Newsletters in the Inbox

I was editing a "real" magazine when the tidal wave of desktop publishing hit the consumer market. The newsletter as we know it was born. Early ancestors of the blog, the newsletter suffered from that most hideous of curses -- design flexibility. And believe me, it was flexed. Until its spine broke. Okay, so newsletters got a bad reputation as a result. Like one notch above the mass-produced Christmas letter in terms of egotistical editorial endeavor -- and that Christmas letter had suddenly become -- what? -- the Rognar Family Newsletter!

My editorial co-conspiritor at that time, Les Cowan, actually went on to be editor of a magazine called -- oh so self-referential! -- "Desktop Publishing." (With the editorial stance of: "We do this so you don't have to" I suppose.) Here's a newsflash: novelty happily wears off pretty soon.

But newsletters remain. And I found myself sucked into a project that required me to puzzle out this question: where does the newsletter end and the email marketing begin? What exactly is a subscription when I'm more incented to send it to you than you are to read it? Seems like a fruitful topic for examination. After three years of practicing and testing, I'm still examining it.

So I met a fellow online (properly introduced) who has the right stuff and has some experience with the magazine/newsletter/email/subscription nexus, and we got into a conversation about it. His name is Vince Golla, and I'm still waiting for his next comment, but I wanted to talk about it here a bit.

Here's what I said to Vince:

"I'm interested in finding a better way to present a "magazine" style experience via a web browser -- or something that takes the essence of that special experience and improves upon it - have you done any thinking about this? Our solution was to handle each issue as a standalone microsite, to minimize distractions from the key messages that were most important at that moment in time -- using a stripped down web format to really suppress the interconnectivity of the web presesntation and force it into a more focused box -- it made for a 10 minute monthly bite of info for the audience (which helped with repeat visits), and the glories of cross-links were right under the surface -- one link down. (See, I don't think a website is the same animal as a magazine -- and I see the same sort of thinking in your online magazines). I'm pleased with how that worked, but am still interested in other approaches.

I've also been thinking about the interesting interface bumptop (bumptop.com) -- which is presented as a desktop, of course -- but what about if it wasn't used for a desktop (I already have a desktop that works pretty well right in front of me) but was used instead as a form of magazine presentation? I'm really interested in this -- I'm sure you've been at editorial meetings where the issue's articles are being sorted, sequenced, rearranged, deferred to next issues -- needs for sidebars are uncovered in these discussions, and in general the group does a mashup on the issue's projected content.

How about if the online magazine offered this type of "push it around and arrange it as you like" interface, in addition to the more formal serial interface? For a very conservative model, I've been interested in the eBook concept for digital magazines for years, but SO clunky and prioprietary -- have you seen the web site: http://www.websitemagazine.com/ look on the low left side for the "sample digital issue" -- they've applied the eBook model to a flash presentation -- one big drawback, though -- could it possibly load more slowly?

And what about offering both interfaces for the same magazine and letting the reader choose? Why not?"

Why not, indeed? But Vince is busy right now, so I'm waiting for his next comment. In the meantime, I decided that it was time to look at the face of the world beyond my own inbox. I sent out a call for help via LinkedIn's new question feature:

Constructing a list of very good and very bad online magazines/newsletters/subscription sends -- do you have any examples to share?

I got 17 direct replies and about 150 examples sent to my inbox. All the examples sent were in the good category -- I can say categorically that no one remembers the name of a bad email newsletter. It's kind of the opposite of the Anna Karanina definition of families (remember? All good families are the same, all bad families are different?) In this case, all the good ones were very different from each other in any way you can think of, and the bad ones were all the same: "They were bad -- I don't remember them."

I'm still paging through the examples, but I promise an analysis at some point soon -- Oh, and in a tidy coincidence, a v. smilar topic has just popped up in Ask E.T: Recommended Magazine Layouts...

Oh, and I can tell all question-responders to knock it off on the "it depends" answer, designed to show off your own excellent analytic skills. Of course it depends, you nitwits, why do you think I'm asking for concrete examples? I bet their spouses are delighted that they're addicted to the internet. I can hear them now: "Honey, do you think we should talk to Sara's teacher about her appalling grades?" "Well, now..." pause for puff on pipe "I think it really depends, dear." rich chuckle "You have to consider what the teacher is trying to tell us when she sends those grades home -- of course our response would depend on our understanding her motivations." He'd be killed if it were me the mother of Sara -- but no, she's taken the easy way out and pushed him out of bed and towards his computer in the family room and here he is answering my question with the same kind of self-insulating, conditional, nonsense.

This passion has roots in that primal self-loathing -- it's the preening type of answer I was guilty of before I caught myself in a little self-examination. The answer you should be writing is to "tell" not to "show."

More on newsletters soon.

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