A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 1, 2014

For Email, A Death Greatly Exaggerated

Email is linked inextricably with the personal computer so it should come as no surprise that the chronic eulogies for the latter should lead to similar treatment for the former.

But it should, therefore, also come as no surprise that just as the PC is proving to be as resilient as the weed or the cockroach, so email is hanging in there with it in a co-evolutionary partnership that defies all prediction of its demise.

The fact is that we as a society have invested a lot of time and energy in learning how to use this channel. This tacit knowledge makes us more productive by lessening the amount of time required to understand both usage and meaning. Those touting new! improved! systems rarely calculate the additional effort required to master them. And just like TV, radio, the fax and other supposedly out-of-date technologies, the core user group may be more numerous and socio-economically desirable than the undoubtedly hipper early adapters of whatever is the latest.

The reality is that email has become an efficient means of reaching a certain audience with a certain message. It's convenient. And it's cheap. In this economy, that combination pretty much guarantees its survival. JL

David Carr comments in the New York Times:

It helps that email, long dismissed as a festering petri dish of marketing come-ons, has cleaned up its act. Gmail, in particular, has stamped out a lot of spam and segmented the inbox
Here at the Media Equation, we pride ourselves on keeping our readers abreast of the newest technologies and approaches in reaching audiences. So it gives us great pleasure to reveal a radical publishing technology that is catching on in news media companies big and small. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: email.
Email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march.
In addition to the long-running morning must-haves like Mike Allen’s political tip sheet Playbook, other topics and approaches are gaining momentum across publishing. Quartz, Atlantic Media’s smart business site, has an increasingly popular daily newsletter. The revamped Newsweek has done well with Today in Tabs, a cheeky look at content that is so bad it’s good. And webby writers including Ann Friedman, Jason Hirschhorn, Alexis Madrigal, Robin Sloan and Maria Popova all put out much-followed newsletters.
How can that be? With social media, mobile apps and dynamic websites that practically stalk the reader, how can something that sometimes gets caught in a spam filter really be taking off?
Newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos. In fact, the comeback of email newsletters has been covered in Fast Company, The Atlantic and Medium, but I missed those articles because, really, who can keep up with a never-ending scroll of new developments? That’s where email newsletters, with their aggregation and summaries, come in. Some are email only, others reprise something that can be found on the web. At a time when lots of news and information is whizzing by online, email newsletters — some free, some not — help us figure out what’s worth paying attention to.
There are some significant countervailing trends, of course. Young people love to text, send instant messages and use Snapchat more than they like using email, and Facebook paid as much as $19 billion for the text service WhatsApp as a bet that email may be on the wane.
Then again, MailChimp, which sends all manner of business-to-consumer emails, is adding more than 10,000 users a day — people who send mass emails and newsletters — according to executives there. The company, founded in 2001, says it sends over 400 million emails a day.
Publishers seeking to stick out of the clutter have found both traction and a kind of intimacy in consumers’ inboxes.
If you think about it, what may seem like a very retro movement — what’s next, faxes? — has relevance in the modern media environment. Increasingly, news is a list that appears on your phone. Whether it’s Twitter, your Facebook stream or a mobile app like NYT Now, news shows up as a list of links. The Drudge Report is nothing more than that, and the site continues to melt publishers’ servers when it points to something.
An email newsletter generally shows up in your inbox because you asked for it and it includes links to content you have deemed relevant. In other words, it’s important content you want in list form, which seems like a suddenly modern approach.
It helps that email, long dismissed as a festering petri dish of marketing come-ons, has cleaned up its act. Gmail, in particular, has stamped out a lot of spam and segmented the inbox into personal, social and promotional streams that make email much less a mess than it used to be.
It can be valuable real estate. A Quartz study of 940 global executives found that email newsletters trumped the Internet and mobile apps as a source of news.
It makes sense. My personal digital hierarchy, which I assume is fairly common, goes like this: email first, because it is for and about me; social media next, because it is for and about me, my friends and professional peers; and finally, there is the anarchy of the web, which is about, well, everything.
With an email, there is a presumption of connection, of something personal, that makes it a good platform for publishers. Newer email newsletter outfits like TinyLetter, which MailChimp owns, are simple, free and easy to use. TinyLetter has over 100,000 users who reach 9.3 million subscribers, and it has had an increase of 15 percent in the number of newsletters sent in the last year.
“People have demonstrated a lot of interest in experimenting with the form,” said Kate Kiefer Lee, content manager for MailChimp and TinyLetter, who helped write a book called “Nicely Said: Writing for the Web With Style and Purpose.” “People get more excited about the newer technologies, but the nice thing about email is that it doesn’t go away. It sits in your inbox and you have to do something with it.”
A surprising number of people, including me, find themselves clicking on those emails. (A list of some newsletters I find amusing and useful is posted with this column on nytimes.com/media.)
“Email is dismissed as something old people use,” said Gideon Lichfield, global news editor at Quartz. “But in the past few years, we have started to see email as a peer to publishing platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the web, one that has its own strengths and weaknesses that we are starting to figure out.”
Quartz’s daily email goes to 75,000 subscribers, about half of whom open it. “It is a not a huge audience, but it is a very dedicated and valuable one,” Mr. Lichfield said. “The email newsletter has a sponsor and makes money.”
His colleague Mr. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, finds writing his daily newsletter, 5 Intriguing Things, to be deeply satisfying.
“As a read, the web is endless and the horizon keeps receding,” he told me. “And readers come and go. You can’t assume any continuity. But I have an intimate and intense relationship with people who get my newsletter every day. I can assume a high level of interest. It reminds me of the golden age of blogging in that way.”
“For someone who didn’t grow up having their work delivered to the doorstep of people who subscribed to it,” he added, “sending someone something they asked for — not that got retweeted or liked on Facebook — is almost magical.”
Some aspects are less than magical, said Mr. Hirschhorn, the chief executive of the digital curator ReDef, who has been sending his much-read Media ReDef newsletter for seven years. The company that sends his newsletter also hosts his email. And his own newsletter has been blocked as spam and gone undelivered.
“It can be a little frustrating,” he said. “But it’s a great place to get in front of people who are interested in what you have to say. Email is a 40-year-old technology that is not going away for very good reasons — it’s the cockroach of the Internet.”


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