“Why don’t ___ do something like this with their audiences?”

Recently, a question Melody Joy Kramer posed in her poignant TinyLetter caught my eye:

“PPS: Why don’t news organizations do something like this with their audiences? (Feel free to borrow this idea. That’s the entire point of this newsletter.)”

The “this” that she’s referring to is something she does often in her newsletter, which is the mechanism of:

  1. asking audiences a question in an email newsletter
  2. aggregating the responses; and then
  3. re-sending it back out in the next newsletter

I’ve been wondering about this question a lot lately. I work on a project called Prompt, an experimental email newsletter that investigates what kind of conversations might emerge if an online community were asked daily to engage with a prompt, usually a word or a phrase, and could see other people’s anonymous responses the next day. My friend Andrew Badr and I have also been cultivating our interest in poetry through poems.ink, where we aggregate other readers’ interpretations of a poem we send out in a bi-weekly newsletter.

One of the biggest challenges is having to go through the aggregation process. Currently, I’ve been experimenting with manual labor, Zapier / IFTTT, Google Forms, and Fancy Hands to help with the legwork.

But what if there were a tool that could make this process easier? Say there was a tool that could collect your community members’ responses, organize them, and create an output that you could easily email back out to your audience. The conversations that people were having with the sender could be made public. It’d be interesting to see what types of engagements this could unlock, not just for news organizations, but with other communities, magazines, brands, and so on. Your audience could perhaps become part of an email-based community, rather than just readers of whatever you send them; they could be your user research group; they could spark conversations with other fans of your work.

It’s an engagement mechanism that many experimental newsletters have been pioneering, with significant success. For example, Laura Olin is well-known for “Everything Changes,” a weekly email newsletter that often solicits audience participation through Google Forms and Google Docs. Brian Bailey’s Uncommon, which includes a Prompted section for members to respond to a question he poses weekly, has been around for a few years. Even organizations such as WNYC have been using this format for certain shows’ newsletters, such as Note to Self, where they recently asked readers to submit recommendations to their favorite newsletters as a way of crowdsourcing content.

My friend Lenny Bogdonoff has also been thinking a lot about email newsletters. Recently, he wrote about why big media should be paying attention to email. Right now, it’s being treated as a “one-way broadcasting system”, where people optimize for talking at an audience, rather than trying to engage in a two-way dialogue.

It’s a mechanism that we hope will continue to evolve as readership grows from thousands to millions, and as larger companies begin to adopt audience engagement trends we see emerging on the Internet. We want to help enable others to shape the future of this interaction by making it easier.

So we decided to start ReplyFrom, a new tool to help people manage this type of interaction for email newsletters and bring conversations back into their email-based communities. We hope ReplyFrom becomes the easiest way to manage bulk replies from your email list.

We’re currently open for users to test out what we’re building. If you think this is something that could make your life easier, check out http://replyfrom.com and drop us a note. We can’t wait to hear from you.


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