The first email newsletter I subscribed to was Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations. Ellis, a writer and comic book author, has been sending these emails since the ’90s, and they haven’t evolved all that much since. His newsletter is mostly text, with a couple links to books he recommends or a talk he gave at a conference, and perhaps a preview of a comic he’s working on. It’s not flashy, but every Sunday I take five minutes to quietly read about Ellis’s week.
The upsurge in email newsletters has mostly been a positive experience for publishers and readers. Publishers get to highlight their best work and reach an audience without competing with the onslaught of social media posts; readers get to look over articles that interest them on a consistent schedule. But what separates someone like Warren Ellis from The New Yorker or GQ is that Orbital Operations is personal. It includes exclusive content that I can’t find on a website. Ellis’s newsletter is more than just a link station.
In a Wired article from this May, tech journalist Clive Thompson wrote about the intimacy of internet newsletters. He describes a reading experience very similar to mine, which only has appeal if these emails are worth reading, rather than just clicking on.
As Thompson points out, one of the main benefits of a newsletter is that it’s opt-in, so it doesn’t have to try to grab someone’s attention. If a reader already subscribed, you don’t need the hard sell anymore. A newsletter that acts as a big “read me” button is in danger of resembling the very spam it’s trying to distance itself from.
But that approach goes against standard thinking, especially if editors need to hit certain traffic goals each month. Exclusive content was the original appeal behind Lenny Letter, the feminist and lifestyle newsletter started by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-creators of HBO’s Girls. As of this summer, Lenny Letter had over 500,000 subscribers, but even with that success, it eventually decided to sacrifice exclusivity and host all of its work on a website, meaning anyone could access the content without subscribing.
While so many publishers are using the safer approach that relies on links, putting exclusive content in a newsletter could be an important differentiator—even if it doesn’t provide obvious traffic benefits. Outlets could share behind-the-scenes content or experimental work that lead to a stronger connection with a reader.
Shea Serrano, who writes for The Ringer, started a personal newsletter called Basketball and Other Things while working on his next book. As he told MailChimp in May: “The newsletter is a way to test out what works, what doesn’t work. I can put extra stuff in there. Stuff that doesn’t make sense in the book.”
Basketball and Other Things sticks mainly to basketball and pop culture. One topic Serrano used in the past was a bit about which Street Fighter character would make the best NBA player. With a little effort, Serrano takes work he couldn’t fit into his book and turns it into promotional content to increase interest.
Likewise, a newsletter could house answers from a Q&A that didn’t make it into a final draft, interesting but irrelevant data points and connections from a recent survey, or maybe story ideas that an editor liked but couldn’t quite fit onto the blog.
Another way to create original content is to write your newsletter as a person rather than a company. This doesn’t necessarily mean the person who builds each newsletter has to sign each email, like Pamela Paul does after a brief introduction in The New York Times Book Review newsletter, but there’s still space to play with personality and try out a more conversational tone.
“As someone who worked as a writer/editor for fifteen years, I had no interest in churning out weekly marketing speak,” Mike Sampson, the senior marketing and promotions manager for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a theater chain, told me. “I’d rather have something from our theater feel a little more personal. We love movies and want to share what we think is great with all our subscribers.”
When a theater opening in Brooklyn was delayed, a human touch helped Sampson take ownership of the problem. “It was hard to send that newsletter announcing we were missing the August opening date,” he said, “but it was very important to me to write something personally and not let a news outlet be the bearer of bad tidings.”
Then there’s John Hodgman, the actor and comedian, who takes a conversational approach to email newsletters to a different level. I emailed Hodgman, asking if I could interview him for this story, and he responded by answering the questions in a recent issue of his Lifestyle Advice newsletter.
“My hope was to open a channel that was a little more lasting than social media so that I can talk to and with those people whom I presume from self-selection want to know what I’m up to,” he wrote. “I committed to writing once a week and really giving you not just information on me, but ways to improve your TERRIBLE LIFESTYLE as well. Which is to say, sharing stuff and culture that I like. It also gives ME information about ME, as I often don’t know what I’m thinking about until I write it down.”
Hodgman started his newsletter to keep in touch with his followers. Like all good content, it puts the audience over the brand—in this case, by sharing relevant information that isn’t just about his life.
A few publishers have taken to Hodgman’s fondness for sharing. The newsletter for WNYC’s On the Media collects and summarizes articles that inform past and future episodes of the show, which feels like a taking a peek at some of the research that goes into making each episode. Google’s Design Quarterly newsletter does something similar, collecting the staff’s favorite design stories since the last issue, as five designers on different teams talk about work outside of Google that they appreciate.
As Hodgman wrote to me, “It’s important that everything I do feels like a direct communication, as that is the whole point of making art, I think.”
We can argue the semantics of whether or not art is content, but the importance of that direct communication with an audience remains the same. So write something worth reading, not just clicking on.