Why newsletters are email not RSS

Some friends were recently discussing newsletters and one raised the question of why newsletters are done (largely) as email instead of blog posts shared via RSS. I’m going to answer that question in this post. Some of the answers are my own reasoning for sending Newsletter Fiasco as an email. Other answers are what I know or reasonably assume are the motivations for other newsletter senders. And, yes, many newsletters are also available via RSS, even if that’s not the intended distribution mechanism.

Email is universal

Approximately everyone who might want to read your newsletter has an email address. For all its shortcomings, email is the best example of decentralized, standards-driven digital communication. RSS, especially post-Google-Reader tends to skew nerdy. Many of my tech enthusiast friends use RSS readers of some kind. Most of my other friends don’t. Social media platforms have supplanted RSS for a lot of people. If you’re distributing via RSS, you’ve already narrowed your potential audience quite a bit.

Email can wait

I won’t pretend that my usage of RSS is generalizable to all RSS users, but here’s how I use RSS. Mostly, I use the Feedly widget in my browser to tell me when I have unread items. A few times a day, I scan through the unread items and open the ones that I want to read. Then I mark the rest as read. I may not read the open tabs right away, but I generally do it in short order. RSS, then, is an “I’ll read it now or I’ll read it never” proposition. And the longer I go between checking my feeds, the lower the percentage of articles I’ll read.

On the other hand, I might leave a newsletter unread in my email inbox for a few days. This is particularly true for The Sunday Long Read, which is full of great articles that probably require more than a few minutes to read. Sometimes I’ll let a couple of them pile up before I have a chance to sit down and look at them. That doesn’t work well with how I consume RSS.

Email can be forwarded

Forwarding is a key part of the email experience. This is bad when it’s an unhinged conspiracy from a relative (although I only get those via Facebook Messenger these days), but good when you want to share a newsletter you liked. And because it’s universal you can share it with anyone easily (as opposed to sharing on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and … ).

Email feels more personal and direct

Readers understand that the newsletter isn’t written directly to them in particular. But because it comes to their inbox, it can feel more personal. Plus, many newsletter platforms allow for personalization. You can greet all your readers by their name. Or give them stats about how close they are to earning the next swag item by sharing their unique referral code with friends.

Email can be tracked

As a newsletter reader, you probably don’t love this one. But as a newsletter writer, it can be incredibly valuable. A lot of people who write newsletters are doing it in service of a #brand, either their personal brand or a professional brand. This means it’s important to know not only how many people read the content, but who. And while this may feel a little icky, I argue that it’s way less icky than web cookie tracking. It’s a compromise level of icky.

For Newsletter Fiasco, I don’t look at the stats. I have no idea what my open and click rates are. I have never looked to see who is clicking what links. Let’s be honest, I started my newsletter because I wanted to be cool like the other people who had newsletters. That anyone reads it is always a welcome surprise.

But when I worked in marketing, it was important to know who was clicking what links. If they were current customers, it was just nice to see they liked us enough to pay us and also read our newsletter. But for potential customers, seeing what items from our news roundup interested them helped our sales team make the pitch that mattered to them specifically. If they only ever clicked articles about GCP, why waste time telling them about our AWS-specific features? If nobody ever clicked the links about job schedulers, we’d stop putting them in the newsletter.

Even unsubscribes can give you useful information. Many unsubscribe pages offer an optional one-question survey: why are you unsubscribing? If someone stops visiting your blog, all you know is that they’re not visiting anymore. Well, you know that the views are down, assuming the person who left isn’t offset by a new reader. That churn number can be informative, too.

This is what a “newsletter” is

There’s probably some amount of “this is how it’s always been” here, too. Newsletters were a thing you printed and sent to people in the analog era, so that’s what they are in the digital era, too. A newsletter distributed via blog is called a blog. In that sense, the name “newsletter” is more about the distribution mechanism than the content. A good example of this is Jim Grey’s weekly “Recommended Reading” blog post. The content could easily be a newsletter, except it’s not because it’s a blog post.

Are these good reasons?

I leave that up to you, Dear Reader. I won’t claim that any of these reasons are particularly good or bad. They’re just the reasons the person producing the newsletter would use email instead of a blog.