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Why Are We Sending Editorial Newsletters With Marketing Tools?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a vibrant world of email newsletters with no goal beyond telling you a great story, perhaps with some ads attached. But despite this, many email marketing tools seem focused on … well, marketing. Perhaps these big companies should create email writing tools, too.

You could hear the heartbeats of a million indie publishers pause simultaneously last week.

And for good reason: A report on Inc. revealed that MailChimp was looking to take its popular-but-small-scale email writing tool TinyLetter and push it back into the mealy gullet of the mothership. The report came out nearly a month ago, but few people caught it until last week — at which point a whole lot of amateur publishers freaked out until MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut sent a note attempting to calm the masses.

I’m not a TinyLetter user myself, but as someone who publishes an editorial newsletter, I certainly am a part of the movement it spearheaded. Why did it freak so many people out that premature eulogies seemed to take over certain corners of the internet?

I’d like to think that the problem comes down to this: Most email tools are not built for editorial production. They’re built for marketing, and often editorial uses get shoehorned, sometimes awkwardly, into these tools.

Missing from this tagline: “Tell great stories.”

And to be honest, the biggest example of this is MailChimp, a hugely popular tool with an interface that puts more focus on the segmentation and design parts of marketing than it does on actually writing the message you’re going to send your readers. The point is underlined plainly on the MailChimp front page: “Build your brand. Sell more stuff.”

This is a fairly exclusionary tagline, and is unfortunate because it says right out that if you’re not a marketer, this isn’t the service for you.

If you’ve used MailChimp over a long period of time, you’ve seen the company put more and more focus on the marketing part of the email marketing equation. And while these things certainly matter to editorial publishers, they want to put out a great editorial product, too, and this shift gives the lingering feeling that the production part of the equation is getting pushed to the back burner.

(As it turns out, editorial people tend to focus on editorial content.)

I could go on and on about the ways that tools like MailChimp, Campaign Monitor, and their ilk fail editorial newsletters, but I think the biggest problem might be the most obvious one: They cost a lot of money to use as you grow your audience.

I was telling a friend of mine that MailChimp is priced in a way that only a business school grad could love. And that’s because its cost — which rises based on the size of your list and number of emails you send — seems to be designed around the return on investment of each message. (I’m not the only one to notice that this feels totally out of whack.)

Granted, running an editorial outlet isn’t unlike the paperclip game, either, but the price structure of most major email marketing tools feels a bit exclusionary to smaller players as a result of this structure. You grow too big, your message gets too far out, and suddenly, your newsletter costs too much to produce.

And the issue isn’t limited to the price structures, either: The design of these services is clearly targeted toward a marketing-driven approach. Building a link roundup with a service like MailChimp feels frustrating. I couldn’t imagine writing a story in that interface, and I used MailChimp to manage my newsletter for nearly two years.

If email marketing providers really cared about the big-name publishers that often use their services, these tools would look closer in conceit to content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, or Ghost. (That’s how I build my own email, FWIW.) That would mean a focus on the words and on ticking off a few settings — not on the more elaborate things that a marketing email template is often tasked with doing.

Now, to be fair, email comes with more significant production issues because of its roots, and templates can be quite fragile from a design standpoint. (Some of those issues have faded over time as Microsoft and Google have improved their email rendering capabilities, but they linger because people really love old email clients.) And it’s created a lot of frustrations for publishers that they simply do not have with publishing on their own website.

But there’s a case to be made that those frustrations would be less pronounced if the tools they had at their disposal in the first place were thoughtfully designed with the intention of managing editorial content, rather than trying to make marketing tools work for editorial purposes.

So why was there a collective freakout about the apparent death of TinyLetter? To put it simply, it seemed like a popular, useful tool that was purely designed for editorial content was getting put out to pasture, and people who send emails with a focus on the words, rather than the ROI, saw a fracture in their little part of the internet.

The lesson that MailChimp should take from this saga is not that they shouldn’t kill TinyLetter (though that would be nice), but that they should realize that there’s a massive base of publishers that use its tools, along with its competitors — and that they should do everything they can to nurture those audiences.

And perhaps that means redesigning their tools so that they make more sense for writers and editors. (Markdown support would be a plus.)


Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. You’ve possibly run into one of my pieces on Motherboard, Atlas Obscura, Popular Mechanics, The Outline, or Neatorama.