As I've alluded to before, email newsletters are my day job. I believe in email as an editorial format*. There are ways to do it well. I wanted to do some after-hours experimentation with the medium and the format, both for personal and professional gratification. And that's how I ended up launching So What, Who Cares?
I've got a month's experience under my belt. I thought I'd share what I've learned here with you, who have patiently tuned in on other experiments I've done in the ongoing quest to Do Things Better.
1 -- It helps to have a defined scope. The parameters I set for So What, Who Cares? are simple: It's a digest of 1-4 different news stories, where the overall story is summarized in a "bluff your way through a cocktail party" fashion and deeper context is added by answering the questions "So what?" (i.e. why is this news?) and "Who cares?" (i.e. who does this affect now and in the future). In addition: Every subject line has to start off with the classic reporter's questions: Who/what/when/where/why/how. Having those ground rules in place helps me focus and it also helps me frame the content.
2 -- Empower your readers to talk to you. When I began including email and Twitter links in each newsletter, people used them. I figure it's only good manners: They've invited me into their inbox, they've tweeted links to the newsletters -- this is a relationship we have.
3 -- Less is more. I noticed that my traffic numbers dropped when I sent out thousand-word missives with 24-28 hyperlinks in them. Mail servers flagged them as "promotions," and people had to make an effort to read them. I'm experimenting with fewer links and shorter items.
4 -- Data tells a story. I have extensive experience with both Lyris and WhatCounts, and there I can do A/B split testing, and track user activity down to the hyperlink, see pretty graphs telling me how traffic and engagement trend over time. By contrast, TinyLetter is a free service and deliberately bare-bones. I suspect if I upgraded to the company's MailChimp, I'd get stats.
Still, it would be nice to see more than how many emails are delivered and how many are opened. I would like to be able to track what content engages people to the click point.
5 -- I'd like to find a way to extend So What, Who Cares? into other channels. I know a lot of people for whom email is a necessary evil. I'd like to be able to offer individual So What, Who Cares? digests as blog entries so you can subscribe to an RSS feed -- but it would have to be a "click publish once, disseminate in many places"-type tool because I honestly do not want to add more steps to my current So What, Who Cares? workload.
6 -- Developing a style guide could help me -- and other people -- get a sense of what So What, Who Cares? is. So much of what we absorb is conveyed on a wordless, visual level. I suspect not having a distinct visual style guide is hurting the "brand," as it were.
7 -- A well-sorted archive is a thing of beauty. Since the biggest differentiating factor for So What, Who Cares? is my commitment to providing context for each item, I draw on my Evernote archive to find relevant links that will provide background. I have 6026 items in Evernote as I write this. Thank God I tag and sort into notebooks on a regular basis.
8 -- People seem to like having wrap-ups. I did a month-in-review newsletter rounding up the stories from the past month, and both the user feedback and the traffic numbers were really favorable. I think my lesson here is to offer multiple frequencies for different readers' time constraints?
9 -- Regular publication times would help. The thing about (free service) Tiny Letter is that I can save drafts of email newsletters, but I can't schedule publication. I suspect having a consistent send time that I can pre-load and schedule would help open rates and readers. Because honestly, it's easier to pre-write and schedule than try to write and post at a specific time every night. (This is also why I only send out editions on Monday-Thursday nights.)
In January 2015, I'm having a good hard think about the future of So What, Who Cares? -- do I put money into it and launch it as a brand? Do I shop it around and see if any website wants me to do it for them? Can I define and explain the value of So What, Who Cares? in an elevator pitch? Knowing I'm going to have a short-term commitment and then a re-positioning period keeps this feeling fresh for me.
I think that's key for any editorial undertaking: It has to have natural arcs and reassessment periods in order to keep everyone consistently engaged.
That's it! I'll check in next month and let you know what's changed and how it's going with So What, Who Cares? I look forward to finding out myself.
* I think there's a lot to recommend it: It's "push" media in a very classic sense; it is easy to filter and archive, which means it's a great reference document; it is not dependent on schedules, so you also get the benefit of timeliness if that's an editorial priority; it is platform-agnostic (email works everywhere); it can support images and hyperlinks, which can be extraordinarily effective in editorial presentation.