Rethinking our newsletters: background reading

Alongside the ongoing redesign of MoMA, we’ve been rethinking our content strategy for email. This is one of five “deep dives” into key performance indicators for digital. While we initially focused on acquisition (with a target of 1M subscribers), we eventually broadened our scope to also consider welcome, engagement, and retention. This post is a digest of our reading.


There has been a resurgence in newsletters because — unlike the stream — they are finite and you can read them on your own schedule. Readers are looking for email that is super relevant to their interests and authored, with a strong point of view. The most successful emails feature content that has already played well on the website and social media.


For Email Newsletters, a Death Greatly Exaggerated by David Carr for The New York Times:

Carr contends that readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and are returning to their inbox for “finite and recognizable” newsletters.

“With an email, there is a presumption of connection, of something personal, that makes it a good platform for publishers.”

2013: The Year ‘the Stream’ Crested by Alex C Madrigal for The Atlantic:

“It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished… My newsletter is finite (always less than 600 words) and it comes once a day. It has edges. You can finish it.”

The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising by Joseph Lichterman for NiemanLab:

“What we actually sell is what I like to call the feeling of being informed when you get to the very end. So we sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content.” (Tom Standage)

The Economist Espresso is a daily news digest of five articles no longer than 140 words (and without links), delivered via email or a dedicated app. It has been downloaded more than 600,000 times.

News roundups can be part of a smart media diet by Jihii Jolly for Coumbia Journalism Review:

“Each one is slightly different, but part of a growing trend: to tell readers “everything” they need to know, and to do it with bite-sized, voicey analysis.”

How BuzzFeed uses email marketing to drive their phenomenal growth by Campaign Monitor:

Email is consistently one of the top 5 or 6 referrers of traffic to Buzzfeed each month, up with Twitter and Pinterest. It’s also one of their highest growth channels. In 2014, traffic from email grew by 20% on a monthly basis. Their content strategy is all about relevance:

  • Dedicated landing pages for every type of email they send
  • Subscribe boxes in the sidebar of relevant sections of the site

“They Said Email Was Dying”: How BuzzFeed Revived the Email Newsletter by Ginny Soskey on HubSpot Blogs:

“I try to take note of the stuff that’s really getting big, getting some viral traffic. I try to pick the stuff that people are already sharing. If people are already sharing it a lot, it’s a good indication that we should be sharing it with our email audience too.” (Dan Oshinky)

How TinyLetter is Making Us Fall in Love with Email Again by Rebecca Greenfield for Fast Company:

“Email sits in your inbox until you do something with it. You don’t have to look at it right away. It just kind of waits for you.” (Kiefer Lee)

Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss by Joanne McNeil on Medium:

“There’s another reason why people are turning to newsletters to publish content now: it is a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information… We subscribe to newsletters because we like someone and take interest in their unique points-of-view… But newsletters aren’t discussion lists. It is one-way communication. No one sees the replies but the sender.”

How a free email newsletter turned a computer programmer into a Newsweek columnist by Caroline O’Donovan for NiemanLab:

O’Donovan argues that the acquisition of Today in Tabs, an email newsletter powered by TinyLetter, was designed to reestablish Newsweek as an influential newsmaker for “snarky Manhattanites”.

Recommended TinyLetters

We concluded our background reading with an invited talk from Dan Oshinky of BuzzFeed. Oshinky positioned email as “the new living room”, urging MoMA to “be useful and delightful.”