Top 10 Reasons Email Newsletters are a Bad Idea

Submitted by Ben Stallings on Tue, 04/05/2011 - 19:57

[note: This article was written in 2011 and is now badly out of date. I'm maintaining it because a number of other sites link to it.]

At DrupalCon this year, I attended an impromptu meeting of some 50 Web developers who work on church Web sites.  We had an hour to talk about anything we wanted, but we spent the entire time talking about best practices for email newsletters.  The more we talked, the more we came to the conclusion that email newsletters are an ineffective and inefficient method of communication, and that a reliance on email newsletters can blind an organization to better options that are available.

This list is a summary of what we discussed.  Granted, it is coming from a technical perspective, and there may be historical or organizational reasons why email newsletters are the only practical option for now, but I hope this list will help you consider other options in the future.

#10: People don't read long emails.

Try this yourself: if you put 5 questions in an email, most recipients will not answer all 5.  Now ask yourself, what chance does a 5-page newsletter have?

#9: Email is personal; newsletters are impersonal.

There's a term for impersonal mail that comes in your personal mailbox: junk mail.  By arriving in the wrong channel, newsletters run the risk of being set aside until they are no longer relevant, or deleted outright.  Email was always intended to be for personal communication, which is why sending mass mailings is still so difficult: it's an inefficient use of the system and cannot be made efficient.  The Web was designed for broadcasting impersonal messages; email was not.

#8: Email is immediate; newsletters are periodic.

If you hold onto a news story until the rest of the newsletter is ready, it's already old news.  If the recipient doesn't read it right away, it's even older.  If a story is newsworthy enough to send by email, it should be available right away, not sat on for a week or a month.

#7: Not everyone can read rich-text emails.

The standards upon which email is based have remained nearly unchanged for 20 years.  Additional standards have been tacked on over the years to allow formatted text and images, but they have never been universally supported, so a lot of voodoo goes on behind the scenes to try to make rich-text emails as compatible as possible, but since the software is constantly changing, the voodoo will inevitably and unpredictably fail sometimes. This means that depending on what email software someone is using, they may not be able to read your fancy newsletter.  Email is also not subject to the standards that make Web pages accessible to people with disabilities, so someone with impaired vision may not be able to read your newsletter with any email program.

#6: Email gives the illusion of privacy without real privacy.

An email message is as private as a postcard: anyone who wants to read it in transit can do so, and no one will ever know.  Yet because it feels personal, we may be tempted to put information in email that should not be public.  If information is too private to put on the public Web site, it shouldn't be in email either.

#5: Readership statistics are misinformation.

Newsletter mailing services hook you with their appealing statistics on how many of your subscribers have read a particular message.  But the events that trigger these statistics -- opening a message, or loading images -- are not reliable, and they're not the same as actually reading the message.  Depending on what software your readers are using and how they have it configured, they may show up as having read a message when they haven't, or vice versa.  At best you're getting very inaccurate figures; at worst you're completely misled.

#4: Multi-column layouts are difficult to read in email.

Popular newsletter software encourages you to format your newsletters with multiple columns, as you would a printed page, and it may look great on your desktop computer's big screen.  But due to your readers' screen size, window size, and software configuration, they may only be able to see one column at a time.  Even if they have enough horizontal space to see both columns at once, they may have limited vertical space (for example on a small laptop), which means they'll have to scroll way down to read the first column, and then scroll way back up again to read the second column.  There are solutions to this problem for Web pages, but they don't work reliably in email and likely never will.

#3: Average screen size is getting smaller.

For the first decade of the Web, we could count on people's screens getting progressively larger, but now that smartphones outnumber computers, we can no longer take that for granted.  How many of your readers routinely check their email on a phone?  Can they read your newsletter that way, or will they have to put it off for later?

#2: Young people are moving away from email.

There's been a lot of speculation about the reasons, but study after study shows that the younger a person is, the less they use email and the more they use social media.  Tweeting a link to your newsletter is not a workaround here.  The message itself needs to be shorter and more portable.

#1: Attachments are not a solution.

You may be tempted to continue formatting your newsletter for the printed page, and attach it to email as a .doc or .pdf file.  This is a step backward.  The only problem it solves is that it makes the newsletter easier to print.  A few people may want to print it, but most do not.

There's a better way.

I'll get into specifics in another article, but here are some principles to follow:

  1. Write once, syndicate everywhere.
    1. Write for the Web first.  Use a content management system (CMS) to generate an RSS feed (a list of all your new articles, with the newest first) automatically.
    2. Once you have an RSS feed of your news, subscribe to it from your Facebook page (using the NetworkedBlogs app, for example).  Once you've done this, new articles will appear automatically on your Facebook page.
    3. Make the feed available on Feedburner to allow people to easily subscribe by email or text message.  Again, set this up once and it will continue working automatically.
    4. For those dozen or so readers who don't use computers, periodically compile the feed into a newsletter, just as you've been doing, but now you're doing this step last instead of first.
  2. Keep articles concise and on a single topic. 
    This is a good rule of thumb in any case!
  3. If information is private, password-protect it. 
    Have a part of your site that only members can access.  Put the private info there.  If a public article references private information, link to it.  There's a lot more that can be done to make your information more secure, but this is the first step.
  4. If you need statistics, write a survey. 
    There are so many ways to read news now, any statistics that are based on assumptions about how people go about it are bound to be false.  You owe it to yourself and your readers to ask them questions directly -- at least some of the time -- so they can answer for themselves.