About Newsletters

Along with the slow and painful death of email, caused mainly by spam, it is my impression that email based newsletters are declining in popularity.

Maybe they’re just superfluous in todays feed-fed internet reality?

Regardless, March is creeping near, and so is a discussion on the Installments newsletter I’ve been sending over for the last year.

When I initially decided to add a newsletter to Noscope (sometime in 2003) it was an attempt to provide a simple means to follow my monthly graphical installments. This newsletter grew in size, and so did the amount of subscribers (slowly). At it’s peak in September 2004, I secretly unveiled sneak preview of a redesign for Noscope.

I like this idea of having a “secret society”, and awarding people that cared to sign up with snippets and previews. So much that subscribers also got a layered .TIFF file download one month earlier than non-subscribers.

On the other hand, the newsletter wasn’t that popular, and it was an extra task in my already crowded “end-of-the-month” schedule. Additionally, WordPress gave users easy access to XML feeds and blo.gs powered update notifications. Somehow this all made the newsletter feel redundant.

So, with the success of recent questions, I’ll once again ask you – the reader – a question:

  • Are text/html based email newsletters outdated?

12 thoughts on “About Newsletters”

  1. Chris says:

    Two things.

    One, I had no idea you had a newsletter for the installments. Either I’m blind or you were hiding it from me.

    Two, I think they are somewhat doomed. I think you can safely blame syndication for this. I rarely take a look at newsletters despite being subscribed to a number of them. I can’t really explain the why of it though. Let me run some examples by you. I get a series of HTML newsletters from HBO for various series and the boxing schedule. One of them came in about three days ago and remains unread (I’ll get to it). I also get updates from Apple for new products, .Mac goodies, iTunes, the only one I remember to read on the day is the iTunes letter cause it has the freebie tune link.

    These aren’t complicated newletters. At best they’re two pages and all HTML with pretty images and to the point text. And, I actively subscribe to them. I sought out the HBO letters. Yet, for some lazy reason I can rarely be bother with them beyond the headline.

    I also get digest versions of some newsgroups and mailing lists. These, I know I never read. I think I keep them in the false hope that I’ll one day search through them for some hidden gem. But, I know I probably won’t.

    Newsletters are I think on their last legs, as far as I’m concerned. If you had sent me this post as a personal email I certainly would have read it immediately but as a newsletter I would have “gotten to it later.” Eventually, later would reach a point where the subject of the letter was moot. I can’t explain why that is. It’s not that I don’t read. I often have upwards of 300 hits in my news feeds every day. I read maybe 50% of them at least.

    Mailing lists, for me died a long time ago. You need to be an anthropologist to read those things. No matter how good your mail client it’s still an olympic feat to figure out what one person is replying to. Far simpler to visit a forum or blog (especially one with threaded comments or commenters that have mastered blockquote).

  2. Nik says:

    I personally think the newsletter is a good feature of noscope. I especially like the idea of subscribers having access to additional content from the site – it makes the visitor feel more a part of the community of the site. After all, would the site (not specifically noscope) be what it is without the community surrounding it?

    I don’t know.. just my thoughts anyway.


    Along with the slow and painful death of email […]

    This sounds pretty interesting… do you really think that’s the case?

  3. Joen says:

    First of all, thanks both for your great replies, despite my servers downtime — again! It seems to be a weekend thing…


    I have been sending it out, monthly for a year. Currently, the newsletter signup box has been hidden, because it’s CGI based, and this server is not. So basically this “public hearing” is also a question whether I should pull my act together and find a PHP based system.

    As for email based newsletters, I pretty much feel the same way. Newsletters just don’t have the same punch as websites, or anything else for that matter. I’m not sure what it is, but I think it’s spam that killed it for me.

    As for community, I want to discuss that further in another thread, because this is something I have some ideas about how to improve.


    I especially like the idea of subscribers having access to additional content from the site – it makes the visitor feel more a part of the community of the site. After all, would the site (not specifically noscope) be what it is without the community surrounding it?

    That’s exactly my worry. Due to the nature of what I do here, I sometimes have contents that’s worth sharing, and I like to be able to reward people who “care more than others”. It seems only right. This is what I like about newsletters.

    Also, unlike a feed, or a website, a newsletter is “a thing” that you can actually archive if you want to. It’s like a magazine, it sort of gets an extended life that way.

    This is a good argument to keep the newsletter. Yet, the time it takes to make one, and the uncoolness of email is a good reason to either trash it, or transform it into something different.

    Along with the slow and painful death of email […]

    Yes, I think email has come and gone as the killer app of the internet. It was the reason for layman user to come to the internet back in the days (99/2000). Hotmail gave free email to anyone who wanted it, and people sent and collected letters like never before.

    But spam has killed the fun of emails. You can no longer be entirely sure that you haven’t missed an email, or that the email you sent was caught in a spam filter. You can’t be sure that the “You’ve Got Mail!” sound your computer makes, is actually legitimate email. Email has become more of a hassle than it is worth as a method of communication — especially now that we have IM.

    I think IM (and SPIM) will be the next big thing, and email will continue to die to spam.

  4. Tristan says:

    First I’ll comment on the newsletters — I agree that they’re generally out of style these days. I mean, if you have a web site, then what reason is there for people to get information delivered to them? It’s a perk to be “special” I suppose, but if they’re really special, then they’ll read your site frequently and “pull” information rather than getting it “pushed” to them (push/pull… now there are some words from back in the day).

    But– if you’re really giving useful and interesting info in your newsletter, then I might be interested. I get two newsletters these days — Amoeba music, and iTunes new music tuesdays. I like being notified of new music. It’s sort of a special case. With weblogs and other web sites, I don’t like being notified, I like using my own judgement about how much time to spend on each of the hundreds I have bookmarked. If it’s good and interesting, I’ll read it.

    Now, your notion that e-mail is dying I have not found to be true at all. I use e-mail heavily in both school and work. Like the cell phone number, the e-mail address is a fixed point of communication — almost always you can assume that a person got a message if you send it to them. E-mail is also permanent, so you can send someone information, and after that point, they have that information down. IMs are seen more as temporary chat; once you close the window, they go away, unless you log them, of course, and by subject, and date, and person… but at that point what are they but e-mails anyway? E-mail is unique. It’s an archive of structured communication that can be permanent and searchable and organized, and for that, it works.

    I think people require certain levels of indirection in their communication. The highest level is talking face-to-face; after that is video-phone, then normal telephone, then IM, then e-mail and snail-mail, and perhaps even further down than that are web sites and weblogs. For different situations, different people, or different times we need different levels of communication, and without e-mail I think one of those is lost, because we’re certainly not going back to letters and stamps again.

    Spam has killed the usefulness for many people, but to them, I say get a new e-mail address already. I’ve had my official e-mail at my university address for three years and not a single spam has touched it. You just have to keep it off the internet (I have a separate address for that; ironically, my first ever e-mail, a hotmail address); give your real address only to people you’ve met directly. Maybe my lack of spam makes me a little biased in this argument, but I don’t think it’s that hard to prevent really. People just need to know how.

    Maybe I’ll work on gmail and see what I can do about the problem 😉

  5. Chris says:

    All this talk of email and spam and IMs has me thinking again of a service I wish someone could implement.

    Here’s the gist, IM service, wherein I can have a contact that’s not online but that I want to mention something to. I could send an email but really that’s more trouble than its worth for the tidbit (url, code snippet, whatever) that I want to send them. So, instead I click their name despite their being offline and send the message. The IM is queued and when the log back on they get a message, “Saved Message from Approved buddy, Message begins….”

    I think this would be much better than dealing with Spam. And, near as I can tell there are no downs to it. In fact it could safely replace email for personal communications. It doesn’t replace email for everything, mind you.

    Pros: with an IM you can block everyone but approved buddies and it never gets to your machine. Unlike mail where in many cases, no matter how good the filter, crap will still get through.

    IMs are loggable. IMs are quicker, near instantaneous. IMs fit much easier into a person’s workflow. IMs don’t have the attachment restrictions of email. IM is richer, text, voice, video…

    Cons: Much easier for others to list these than I can as I’m just really thinking of this as I write it all out. But, unless you leave your approved list open to all comers you won’t get “walk-ups”. But, you could still leave your list open for people to try and contact you in real-time. Also, this is why email wouldn’t just be obseleted.

    Another feature, and this is really turning into a sitution of “why not just stick with email?” you could have saved messages get sent to a queue that you check when you’re ready just like email.

    So, in future, Joen could say, “give me your IM name and add noscope-update to your approved list” then he can just send a broadcast “here’s the link to a PDF” or “here’s the PDF” assuming attachments would be queued as well. I know this just sounds like email all over again but I think it just fits in with a workflow better than email would.

  6. Tristan says:

    I see what you mean. It wouldn’t be IM as we know it today, but a real form of instant communication with the archiving support of e-mail and the instantness of IM.

    You could call it a “Personal Messaging System”. Ooh, bad acronym, scratch that. Uhh… just call it IMproved or something. I like the idea though. It’s not necessarily in either the e-mail or the IM boat; more like building a communications system from the ground up. Now who wants to write it? Can I put in a request for whoever made the Picasa program? It needs to have that level of an interface to be really useful and popular.

  7. Chris says:

    I see what you mean. It wouldn?t be IM as we know it today, but a real form of instant communication with the archiving support of e-mail and the instantness of IM.

    Well I’m glad I was understandable. Ever get the feeling half the time that while you think you may be using english you are in fact speaking in swahili and thats why everyone keeps giving you a strange look? Thats how I feel every time I try to explain some scheme I’ve cooked up.

  8. Joen says:

    I really should get working on those commenting improvements I mentioned shortly. This kind of discussion is so value-adding, that you should all be blogging this individually. So thanks for keeping such a high standard of community!

    As for your IM idea, Chris, yes, that was exactly what I was thinking. Messenger or Skype on steroids: voice, video, text, archived messages, and then accessible from all sorts of devices including cellphones. It is coming, I know it is. And when that happens, email will have played it’s last song.

    Then comes IM text /video/voice spam.

  9. Tristan says:

    But, of course, if you were building a new paradigm of digital communications, you would think about spam, wouldn’t you?

    If I had time, I would seriously write this program now. Like you say, someone’s going to do it. Can you imagine how cool it would be to start a new internet revolution? hehe. maybe I’m too ambitious.

    But if I had time… oh man. Six months and i could do it. Secure, encrypted, open source, voice calls, video calls, IM, searchable archiving, mobile accessible, beautiful UI… the works. That would be a dream project.

  10. Joen says:

    If I had time, I would seriously write this program now. Like you say, someone?s going to do it. Can you imagine how cool it would be to start a new internet revolution? hehe. maybe I?m too ambitious.

    If you think you can do it, you can do it. That’s one of the things I’ve learned. Never say never, nothing is impossible, etc.

  11. Andy Budd says:

    I think email newsletters still have their place. They basically act as a push mechanism, allowing you to send your message out to a wide range of people. These days tech savvy people do this by using RSS feeds and a feed aggregator. Rather than have to remember to check sites on a regular basis you are sent the latest updates when they happen. However not everybody has a feed reader or even knows what RSS is. As such, if your target market is tech savvy, use an RSS feed, if not, use an email newsletter.

  12. Joen says:

    Very good point Andy.

    That pretty much means that a newsletter is still appropriate for the purposes I’ve had so far. In the far end of that, it means I’ll personally have to decide whether I have time to do so.

Comments are closed.