Why Everyone Is Obsessed With E-Mail Newsletters Right Now

E-mail newsletters are so hot right now.

Some of the best known are by Ann Friedman, Alexis Madrigal, Dan Hon and Rusty Foster. There’s a web ring for e-mail newsletters now, but really the best newsletters are secret. The authors encourage readers to share the subscribe link with other people who might be interested, but request that no one share the subscribe link on social media or the open web, creating a sort of darknet of semi-underground dispatches.

But it’s more than just individual bloggers. Two or three years ago every site on the web was doing all it could to trick coax readers into “liking” them on Facebook. Today much of that focus has shifted towards getting readers to sign-up for an e-mail subscription. Just look at the prime screen real estate e-mail subscription forms are given at Mashable, The Verge and, of course, TechCrunch. Upworthy — the most “social media native” publication to date — goes so far as to put a huge sign-up form below the first paragraph of every story:

Upworthy e-mail sign-up form

Quartz has a much loved daily e-mail blast (though the sign-up form is oddly buried in a pull-down menu) and sports news company The Slurve is going so far as to build an entire business off its newsletter. And it’s not quite the same as a digital newsletter, but the likes of Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Medium are all sending daily or weekly activity summaries to give people an overview of what’s been going on on those sites, and try to entire people to interact. Just last week Madrigal declared that e-mail is still the best thing on the internet.

So why all this effort to herd readers into a medium that is supposed to be dying? And why are we, as readers, so willing to invite even more e-mail into our lives?

1. E-mail Gives Publishers More Control

Joanna McNeil has suggested that e-mail newsletters give writers a greater sense of intimacy with their readers than today’s social media services, while Rebecca Greenfield suggested the end of Google Reader as a driving factor in sending more people into the arms of e-mail. I think both of these are part of something bigger: sending e-mail gives publishers a greater sense of control over how they reach their audiences.

Facebook is sending less traffic these days thanks to its algorithmic tweaks and the sheer number of things competing for attention in your feed. Twitter isn’t filtering content à la Facebook yet, but many fear it’s only a matter of time. And that’s to say nothing of the other problems of not having much control over the platform on which you share information. You could be kicked off the site for violating its terms of service. A site could do a massive redesign that renders your work moot, or pivot into a different market. Or, like Google Reader, it could just disappear.

E-mail gives publishers a bit more control. Yes, your newsletter could end up in a spam trap, and things like Google’s Priority Inbox and its smart labels do affect where your e-mails will be seen. But if you’re sending mail that your readers legitimately signed up for, it will probably find its way to them somehow, and that’s more than you can say for a Facebook status update these days.

And you can own your own mailing list, more so than you can own just about anything else online. Governments can seize your domain name. If you forget to renew it, some squatter will snap it up and try to sell it back to you for $1,000. But your mailing list is yours. Even if you’re using a service like Mailchimp or TinyLetter, you can back-up your mailing list and use it with another program. And if you use a self-hosted mailing list like Sendy, Dada Mail or the Newsletter plug-in for WordPress, you have even more direct ownership over your lists.

2. Readers Pay More Attention to E-Mail

Author Warren Ellis, who has been doing the e-mail newsletter thing for years, has written that his mailing list has a 5,000 out of 6,865 open rate. That’s exceptional, but shows how powerful email can be. The newsletter for my personal blog has only around 320 subscribers. But according to Mailchimp, each e-mail has about a 20 percent open rate. That’s about 64 readers per e-mail. I have over 7,000 Twitter followers, but a very successful post will tend only to be clicked by about 20 people, according to Bitly, which works out to less than 1 percent of my followers.

So while it might be harder to get people to fork over their e-mail addresses than it is to get them to like or follow something, once you do, they’re much more likely to actually pay attention, and you can reach more people in the long run. Marketing types have known this for a long time, hence all the get-rich-quick spammer websites that try to entice you into swapping your e-mail address for a free e-book.

3. E-Mail Is Cross-Platform

E-mail is great way to reach mobile readers without having to talk them into installing yet another pointless app. It works on everything from tablets to feature phones to Commodore 64s with dial-up Internet access.

4. E-mail Keeps All Your Clutter in One Place

That helps explain why publishers want us to sign-up for newsletters, but why do readers actually do it? I think a big part of it is social media fatigue. Other things try to replace e-mail, only to become just as cluttered, creating a bunch of separate cluttered messes to deal with. My inbox is a nightmarish hellscape. But I’d rather visit one nightmarish hellscape per day than a dozen. And while there’s no way I would want to get an e-mail newsletter from every single person I follow on Twitter, those e-mail digests of what’s been happening on Twitter are pretty handy. From a reader’s standpoint, I’d often rather just get a daily or weekly digest than try to follow yet another Twitter account or RSS feed.

5. E-mail Is the Original Social Media

For years, those of us who have advocated the indie or federated web have called for social networks to be more like e-mail, but it turns out e-mail itself is a pretty good social media platform. And while getting people to sign up for a Diaspora or Identica account was always a tough sell, just about everyone already has an e-mail address. And e-mail has social features like “reply” and “share” (aka “forward”) baked right in.

But beyond all that, it feels like an admission that the Internet went horribly wrong somewhere along the way. Google+, Tumblr and Facebook Groups felt like a tacit admission that the web had taken a wrong turn somewhere around Friendster and was finding its way back to LiveJournal. But now with the rise of newsletters and Snapchat and “right to forget” legislation, it feels like we’re going back even further, perhaps admitting that this whole web thing, with its search engines and caches and screenshots, were perhaps a bad idea to begin with and it’s not to rip it up and start again from e-mail on up.