A roundtable conversation on the present and future of the email newsletter
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Over the last few weeks, what began as an online back-and-forth about the nature (and evolving role) of individual and agency marketing newsletters took shape in a roundtable between a global collection of newsletter authors. In a sprawling (thanks mostly to friend o’ Dark Matter Chris Butler) conversation, we covered the genesis of the contemporary newsletter, the interplay between missives and Twitter and the increasingly-personal connections that authors feel for their subscribers. The full transcript is below.
Neil Perkin: So email newsletters have become quite the thing. A growing number of smart individuals seem to be compiling their own weekly curations and it seems that the old fashioned mailer is undergoing something of a renaissance. I’ve been doing my own newsletter for five years now, and I know that compiling one can require a not insubstantial amount of time and (brain) energy to produce week after week. So why did you start yours? Why have they become so popular? And are email newsletters the new blogging?
Faris Yakob: Emails are definitely the new old blogs – which is funny since I met pretty much all of you because of my and your blogs, I think. Back last decade, blogs felt like a little community, we all commented and chatted with each other, but ultimately the meat of them was, for me at least, here is something interesting AND here is what I think about it. I was inspired way back when by things like the now defunct Haddock.org link blogs.
[years later I was invited to join the Haddock community which I was super geekcited about but I couldn’t keep up with the volume of email on the lists. I’m not great at email, which is possibly ironic]
Rosie started her Tuesday Ten and did it solo for a few years – she can speak to that – and then kindly let me get involved when we launched Genius Steals as a company, so we rebranded the Ten as Strands [because it’s pieces of the web, gettit?]. But we still send it on Tuesdays.
Someone actually asked us today how do you find time. As you said Neil, it is a significant commitment – but the value in it for me is similar to my old blog. We’re forced to keep finding new interesting things and then putting down a thought about them. It helps us be inspired, it helps inspire others [hopefully] – because all ideas are new combinations and you need more strands to weave into new ideas.
Rosie Yakob: You know, I would say that the reason I got a job was from newslettering, if you will. When I was an intern at Jay-Z’s entertainment branding company, Translation, they asked me to think of an intern project. I came up with the idea of a newsletter called the Daily Download, which was essentially a trend report around the verticals that were relevant to our client. I had followed Daily Candy (remember them?!) throughout college, and thought mine would be more like Daily Candy meets Trendhunting or PSFK.
When I finished my internship, I was offered a job – except that I hadn’t graduated from college yet, and my parents said that I’d have to pay them back for tuition if I didn’t graduate. So I managed to convince Translation to keep paying me as an intern, and from my final year at the University of Georgia I continued to send The Daily Download out to the agency each day.
From there, I was always that person sending all agency emails – and when I left one job a colleague said to me, “You know I’m going to miss you. But I’m really going to miss your emails.” So “going public” was a natural transition to something I was already doing as part of my job.
I tend to have poor reading comprehension because I read so quickly. So writing all-agency emails was my way of holding myself accountable: I never just sent links, I had to add value or else the emails were obnoxious, which forced me to really read what I had opened in my tabs instead of skimming through.
Ian Fitzpatrick: We started putting out an agency newsletter as a client service, really. We knew that other agencies were sending off quasi-briefings on ‘what you should know about NFC’ and ‘why Quora is the next great thing’ and the like, and were quite conscious of the idea that there was an opportunity to demonstrate some thought leadership to clients without hitting them over the head with PDFs.
Intriguingly, we learned two things pretty quickly:
Anjali Ramachandran: I started my newsletter a year or so ago because it was about this subject (interesting ideas happening beyond the West) that I kept feeling was lacking on coverage in the more mainstream blogs or media. I finally decided to get up and do something about it myself instead of waiting for other people to do it. It’s funny that way more blogs/publications covering emerging markets have actually sprung up in the last year, but I think that’s a good thing.
I think my newsletter has struck a chord because it’s clearly about something that a lot of people feel they’d like to know more about as well – it’s all too easy to NOT hunt for information because of the usual excuses: lack of time for one, but in this case also because people often don’t know where to start looking as it’s an unusual subject for many.
Are email newsletters the new blogging? Good question. The easy answer to that would be yes, but in a way it’s also not. I did think about just blogging instead of creating a newsletter, but the audience is very different in my case, and the subject matter as well. Back in the day, blogging did use to feel like what email newsletters are now, I definitely feel that. There was a proper community when it came to commenting and the like. But as Twitter (and I blame mostly Twitter!) took off, that became less and less. Blogs started to feel more public, less intimate – and so newsletters stepped in.
Chris Butler: My firm (Newfangled) had been doing monthly newsletters since about 2001. The idea was to “go on the record” on some subject that was critical to a better understanding of interaction design, so that our prospects (future clients) would make better partnering and working decisions. That made a huge difference to us, and the quality of our work. It was our content marketing strategy before anyone really talked about that. It’s what put us on the map.
In the last few years, though, we moved away from that particular platform on the firm side — the monthly long-form article and email — and I was doing less and less of the writing while others from the team took on that responsibility. I had written a monthly, very long-form article (anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 words) for seven years without a break — I took it over from the previous owner of the firm — and it was feeling less and less about the relevance of the message and more like an institution that existed just because it always had. We just felt like it was time to change things up and explore other platforms. Meanwhile, plenty of other people on the Newfangled team were regularly contributing to the company blog. So we felt covered as far as written content was concerned.
But it wasn’t too long before I missed the regular writing. So I started my own newsletter as a way to keep that “muscle” exercised. I immediately discovered a few things. First, the exercise is critical to how I work through ideas and process them. I can do it on my own, or talk it out with colleagues and friends, but having to put it in writing takes it further. It refines my thinking. So, in that regard, the newsletter is as much for me as anyone else. But I also realized just how hungry I’d been to widen the scope of subject matter in my own writing. I’m pushing it a bit beyond just design-related material, sometimes talking about technology, economics, and just figuring out how to live a better life. I’m also trying to push something that I feel is a bit lacking in the design/tech space, which is a humanistic *and* critical voice. One that says, hey, that new thing is neat, but what is it for? Is it the best thing for us? What are we doing with ourselves, our resources, and our time? Where is this all going? And the intimacy of the platform — the email part — makes that scope-widening possible. It’s a personal medium, and we’re all much more complicated than just our narrow areas of expertise. But here is a place where I can express myself fully without feeling like it’s either beside the point or a narcissistic indulgence And so far, people seem to like that.
Inaki Escudero: It’s been awhile for me now that I’ve been looking forward to Fridays to receive Only Dead Fish, or for Tuesday’s Genius Steals. No other “source of interestingness” form (Twitter, Medium, News feeds. Maybe the only exception and it’s a totally different medium would be Zite) got me so excited to engage with it. Mainly for the reason you guys have expressed already.
My decision to start “The One Thing” (just 11 weeks ago) was driven by the need to do something with all the content I was accumulating through the aggregation of interesting resources. Many of those news and links were being shared by you guys and others. But with so much content to cover, I thought it would interesting to write about some of the less covered but still attractive, odd and “good to know” things happening every week.
I also liked the personal tone of “Genius Steals”. FY and RS were using it almost as a journal for their adventures and I wanted to add that intimate quality to mine.
So far it’s been really rewarding, and also very different from writing a blog. Mainly the delivery format of once per week, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m missing on an opportunity to comment or share interesting events “real time”.
Hugh Garry: There are a few reasons why we started the Storythings Newsletter. I’d been getting my weekly dose of Neil’s fish food for a while and found it something that I started to look forward to receiving. Blogs and social media had broken the rhythm of content delivered to a schedule. You got the content (the blog post/the tweet etc) when the provider decided they were ready to publish. So all of a sudden there was this promise of stories delivered direct to you on a particular day. The appeal was a great case of ‘rethinking deadness’. At a point when everyone seemed to be reading the last rights to email and schedules it just really appealed as a new (old) way to to capture ‘attention’. We’re obsessed with formats and experimenting with content so it seemed like a no-brainer.
Also as a relatively new company it felt like it would be an ‘easy’ way to get the name and reputation of Storythings out there. I say ‘easy’, but as Neil mentioned earlier, if you’re thinking of doing your own don’t underestimate the size of the job. I generally dedicate a full day to finding the stories and regularly find myself up until the early hours of Friday trying to get it finished.
The final reason I started it was because knew it would be a good discipline that would help me stay on top of how stories are being told, whilst really understanding what makes stories interesting to people. I’m constantly in the analytics, questioning the data and looking for insights. Knowing why people like certain stories and story formats is hugely important for us.
‘Why are they so popular?’ I guess their success points to the importance of good curators. As for the question ‘Are newsletters the new blogging?’ I’m not sure that I totally see them that way. I think of my subscriptions as being the front page of the internet I want to see.
Neil: But they are different to blogs aren’t they? Not least in the sense that they are less open – so is there something in that?
Ian: I think so. There’s a freedom to adopt a more strident point of view when someone’s subscribed that you might not lead with in a blog format (Messrs. Campbell and Weigel are obvious exceptions). There’s a degree of insularity that a newsletter affords someone like Chris, or Dan Hon, to go on a bit of a tear without having to know that they can stick the landing.
Faris: Yes that’s true – people are opting in and it does feel more…intimate…because it’s not public. There’s something in that I think – the default now is public, broadcast, it feels like – the newsletter feels like a more private space. And it’s funny because email is so..overloaded now. I stopped using RSS and readers and no longer really “keep up” with individual blogs or things – I just consume the tweet stream and see where it takes. And I have some relationships still on Twitter but that’s also to much so it feels nice to see the weekly email and feel that connection to a regular.
Anjali: They are sort of a mid-point between blogging, which often feels like it needs to be a more structured thinking exercise (though Tumblr came in to disabuse exactly that sort of POV and has really succeeded), and Twitter, which is obviously way less structured but also very limited on space. Newsletters are less open, yes, but come with this sense of freedom that blogs just didn’t, and perhaps still don’t afford. Some people use their blogs with the kind of abandon that most newsletters do – Rob Campbell for one, but he’s a rare one. The psychology behind blogs vs. newsletters is all very interesting. I can’t wait to see what newsletters are going to be replaced by.
Chris: I completely agree with Ian, Faris, and Anjali’s points. I’ve already mentioned the intimacy factor, but the point-of-view thing intrigues me. I love a conversation where people can take risks — risks of thought and expression — or where we can try out points of view. Ideas and opinions evolve and shift, and I like the idea that something like a newsletter can be a written record of that *as well as* a mechanism for change. I want to go on that “tear,” as Ian put it. To change through the act of writing, while also creating the record of that change. It’s a bit harder to do that when your written record sits under a corporate masthead. Beyond that, though, the format can vary widely. It could be a briefing format, like Ian’s, or something much more stream-of-consciousness, like what Dan Hon has been doing. I’ve been inspired by both. But I’m also so craft-oriented — I love writing, and words, and the art of language — that I’ve been more inclined to push mine a bit more toward formality. It’s something I kind of wrestle with. How raw should this be? How polished? I’m hoping to continue to explore the freedom of choice in that, where some go the polished essay route, where that makes sense, and others less so, to the degree that I can get over my own ego and let it be raw!
Hugh: Adding to the intimacy point I feel the ‘opt in’ factor changes the dynamic of the relationship. If someone is prepared to add to their email mountain because they value your opinion or taste then that adds a different kind of pressure – you’re writing for a different kind of attention. Writing a blog post feels like writing for the stream. Compiling a newsletter feels like an invitation for readers to ignore the stream.
Rosie: I totally agree. I’ve had people say “I get so much less stressed about reading things on the internet because I know if I should really read them, I’ll find them in your newsletter.” Having a trusted source means you don’t have to see how many people have tweeted about something to see if you really should be reading it.
I was never really into blogging like most of you lot. I had a Tumblr from its inception and was into life blogging, but once I was in the working world, I wanted to get off the computer more instead of spend more time writing. I know Faris feels he has a community from the blogging world, but I have a community from writing a newsletter – and it feels much more intimate. We’re very conscious that we’re walking a fine line of sharing too much from a personal perspective (as opposed to a work perspective), but so far, it’s worked for us. And it helps manufacture serendipity when you’re traveling
I think when people are reading blogs, they’re often looking for information, whereas newsletters seem more about inspiration.
Ian: Neil, you do both — perhaps more consistently than any of us. Are you conscious of that kind of distinction when you’re writing them?
Neil: I still use my blog for the kind of proper thinking out loud that Chris describes, but may also use the newsletter to add a quick thought about a great link that I’m sharing. But the newsletter also lends itself well to being able to say ‘here’s the best thing I read all week’, or I can use it to announce the next Google Firestarters event.
Chris: I’ve also been wondering something else, about the nature of time and energy in all this. As I’ve settled into a pace with writing letters, I’ve found myself engaging on Twitter less. Previously, Twitter had been my most active “channel.” But I think I got fatigued by the pace of it (and, to Anjali’s point, the “space” of it). It was nearly impossible to keep up with the river of conversation happening there, and it was exhausting to find the signal in the noise. But the dopamine hit you get through interactions there can keep you engaging long after your energy reserves have been emptied, and certainly long past when Twitter’s value has maxed out. I still use it, but with these newsletters, I find I’m able to slow down and engage with ideas in a much more humanely-paced way. I have time to mull them over and consider a variety of angles without having to reply to anyone else or have my attention set in a different direction. And the people who read them have the same luxury. They can read them on their own time and reply when or if it’s convenient for them. The conversation can last for weeks, rather than just minutes. The whole thing is much slower, which reminds me of how that sort of engagement used to work before social media sped everything up. Does any of this resonate with you all?
Anjali: Chris, I agree with you about newsletters being slower than social media. I’m still very much on Twitter but sometimes I feel a bit detached from it, in the sense that it feels more like a platform to announce things than ruminate on them. Here’s a bizarre thought: we all know Twitter’s been in the spotlight lately about having to figure their whole business model out soon: do you think someone reading this conversation of ours will consider acquiring a newsletter platform to make Twitter what it currently isn’t, the way Branch and Medium got together? It can’t be Tinyletter thought, so I wonder what it *could* be!
Chris: That’s not a bad idea, Anjali! If I could manage all this stuff in one place, I’d definitely prefer that
Neil: Makes sense to me. So what do we think makes for a great newsletter?
Ian: I tend to see them through different lenses. With something like Strands of Genius, The One Thing, Fish Food, or Sean Bonner’s brilliant The Crowd, my response is always ‘where did they find that? what are they reading that I’m not?’. The magic lies in the capacity to pull together these disparate entities and pull them into something cohesive. The magic of Don’t Think About the Future or Extenuating Circumstances is watching this high-wire act that they may or may not pull off. There’s an immediacy to it, like live comedy, that’s really thrilling. With something like Other Valleys, the magic lies in the depth of knowledge and intimacy with something about which I know nothing.
What I think is most compelling is the way in which the form is fragmenting. You’ve got authors with pretty rigid list forms — often by design — like Rosie, Faris, Neil, Inaki and myself. You’ve got a missive form encapsulated in Chris and Dan’s emails, the capsule-like form of Anjali’s newsletter and then these structure-less, send-them-whenever-the-hell-I-feel-like-it streams like The Crowd. Barthes would have loved newsletters.
Chris: Great point, Ian. There are various common forms emerging within the broader newsletter landscape. It’s been fascinating to watch them coalesce, especially in seeing how certain people gravitate toward certain forms. Ultimately, I like that they exist, because they offer a predictability that, as a subscriber, I really value. I love knowing that when Dark Matter arrives, it’s going to give me my weekly reading list. Or that when Dan Hon’s letter arrives, it’s going to feel like an email from his bunker late at night. I’m sure there will be new forms to come, and I can’t wait to see what they are. The only other form I’ve experimented with is the “mixletter,” which is a collection of short, mostly unrelated entries. I’ve only done two of those, but the feedback has been positive.
Anjali: For me, it’s the feeling of getting into someone else’s mind and being enlightened and – in a sense – empowered – by their thoughts. All the people who are here live very different lives from mine, grew up in different parts of the world, and are interested by different things (mostly). It’s about learning from the cumulative experience of their lives in a way I otherwise can’t without actually physically hanging out with them for hours the way we probably used to do as teenagers or at university! It’s like a virtual club for people who want to be smarter, if you get what I mean. I like that feeling.
Rosie: Anjali & Neil, I’m with you both on this one. I subscribe not so much for the promise of a certain type of content, but for the curators. I want to know what they’re reading, and how they’re thinking.
Inaki: Indeed. The content is great, but the curator’s’ point of view is what makes me anticipate the arrival of the newsletter.
Faris: Yes. It’s the personal connection I felt back when we were all blogging at each other.
Hugh: For me it’s great taste and strong opinion. All the best ones seem to be written by people who you trust when they say ‘This is important and this this is why it’s important’. The added bonus is when you’re allowed into the life of the writer. Faris and Rosie are great at this and Dan Hon is exceptional. It’s not something I do. I really should try harder.
Ian: That’s a real challenge, Hugh — particularly when one is publishing to some extent on behalf of an organization. The I/we line is tricky to navigate, and I’ve never done it particularly well. Chris, how cognizant are you of the line between Chris and Newfangled?
Chris: I think Hugh is on to something with bringing up “taste.” Taste is so personal, and so subjective. And yet, I’d agree that it is the defining characteristic of what, for me, makes a great newsletter. It reminds me a bit of the days when video rental stores still existed and there’d be a display toward the front with shelves devoted to so-and-so’s picks. There would always be a video store employee “for you” — someone whose taste you related to. (Seinfeld did a pretty good send-up of this, I think, where Elaine became infatuated with a video store employee she’d never met by way of his selections only to find out that he was some kid barely through puberty.) Even today, when the internet has largely “flattened” culture, there are still smaller, unique pockets of culture within it that are defined, I think, by taste. Now, exactly what taste is, I’m not sure I can define. I’d have to imagine it is the visible tip of an enormous biographical iceberg — who your parents are/were, what they do/did for a living, where you grew up, whether you were an indoor or outdoor kid, etc. And there are all kinds of contexts in which that tip of the iceberg will be visible and matter to someone else, especially cultural ones like music, film, and literature. So we find ourselves connected to other people by way of these threads of culture, and in an odd affinity-based causality, we go from recognizing that so-and-so also likes that band we like to trusting what they have to say about something else that we didn’t know about before. All of that is wrapped up in these letters.
As for Ian’s question about the connection between who we are as individuals and who or what we may represent, whether that be an organization or an idea, that’s equally tricky to nail down. For me, it’s something I think about all the time. For example, when I first joined Twitter, I didn’t think much about the handle I chose. I just went with what my Gmail address was for the sake of consistency. And I was stuck with “chrbutler” because at least two or three other Chris Butler’s had gotten to Gmail before I did. So @chrbutler it was. But it wasn’t long before I ran into that awkward feeling that maybe sometimes who I am as an individual doesn’t exactly fit with who I might be professionally. I also noticed that plenty of people got around that by creating additional social media profiles linked more directly to their professional identity. If I’d gone that route it would have been something like NewfangledChris. But I just couldn’t imagine managing two Twitter accounts, and I wanted to believe — still do — that I could be 100% me without that jeopardizing anything I valued professionally. And largely, I think that’s worked out. People who discover Newfangled quickly see that my personality — my opinions, ideas about design, technology, and that sort of thing — is just as present there as it might be in contexts that I’d consider more personal. In many cases, that actually makes a difference from a marketing and sales perspective. That there’s a person behind it all — and really, I should say people, because there are 25 of us at Newfangled and I’m hardly the only one representing us publicly — matters to the people who become our clients. In so many cases, our clients develop a strong relationship with us, built by trust and “taste,” long before they pay us for anything. I hope that continues to be true.
So, Ian, I guess I’m continually aware of the “line,” so much so that it rarely feels like much of a line at all. It’s more like a dance or an exercise or something. Where each movement is the result of an acute awareness of what’s around you, so complex and fluid that it sometimes feels unclear where you end and the rest of the world begins. Of course, that isn’t to say that you don’t often run up against real edges. To Hugh’s point, a strong opinion will ensure that. But I’ve also found that you can have a strong opinion about something while also not considering it essential. Just the other day, I read a great little post from Cap Watkins about figuring out how much you actually care about something. He describes how he and a colleague will often resolve debates by identifying where they are on a sliding scale. So, maybe they’re hashing something out and one of them says, “you know, I’m only like a 4 out of 10 on this one.” Which is to say, “you care about this more, so let’s do it your way.” I love that. I’ve been thinking about Cap’s post constantly since I read it last week, and am realizing more and more that there are very few things for which I’d rate my opinion — in so far as it’s in conflict with someone else’s — much higher than a four. While at the same time, if I were to rate how much I care about such and such a thing in a vacuum, I’d probably put it much higher on the scale. I think that sort of perspective helps the “dance” continue even when you bump into hard edges.
Neil: It can be tricky but the personal touch definitely adds something – I do like newsletters where the personality of the curator shines through.
Rosie: Besides Ian, it sounds like most of us started newsletters as a personal passion. But we’ve found that even with our vague & personal focus (and relatively small amount of subscribers compared to the Brainpickings of the world), it tends to be one of our strongest generators of new business. Have you found that your newsletters help your business? Do you think of it as content marketing? (And if so, does that change what you include?)
Chris: Great question, Rosie. For me, I have seen some benefit, in that I know some clients were reading my newsletter before they became clients, and that the experience they had reading it contributed to their decision. And that’s great. But I am deliberately not thinking of my newsletter as content marketing. If I did, I’d guess it would change some of what I include, but mostly cause all kinds of second-guessing and punch-pulling that I feel pretty free of at the moment.
Neil: I know that my newsletter has generated business for me and, speaking as someone who runs their own business, it is definitely a useful way to stay top of mind with clients and other interesting people. But for me it’s like blogging in the sense that that is not the primary reason why I do it. I think you have to enjoy the process of curation and compilation to stay with it and that enjoyment shows in the tone of the newsletter.
Ian: I think that freeing myself from the idea that it’s marketing has allowed it to become more of a personal passion, and to allow more of my own perspectives to bleed through. For us, it’s been better at connecting us with prospective employees who think in a particular way than it has with clients. Which is fine.
Hugh: I’m always super-conscious about getting the content balance right. I guess the newsletter is a generator of business because the people who chose to follow liked our taste and as a result trust us to know how to tell a good story. We have clients right across the board – from museums to make-up companies, musicians to TV and film companies – we don’t have a typical client or job. We’ve always tried to cover a broad range of stories from a huge range of fields in the newsletter. Once we start thinking too much about the newsletter as a business generator then we are in danger of messing with that winning formula, perhaps thinking too much about one industry in hope of generating more work. Rather than thinking ‘will this story generate more work’ I just stick to three questions: Is this story highly entertaining? Will the reader learn something from this story? Has this story taken a new or interesting approach to storytelling? If the stories answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions then there is a good chance that it would get in.
Inaki: Super relevant question Rosie. As you might know, I recently left my job and I started my own business: The Mutant Gene. And obviously one of the first questions I had to deal with was how do I let people know about the company, what’s my marketing campaign? And after a lot of thinking and lots of (bad) traditional ideas, I realized that I already had a channel and a content strategy that were working well (as a small scale), and I decided to focus my energy on the development of “The One Thing”. So far I’d say that it has had a positive impact. All my clients have commented about the newsletter during phone calls and they even single out articles they found useful for their business.
Neil: Some great thoughts there, and a really interesting conversation. Thanks everyone for taking part.