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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
When my research, data or super-long-list-of-links-type email comes in, I skim it immediately.
I save any links that sound even vaguely interesting into Pocket.
I delete the email. (Bit Literacy, folks.)
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.
If the article isn’t even potentially useful, I delete it.
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.
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.
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.
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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'
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.)
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?
Dry Down - sadly reduced since went to primarily subscription model
Numlock - geeky and informative
AI Weirdness - Love this newsletter too. I always laugh like a loon when I read it.
Laura Olin - weekly niceness; RIP her newsletter for The Awl, also RIP
Pome - good poems!
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This was the longest - and probably dullest - newsletter yet. But at least I found you someone else to read.