In spite of today's obsession with social networks, the email newsletter remains a potent vector for the dissemination of news and for driving traffic back to websites. It comes with one condition, though: reintroducing a human touch.
Today, producing a newsletter looks so easy: Select RSS feeds from your site, fire a plug-in to extract selected headlines and areas, insert the feeds in a template and send the whole thing via a router interface. Done.
Many sites do it on auto-pilot. And the result of such automated treatment is crude newsletters throwing together a bunch of headlines and snippets. On the surface, the output does reflect the content of a site, but it actually fails to reveal any editorial choice other than the basic home page hierarchy. An opinion piece, an in-depth profile, or an investigative report will be processed in the same mechanical way: headline, nutgraf, a couple of links and nothing further.
Based on my personal use, such work ends up in a special designated folder I created on my main Gmail account for each publication I subscribe to. After a while, I stopped looking at those robotized emails. To make things worse (for the senders), Google does the filing for me -- unbeknownst to me, actually. A couple of months ago, Gmail created several tabs, one of them titled "Promotions", that collect all newsletters, including the ones I willingly subscribed to. Google chooses for me the emails should I read first. Great. I don't understand why this arbitrary filtering didn't trigger any outcry, both from subscribers and publishers of legit newsletters (I happen to be both). Needless to say, the opening rate of emails falling into the infamous Promotions folder is significantly altered. All at the pleasure of Google and its algorithms.
Coming back to the newsletter itself, we can detect the beginning of a shift away from robotized email towards the written-by-humans form.
Again, I'll refer to Quartz, the business site launched a year ago by the Atlantic Media Group (see a previous Monday Note series here). Their email newsletter is called "The Daily Brief"; it is 800-words long, no images, cleverly written and edited, sent to about 45,000 subscribers worldwide, in three editions (US, Asia, Europe and Africa.)
Here is how it looks on mobile devices:
The structure is simple: Five main headers containing five to seven items, each summing up what the story you might click on is about. The headers are: "What to watch today", "While you were sleeping", "Quartz obsession interlude" (it refers to Quartz' proprietary revision of the old beat structure), "Matter of Debate", and "Surprising discoveries". A good mixture of news, fun, serendipity, thoughtful items. The links do not always send back to qz.com, they can lead anywhere. Sounds pretty simple at first. But, as Quartz editor Kevin Delaney recently told me, the Daily Brief is the result of a thorough editorial process. The email newsletter is touched by no less than four people, including two seasoned editors, Gideon Lichfield, Quartz global news editor who spent 16 years at the Economist, and Adam Pasick, the Asia editor and a 10-year Reuters veteran. Newsrooms who assign junior writers to expedite email newsletters should think again... Quartz is one of the few media I know to actually devote sizable resources for such a "simple" news product (also read this analysis on MailChimp, Quartz email router). But many are now considering the formula: The Wall Street Journal recently launched its "10-Points" email newsletter, built on the same principles as Quartz's Daily Brief.
Sophisticated email newsletters are not new. For years, bloggers affiliated or not with large media organizations have been using them to promote their work and attract readers, gaining significant traction in the process. To name but a few, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish on Politics, or Andrew Ross Sorkin's Dealbook (part of NYTimes.com) have become full-fledged news brands. I asked Juan Señor, partner at Innovation-Consulting, who worked on many newspaper modernizations, for his opinion on the matter:
'Conceptually, our take and that of other newspapers investing in newsletters or news briefings - as we call them - is that you have to move from commodity news to selling intelligence. In an age of abundance you have to sell scarcity. The laws of economics prescribe that the more abundant a product is, the less valuable it is in price. The more volume I have, the less value I can extract from it.'
Juan adds two critical factors needed to create a valued product: Timing -- sending a news briefing at the right time to maximize its impact -- and the multi-device format.
In spite of their age, email newsletters remain a relative primitive stage. Let's talk first about the user interface. A newsletter begs to be read both on mobiles and on a desktop. You can no longer decide for the reader which screen size h/she will read your stuff on. Responsive design is mandatory. But applying responsive design techniques is way more complicated for newsletters than it is for websites. Even large medias such as the NYT are providing single formats newsletters. (I will humbly admit that, while the Monday Note blog switched to responsive design a while ago, I'm still struggling to do the same for our newsletter.) While I want to send a newsletter from a series of blog posts in a single stroke, I'm still waiting for the Wordpress plug-in that will let me do that through a wide range of email routers. In the same fashion, I would welcome add-ons to the most popular word processors that would output good-looking, responsive html emails.
Another thing about email design: It must be conceived to be read offline. I live in a 4G city (Paris) but I still get poor 3G or even EDGE service in too many places (French carriers are said to slow down network speed in order to accelerate the switch to 4G). Therefore, the ability to read complete content offline beyond headlines is, in my view, a basic feature. Going a bit further, I would dream of newsletters pre-loading multiple layers of reading, allowing the reader to jump from the main page to one or two levels down -- without requiring a connection.
Deeper improvements to newsletters will come from the usual combination of analytics and semantics. A well-crafted engine will detect what parts of an email newsletter I read the most, what subjects I'm more inclined to click on. Then, the system will adapt the content of my newsletters in order to increase my propensity to open and to engage (i.e. to click on links.) This will make the old-fashioned newsletter an even more powerful website traffic vector.