Newsletters are growing like mushrooms these days.
It feels like there’s not a single day without someone in my Twitter or LinkedIn network announcing the start of his or her new personal newsletter (or podcast, for that matter).
Newsletters have been called “the future” and “the next generation” of media, “a more attractive medium than the newsfeed” and people’s “favorite new social network”.
To me, newsletters feel more like a rebirth of blogs and RSS: Both typically have long-form, high quality content and they are distributed via an open standard.
Substack and Revue are essentially trying to become the WordPress of newsletters, while Stoop is trying to build a Google Reader equivalent to capture the demand side.
What’s interesting about newsletters is that consumers are willing to pay for them. While blogs have never really figured out monetization (apart from ads), Substack alone
claims more than 50,000 paying subscribers.
This might partly be a timing thing (blogs were popular during a time when people weren’t used to the concept of paying for digital content yet), but I wonder if it’s also driven by the nature of how newsletters work: You have to wait to receive them – like an Amazon package. Maybe that makes the medium feel more tangible and thus worth paying for?
Some have argued that newsletters create a more intimate relationship between writers and readers and that it’s this intimacy that consumers are willing to pay for. I don’t disagree with that theory but would argue that blogs are even more intimate than newsletters. If a newsletter is a personal message from a writer, a blog is the writer’s personal home the reader gets invited to.
What’s special about personal blogs is not just the actual writing, it’s also the design the content is presented in. Newsletters lack the unique design aspect that blogs have.
Side Note: I firmly believe that the lack of design customization options is one of the main reasons Medium has never lived up to its potential.
It also seems like newsletters are less discoverable than blogs. Blog posts would often reference other blogs (remember blog rolls and trackbacks?), which is how readers would discover new content. Newsletters feel more isolated. (Someone should start a newsletter-recommendation-newsletter)
So what then explains the newsletter hype? Simple: Distribution.
Every medium is essentially a two-sided market that needs to solve a chicken-and-egg-problem in order to take off. You need content suppliers to attract consumers and vice-versa.
While blogs could in theory be read by anyone with a browser, the technology that really mattered on the consumer side were RSS readers – and those were never adopted en masse.
Social networks on the other hand have become a victim of their own success: The amount of consumers has attracted so many players on the supply side that platforms needed to introduce algorithmic feeds to handle the abundance of content.
This is why writers like newsletters so much. As other distribution channels are becoming increasingly crowded, email provides an alternative trade route.
That problem is that the nature of cross-side network effects will ultimately lead to newsletters facing the same dilemma: As long as the number the number of subscribers increases, so will the number of newsletter publishers. Users’ email inboxes – already full with non-newsletter-emails – will get as crowded as social media newsfeeds. Just wait until Gmail introduces an algorithmic feed for your newsletter inbox.