Is It Time to Stop Blogging and Start an Email Newsletter?

73 Comments

When entrepreneur Jason Calacanis shut down his blog in 2008 and replaced it with a subscription-only email newsletter, his move seemed to be more of a personal response to abusive reader comments rather than a leading indicator of a trend (although software guru Joel Spolsky also shut down his blog earlier this year). But now others have joined the blog exodus: Sam Lessin, the founder of streaming-media startup Drop.io, recently announced he was shutting down his blog and starting a subscription newsletter — one that charges readers a monthly fee. And since he is also an entrepreneur, he started his own subscription-newsletter service too, which is called Letter.ly. On the Drop.io blog, Lessin said that he started blogging in 2008 with a defined set of goals, including:

  • Understanding the medium: “I strongly believed that it was an important medium to understand and that the only way I would really ‘get’ it would be to make a serious commitment to it.”
  • Protecting online identity: “I personally found that if you don’t own your own identity, others are more than happy to hijack it and use it for their own ends.”
  • Intellectual rigor: “I was letting myself get a bit lazy/sloppy in my thinking and I thought that forcing myself to take a public position would force me to hone my positions.”
  • Being taken seriously: “I thought that there was ‘margin’ in the medium… meaning, more people that I cared about read and took blogs seriously per-unit of work/input.”

The Drop.io founder said that after two years, he felt that he had achieved all of his goals, but added that he felt writing a public blog that was available for free to readers was “exceedingly disingenuous if not straight hypocritical given my strong belief in the value of information” (Letter.ly is designed to allow newsletter writers to set their own price for subscriptions, and the Drop.io founder’s blog is $1.99 a month). Lessin also mentioned a factor that others argue has contributed to a decline in blogging — namely, the rise of Twitter and Facebook and other social tools that are easier to use and require a smaller investment of time, or what Lessin calls “passive and active data-streams.”

Since setting up Letter.ly, Lessin has been joined by several other bloggers, including Nate Westheimer — co-founder of video-indexing startup AnyClip — who says he plans to continue blogging but will share in-depth startup tips and other thoughts through his premium newsletter. Aviary.com co-founder Michael Galpert has also started a newsletter through Letter.ly. And Jason Baptiste, co-founder of several startups including Cloudomatic, argues that while they may seem somewhat stale and old-fashioned, email newsletters can still be a good business (although Lessin charges for his newsletter, Jason Calacanis’s version is free, but subscription is limited).

Not everyone agrees that moving from a blog to a subscription newsletter is a good move, however, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs — since sharing your ideas with a broader audience can have its own value, especially when you aren’t well-known. Former investment banker-turned-entrepreneur Steve Cheney recently described how he asked Hunch co-founder and angel investor Chris Dixon for advice on what he should do to raise his profile, and Dixon responded: “Start a blog.” It’s worth noting that .

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Boetter

73 Comments

Nicky Jameson

Why does it have to be either or? You can (and if you are a business probably) have both. They can (and do) co-exist and they serve different purposes. Want to build a personality around your company or business, get your name out there etc – then a blog will go a long way to helping you do that You must maintain the momentum and put in the leg work to make that happen of course but a blog can often give a more “human” face to your business. Want to build personal relationships with customers, prospects, clients or people interested in hearing from you? Then you’ll be hard pressed to beat an email newsletter that provides content of value to the reader who has opted in. You can direct traffic to comment on a blog, you can send your subscribers whereever you want, you can survey them you can make them offers simply for being a subscriber. You can ask for their input if you’re dying for them to converse with you. Most are not – and if they are you can do exactly that with a link to your social sites or your blog. I subscribe to email newsletters where i frequently head over to their blog to leave a comment… if i feel so inclined. Depending on your ultimate goals both can be effective. And both require hard work.

Ric

This new approach has greater validity for those bloggers that didnt develop enough of a collective comment fanbase that generated obvious added value to the content the blogger initially created. This approach would kill the social component an intelligent commenting audience offers, in turn killing some bloggers appeal.

Arvin

I’m happy to see Sam’s response to the comments. I think having that conversation and engagement really ties into what’s come to question between the benefits of a blog verse newsletter. I appreciate this “new” approach letter.ly is offering. While I love my RSS feeds and can’t live without the free content, it’s great to know there exists exclusive content worth purchasing. If anything should trouble old media today, it’s that.

I understand what letter.ly is trying to achieve I do have a few minor suggestions that I feel will answer both Sam and other people’s questions:

1: Instapaper – email is great but feels old hat. Consider Instapaper integration. That way users have a dedicated inbox to recieve updated newsletters. Also with Kindle and mobile support, users will have full access on the go.

2: wave – a simple and hopefully effective way to allow comments would be to embed Google Wave along with every newsletter update. Wave seems to function well for email and web use but may not function well for mobile use.

Hope that helps.

Kelly Rusk

A blog and newsletter are two distinct tools used for different purposes. So it doesn’t and shouldn’t be an either-or argument.

It should be based on “what are our goals?” and “who is our audience?” Unfortunately I find these two crucial questions are lacking a lot in startup situations.

sam lessin

hey all, this is sam from drop.io (the guy who created letter.ly / flipped to the paid newsletter)

the lively conversation here is really awesome, a big thank you to Mathew for taking the time to spark it… a few thoughts:

  1. the question on how/where to host discussion about a piece of content published on letter.ly/not on a blog is a good one.

I was looking at the disqus API as a possible solution, so that each letter has a link in the email that people can hit to discuss the content…

But in short I totally agree that discussion is good and feedback is critical. right now you can reply to a letter.ly post and the author will get the email, I get a lot of feedback that way, but it would be good to re-introduce the community discussion concept — which of course can exist functionally distinct from the content itself (torah vs. talmud if you will), but haven’t in the last iteration of the web (at least partially because blog owners want to own the conversation, which letter.ly writers might not)

— if you have suggestions on this I am all ears, would be grateful…

  1. another criticism being weighed on letter.ly is ‘why would you pay for content when there is so much for free’

this I feel is a less compelling argument. If your content/writing/commentary isn’t unique enough to be valuable separate from what everyone else on the web is saying, why are you taking the time to write it (if you aren’t a professional that is)?

this actually strikes at the definition of information hearkening back to good old Claude Shannon… writing the dictionary isn’t very valuable, especially if it is already online, so why would you take the time to contribute what is definition-ally not information?

  1. If you read my post on why I am closing my blog, the big positive I see in a newsletter is true engagement from my friends and collaborators….

a few people commented, ‘not for me I prefer RSS with my X hundred other feeds’… my view is that I invest in my thinking and writing (for better or worse), and I don’t want to be one of your X hundred feeds actually. I would prefer to have a much smaller but engaged audience that has signaled with their wallets that they are committed to engaging me than thousands of people for whom I am one of 10K blogs they skim.

anyway, just figured I would at least partially toss my hat in the ring on the topic… best,

Mathew Ingram

Thanks a lot for the comment, Sam — and for giving us a bit more insight into your thoughts and decision. And good luck with the newsletter and with Letter.ly.

Brian S Hall

Information wants to be monetized!
Good article.

Now that ‘anyone’ can blog, even our parents, folks who have a real shot at making real money are exiting the space and looking at email/newsletters as an alternative. This should work in the short run. In the long run, it’s the web. Right now, however, we still have too few good systems in place and too much tradition behind the ‘free’ blog. I suspect those will both change in the next few years.

David Lelong

Blogs are still the best way to distribute and anchor information online that is more dynamic than static website content. Especially, for smaller websites, blog postings are a valuable way to demonstrate authority and expertise.

Terry Heaton

Matt, I think the purpose of the blog has everything to do with its value. I’ll admit that I’m not as “regular” as I once was, but the essential value of blogging hasn’t changed for me. I blog to challenge my assumptions publicly. I’m not into audience growth or building an empire or in using it as a form of influence. I have all of that elsewhere. My blog, however, is the essence of me; the place where I think out loud. As an old friend said once, “How can you know what you’re thinking if you don’t hear yourself say it.” ‘Nuff said.

Mathew Ingram

That’s a great point, Terry, which I think Rohit alluded to in his comment above: blogs allow assumptions to be challenged publicly. Of course, not everyone wants their assumptions challenged publicly :-) Thanks for the comment.

JPM

Case in point, how many actually produced books, just from the tips/suggestions/thoughts they received in comments? Lifehacker? Problogger?

Once again, Comments enhance conversation, be it through the blog/facebook/twitter or any means. We all get great feedback.

Atle Iversen

A newsletter allows you to be more “bold” in your writing, as it isn’t searchable by Google.

However, my mailbox is full enough already, and this is why RSS and feed readers was invented…

For the argument that information is valuable, and the newsletter should cost money; print it out on paper as well, and we’ve come full circle ;-)

Sam

Where would this rich conversation be if I had read this article as part of a newsletter? What percentage of the value of this article is in the article itself, and what percentage is in the conversation?

Mathew Ingram

I think there’s a huge amount of value in the conversation at many blogs, Sam (including this one, I hope). Fred Wilson’s blog (http://avc.com) is a great example of one that routinely has excellent back-and-forth in the comments, which would not be available if it were just an email newsletter that Fred put out.

rohit

maybe the writers profiled here are moving to a closed format because there is less accountability vs. an open blog ?

Costas

Mark Anderson runs one of the most influential services through email subscription for years now. There’s nothing new to that.

Kathy Sierra

Very interesting. I’ve been considering something like this since I quit blogging in ’07. But as others mentioned, the lack of comments/community with email newsletters is the main reason I haven’t done one myself. I’m thinking more and more these days about hosting a members-only site. I belong to several that are thriving as combination blog + discussion forum. Definitely wouldn’t work for everyone, especially if your main purpose for blogging is to market something.

Twitter is wonderful for many things, but trying to explore a topic in depth in 140 chars just sounds like an Onion headline. And don’t even get me started on Facebook ;)

Mathew Ingram

Thanks for the comment, Kathy — I agree that micro-communities with membership requirements can work in some cases, particularly if they involve contentious topics.

Sylvain Carle

It’s quite telling that this public blog post about private email lists ends with “Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future”.

I think GigaOM Pro (and similar models) nails perfectly this intersection of “private, value added, exclusive” from email newsletter subs with the best of web (blog/social/communities) technologies.

I hope we will see more experiments of this hybrid open/free and restricted/paying media models on the web (and mobile).

I am pretty sure you can play the strengths of both while sacrificing very little. Expiring private content to the public archive seems an easy enough experiment.

Mathew Ingram

Nice of you to notice our Pro offering, Sylvain :-) I think you are right that the two can to some extent co-exist, provided publishers think about what the strengths and weaknesses of each one is and find the right balance between them.

FSkornia

One thing that people thinking about shifting from blog to subscription newsletter (especially a paid subscription) is to determine whether the content they provide is valuable enough to the readers that they will follow the transition. What you write may be perfectly fine in the free wilds of the internet since people are not paying you, but once you add a price tag to the content it will be evaluated much more closely for its value.

That being said, I can see some of the arguments for such a shift. The article mentions escaping abusive comments, and in the anonymous internet this is indeed a critical problem. The other main argument is revenue. Once upon a time an ad-supported blog that brought in serious revenue was a holy grail. Today many browsers are working to avoid the advertising stick as much as possible. We have Adblock and Readability (including the new Safari Reader capability) to simplify the content we’re seeing on the screen. Many people can also read the entries in their RSS Readers, which skips the need to navigate to the actual site. With an e-mail newsletter, writers have a captive audience for their advertising (if it hasn’t happened yet it will) on top of the subscription fees.

Melody

No way. I find in my own blog, the comments are astute and worthwhile, and take on a life of their own. I’d miss out on that if it were an email newsletter! Granted I’m just a tiny hobby blog, but the blog comments can become a community of people. And looking at the comments already in this article, I’d say that many agree that a blog is more personal, and can be very worthwhile.

Chuck

Sam, I think you hit the nail on the head. However, to blog or email may just depend on what you want/need to accomplish. I make mine work together because I’m working all angles of delivering content to my customers when and where they want it.

Blake Snow

I think the biggest advantage of newsletters over blogs is the perceived scarcity of the former, whereas the latter are viewed as being cheap, free, and a dime a dozen. I will still blog, but newsletters have always been a profitable little niche of the internet, and seem like they could even grow moving forward given the overabundance of free sites.

As for Markus’s comment, I agree. But you could subscribe to a newsletter via RSS (or email) without it being published to the internet, I believe.

Mathew Ingram

Thanks for the comment, Blake — I think you are right that what email newsletters are selling, effectively, is the perception of scarcity and exclusivity.

Leslie

I don’t agree that newsletters are more personal. I think blog posts are more personal because bloggers usually write something personal (an experience, a topic they were excited about, etc.) And it becomes even more personal when the bloggers themselves join the discussions.
And personally, I consider newsletters to be spam mail and I don’t read them anyway.

Atul Deshpande

I really don’t understand the point here. Why would someone move to Email subscription from blogs? Unless you have particular reasons to do so, there’s no point.

Markus Göbel

I’d never subscribe again to email newsletters. They just clutter my inbox. RSS or nothing. My 700 feeds are enough. Imagine I’d get thousands of emails instead! No way.

FTM

Newsletters are passe. Primarily because there is far reduced opportunity for a shared feedback / open discussion. Not that it is impossible to do so over email, but the threshold is high.

A newsletter (or email as a medium) makes sense when you are dealing with “heavy work” (such as a research paper or a standards doc). Such work anyway calls for discipline and formality. The typical GigaOm article is more informational and calls for discussion unlike a scholarly piece of original work that calls for in depth study.

Even if you have a great hammer, remember that not everything is a nail. And email is not a great hammer in the first place.

Mathew Ingram

Thanks for the comment, FTM — I agree that much of what is missing with email newsletters is the back-and-forth within a community. It feels much more like an old-style, one way media distribution approach to me.

JPM

I agree. We wouldn’t be able to discuss things so easily if this were an email newsletter sent out to a select audience. Community enhances the conversation. Depends on whether you’re an info “consumer” or info “producer” or info “value-adder”.

Making both co-exist is probably the best for those starting out.

Publish your content via an email (newsletter) that gets posted (partially perhaps) to a blog. I say partially, because if its paid – the teaser gets people interested.

You can do this with Posterous. You can also do this with WordPress using a newsletter plugin.

Scott Rosenberg

Blogs have natural lifecycles. With however many gazillion bloggers that there are today, there will always be scads of bloggers — some of them well known — who have reached the end of their blogging lifespan. Yes, Twitter/Facebook have definitely redefined blogging away from casual brief messaging. But it will take a lot more change to end blogs’ role as the platform of choice for writers who care about the accessibility and archivability of their words. Email newsletters are venerable and valuable but they don’t index or archive well unless you put them on the Web, in which case you might as well, er, blog.

Also: Calacanis says he has something like 20,000 plus subscribers on his list. Which is dandy. But in what way is it “limited”?

Fábio Silva

I always find myself sending emails to my gmail just to have that information archived. My delicious is full of links but I simply don’t log in that service. Don’t know why.

Also, I can’t imagine google shutdown the gmail service so soon. But any blog can just go off in a fraction of second. You would need tons of resources (time, source for content, peace at home, no children, no wife :P) to keep a blog with fresh content for every-day-10-thousands-page-views.

I liked the newsletter approach. But for the not well established, I would consider a half-free service: some content for free, some paid.

Scott Rosenberg

Gmail makes a great personal archive but I was thinking more about public archives. In my experience and research, I’ve found that well-tended personal blogs have much more longevity online than most other forms of information. Bloggers who care about their work make sure that it stays online; they move it from one platform to another. And then most public blog posts will be captured by the Internet Archive and stored for the future there. But email newsletters vanish, and commercial content will often disappear as well. For instance, much of Dan Gillmor’s early blogging disappeared from the Web because the news company he worked for didn’t care to maintain the archives (and its robots.txt file blocked the Internet Archive from storing a lot of it, though some of it has now been recovered).

Mathew Ingram

I think you are right, Scott — there is an ebb and flow to blogging, and some (like Joel Spolsky and Jason) have clearly come to the end of the road for whatever reason. As for the “limited” part to Jason’s newsletter, that seems designed to cultivate the impression of exclusivity, much like Amex and others do with their members’ only privileges, etc.

PXLated

I personally prefer blogs/rss.
Only the well established could even consider a newsletter. One problem is they are undiscoverable for the most part – unless of course someone recommends it. No Google juice, no nothing.

Jason l. Baptiste

You could certainly start a newsletter from the ground up. If the content provides utility to a specific audience, it’s fairly doable. Once you have a subscriber, theyre yours (yes there’s churn, but keeping things simple).

Look at thrillist,etc. Main consumption is via email,but they also republish to the web for added distribution.

Mathew Ingram

That’s a good point, PXLated — what you gain in targeting a specific group you more or less give up in terms of SEO and marketing awareness. Although I suppose if you post your newsletter to the web eventually, as Jason Calacanis does, then you could theoretically have both.

ronald

Isn’t this a matter of audience? They seem to generalize quite a bit. The information value for a very specific context might be very small to nil for the general audience, which then might take it up to interpret it their way(to the dismay of a writer with specific knowledge). Or the article is broad for a given audience and they get into partisan/fanboi exchanges.

Long story short, one size does not fit all. Or, know your audience. When are they going to complain about spam filters? Haven’t we been through this?

Om Malik

Agreed — I think there is a lot of nuances in the information and media business and what I hear here is that certain people want to follow the email model. Just as some companies offer close-circulation trade journals.

Jason L. baptiste

Great post Mathew. I think email provides for a more intimate experience. It’s also more focused and the trust/permission based nature of email makes you want to write something with more impact. With that said, I commented on Darren hermans take of Sam’s move to email that replicating the content out through social channels/reposted elsewhere is a good move. Every one of calacanis’ posts end up on the web and shared as well. It’s a win win scenario: increased retention email provides with the increased distribution social media channels provide.

Mathew Ingram

Thanks, Jason — but if newsletters just end up on the web anyway, doesn’t that detract from the exclusivity angle? Or is it just that newsletter readers get the information sooner and they value that?

Jason L. Baptiste

I divide the space up into two sectors: exclusive (usually paid) newsletters Sam talks about, and content driven newsletters like thrillist, dailycandy, geekchicdaily,etc. I’m more bullish on ones like thrillist. They’re not exclusive, but still get the best benefits of email- reader retention+focus. This echoes a lot of Gilad’s sentiment: the best option is to have email+public blog like coexist.

Sam

Seriously? But the web 2.0 movement taught us that the value of the web was connecting people to people… seems like a bunch of guys with huge egos listened to the lesser half of their own personality.

Um No

*psshh

Haven’t you heard? “Web 2.0” is soooo Web 1.0.

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