Here’s why email newsletters can be so powerful — and valuable

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In a world of virtual-reality headsets and Google Glass and responsive mobile websites, an email newsletter seems like the most antiquated technology since the buggy whip. It’s just words on a page! And don’t people hate email and want to kill it? They sure do — except when that email contains a list of the most important or interesting or relevant things they need to know, at which point it becomes more valuable than gold. And that alchemy is something worth thinking about.

Evidence of that value appeared again this week, when The Skimm — a newsletter run by two former NBC producers and aimed at a largely female fan base — raised a financing round of $6.5 million from a series of VCs. I saw many skeptical responses to this deal, as though the idea of an email newsletter raising millions was evidence of a gigantic bubble in media funding. But it isn’t, I don’t think.

There’s been a fair bit written recently about the rise of the email newsletter, including a piece from Rebecca Greenfield at Fast Company last year, but Millie Tran of the American Press Institute put her finger on the most important thing in a short item at the Nieman Lab, part of that site’s collection of forecasts for the future of media in 2015. One of the reasons why newsletters work is that they act as a smart filter for people overwhelmed by the stream of real-time news.

Jobs to be done

In a sense, email newsletters are a hack — a way of short-cutting around the massive streams of information we get from Twitter and Facebook and blogs and news sites, to find what really matters. And that is something we need more than we probably ever have.

In an analysis of the challenges facing the media industry that he wrote last year, Harvard disruption guru Clay Christensen talked about what he calls “jobs to be done” — by which he meant the needs of various readers when it comes to their media consumption. And one of the primary jobs they want done, he said, is to find out enough information about what is going on in the world to be able to make intelligent conversation at a meeting or social event.

Old typewriter

This is something that the front page of a newspaper used to do, but to be honest they weren’t always that great at it — in part because they had to appeal to a mass audience. The best thing about email newsletters and other targeted solutions (blogs like Daring Fireball, for example, or sites like political blogger Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish or Politico) is that they can focus more closely on a specific subject, and give readers a lot more value.

In a way, this is what the New York Times is trying to do with its NYT Now app, which seems to have a fairly dedicated (if not rapidly growing) audience: in effect, it boils down the news into a selection of front-page style items, and when readers are done they feel like they are informed. Yahoo is trying to do the same with its app, and so are others such as Inside and Circa.

Making sense of the noise

It’s not just them, either — Twitter is trying to get better at this with its recommendation tools, and Facebook is constantly tweaking its algorithm trying to learn what people like or want. And external data-driven services like Prismatic and Nuzzel and Trove are trying to take all those social signals in and make sense of them so that readers can save time.

But arguably one of the best solutions will always be a targeted email — newsletters like The Skimm boast of “open rates” (the percentage of people who actually open the email) as high as 50 percent, which is massive. And the best newsletters are as focused as possible on a specific subject area or topic, and they get to know exactly what their readers want and when.

Letter writing

For media entities trying to understand this phenomenon, I think one of the most important features of a successful email newsletter is that it has a very strong personal voice, in the sense that you know what to expect from it: Five Interesting Things, for example, which is put together by Fusion editor and former Atlantic staffer Alexis Madrigal, is a selection of interesting links with descriptions that make you feel like he chose them just for you.

Five Useful Articles, which is put together by Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writer Sarah Jeong and focuses on copyright issues, has a chatty tone that feels like you are part of a conversation with the authors — and so does Today In Tabs, from Rusty Foster, which has a snarky attitude and manages to cram in literally hundreds of interesting links. Dave Pell’s Next Draft is a similar kind of thing, with a very personal voice.

The personal touch

The challenge now, as I tried to suggest on Twitter, is that there are so many good email newsletters that what I really need is someone who can read them all and then curate the best links into a meta-newsletter for me (maybe they could even print it out and send it to my house, the way a satirical service called Neuze wanted to). The more information there is, the more value there is in intelligent, personalized curation.

The challenge for companies like The Skimm, or Jason Hirschhorn’s ReDef group — which started as a media newsletter of links selected by Jason and has now become a curation company with multiple products, and raised its own seed round in May — is that the broader you become, the less valuable you become for each individual reader. It’s like the law of diminishing returns, in a media sense. And so you need more and more readers to stay afloat, let alone to grow.

So what do you do if you are already a broad media entity like a newspaper? Think of all the niche interests and micro-markets you could segment your content into, and figure out a way to put a voice and a curatorial intelligence behind it. You don’t have to make it an email newsletter, but it had better feel like one if you want readers to care about it.

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