My Prediction About Email Newsletters Was Dead Wrong

On this blog, in a comment from February 2015, I said:

It is 2015 and for the last few years, the message has been build the newsletter. Like every other web trend, this will get played out. There will be a handful of sites that do a great job with the newsletters, the rest will become noise.

On the web, everything works until it doesn’t. People are starting to have newsletter fatigue. I expect it to get worse. Growing a newsletter list at the expense of annoying your existing fans IMO is bad business.

That was a big miss. Newsletters got a lot more popular. How did I get this so wrong? I’ll list a few reasons.

The web became intolerable. Newsletter pop-ups, paywalls, ad-blocker blockers, trackers, auto-loading video, endless ads, and cookie warnings. Then if you can get past all that, you often will find long-winded bloated writing not used to communicate effectively, but to keep you on the page longer.

The email inbox has become the last safe space on the web.

Over the past few years, I’ve become a reader of more newsletters. And I will say the quality has improved. However, it still drives me bonkers when I sign up for a newsletter on a website, then I get the newsletter and follow a link that takes me back to the website, only to get hammered with a pop-up trying to get me to sign up for the very same newsletter I just clicked on a link from. It wouldn’t be hard to turn that off by modifying the query string in the newsletter.

Newsletters Aren’t Perfect (for users)

Newsletters still pose a few problems. Users need to surrender their email address to receive the newsletter and then hope they receive value. They hope that email address won’t be used to send them crap or that the person that has their email address doesn’t get hacked. Also, the ability to unsubscribe should be 1-click easy.

I don’t see these as big problems. With the exception of Seeking Alpha and iTalki, getting off an email newsletter has been an easy process. And I created a filter to auto-forward those 2 newsletters directly into my SPAM folder.

There is also the issue where SPAM filters will flag a good newsletter as SPAM and you don’t see it. GMAIL seems to hate Matt Ridley. I’ve read his books and listened to numerous podcast interviews with him going back a decade. I want to read his content, yet GMAIL continually tries to put his newsletter in my SPAM folder. I have a filter set up to fix this and GMAIL still puts up warnings that the newsletter might be dangerous. Someone in Google must not care for Ridley.

Another issue for readers of newsletters is that they don’t get to choose the time they receive the newsletter. So I get newsletters hitting my inbox throughout the week. Because I also use my inbox for work, newsletters are a constant interruption. Whenever I get a newsletter, I use the Snooze feature of GMAIL and snooze it until Saturday morning. Then on Saturday morning, I read all my newsletters at once. More than a year ago, I made a product suggestion to Google to add the Snooze until feature to the filters. Google so far has ignored this request.

A solution might be to have a 2nd email account for newsletters, but my setup hasn’t become overwhelming. Maybe in 5 years, it will be? My Inbox is always close to zero. I know people with 50,000+ emails in their Inbox. I doubt these people are reading the newsletters they sign up for. Clearly, RSS was a better tool, but supporters like myself lost that battle.

Newsletters Aren’t Perfect (for creators)

Creators seem to keep making the same mistake over and over. They abandon the web for a better distribution tool. Then the distribution tool stops working and they are left scrambling to find a way to connect with the audience they spent years building.

The answer has always been to use the distribution tools be they social media platforms or newsletters to drive readers to your website. I see smart engaging people with newsletters that either don’t have a website or the website hasn’t been updated in ages.

Recently, I was trying to find something I read in a newsletter this summer and I failed. There was no website or even a newsletter archive online that I was aware of. I couldn’t search for it online. I probably deleted the email after I read it or maybe I couldn’t recall the search string I needed to access that email. My connection with that content was forever lost.

Compare that to the quote I added at the top of this post. It was posted on a webpage almost 7 years ago and is searchable from both internal and external search. The most-read posts on this site are often several years old. They aren’t buried 1,000 pages back in someone’s overflowing email box.

The solution is simple. A newsletter should both be able to stand on its own, but also have a webpage.

newsletter

Regrets?

I tried and abandoned the newsletter model a few times. I have the option for readers to receive new posts by email, but I don’t consider that to be a true newsletter.

My energy level for creating new content on the web has never been lower. I see a lot of burnout from my fellow Gen-X web pioneers, so I know I’m not alone. The thought of starting a newsletter just doesn’t appeal to me now.

 

3 Comments

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  1. As always, thoughtful thoughts about how the web works and what works for writers. There are so many ways to disseminate work on the web. Real-time to asynchronous, free, ad-subsidized, pay only. There’s never been more ways to publish–which forces everyone to hustle so hard to make a living at it. The cloying sponsorship messages in YouTube and on podcasts, aggressive ads and exhortations to subscribe on any page you might find. “Please like and subscribe and review the channel!”

    It’s exhausting.

    I am appreciative of the simplicity of RSS (how I read you) and how it allows me better control over what I read. But it’s also takes real work to collate and manage the feeds I subscribe to. I recently as part of my website improvement projects also did some reclamation on my RSS reader (RIP Google Reader, again) – declaring bankruptcy on feeds I’ve not read in months. It helps me appreciate the work editors did in the heyday of paper magazines. It is not easy to provide “the right amount” of writing and information to people.

    More, any kind of prediction is subject to the current environment, while your prediction was not dead-on, your instincts about readership are worthwhile given your long and successful track record publishing.

  2. I do like email newsletters. Even if they are just an rss-like feed of blog posts.

    What I think is getting played out is Patreon. At first, it seems only fair to throw a few bucks a month at a blogger who’s been providing great free content. But before you know it, you’re signing up for multiple patreons and the cost starts to really add up.

    And as Joe C. points out above, even subscribing to YT accounts (It’s the least I can do?) ends up flooding your feed. I wish YT had a better tool to manage and group feeds that you are subscribed to.

  3. @Jim – The feature I want to add to YouTube is the ability to “Add to Watchlist” any of the items that pop up on the notifications bell. Now it requires that I navigate to the video, which means stopping the video I was playing. There already exists a menu with 2 options. Adding a 3rd should be doable.

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