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Why you need to understand the distinction between newsletters and email

The resurgence of email was smartly covered in this weekend’s WSJ:

In the #deletefacebook era, it’s become a way to fight back against the algorithms that try to dictate what people see. Unlike on Facebook , readers receive everything they signed up to receive, in neat chronological order, alongside missives from friends, family and their various communities.

Themes like simplicity and control echo throughout the piece, but many pieces on the topic fail to explore one critical area: The distinction between newsletters and email.

Our firm specializes in helping our clients create newsletter products. There are naturally elements of email design and deliverability embedded in this, but the distribution mechanism of email is not the end game for what we consider a newsletter. The WSJ piece, along with most domain literature, tend to conflate newsletter products delivered via email with email as a product. We think there needs to be a common language and understanding that distinguishes the two.

Where does a newsletter begin and end?

First, the metamedia question. Dan Oshinsky, the Director of Newsletters at the New Yorker, and someone who has made a career in newsletters (not email), started a very cool project — a periodically updated Google Doc that covering the newsletter industry. A fun Twitter thread ensued on what this thing was:

This does raise the brain-twisting question of what exactly is a newsletter? Before donning a black turtleneck and lighting up a Gauloises, it’s a genuine question anyone in media or marketing should consider.

If Dan Oshinsky’s output is written in a conventional newsletter style (conversational tone, link roundups, bullet points) but lives in a Google Doc, is it still a newsletter? Matt Levine at Bloomberg writes one of my favorite newsletters, but I make a point of reading it on the web so I can Instapaper it for later. Am I reading a newsletter, or, as the URL would indicate, a Bloomberg Opinion piece.

Or to take the case of Bloomberg’s regional “Start Your Day” newsletters:

If this is a newsletter:

Is this still a newsletter?

The Axios CMS was built to perfectly transpose their newsletters to the web, and seemingly back again. Each newsletter is broken down into sections that live as individual URLs on the web, making it even more unclear where the newsletter begins and ends. The platform Substack has made this web-to-email publishing back-and-forth accessible to everyone. Most ESPs have built-in functionality to populate the HTML from your emails into a web page so the user can “View this Email in Browser”.

One of our clients asks us to WhatsApp senior members of their team a link to the Mailchimp campaign of their newsletter. Is that still a newsletter or some innovative new chatbot?

The same way the unit of an article can live on a website, in a mobile app, or printed paper, the unit of a newsletter should not be limited to the protcol of an email.

A more human form of communication

Is it Axios’ Smart Brevity? Is it TheSkimm voice? Is it Anand at CB Insights saying I love you? Is it a Warren Buffett shareholder letter? Is it Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door?

When we speak with our clients, newsletter products still fall under email marketing and work off of the same metrics. Conversion-oriented email marketing lives for the click, but the effectiveness of a publisher newsletter should not necessarily. Understanding that newsletter content is not restricted to email can, as Bloomberg, Axios, and others have shown, help extend the words written in an email product across an organization’s offerings.

And that’s kind of how we think about this. People are excited about newsletters because it’s a return to a more human form of communication. You might follow real people on social, but you’re hearing them speak to the algorithms. Newsletters feel like a return to people trying to help others make sense of the world. It feels a bit like the early 2000s blogging culture, but the founder of the WSJ was newsletter’ing almost a century ago. Distribution via email is just one component of the current iteration.

So maybe it’s a directly speaking to your audience in a conversational manner. Perhaps it’s thinking of your reader before an algorithm. Maybe we can place push notifications, conversational voice content, or even a good old-fashioned blog under the umbrella of “newsletters”. Perhaps it’s

This piece is an attempt to begin to define what exactly a newsletter is. At the very least, it’s more than just an email product. Whatever newsletters are, they are an incredibly important piece of the puzzle in restoring a healthier communications structure in our current algorithmic age.