The Rise of Email Newsletters
“The History of Email (and Why It’s Dying)”, “Further Proof that Email is Dying a Slow and Agonizing Death”, and “Email is Dying Among Mobile’s Youngest Users” are trumpeting headlines in recent weeks. How, then, do we understand the noticeable rise of email newsletters among millennials? Daily newsletters, like the Skimm, Morning Brew, NextDraft, Need2Know, and the Daily Water Cooler, that send subscribers succinct and pithy summaries of the day’s news each morning, are very popular among college students and among those in their twenties and thirties. While total newsletter subscriber numbers are difficult to compile, one need only look at the subscription numbers of bulletins like the Skimm (6 million) or listen to how college students chat about how they get their news to realize that the impact is extensive.
The appeal of these newsletters is clear. Although viewable on any device that receives email, the visuals and simple text of these newsletters are optimized for smartphones, as suggested by the smartphone-toting woman of the Skimm’s logo. These newsletters are designed to be read in 5 minutes, and pride themselves on their easy-to-digest language:
“We worked with more than 75 students to help them prepare for interviews and internships and we’d always ask the question, ‘How do you keep up with the business world?’ It was like every student had rehearsed their answers together beforehand, saying something to the effect of, ‘I read the WSJ… and I read it because it’s a prerequisite to say you’re well-read in business and it’s what my parents do’, but it’s dense, dry, and too long to read cover-to-cover.”
That was an explanation from the founders of business briefing The Morning Brew Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief in an interview with TechCrunch. It’s not too far off from Skimm founders’ aim to make the tone of the magazine remind readers of “[their] best friend, sitting next to [them] on the couch in a sweatshirt” (Cosmopolitan).
These newsletters are wildly appealing by design, and whatever newspapers claim about the future of email, 91% of American consumers still check their email daily (McKinsey). Moreover, millennials actually check email more than any other age group, and they are more likely than other age groups to check email while otherwise occupied (Adobe Email Consumer Survey). 88% of millennials say they use a smartphone to check email, making the smartphone-centered design of email newsletters increasingly relevant. The future of email looks unexpectedly bright – research suggests that young Americans say their use of email has increased in the past few years, and they expect it to further increase in the next five years (SendGrid and Egg Strategy).
The casual brevity of the newsletters has led to some criticism that the newsletters are indulging millennials’ supposed uber-short attention spans and anti-intellectual attitudes. Slate notoriously slammed the Skimm by arguing that it “treats its readers like they’ve never read an article, looked at a map, or accidentally seen a CNN segment in their dentists’ waiting rooms.” However, the high subscription numbers of these newsletters suggests that even if this flaw does exist, readers are still enthusiastic about these newsletters that save them from sifting through the news to find the most important items of personal interest. Either way, arguments that these newsletters are somehow dumbing down the news or giving readers an imperfect picture are weakened by how the newsletters provide links to background sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post that provide hard-hitting, high-quality journalism.
It looks like these email newsletters are not just here to stay, but here to conquer the market. Advertisers are gravitating toward this new genre; direct email marketing campaigns have been found to be 40x more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined in driving new sales (McKinsey), so companies are hoping that integrating advertising into newsletters will be similarly effective. Native advertising, in which advertisements are slickly folded into the newsletter in a similar font and format to the actual content, abounds.
The final piece of evidence that newsletters may be the news format of the future is the fact that existing media giants are entering the field. Even as late as summer of 2015, the New York Times sent out 33 different newsletters; today, it sends out 50, ranging from business news like Dealbook to local news like California Today. Their efforts have paid off: as of 2017, the brand had 13 million email subscriptions, a 200% growth from 2014 (DigiDay). As fewer and fewer millennials rely on newspapers as their primary news source – the rate has plummeted from 36% to 22% from 2001 to 2013 (Wisper.io) – newsletters appear to be filling that gap, and traditional news outlets are evolving.