Finding Our Way

Are email newsletters the right tool?

Ben Brooks recently voiced both his confusion about the popularity of email newsletters and his belief that anything you can do with a newsletter can be done on your blog instead. And he’s not alone in this opinion. As 2015 drew to a close, I’ve seen a number of statements from various people that suggests we’re still trying to find our way with online writing.

Ryan Van Der Merwe is believes we should double down on the self-hosted personal site:

2015 was the year of Medium and Newsletters, but I feel like we should use 2016 to Make The Personal Blog Great Again™.

Marcelo Somers agrees, but feels that Medium is a good secondary location for one’s content:

@RianVDM I’m rebuilding mine, but plan to cross post to Medium. The value there is insane, and I don’t know why.

Back to Ben, he is doubling down on the personal blog. But for him, the secondary location is email:

You told me newsletters are great, but all i see is a way to fragment my readership.

CJ Chivers responds that things are the exact opposite for him, but it’s dependent on the reader(s):

Interesting take on newsletters by @BenjaminBrooks. https://brooksreview.net/2015/12/newsletters/ … The opposite of what’s true for me, but…different audiences.

His point is that audiences who are not as technically savvy benefit more from an email subscription. I agree completely; RSS can be a pain (for the reader, not the publisher) and has gotten worse as browsers have put it more in the background.

But what is the common thread with all the shared opinions above? Each of these individuals have an online presence and write regularly. And have been doing so for years. It would seem that we’re still trying to figure out how to do this “online writing” thing; we’re still finding our way.

In terms of Medium, or any other free hosted platform (Tumbler, Facebook et al), I’m with Marcelo. It’s a great place to duplicate the content you publish to your own self-hosted site where you’re in full control. Medium comes with a built in audience that does indeed seem eager to both share and respond. And although some big names are making the wholesale move to Medium, I’d not recommend that direction to anyone.

But email is another matter.

The case for the newsletter

Back to Ben’s point that anything you do in an email newsletter can be done on your blog: he’s right. And, he’s wrong.

It’s the purpose that makes a difference. For Ben, he seems to not have a purpose for a newsletter:

And since setting it up, almost 400 people have subscribed. I have no clue if that is good or not, but that’s the number. I’ve toyed with how and what I use the newsletter for and the best I’ve found is to pass most of my link lists posts off to it.

That’s sounds like getting a new table saw, but with no project in mind. You can cut up some old wood laying around, but there won’t be much satisfaction involved. I’d argue that email newsletters are fantastic, but they’re best used for specific purposes.

First is the conversion. If you have something to sell, email is still king. Nothing converts like a dedicated readership and for whatever reason, email converts to sales from those readers better than any other channel. If you’re like Justin Jackson, Shawn Blanc, or Nathan Barry, growing your email list and sharing your opinions and your projects is a critical part of your marketing plan.

But that’s not the case for Ben. What does he have to sell? His writing. The same goes for me. So why would someone choose to put some content in a newsletter when it can be put on your site instead? Or if you simply duplicate the content from your blog in email, why bother with the extra step?

Well, let’s get that last point out of the way straight off … that’s what we’ve all been doing for the past decade with RSS. Most blog writers don’t give it much thought because most blogging tools (aka CMSes) provide a feed by default. But if the purpose of RSS is to make life easier for readers and update them when we have something new to say instead of making them visit our site manually, email can do that job as well.

So why use the email newsletter format at all? To me … it just feels right. When I started The Weekly Review in 2014, the format was a shameless copy of Peter King. If you’re a football fan, you may know the name. Peter is featured on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in America, but long before that, he’s been a writer for Sports Illustrated.

After years of writing for print only, King started a weekly column on si.com titled Monday Morning Quarterback. After many years of growing an audience, SI finally spun the column into its own site. Why was the column so popular? I’d venture it’s the format.

Each MMQB weekly column included different categories of topics. A summary of the weekend’s games to kick things off, then various other blurbs on whatever topics caught King’s attention over the weekend. Along with that, each week has some regular categories: the fine fifteen (top 15 teams week by week), quotes of the week, an awards section, 10 things I think I think, coffeenerdness … on and on. All said and done, King pumped out this column week by week over the course of a year. During the season, that means Sunday night all-nighters and 5,000+ words published the next morning. And it’s something I’ve read without fail for over 5 years.

When I started my weekly newsletter, I knew this was a format that would work for me. Originally, it was intended as added content for a site membership. But even after stopping the membership, I knew if I ever wrote a newsletter again, it would keep on in the same style. The format allows me to share some content I wouldn’t publish on my site. Not because I have something to hide or because the content is offensive … it simply does not fit as a singular blog post.

Could I write one post every week titled The Weekly Review and include all the exact same content? Yes. But it doesn’t feel quite right.

The answer is … it depends.

There are positives and negatives to writing newsletters. Some on my writing is now on my site, some is in my Campaign Monitor account (and Ulysses). Some of my writing is searchable, but some is not. Ben starts his post on the topic stating that he’s not interested in fragmenting his readership. I don’t feel that is the case: each newsletter points back to my personal site. Anyone reading the email knows where to find me.

For those not subscribed to the newsletter, I post 2 items from each week previous to my site. And then to [Medium]https://medium.com/@chrisbowler. So I have little concern for breaking up my readership.

What does cause some concern is fragmented content. But for now, the advantage of a more intimate feel and the consistent rhythm of a weekly newsletter suit me well.


It was at this point, dear reader, when my mind was nearly changed. It’s a lovely feeling when writing hones and clarifies your thoughts. Except for those times when writing shows you the flaws in your thinking and you have to go through the pain of indecision. I had to let this one site for a few weeks.

Ben’s concerns on this topic are well founded. There are some negatives to putting your content in email:

  • content is unsearchable
  • content is not exportable
  • content is hosted by a 3rd party platform (even if it’s one I trust, it’s still not great)
  • getting content into Campaign Monitor is more of a pain than publishing to my site (it doesn’t support markdown)
  • email is a pain to style, so less media is included in TWR

On the flip side, there are some positives as well:

  • I can include content that may not feel like it fits on my site
  • proofing via a test email has been more enjoyable and (hopefully) effective
  • the cadence feels right

That last point is filled with whimsy. Why not just publish a weekly column titled The Weekly Review on your site? The cadence is the same, all the content is on your site. After all, Peter King does just that, with much success.

My answer is that is simply feels right. One of Ben’s main points is that nobody likes reading email.

What is the biggest complaint that most people have? They hate email. They have too much of it. They never check it, etc, etc.

On that point, I disagree. Much of our email is junk, but I greatly enjoy some of the newsletters I’m subscribed to. This is likely the point that makes all the difference for our opinions: if someone dislikes receiving email newsletters, they’re not likely to find value in creating one.

For now, I’ll continue using email to deliver this content. It allows me to share some things I would tend not to put on my site, while still publishing the bigger pieces in both places. Readers can choose to follow one or the other, or both. As well, the rhythm of a weekly publication pushes me to write in order to meet the deadline. I like that!

And if intimacy can be a word applied to digital artifacts, then email feels more right in this type of usage.

This article was first published on The Weekly Review newsletter … so meta! Interested? Sign up!