Forget VR goggles and chatbots. These days, the rising star of audience engagement is an unlikely candidate: the humble e-newsletter.
Despite the competition from apps and social platforms, email newsletters are experiencing a bona fide revival. Publishers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have doubled down on e-newsletters, hoping that curated content delivered to your inbox will help attract a content-hungry audience. Celebrity influencers like Lena Dunham are using the medium to reach like-minded followers. And brands, too—from large B2B companies to small businesses—are re-imagining the e-newsletter and exploring its content strategy possibilities.
Their efforts seem to be paying off. Publishers are noting big jumps in email subscriptions. Meanwhile, audiences are proving their devotion to the format, and many newsletters earn high open rates.
Given the myriad digital communication tools we have at our disposal, it’s ironic that an old standby like email still packs a powerful punch. Of course, people still use social media platforms and apps to explore content. But email offers something unique—an intimate vehicle for sharing in-depth news, stories, and personal viewpoints. For readers who want great stories but don’t want to peruse the entire web to find them, e-newsletters are the antidote.
Email is nothing new; we’ve been using it for decades now. So why are publishers and other organizations pivoting back to the newsletter format?
Several factors help explain this e-newsletter renaissance, but it mostly boils down to content overload. These days, we have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, but we’re also experiencing new challenges in parsing that information. Sheer quantity is one issue. We need help finding the most relevant, quality content, and Facebook’s algorithm only helps so much. The rise of fake news and clickbait content is another problem, because it’s becoming harder to discern credible content sources.
We want to be informed, inspired, or emotionally moved—but with so much bad content out there, we don’t know what content we can trust, nor do we have time to wade through it all.
Today’s reconceptualized newsletters help solve these problems, turning down the fire hose of information to a trickle of great content. Subscribers actively choose from which outlets they want to receive information—whether publishers, brands, or influencers. In return, they expect to receive quality content from a source they trust, in a format that’s better for slower consumption—the type of content you can get absorbed in, rather than scroll by in a flash.
And because the content is delivered via newsletter rather than social, content creators have more flexibility. Writers can experiment and take risks with quirky subjects or unique writing styles. Basically, the things that wouldn’t work that well on social can work smashingly well in a newsletter format.
Consider, for example, Disturbances, an email newsletter about dust. (Really, dust!) Through his newsletter, British culture geographer Jay Owens tackles the “science, history, and culture of dust,” in a way that’s “quirky, erudite, and totally spellbinding,” according to Wired’s Clive Thompson.
For Thompson, Disturbances and other highly original newsletters are the next evolution of the blog. Now, instead of blogging, writers and content creators can deliver long-form personal expression directly to your inbox. Instead of selling or begging for clicks, these newsletters aim to educate, to intrigue.
“After blogs, Twitter, Medium, and Facebook, the inbox has become the new site of readerly seriousness: How weird is that?” Thompson said.
Top publishers offer great examples of how e-newsletters can be adapted for content-hungry audiences. Publishers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have revved up their email newsletter efforts recently. New York Times email subscriptions have jumped to 13 million, more than double the number of subscriptions from three years ago, Digiday reports. The New York Times now offers over 50 newsletters regularly on a variety of news and lifestyle topics, up from 33 a few years ago.
Interest in politics following President Donald Trump’s election has played a role in this resurgence, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The New York Times, as well as other publishers, have leaned into e-newsletters in recent years, hoping to pull their content (and readers) from competing platforms, such as Google and Facebook, Digiday notes. The New York Times experiment has yielded interesting new newsletters, such as Vietnam ’67, a limited-run newsletter that examines the war in Southeast Asia through the course of a single year.
Similarly, the Washington Post boasts over 70 e-newsletters and is experimenting with new content angles. The Lily, a new distributed media brand aimed at millennial women, incorporates a strong emphasis on design, Digiday reports. Content is shared two times a week via an email newsletter and repackaged for Medium, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Each piece of content produced (about ten content items per day) gets a custom, platform-specific illustration. Through top-shelf visuals, Lily hopes to capture audiences via email and on social platforms.
Email newsletters with a celebrity influencer also attract an audience. Actress Lena Dunham’s feminist-minded e-newsletter, Lenny Letter, strikes a balance between informative articles and personal stories from Dunham herself. The mix has paid off—Lenny Letter scores 500,000 subscriptions (almost all of them women) and a 70 percent open rate, Digiday reports.
Brand newsletters can also use the power of personality to stand out from the crowd. The e-newsletter from the Park restaurant in Echo Park, California, engages the reader in a conversation with chef-owner Joshua Siegel, who brings the reader behind the scenes with his musings on restaurant life, as LA Weekly reports. The newsletter does include information about upcoming restaurant events, but the content star is Siegel’s deeply personal writing, tackling topics like an ode to a longtime server or what makes a meal authentic.
B2B companies can set themselves apart with similar tactics—great design, content that can’t be found elsewhere, and expert perspectives. Email marketing company Litmus excels especially in its design, using color and graphics to make the newsletter easier to read and more visually compelling. Naturally, the content shines as well.
There’s a reason why the newsletter format appeals to such a variety of organizations and audiences. In a word: flexibility. E-newsletters provide a blank canvas for in-depth, unique stories: stories that wouldn’t work well on social but are nonetheless captivating. These stories—from informative and educational to deeply personal and conversational—help forge a personal, emotional connection with an audience, spurring engagement and community.
Expect to see more brands and publishers experimenting with newsletters in their content strategy. With more quality newsletters out there, the bar is also becoming higher for brands. Building a great newsletter can’t be an afterthought; brands will need to invest time and effort into making sure each newsletter looks spectacular and offers outstanding content. Without that care, it’s all too easy for users to click delete.
Featured image attribution: Mathyas Kurmann