with original content are a waste of original content. Just get a blog, and start writing there.

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