In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in email newsletters. Some are touting email newsletters as the great savior of email.
One theory is that it was related to the pandemic lockdowns and people simply wanting more information to absorb. With standard newsstands shutdown in big cities, email newsletters seemed to fill a void.
Another theory is that with Big Tech ‘cancelling’ certain types of information found on their websites, email newsletters were the way to get information that might be otherwise removed from social media sites. Email newsletters could be the counter-revolution.
Some see email newsletters as the new advertising model: a way to reach a specific audience and to charge rates specific to that audience, similar to magazine and newspaper advertisement models.
Seemingly out of the blue, everyone and their cousin are creating email newsletters for people to subscribe to. It’s the new self-validating social media ‘like’: how many likes, er, subscribers, does your email newsletter have?
Hardly a week goes by without someone announcing on Hacker News that they too are starting an email newsletter. People are bored in lockdown and, apparently, curating links and writing off-the-cuff remarks about each link is the new thing. No longer content to do it on sites like Twitter, there’s something about owning one’s own newsletter to make one feel they are ‘making a difference’.
Lastly, there’s this idea that by having a subscriber list that you are in control of your subscribers, or what might have otherwise been called previously, your followers.
One such company, Substack, took off in a big way with major journalists hopping on to their service to tout their ‘news service’ on Substack. Some people even wrote that Substack was a new model for journalism, and even the future of news.
These are all myths. I’ll quickly break them down, but then go on further to say that email newsletters are already dead (they just don’t know it yet). I’ll even argue that you should unsubscribe to all of them, including (gasp!) the email newsletter for Just Use Email. Oh, the irony!
Let’s start with the money.
A direct audience of even 20,000 is still only 20,000. You can only charge rates for 20,000 people. You’ll never make much money hawking ads to email subscribers. First, subscribers don’t want them. They gave you their email address, the most trusted internet identity they own, in exchange for a relationship with you and your writing, not the products/services you’ll go out and pitch to make money. Few email newsletter writers will be content to make peanuts for too long.
It’s quite a different thing for a magazine to sell ad space. When I buy Wired Magazine, I expect to see ads for technology products, but those companies can’t see me, see how long I view their ad (or ignore it), and the authors at magazines generally don’t get too involved with advertising.
Not so with email newsletter writers. Let’s be honest. Many of them are doing it to gain an audience, credibility, or money. You could say the same thing about a blog, but, and this is a big but, a blog writer has almost no direct relationship with his readers. A website author writes to create an audience, but will never know who they are from week to week.
Email doesn’t need saving
There’s always some tech writer in need of a spin on every story. Why not spin the rise in email newsletters as the savior of email itself?
Aside from lazy writing (email is not dead but thriving), it shows how little people today still misunderstand the purpose and uses of email. (As an aside, if 50 years after email was invented we are still struggling to define it, do you ever wonder how off we might be about text messaging, Slack, and video calls? I do. It keeps me awake at night.)
Not only does email not need saving, but email newsletters themselves are a blight upon the land of useful email.
Email Newsletters are not Read
They might be opened and scanned like other digital text online, but if you are under the delusion that your ‘audience’ of 20,000 email subscribers are reading your newsletter, well, you are under the delusion that your subscribers are reading your newsletter.
Email Newsletters are Persnickety
If you’re going to insist that people subscribe to your newsletter to read what you have to say, you missed the whole blogging revolution and need to relearn its lessons.
Sure, some email newsletter authors also offer their content on their website, but their whole model (especially with Substack) is to get you to subscribe, and their websites are geared toward that end. Some only offer you a sample, which might include a few of their latest posts, but not everything.
They don’t get it. What’s important on the web, if you have anything of merit to say at all, is that someone can come along and immediately read, click, and explore everything that you have to offer.
There’s something persnickety about some writers. While most email newsletters are free (aside from the fact that you have to give them your private email address), it’s helpful to imagine a similar model with any other creative pursuit to see how weird writers can be sometimes.
Imagine discovering a new artist on iTunes and wanting to check them out, but first having to give the artist your email address to get their new releases, and still not being able to go hear their old music. Yes, some email newsletters give you access to their archives, but in a long boring list, not in a vibrant cross-linked way that websites are supposed to work.
Your Email Newsletter can be Cancelled, too
We will get to privacy in a minute, but suffice to say that almost all email newsletters run on one of a dozen or so platforms. Doing bulk email successfully is hard these days. It can be tricky and requires some tech know-how to avoid getting blocked by all major email service providers. Handling subscribes and unsubscribes automatically and gracefully is also important.
So most email newsletters are run on MailChimp, Campaign Monitor, Substack, Constant Contact (why would I want to let any company be in constant contact with me?), Drip, AWeber, ConvertKit, and more. Some use built-in plugins with their blogging software or via WordPress.com.
The point is those services have access to your email newsletter subscriber list and can ban, block, suspend, or cancel you at any time if you violate their rules. Mailchimp already has done this a few times.
So if you think you’re going independent by running an email newsletter, you might not be as independent as you think. You’ll need to bow the knee to your email newsletter provider. If they get a complaint from someone who was triggered by you and they decide that the wind is blowing their way that day, you could be done with little recourse, not much different than getting your Twitter or YouTube account suspended.
Email Newsletters are harder to discover than websites
If you have something worthwhile to say, put it up on the web. Forever. The internet is full of listicles (articles that are just lists) with titles like “Best Email Newsletters of 2021”, or “Top 15 Email Newsletters You Need to Subscribe to now if you love Tech”, and other such boring content.
You’ll spend your energy trying to get on those lists. But if you had just put your content on the web, a little thing called search engines would eventually bring people to your website.
Email Newsletters are not Private
As noted aptly by many others, most emails contain tracking pixels that alert email writers, and their email newsletter provider, who and when opened their newsletters, how often, and more. While it’s possible to send plain-text email newsletters without any tracking images, this is done rarely.
The major email newsletter providers default to pushing their email templates. Plus, if you’re sending links, you’ll want to use HTML newsletters anyway so that your subscribers can click on them without cutting and pasting the URL of each link into their browser.
Oh, did you want to also track their outbound clicks? Go right ahead? All the companies above will make it oh-so-easy for you to get more useless metrics about your subscribers.
Did you know that these email newsletter companies also track your email address across multiple newsletters? They do it because they claim it provides them deliverability metrics they can use to help their users (email newsletter authors) determine the best times to send newsletters.
But it also means they know you subscribe to newsletters about ADHD, cancer survivorship, certain political newsletters, and that one newsletter that no one at work can know about. If you are thinking to yourself, “They would never! Would they?”, you’ve learned nothing from the social networks’ behavior the past half-decade. I don’t know of any email newsletter company that has done this (yet), but the opportunity is there for someone to be the first. Even if they never do it, those companies are one disgruntled employee or one hacker away from all your subscriptions becoming public. Sure, your email company could also do this, but I’d venture to say that’s far less likely.
Subscribers can combat email tracking by turning off automatic loading of images in their email clients, but most won’t do that (or even know why that is important). Apple’s new service announced in WWDC 21 will help break the stranglehold on our email privacy that email newsletter companies have had for far too long. But it might not be enough (full review forthcoming).
So, if you really care about your audience, why subject your subscribers to such tracking and invasion of their privacy? Why make them sign up for a newsletter like it’s the dialup days of 1996? Why make it difficult/tricky for them to share your content with others?
Substack is not original or new or interesting
I don’t know if Substack outright stole their concept from TinyLetter, a small email newsletter service that MailChimp bought in 2011, but it reeks of the same concept. The only difference is that Substack lets authors earn money; Substack courts potential authors to join their service. But the basic underlying technology is the same.
When an author signs up for Substack, they get a subdomain at Substack.com to host their content. It’s no longer their website and they can’t control most of the look, feel, or functionality of it. This was what Medium (owned by Twitter and investors) was already doing with some partial success.
Email Newsletters create a new Middleman
Because of the privacy and tracking issues above, the email deliverability issues above, the required formatting, functionality limitations, and hosting issues above, and much more, almost all email newsletter authors are forced to use one of the major services, thereby creating an entire middleman market that need not otherwise exist.
Sure, many of those company’s core customer base are other big companies that use them for marketing and even transactional emails.
Maybe that’s another reason to unsubscribe from all email newsletters, whether a content-based one written by one author, or marketing emails from a company you do business with (or once did). I’m not wishing ill will on these companies, but in my opinion, they contribute to noise on the internet (in our inboxes) and very little positive things.
Update November 2021
The above is a critical alternative look at email newsletters. I felt it was necessary to write, especially since the hype is almost exclusively promotional in favor of an email newsletter bonanza. The idea is to give pause, make you think, and question if you really need all the email newsletters you are likely getting.
After some feedback, I can see how some would take the above to mean that you should absolutely never subscribe to any type of email newsletter. So, to tip the scale slightly back from the edge of the cliff, what I would say is “be cautious and be choosy”. Value your time, first of all, more than anything. Beyond that, value your inbox’s clutter and your privacy.
Value also your heart and your mind. I’ve seen many an inbox overflowing with every possible newsletter, many intentionally signed up for, but many just by-prodcuts of other internet activity, such as shopping or social media.
Email newsletters are not going anywhere soon. They can add value. They can be helpful. And yes, the author of Just Use Email subscribes to a few. They have their place. The above is just a critical look at some factors that I did not previously consider in earlier years when I too quickly clicked subscribe.