For the past few months, I have been researching and monitoring the rapidly growing media fad that is email newsletters. I analyzed 14 popular, hand-curated newsletters belonging to media outlets and individual journalists alike in an attempt to figure out the best practices of delivery, format and voice. You can find a full list of links to all of the newsletters I analyzed here.
I also conducted my own primary research to see which of those same practices millennials prefered. I wrote about my research in detail, and in this paper I will be comparing and contrasting the different approaches different newsletters take as well as the results that I found through my own research. I include my recommendations in each section.
Media outlets analyzed
The first question I asked when analyzing these newsletters is “What kind of outlet is this coming from?” I chose that question because it’s important to see what kind of information the outlet is dealing with before analyzing the format and voice decisions they make with their newsletter. A serious news organization will probably have a serious voice, and one that is more fun will probably include GIFs or photos. It’s extremely interesting when they diverge from that pattern. It was also important for me to analyze the type of media outlet it’s coming from because from that I can tell what type of outlets are utilizing newsletters — be it to reach the older crowd that prefers email to social media, or for the younger crowd who likes the individuality of voice and format as if it were a zine.
I only chose outlets with hand-curated newsletters because the focus of my study was to look at the writing style and voice. You don’t get that with automated newsletters. Though there is certainly strategy involved, it’s programmed, and it carries on.
Of the outlets I analyzed, three focused strictly on hard news like The New York Times, two focused on soft news like Elite Daily, four focused on a mix of hard and soft news like BuzzFeed, two came from newsletter-only companies and two were run by journalists independent of a media outlet. This is pretty reflective of all companies using newsletters — everyone from silly to serious is doing it in their own way.
In my research, I split the times that newsletters are delivered to inboxes into five categories — early morning (before 9 a.m.), late morning (between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.), early afternoon (between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.), late afternoon (between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and evening (after 6 p.m.). A significant majority of my respondents said they wanted to receive newsletters in the early morning.
Of the newsletters I analyzed, the delivery times were pretty evenly split between the early morning and the evening. I think this reveals a dichotomy in the purpose of email newsletters — the ones sent early want to prepare you for the day, whereas the ones sent at night want to roundup what you missed from the day.
The first element of format that I looked at was story presentation — are stories written in blurbs, lengthy summaries, paragraphs, teases, bullet points or single words? The results of my research project revealed that people prefer to read newsletters in bullet point form when they are in a rush or looking to read an entire newsletters. That is their overall preference. When they want to feel fully informed, they prefer to read full paragraphs that explain stories to them.
Most of the newsletters I analyzed tried both tactics, including the New York Times and BuzzFeed. theSkimm opts for paragraph-only form, which is sensible for a standalone newsletter service that wouldn’t benefit from linking to a website after giving a quick tease of a story. Caitlin Dewey’s “Links I Would GChat You If We Were Friends” goes dramatically all over the map — she starts with long paragraphs and switches to writing 3-4 words about a story and blocking them all together in a paragraph. Most of the analyzed newsletters started with bullet points at the top and switched to paragraphs later on. DigiDay Daily presents stories in both forms, starting with bullet points at the top and explaining those stories further down in the newsletter in paragraph form.
In my research, I found that people prefer a short newsletter that gets straight to the point, but I can see why certain outlets would rather have a long newsletter that hits a lot of different stories and formats. There’s always a chance that someone will read all the way through, and those interested consumers can bring a lot of traffic to their websites. More importantly, though, it gives outlets a chance to try out different ways of telling stories and to explain some in depth. Of course, that’s a gamble. A reader might automatically delete a newsletter because they think it’s too long and overwhelming. Personally, I’d enjoy a long newsletter with lots of different formats. If I don’t like the way one section looks, I will skip to the next. But I’m not the voice of the masses.
One thing I noticed that I wonder about is what difference it makes for the newsletter to contain a lot of words versus just seeming long because of formatting. Does that formatting length take away from the reader’s attention span, or is it just the words that are overwhelming?
Use of multimedia
Almost every single newsletter I analyzed had some sort of media in it. Most of the media involved were photos pertaining to the main stories highlighted in the newsletter, like New York Times and Hellogiggles. Others included photos for every single story involved, like Elite Daily. Caitlin Dewey and Ann Friedman both include a GIF in their independent newsletters.
The fact that so many newsletters use photos is fascinating to me because in my research I found that only 56 percent of participants wanted to see photos in newsletters, and only 20 percent wanted to see GIFs. So much of social media is so focused on multimedia, I wonder if people are growing tired of it, or if when they read newsletters they are focused on reading the words and moving on quickly so they don’t want to be distracted. I think this goes back to something I was thinking about in the newsletter length section — maybe the attention span of readers decreases with length of time spent scrolling through the page, not just the number of words read.
The basis of deciding what voice to use is to look at what stories are going to be used in the newsletter. It’s not groundbreaking to say that what voice newsletters use is going to depend on the audience. For almost all newsletters I analyzed, the outlets or writers included the most important stories of the day or the day before. The ones sent in the morning usually explain the stories from the day before that people might want to chat about around the water cooler. Elite Daily has an interesting take on selecting stories — their newsletter is sent at 9 p.m., long after most of the news of the day has been digested, so they focus on evergreen content that is more entertaining than informative.
Most newsletters link to tons of different websites, including those that would send traffic away from them. Choosing a story that your own outlet didn’t cover reveals a deeper meaning of newsletters — they are more than just the new tool replacing social media. They are here to make sure you are informed and entertained, even if that means losing your traffic. Vox does this excessively — they break down stories into bullet points, and each bullet point has a new bit of information and a link to a different news site.
For independent journalists, choosing stories is more personal. Caitlin Dewey writes her own newsletter about the internet, which makes sense because she writes stories about the internet for the Washington Post all day. But she rarely ever links to the Washington Post content. When she does, she links to her own, which is a sneaky (but ethical) way to self promote. Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist, and she links to all sorts of news outlets and topics that are nearly impossible to pinpoint. She has a whole section dedicated to links to her own work, though, at the very top.
In my research, I split up two important categories of voice. The first is the tone, which can be casual or formal. The second is the quickness in which the story is told, which can be brief or long. Respondents found the brief and casual stories easiest to understand, but they felt more informed by the formal and long stories. Overall, they said they would most like to read something in a casual voice told in a brief way.
All of the newsletters I could find are written in are pretty predictable in tone based on what media outlet they come from. They’re all sort of slanted toward a fun tone, which I attribute to the popularity of theSkimm. As opposed to the other elements of newsletters I studied, I think voice is something for which you can find a happy medium and please everyone. The BuzzFeed News letter has mostly serious content, but it often takes a more casual voice, although it is never disrespectful.
In the same way media outlets like to play with how long each story is, they play with whether the story is told in a brief or long way. Stories tend to be told in shorter sentences at the beginning, and spiral into longer and more informative as the newsletter goes on. Sometimes stories written in paragraph form but in short sentences, and sometimes bullet points are packed with details. Though seeing a long paragraph might keep someone from reading something, I believe they will stick around if the story is told in a concise way.
I started a newsletter at the beginning of this project, and from my own “Pocket” of saved stories from the week, I crafted a weekly newsletter based on the format and voice of the newsletter I analyzed that week. It’s been fun to change week-by-week, and I will be continuing my personal newsletter now that this project is complete with a permanent plan that I am making based on my research. That research is, of course, contingent on my audience, which is mostly my friends and people my age who are looking to read more interesting stuff.
I will send my newsletter at night, but not at a fixed time. Its purpose is to be entertaining, not to prepare everyone for the day ahead of them. The stories I choose will be ones that caught my attention during the week, and who knows, maybe some of my own content!
My newsletter will mostly have quick blurbs about stories, with maybe one or two longer explanations at the bottom. It will be around 500 words long. I will include photos and GIFs for big stories, but I’ll hold back on doing it for everything possible like I would if I were writing an article.
I’m going to be casual and brief, which is what I know my personal audience will enjoy. It’s also what’s easiest for me with my personal voice as a writer, and I’m not trying to fit into a mold of any certain media outlet although I discovered I totally can.