Just link!

Leaping Trout, 1889, Winslow Homer

Leaping Trout, 1889, Winslow Homer

About six months ago, I changed the way my email newsletters work. Instead of including the entire body of the (often substantial) dispatch in the email, I now send out a link to a lightweight web presentation. (It looks like this.)

I’ve been very happy with this change:

  • I can use that “one big link click” as my foundational ~engagement metric~. It has an even sharper edge than the email open rate, which will be scrambled by Apple’s recently-announced changes anyway.

  • I can fix mistakes! I can make updates, too. For example, I have a newsletter format that includes a little inline response field; as I hear from subscribers, I curate and publish some of their responses back into the newsletter itself. It’s fun, and wouldn’t be possible with a static email.

  • I can actually include videos inline! On the internet of 2021, I think that’s just as important and interesting as including images.

There is, of course, a small fraction of subscribers who might have stuck around to read the dispatch in their inbox, but who decline, for whatever reason, to click that one big link. But, I suppose I question whether those subscribers are, or were, that engaged; really, one click is going to throw you?

The other downside is complexity. Since I was already sending with Mailchimp and posting a copy to the web at the same time, this change actually made things easier for me, more streamlined; but I know a lot of people use newsletter platforms like Substack and Buttondown precisely for their simplicity, and they don’t offer this as an option. (I think they should!)

Finally, sure: maybe not everything demands the leap. I am reasonably content to read the concise, punchy Ruby Weekly alongside my other emails.

But, weighing all these considerations, if it’s possible for you, as a newsletter-er, to rescue the meat of your dispatches from the inbox: I recommend it!

My enthusiasm for the approach is related to my enthusiasm for the potential of web pages circa 2021. Typography, layout, inline interaction… a bunch of things have finally clicked into place, and it’s honestly a joy these days to make a web page. (Note that I said “web page,” not “web app.” Whole different situation.) Was it absolutely necessary for the illustration in this post to be a live 3D animation, three.js happily chugging along? No. Do I think it’s cool that it is? Yes!

Look at a page like Kicks Condor’s home on the web, just cavorting in the flexibility of the canvas, and then imagine the Kicks Condor newsletter, plain text in a long, perfect block… what a bummer. Kicks writes:

It seems that everything is white and blue in the present day. We’ve settled on these neutral colors, in case we need to sell it all.

There is currently a lot of excitement around email newsletters, and I’m glad for it, BUT… well, I’ll say this starkly, for effect:

The email newsletter cannot be the future of internet publishing, because it is, in terms of expressive potential, such a drastic regression.

Recently, I wrote this to a friend:

The resurgence of email newsletters — a trend that predates Substack — is such a melancholy thing: a retreat into the last known digital communication technology that allowed a person to reach a group of fans/followers/subscribers/customers in a reliable, predictable way.

Add to that “…with the ability to take those fans/followers/subscribers/customers from platform to platform,” and you have there the entirety of the medium’s appeal. It’s all about the mechanism of the relationship, has nothing to do with the email as a canvas. It would be one thing if the inbox offered the cozy warmth of a bookstore; like, “well, sure, there are tradeoffs, but the core experience is just so lovely.” But that’s obviously not the case! The inbox sucks!

There’s a rebuttal that goes, “ah, but the best kind of email newsletter feels like a note from a friend, and there it sits, alongside actual notes from actual friends,” and, while many great newsletters do feel that way — I hope mine does, at least sometimes — I just don’t think that effect is powerful enough to outweigh all the other “convivialities” that linking to the web permits. (I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in that way, and I like it. An affordance that feels nice and inviting, in a broadly social way: a conviviality!)

Also, when you’re subscribed to a dozen great newsletters that all feel this way — when “like a note from a friend” has been fully weaponized by canny writers — the whole thing becomes a bit of a charade, and I think maybe it’s time to think more foundationally about what we are even doing here.

Okay, that concludes today’s exhortation to newsletter-ers. Just link!

This post is part of a loose series:

  1. Advice for newsletter-ers
  2. Just link! (this post)

You can explore my other blog posts.

The main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter, which is infrequent and wide-ranging. I always try to make it feel like a note from a friend: