[I’m Reading] The not-so-quaint charm of the email newsletter

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

If you’ve spent more than 5 or so minutes with me over the past couple of months, odds are very high that you’d have heard me talk about friction (reducing); delight (creating); email (the importance of; how to be awesome at).

First, some background on an important change Gmail made to image caching, and what that means for email senders. Gmail will now show images in email by default (win!) but (there’s always a but) the change means counting repeat opens is going to be more difficult.

From the Gmail blog:

you’ll soon see all images displayed in your messages automatically across desktop, iOS and Android. Instead of serving images directly from their original external host servers, Gmail will now serve all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers. So what does this mean for you? Simple: your messages are more safe and secure, your images are checked for known viruses or malware, and you’ll never have to press that pesky “display images below” link again. With this new change, your email will now be safer, faster and more beautiful than ever.

And from a Mailchimp post on the matter:

Image caching still lowers our ability to track repeat opens, but turning those images on means we’ll be more accurate when tracking unique opens. At least, theoretically it should work that way. By leaving images turned off, Gmail has been allowing subscribers to open emails without downloading our tracking pixel, so those opens were invisible to us. If Gmail is going to display images automatically, those previously invisible opens should suddenly become visible. That’s exciting in a nerdy data way, but keep in mind it doesn’t affect the number of subscribers actually reading your email. It just makes the count of unique opens more accurate. Then again, maybe seeing your beautiful email content will get subscribers to keep opening in the future.

And from The Monday Note, one of my favourite blogs on “media, tech, business models”, some highlights from their recent reflections on email newsletters (any emphasis mine):

Newsrooms who assign junior writers to expedite email newsletters should think again

two critical factors needed to create a valued product: Timing — sending a news briefing at the right time to maximize its impact — and the multi-device format.

A newsletter begs to be read both on mobiles and on a desktop. You can no longer decide for the reader which screen size h/she will read your stuff on. Responsive design is mandatory. But applying responsive design techniques is way more complicated for newsletters than it is for websites. Even large medias such as the NYT are providing single formats newsletters.

Another thing about email design: It must be conceived to be read offline. I live in a 4G city (Paris) but I still get poor 3G or even EDGE service in too many places (French carriers are said to slow down network speed in order to accelerate the switch to 4G). Therefore, the ability to read complete content offline beyond headlines is, in my view, a basic feature. Going a bit further, I would dream of newsletters pre-loading multiple layers of reading, allowing the reader to jump from the main page to one or two levels down — without requiring a connection.


[I’m Reading] Why do so many of us delight in “delightful” now?

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

Presented without comment 🙂

“Delightful” is different. It’s a word that explains itself, fully and efficiently. Instead of “This is awesome because X,” you get, essentially, “This is delightful because it’s delightful.” Delight is its own reward. We all recognize this. And when more and more of our interactions find us doubling as curators, filtering Internet for friends and family, positive adjectives are at their best when they can endorse and describe at the same time. “Delightful” is nondescript and nuanced at once. It is retro and modern in equal measure. And therein lies its charm. “Delightful” may well be the new “cool”: the adjective we turn to, collectively, to convey our approval. It is, as Urban Dictionary explains, “a positive word that could mean anything good.” It may well be becoming the universal validator. And that’s pretty … well, you know.

[I’m Reading] ‘customer service in the social media era needs to be radically decentralized’

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

Further to this reflection on social proof and disgruntled customers, a timely piece over at the WSJ’s Accelerators blog. Their audience is startups and smaller organizations; the lessons and points-to-think-about for larger companies are no less interesting:

Whether your business is a startup scrambling to build a customer base or an enterprise-level company with tens of thousands of clients, dealing with consumers online is a new – and daunting – challenge. Rather than having to obediently wait on help lines or for email support, consumers can now shout on social channels and be heard by a mass audience, instantly…

Customer service in the age of social media, however, needs to be everyone’s job. This doesn’t mean every employee has to be glued to Facebook and Twitter streams all day. Social media listening tools make it easy to track brand references and mentions, and these functions can still be handled ably by a small, dedicated team. At my company, for instance, we have a 17-person customer service team which uses our own social media product to handle 8 million users. But at the same time, as social media becomes more integrated into the corporate workflow employees in general are spending more of their day on social channels. And they’re inevitably coming across tweets and posts that require, if not their own attention, then the attention of someone else in their company.

‘Every little bit of friction is another subscriber lost’

One of the newish marketing buzzwords is “social proof”, which describes the phenomenon – amplified by social media channels – of your customers and audience acting as your evangelists (or naysayers) and thereby affecting the purchasing decisions of their circles of influence.

My twin focus on “reducing friction” and “creating delight” reflects in part the reality that communities are about how people feel – and the truth is that people are much more likely to tell everyone about negative or frustrating experiences than they are likely to share merely good ones. So to really get people talking about you, you have to deliver consistently awesome experiences.

Because when you don’t, people will complain. And rightly.

And once you absorb the criticism and overlook the WWIC-refrain of “how hard can it be?!” (standard operating procedure), you are struck by the obviousness of these suggestions. You may know that these are on our roadmap, on the backlog, being discussed (and that despite the obviousness, they’re actually non-trivial to do well). But if you do know that it’s likely because you’ve been in these discussions, or are one of the product managers working on these types of projects. Our external audiences, our communities, our potential evangelists and frequent critics – they have no idea. Either of the fact that we’re working on these things, or that they’re not easy to do.

It might seem unfair, this criticism – and we are fortunate that this particular disgruntled customer went for the rant-via-direct-email than full-on-Twitter-takedown. But what’s telling is that he took the time to write this email, to make those suggestions. You complain when you are disappointed, when you expected better, when you feel that the other party should have done better. But you only take the time to make suggestions, to give feedback, when you actually care.

We don’t know how many people we’ve lost through friction like this, because few are them are motivated enough to be explicit about their reasons.

But the ones who care enough to tell us – we can win them back. The next level us is to deserve them.

[I’m Reading] Try Everything

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

The topic du jour among media pundits and pontificators: the new Glenn Greenwald venture, backed by the considerably deep-pocketed Pierre Omidyar.

The best commentary I’ve seen on this so far (as of this post, anyway) comes from the folks at The Monday Note, who have some thoughts on how the venture’s product portfolio might be developed.


Mobile should primarily be a news updating vector. In a developing story, say hearings on the NSA scandal, readers want quotes, live blogging, snapshots – all easy to grab while on the go. Addiction must be the goal.

Newsletters deserve particular attention. They remain an excellent vector to distribute news and a powerful traffic driver. But this requires two conditions: First, they must be carefully designed, written by human beings and not by robots. Second, they must be run like an e-commerce operation: a combination of mass emailing and heavy personalization based on collected navigation data. For an editorial product, this means mapping out granular “semantic profiles” in order to serve users with tailored contents. If the Omidyar-Greenwald project lives up to its promise, it will deliver a regular stream of exclusive stuff. A cleverly engineered email system (both editorially and technically) stands good chances to become a must-read.


On the product side, the motto should be Try Everything – on multiple segments and platforms.

[I’m Reading] Why wasn’t I consulted (or, the web is a customer service medium)

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

One of my all-time favourite pieces of writing about the web is by Paul Ford (perhaps better known as @ftrain). It is so good you might want to stop reading this and go check it out. It’s cool, I’ll wait.

Good right? Totally.

Paul proposes a framework for media that operates in terms of “questions answered”:

Here’s one question: “I’m bored, and I want to get out of the house and have an experience, possibly involving elves or bombs. Where do I go?”

The answer: You could go to a movie.

Here’s another: “How do I distract myself without leaving the house?”
You might turn on the TV.

“I’m driving, or making dinner. How do I make a mundane thing like that more interesting?”
Radio! Especially NPR or talk radio. “

The question for the web, according to Paul, is this:

Why wasn’t I consulted?

Ever led a redesign? Launched a new feature? Changed the design of an email? This might sound familiar:

Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it’s ugly, you’re stupid.
The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions.
People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can’t believe you don’t use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased.
The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn’t I consulted?

Most important for any media types considering paywalls and/or membership models (emphasis mine):

Create a service experience around what you publish and sell. Whatever “customer service” means when it comes to books and authors, figure it out and do it. Do it in partnership with your readers. Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don’t just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves. These things are cheap and easy now if you hire one or two smart people instead of a large consultancy. Define what the boundaries are in your community and punish transgressors without fear of losing a sale. Then, if your product is good, you’ll sell things…If you don’t want to do that then just find niche communities who might conceivably care about your products and buy great ad placements. It’s a better online spend.

BONUS! Here’s what got me thinking (again, because I reflect on the principle of #WWIC at least once a week) about Paul Ford’s piece:

53% of customers who ask a brand a question on Twitter expect a response within one hour. However, if a customer makes a complaint to a brand using Twitter, that figure goes up to 72%.

And more:

brands that provide customers with a timely response can expect the following benefits:
34% of customers are likely to make another purchase.
43% are likely to recommend the brand to their family and friends.
38% are more receptive to the brand’s adverts.
42% are more likely to recommend the brand through social media.

Don’t be creepy. Repeat: don’t be creepy.

I subscribe to a lot of email lists (if you don’t know this yet, you soon will: I am obsessed with email), and earlier today I was dismayed to see this snippet included in the latest newsletter from one of my favourite sources:

We’ve noticed that you’re reading this content, but not sharing it. Have any thoughts or feedback? Hit reply to send us a note.

This is creepy, and this is manipulative. And my immediate reflex was not to share, or to give feedback, but to unsubscribe. I didn’t, because a) it’s a good list and b) I understand where this urge is coming from. But it doesn’t make it any less creepy or manipulative – and therefore antithetical to creating a delightful experience for the person at the other end.

First, what this does is make explicit the underbelly of our interactions online, the reality that everything we do on the internet is being tracked and may be used against you in a court of law may be used to sell you things later.

We often talk about the importance of open-rates and click-throughs, but we almost never think about the fact that tracking those metrics – no matter how noble our purposes – requires collecting significant amounts of user data. And just as politicians and pundits alike talk about “the consumer” as if s/he does not belong to that category, we often forget that we are equally having our data collected. If you’ve ever run a Mailchimp list you know that you can see exactly who clicked what link, and when, and how many times. There’s an implicit social contract that you will not use that knowledge against me, personally, even as you use the data for some higher-order purpose or optimization.

Second, this is more egregious than the by-now passé “social-media grovel” (“Like this because you think we’re awesome!” “Please retweet!”). It’s one thing to ask our audiences for their feedback; it’s quite another to passive-aggressively indicate they’re not living up to your expectations for them.

[I’m Reading] Dealing with freeloaders

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them. No lawyers approved this message.

Here’s how Philip Kaplan’s music distribution service deals with users who get ‘free’ access by creating bogus accounts for referral credits:

It’s possible some of the musicians who want free DistroKid access can’t afford it. Or maybe they’re unable to get a credit card. I’m happy to give these musicians the opportunity to get their music into stores. And maybe they’ll even earn a living from it — the best art comes from struggle. So today we’re launching “Scholarship” accounts. When the system detects that you’ve just created 5 bogus referrals, you’ll be presented with a notice that we caught you, but here’s an option: Either pay the $19.99/yr, or sign up for a free Scholarship account if you can’t afford it. I think musicians will give these options some thought and choose the one that’s right for them.

[I’m Reading] Comments <> Engagement

Posts with the label [I’m Reading] will be about articles I’m finding interesting. I often find things interesting even when I completely disagree with them.

This is from a thoughtful post from the 37Signals team on the challenges, opportunities and limitations of comments, commenters and commenting:

“Engagement” has less to do with the number of comments on a particular post, and more to do with page views, shares on Twitter and elsewhere, personal contact between authors and readers, and so on.

And I may have this printed on mugs, shouted from rooftops, whatever it takes:

The more present writers are post-publication, the more respectful the conversation tends to be, and the more value everyone gets out of the exchange.

This too:

Trolling is never personal, for one. Rudeness says far more about the commenter’s character than about the author’s skill as a writer. Two, it helps to recognize that people are rarely inspired to leave a comment just to agree or say thanks. My coworker Jonas likes to think of comments as “The opposite of the thing you just read.” Since people generally only comment to disagree, “articles read like ‘Here’s a point.’ Comments -> ‘The opposite point.’” If you’re braced for it and accept that counterpoint as part of the anatomy of a blog post, it doesn’t sting — it’s expected behavior.

The comments on the post are worth reading too. As it were.

[SQAS] The Times of London on why events (+ offline communities) are awesome for retention

Posts labelled [SQAS] (as in Stats, Quotes, Anecdotes, Snippets) will feature nuggets of information and insight. These are the kinds of things I save in Evernote because I’m a digital hoarder because they make for great bullet points in presentations and quality soundbites.

Source: Hitting the paywall: can social drive traffic to subscriber-only sites? | Technology | theguardian.com

When it comes to building a subscription-based media business, even social media networking falls short of real face-to-face networking. Part of the digital bundle with the Times is Times+, which offers subscribers exclusive access to events. Katie Vanneck Smith said that their subscriber churn rate of 40% plunges to just 8% if the subscriber has been to one of these and met with their editors and journalists.