Newsletter Newsletter

Here’s a long over-due digression: some other newsletters.

I had mentioned, waaaaaay back in the day, that one of my January rituals is to revisit my newsletter subscriptions.

I’m fairly brutal with unsubscribing. If several issues in a row get archived without reading then that subscription goes into the bin. But even with that ruthless state of mind, I was surprised to find out that I was reading quite this many. Golly.

People

What's the golden thread here? I call this the ‘People’ category because that’s what unites them: these are all written by charming weirdos who are passionate about their fields.

I think if there’s anything the recent Deadspin debacle has shown us (one of many summaries), it is that there is still a market for ‘personality’ in content creation. Deadspin created fanatical loyalty not by churning out interchangeable, banal sports coverage, but by writing controversial, entertaining, intimate and personable non-sports coverage.

Which links to the big lesson of this category: I'd rather read interesting people on irrelevant subjects than boring people on relevant ones.

News

A combination of highlights (Journal, Quartz) and long-form reads (Popular Information, Bellingcat). There’s a good, functional reason I like Politico’s London Playbook - it is perfectly timed: always landing in my inbox right before the tube goes underground. Frantically downloading the email is part of my morning routine.

And Popbitch is Popbitch. I could make a long, impassioned plea about the importance of understanding the, um, semiotics of popular culture, but really, I just like reading about which celeb was caught huffing hamster bladders on Mick Hucknall’s sex-yacht.

I’ve left off magazines, organisations, those sorts of things. I don’t really view their communications as ‘newsletters’ - they serve a different purpose. Organisations like the RSA, for example, tend to send emails that are simply a stack of links all pointing somewhere else: events, the website, the magazine, whatever.

Similarly, there’s something uniquely boring about magazine newsletters. I’m subscribed to a lot - as an offshoot of being subscribed to the actual magazine - but they never have any intrinsic value in their own right. They exist to remind you that other, better content will be arriving in another, different format. It is less of an ‘added value’ than ‘part of the price you pay’. If anyone has an example of a magazine that also provides quality newsletter content, I’d be curious to see it.

In conclusion: I am defining a ‘newsletter’ as self-contained content. A newsletter’s ‘To’ is (primarily) to read the newsletter. An organisation or a magazine is using email for another objective, a ‘To’ of ticket sales, subscriptions, whatever. Even the link aggregator emails (see below) are intrinsically useful, and not just marketing for the ‘real’ content someplace else.

Research

I really like research. I really, really like it.

I think about research newsletters as a pyramid. At the pointy bit are the advertising-focused research aggregators like WARC and Mintel. They crunch numbers, do interviews, write case studies, add sexy quotes, and present the package as an off-the-shelf ‘trend’ or ‘insight’.

Next step down on the pyramid: folks that also aggregate research and form conclusions, but do so outside of communications. For me, that's primarily folks like RAND, Ideas42 or MIT’s Innovation Lab (The Download folks) who are interested in specific social, demographic, technological, or financial activities. (Also in this category - some of the orgs mentioned above, like Demos and RSA, as well as the Behavioural Insights Team, SuperFlux, Mad Scientist Laboratory…) Is their work going to be relevant to my pitch for discount Snickerdoodles? Probably not. But in the off-chance it is… that’s a brief cracked.

Even further down - the big broad base of the pyramid - sits the unaggregated research. To me, Pew, BPS, Imperica, Useful Science are all ‘must-subscribe’ options for planners, as they just churn out stuff. Will the newsletter be relevant to my Snickerdoodles challenge? Almost definitely not. But you never know where inspiration can come from.

MOAR RESEARCH

These newsletters aren't 'the base of the pyramid' as much as ‘the nearby quarry’. It is up to me to do the hard work - both by constantly refining the search, and also by recognising which articles or studies might be useful later. 

There are some absolutely brilliant search engines out there that collect all the latest research for you and then send it to your inbox on a regular basis. This is like Web 1.5 technology! And it is still really, really useful! Save your searches.

My research filtering has evolved into a (rather therapeutic) routine. Steel yourself for some nerdiness:

  1. When my research, data or super-long-list-of-links-type email comes in, I skim it immediately.

  2. I save any links that sound even vaguely interesting into Pocket.

  3. I delete the email. (Bit Literacy, folks.)

  4. Once a week, I sit down for an hour with a pot of coffee and have a nice leisurely read through all the Pocketed stuff.

  5. If the article isn’t even potentially useful, I delete it.

  6. If the article is potentially useful, I save it to Tumblr, and tag it appropriately. That way, if I’m pitching Snickerdoodles in 2022, I know where I can find everything relevant on the Millennial sugar consumption.

  7. If the article is immediately useful, I become That Guy and email it immediately to the relevant team. Be warned: this is a behaviour that happens as soon as you become a parent. I also put the entire content of the email into the subject line, call in 20 minutes to see if the email was received, and then follow-up with a few forwarded jokes about golf.

Culture

This is a pretty diverse group. Some are link lists; some are content rich. Some are daily; some are quarterly. Some are long; some are short. Some are automated updates; some are purely a matter of personality.

I'm not sure that's useful to anyone, but there's something oddly reassuring about looking at list of one's "influences" and thinking, ah, yes, that's why I keep talking about perfume.

* * *

What's also interesting - at least to me - are the newsletters to which I unsubscribed in 2018.

'STOP SELLING ME THINGS AND SAY SOMETHING INTERESTING' 

  • Publishers

  • Authors

  • Magazines

  • Trade Press (STOP FLOGGING CONFERENCE TICKETS)

  • Anything I backed on Kickstarter

These aren't really surprising. There's nothing that gets me to ‘nope’ out like a hard sell. There are a few publishers that I’m still subscribed to - Verso and Strange Attractor both spring to mind - but, again, not as ‘newsletters’, as much as a willing invitation for them to nudge me about new books.

What's most surprising is that most of these people/organisations should know better. Publishers, authors and Kickstarter creators all literally make a living out of creating content that audiences want. So why are they so bad at this particular format?

Kickstarter is the worst. “Thanks for backing this project. Here is my other project you can back while this project is delayed. And an interview with me, about why my project is delayed. Here’s a photo of my cat, since I don’t have any photos of the actual project. Don’t forget to upgrade your support for my delayed project! It is six years on since you backed my project and you still haven’t received anything, but here are other projects you can back!”

Lesson: When any creator has nothing to talk about besides their own creation, they get very boring, very quickly. Victor Frankenstein wasn’t fun at parties.

Contrast this hard sell, with, say, any of the 'People' newsletters above. I am a guaranteed sale for any of their books or products, when (or if) they do choose to flog them. They've sold me on them. When they include the occasional 'click here to buy more of the same', I'm a-clickin' it. (Case in point.)

Themes

What’s coming across:

  • Personality matters when the reader is inviting correspondence.

  • My time is precious to me. If you’re boring, you’re out. But arriving at the right time, with the right information, goes a long way towards making you more more interesting.

  • A good newsletter is a thing in and of itself, not a portal to other things.

  • A newsletter has to prove why it is the more convenient, useful, or interesting way to receive this information. Functional newsletters have to be functional. If it is timely, it needs to be fast. If it is curated, it needs to be relevant. If it is informative, it needs to be clear. If it is entertaining, it needs to be fun.

What’d you suggest?

Anne:

Martin: Chicken Shed Chronicles from @DoLectures
Fred: Ansible
Dav: Documentally, Austin Kleon and Warren Ellis
Damien: Dan Hon's is always a highlight

* * *
This was the longest - and probably dullest - newsletter yet. But at least I found you someone else to read.

Enjoy!

Faith, trust, and pixie dust.

A new research report - Trust: The Truth? - came out last month from Ipsos.

I was lucky enough to attend the launch event. There was no red carpet, per se, but there were lots of awkward jokes beforehand about the bad news to come. Yet, when the report was unveiled, it wasn’t as bad as we expected.

Ipsos presented the conclusion - and this is a terrible paraphrase of 200-odd pages of research - that the trust crisis was “chronic, not acute”. They reassured us that we may feel awful, but that’s not an objectively sharp awfulness. Rather, things have been steadily awfullating for years, decades even.

Furthermore, the data shows that for some sectors, industries, or individuals, trust is actually kind of fine. Doctors, for example, are still alright. As are dead people, for the most part. We are a big fan of trusting those leaders that aren’t still alive to disappoint us. And for those sectors or industries that aren’t fine… Well, they’ve always kind of sucked. Sorry, politicians and advertising agencies. It may feel like we’re in a trust crisis, but we aren’t. Or, if we are, it has been an incremental one. There’s no more a crisis now than in the past.

Ipsos then handed over to external experts - journalists and a professor - for comment. And said comment was, more or less universally: Nyah. Which, as you might expect, made for an interesting panel: a “data vs insight” smackdown as the numbers were attacked from various anecdotal angles by talented experts.

I found Kenneth Cukier, from The Economist, particularly interesting. He began his rebuttal by polling the audience. How many of us thought we were in a unique crisis of trust before the presentation? (All hands up.) And how many of us still think that, even after hearing the presentation? (Hands stay up.) Cukier proceeded to muse, out loud, why it was that our perspectives were so different from the data: what is it that our perceptions bring (or lack), or what it is the data sees (or misses).

First: the degree of the lie has changed.

There’s been a definitional change as social norms have shifted. Fifty years ago, if a researcher asks you if you trust the President, you think about whether or not you trust him to deliver a piece of policy. In 2019, you’re wondering about whether or not you trust him to not conspire with foreign powers, funnel millions to his own businesses, pander to white nationalists, and commit sex crimes. The question is the same, but the context is entirely different. Cukier argues that - as Arendt did - there’s always been lying in politics. But, he added, what has changed is the degree of the lie: now it is ‘shameless and glorified’. Politicians knowingly commit, embrace, and even repeat untruths. How can data capture the transformation of social norms?

Second: perhaps we crossed a threshold.

Even if trust is ‘merely’ in gradual decline, the erosion of trust may have now gone far enough that’ve crossed a point of no return. A bit like global warning: have we taken that tiny shift too far, and made an irrevocable change to the world?

Third: we could be victims of the ‘biased truth’.

Cukier cited Gladwell’s theory that we are naturally inclined to ‘favourably believe’ other people. This may explain why personal perceptional differs so wildly from mass data. This also puts society in a constant state of tension: individual-to-individual favourability opposed by distrust of all institutions and groups. Or not. But, if this is the case, Cukier foresaw this progressing apocalyptically - to, as he phrased, a new ‘Middle Ages’, where trust is placed solely in individuals, and we no longer hold to institutions of any form.

* * *

To Cukier’s insight, I add one theory of my own.

‘Trust’ is one of those cases where relativity matters. Say you’re polling people on their perception of shoe prices. It would be a bit odd if everyone thought that shoes were at an all-time-level of super-duper-expensive, while, as a matter of objective fact, the cost of shoes was actually rising more slowly than inflation, etc. (I have no idea if this is true; that would actually be a pretty fascinating study.)

But in the case of ‘trust’, the perspective is the answer. If people think they’re living in a crisis, they’re living in a crisis. Crisis is not objective. People measure their lived experience not against a global, quantified mean, but against what they believe should be happening.

If you look for a global and urgent crisis, it may be hard to find. But, as individuals, we don’t live our lives from from that rarefied perspective. Our lived experience is finite: we experience a decline in trust in a local and immediate way.

All in all - a fascinating report. Get stuck in.

* * *

For planners (sup, y’all), the most useful part of the presentation was an analysis of what we talk about when we talk about ‘trust’. Ipsos break trust down into eight different qualities:

  • Reliability

  • Competence

  • Responsibility

  • Transparency

  • Leadership

  • Intentions

  • Shared values

  • Won’t take advantage

All eight individual factors correlate against ‘trust’ in a statistically significant way.

This would make a lovely Powerpoint chart for when you’re trying to convince your skeezy tech client to stop taking DNA samples from their customers’ laundry.

These diverse factors also help demonstrate a greater point when it comes to planning a campaign: make your objectives specific. (The SMART framework has other components, but this email is long enough already.)

We’ve all had briefs based around making x brand the “most trusted brand” in the y sector. But, “trust” qua trust, as Ipsos’ Ben Page was keen to point out, makes a lousy KPI. The eight factors make for much better briefs. Demonstrating leadership is a different campaign than highlighting transparency. Proving competence looks very different from showcasing good intentions. Each of these approaches are more specific, more measurable, and - frankly - more creatively interesting than ‘be trusted’.

* * *

What? You’re still reading?

Sufficient Flop and Throb

Quite a lot of new readers (hello!), which puts me in a bind.

I have no idea why you’re here or where you came from. Let me know, if you like. Or revel in your mysterious origins.

Between vintage mysteries, Julia Quinn and The Survivalist, I do occasionally read more topical materials. Why, just recently, I was perusing a copy of Prose of Persuasion: A Collection of Advertising Copy (1931).

Prose does exactly what it says on the tin: it is a collection of contemporary ads. Given the era, this means a few hundred words extolling the particular product. They’re surprisingly good. A few are heavy-handed, but most are delightfully atmospheric. In the absence of CGI, retargeting, interactivity, personalisation, or even, you know, pictures, each little package of words has a lot of work to do in attracting the reader, engaging them, building a little self-contained world, and selling a compelling call to action.

The best contribution, however, comes fromauthor Naomi Mitchinson, who provides the book’s forward. It follows below.

Reviewers and people like that - I am sometimes one myself, so I know - have a horrid habit of talking about the decline in fiction.

This is so silly of them.

They keep their eyes firmly turned backwards onto Walter Scott and Dickens and Hardy, and they neglect the new and admirable branch of fiction which has sprung up and blossomed like a daisy field round the feet of the great oaks: they do not read advertisements. For what after all is the main difference between Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and one of the charming set pieces which adorn the pages of this book? Surely the difference is merely one of length. Both works of fiction have a purpose and it seems just possible (though not much more) that several young women have been kept in the path of virtue by Pamela or Clarissa, and that several young men have been induced to buy this or that brand of drink or tobacco through the appropriate advertisement.

Of course this is to put myself into fundamental opposition to Mr. Steel [the book’s editor], which, as a fellow-Scot, he should appreciate. Because, to my astonishment, he says that these lovely, miniature works of art are actually meant to sell things and succeed in doing so. This seems to me to be very odd, but perhaps he can produce Statistics to prove his case, and then one just has to run away. Or else one has to stay and argue the case on moral grounds, because I am almost sure that if advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral; but then, why should we believe? No, no, fiction is fiction.

And, as fiction, advertisements are clearly a lesson to us all. This collection is certainly very much better reading than most novels. The novel is as likely as not only a large heart-flop, something that has to be got rid of before the writer can sleep well o’ nights; and so long as there is sufficient flop and throb about it, the quality of the writing matters wonderfully little - to the sales. But the successful advertisement has to be well written in its own convention and completely to the point; it is also short, and one doesn’t have to pay for it, even to the extent of a library subscription, so there is no economic motive to induce one to go on reading it if one doesn’t like it. Best of all it is written not for the soothing of a heart-throb, but - like Shakespeare’s plays - for money.

And now I had better let the advertisements speak for themselves, which they will certainly do. And if at the end you have decided to buy everything which occurs in the book, including the very fetching aeroplane on page 150, don’t blame me.

There’s a lot in here.

  • ‘If advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral’. Magic, even.

  • ‘Flop and throb.’ Obviously the words themselves are a joy, an expression of ‘emotional engagement through lowest-common-denominator pathos’. I think floppiness is a quality that’s valued, and valuable, in more than just commercial fiction. Ads have 30 seconds to play your heartstrings like a harp from hell. And by ‘your’, I mean ‘the largest possible audience’. Of course they’re going for the emotion cheap shot. (Six puppies lick Chris Evans’ face. He dies beautifully. Giving birth to twins. They have his eyes. Buy yoghurt!)

  • Mitchinson noting that, in 1931, that the ‘fiction is dead’ complaints are already boring. Sadly, there’s still no end in sight…

Perhaps most important is Mitchinson’s deliberate inclusion of advertising as a form of entertainment, or, more broadly speaking, ‘culture’.

We, the enlightened author/reviewer/copywriter/strategist know that we create with a purpose. But to the consumer, as Mitchinson notes, our product is all part of the general cacophony of life. Some forms of communication are easier to hear; some easier to ignore. See also her description of advertising as fiction that’s ‘free to quit reading’. But all, ultimately, all comms - paid, earned, owned, or rogue - are part of the cultural noise. It is essential to study it critically.

Admittedly, this is a concept I nicked it from another timely and relevant book, Thompson and Leavis’ Culture and Environment (1933). C&E is half-manifesto, half-textbook. It posits that we, as modern humans, need to spend more time studying things like film, radio, and advertisements. They inform our worldview, and, more importantly, we’re stuck with them. Refusing to engage critically with advertising won’t make it disappear: it’ll just make you a bigger sucker.

(C&E is also notable for how grudging it is about all this. The authors don’t even try to hide their editorial stance: modernity sucks, and this stuff is crap. But still they soldier on with writing lesson plans, and occasionally consoling themselves with the odd chapter on traditional wheelwright skills.)

A few agencies go so far as to make ‘creating culture’ a part of their shtick. I can’t argue with the aspiration - and it certainly makes you seem cooler at dinner parties. But I can’t help think that it also reeks of insecurity - an attempt to ditch the pharma bros and Cambridge Analytica to go sit at the lunch table with real artists and the BBC.

As Mitchinson points out, there’s also a very important distinction here. Advertising is culture with a purpose. It is ‘meant to sell things’. Advertising always has a particular behavioural or attitudinal change in mind. Often this is sales - but it equally applies to quitting smoking, renewing your road tax, or voting Leave. Advertising is definitely part of the culture. And, hell, it may even be an art. But it will never be ‘art for art’s sake’. Hiding from your own objectives makes bad ads, not good art.

* * *

If you’re stuck on the train, some more reading elsewhere:

Fun fact: 300,000 people have read classic novels on Instagram. Amazing. (h/t Viv)

Wherever you go, there you are

The mystery of identity

I’m still trying to decipher the secrets of the universe from the list of Edgar Debuts. (Challenge started here. Update here. Online list is here.) I’ve now read 36, which is disappointingly just under half. (I blame Julia Quinn, as there’s been a lot of distracting Regency duke-bonking novels on my Kindle as of late.)

My reading order is entirely random, so it is always considerate of the universe when the books shuffle themselves into a sort of pattern. But then, all reviewing - and most communications planning - is a polite form of apophenia, so I’m happy to roll with it.

In this case, I encountered a series of formulaic - ‘classic’ even - detective novels. Hero, villain, crime!, procedural sleuthery, ‘surprise’ whodunnit, and a tense finish. The only difference between them, besides era-specific tonal shifts, was the choice of protagonist. These books could have all used the same elevator pitch: ‘A detective novel, but the detective is [x]’.

For example:

  • Nightmare in Manhattan (1951). Detective is a transport cop.

  • The Bright Road to Fear (1959). Detective is an undercover agent.

  • Florentine Finish (1964). Detective is a diamond trader.

  • Strike Three, You’re Dead (1985). Detective is a baseball player.

  • No One Rides for Free (1987). Detective is a recovering drug addict. [PEAK 80s!]

  • Carolina Skeletons (1989). Detective is a journalist.

  • A Grave Talent (1994). Detective is a lesbian. [PEAK 90s!]

This pattern isn’t solely exclusive to these recent books. Probably the most egregious is Dorothy Unnak’s The Bait (1968), the entire premise of which is ‘but the detective is a WOMAN’.

For most of these, the [x] doesn’t really account to much. It is a shtick. An aesthetic twist on the trope. If the detective is a baseball player, the reader gets a slight change in vocabulary and some sporty world-building. If the detective is defined by his addiction to cocaine, there’s the mandatory relapse chapter. Ultimately, the structure, the journey, and the themes are all the same.

However, that slight twist can (or could) be huge. The detective’s identity is an opportunity for an entirely different view of the world. And it also has the potential to change how the world sees them. Nightmare in Manhattan’s station cop has a different process for apprehending a criminal: that’s a shtick. A Grave Talent’s Kate Martinelli has completely different way of seeing the world, and being seen by it: that’s something more.

(At least, she should. I would argue that A Grave Talent has dated badly. By being so painfully coy with the reader, it makes Kate’s sexuality itself the biggest twist in the mystery - and a very predictable one to anyone, say, post-1994. Like The Bait, 35 years earlier, identity-as-object is the focus, rather than identity-as-perspective, and the book misses out because of it.)

To reference back to the best book I’ve read so far from this list: In The Heat of the Night. Heat is a basic detective mystery, but changing the detective’s identity has a huge impact on the type of story told, how it is told, and the themes it can address. Sherlock Holmes without privilege is a very different sort of story. (More on this excellent book.)

* * *

Identity is a subject of vast interest to strategists and marketers. For the purposes of this email, let’s define it broadly: how people see themselves, how they are seen by others, and, most importantly, the resulting lens through which they see the world (‘worldview’, in the classic sense of the term).

Identity has even replaced behavioural economics as the thing that we all need to be conversant in. This makes sense: behavioural economics taught us that consumers and citizens don’t necessarily behave rationally, but, instead, there can be certain predictable irrationalities. Identity is perhaps the irrationality: the infinitely personal, worldview-driven influence on decision-making that separates humans from econs. Identity helps explain why people act the way they do, rather than how they ‘should’, in the economic sense.

Our grab-bag of mysteries demonstrates two key points about identity. Points that, I believe, marketers have long understood in an intuitive way:

First, these mysteries all have the same story at their heart. The same product. The difference? The identity of the protagonist. One slight shift in perspective, and a familiar story can become something very different. Identity is a key variable when it comes to how a story - or any narrative - is told, or heard. A bucket of fried chicken is a bucket of fried chicken, but you sell it differently to suburban families than to Londoners; to comic book fans to hungover Millennials.

The grab bag also demonstrates the role of multiple identities. In every one of our ‘but the detective is an [x]’, said detective could be a [y] or a [z] as well. At various times in A Grave Talent, for example, Kate identifies as a police officer, a woman, a lesbian, an art aficionado, a San Franciscan, and even a runner. In each of those moments, that identity decides her worldview: inflecting how she acts, and the decisions she makes. Kate’s never solely one identity, she’s an ever-shifting sequence of them. The tricky thing with books, of course, is that they have a rigid, textual construction, so at any given moment, Kate can only be one thing. Non-fictional people contain, as Whitman said, multitudes.

With a marketing, like a book, a certain amount of flattening takes place. A message needs to speak to the right identity at the right time, in the right place, and in the right worldview:

…and the reverse is also true. You don’t speak to someone as a parent during Game of Thrones, as an accountant at a Tool concert, as a Manchester City fan in the waiting room of an NHS clinic. It is simply a matter of common sense. And identity.

* * *

More reading on the topic:

  • Burke and Stet’s Identity Theory is a much deeper dive, and, although most won’t all be useful for marketing purposes, it is a readable approach to a dense topic.

  • A pricier volume, but with all the key readings: Rediscovering Social Identity.

  • Each individual will also interpret and express their identity in a a different way. Very elegantly illustrated in this gorgeous new exhibition on what it means to be ‘British’.

  • Flexible identities may be linked to better creativity. This study looks it through one dimension, but how could you prime other forms of identity in workshops or brainstorms?

Perhaps more importantly: every study, survey, biography, etc, is a de facto look into identity. A basic grounding (above) is useful to know what to look for, and the language to use to describe what you’ve seen, but ultimately, as with everything else we do, it is about developing an empathetic, or at least sympathetic, base of audience insight.

As always, please send any recommendations my way, and I’ll share.

* * *

Two links about me:

I was a guest on the Hype Collective’s podcast. We talk about what strategy ‘is’, breaking in to the industry, and a bit about agency culture. It was a fun and far-reaching discussion, thanks to hosts Josh and Helene. There are some things I said that I want to mull over a bit more, so I may be returning to this later. Hmm.

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 continues apace. I now take submissions via Twitter, which seems like a publicity stunt, but has been really effective. I’ll share the numbers in a future update, but it has made a substantial difference in the number of stories submitted - and who is submitting them. Details. Again, more on this and the thinking behind it later.

* * *

This influencer had a rough brush with reality. And not even identifying with Taylor Swift can save her. The comments are a must-read. (Here’s some background, which is also very entertaining/mean.)

What is a Gothic Romance?

A charming coincidence

A charming coincidence:

Lavie Tidhar’s “Bag Man” has been shortlisted for a CWA Dagger - selected as one of the year’s best crime stories. Fantastic news, and congrats to Lavie.

The Outcast Hours, containing “Bag Man” (and twenty-odd other stories) is currently on sale for 99p on Amazon (UK, US), Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Have a lovely weekend.

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