Newsletters are the real minimum viable product
7 min read

Newsletters are the real minimum viable product

More publications are beginning as newsletters, which could change what users want from them.
Newsletters are the real minimum viable product

A song to read by: “Something About Us,” by Daft Punk

What I’m reading: “The Longing for Less,” by Kyle Chayka

New year, new-sletter

On Sunday, three Politico alumni, John Bresnahan, Anna Palmer, and Jake Sherman, launched Punchbowl, a thrice-daily newsletter that cuts through the bloviating of Beltway politics and offers it readers — for a tidy $300/year — access to and analysis of the machinations of America’s political gristmill.

According to The Times’ Ben Smith, the publication will offer its three newsletters, a daily podcast, and conference calls and virtual events for subscribers. At the moment, its website hosts no editorial content, serving instead to funnel interested readers to sign up for the newsletter.

In casting a newsletter as its chief product offering, Punchbowl joins a growing list of nascent publications whose entree into the world comes through reader inboxes. 6AM City and WhereBy.Us, two aspiring newsletter empires I’ve covered previously, employ a similar model, eschewing a traditional website for a warren of newsletter offerings. CityCast, whose founder David Plotz I spoke with in November, has chosen a similar model for his forthcoming project: pick a city, launch a newsletter, and build an editorial product on top of it.

Substack, of course, has made this strategy ubiquitous. The newsletter platform puts the humble email centerstage, encouraging authors to share their missives on social media to reach new audiences. The platform is free to use, requires no technical ability, and gives readers an easy way to opt in to receiving future material.

In this way, newsletters give new editorial operations something they have long lacked: a minimum viable product.

A minimum viable whosawhatsit?

In the world of human-centric design, where prototyping and iteration reign supreme over their kingdom of friendly buzzwords, a minimum viable product refers to the cheapest, most low-fidelity, easiest-to-throw-together trial version of a hypothetical concept. The MVP of a cake, for instance, would be a cupcake. Similarly, the founder of Zappos, to see whether customers would buy shoes online, simply bought a few dozen shoes from a store and posted pictures online to gauge consumer interest.

In the tech world, practitioners of the “lean startup” method sing the praises of MVPs, as they are critical to the process of iterative design. In iterative design, a small team creates an MVP, shows it to potential customers, collects their feedback, and then adjusts the MVP. Over time, as this process is repeated, the startup ends up with a product that users love, works well, and costs very little to produce.

The core charge of an MVP is that it is easy to make and even easier to change. When designing an app, for instance, the most basic MVPs are literally sketches. These evolve into wireframes, then mockups, then code, and so on until the team arrives at a shippable product.

This is editorializing

While the concept works well for technology, it has always proved challenging to translate into the world of editorial, especially now that subscriptions, rather than advertising, rule the roost.

What is the lowest-cost way of determining whether someone would pay to subscribe to a publication? An article is a poor indication of willingness to pay, because articles are generally free, so a view is hardly an endorsement.

Say the article was behind a paywall, and a reader was actually considering forking over the money to read it. This would work well as an MVP, except for one problem: When was the last time you paid to read a single article? One piece of writing might convince you to subscribe, but the true value of a subscription is that it gives you access to thousands of other articles. You would not subscribe to a site with only one or two pieces of available writing.

This means that a publisher trying to use an article as an MVP now has to publish dozens of pieces — all deeply researched, incredibly compelling, and gorgeously written, mind you — to have any inkling of whether or not someone would pay for what they were producing.

Unlike a coder working alone, who could churn out a rough version of a product in a few days’ time, a writer working alone would require weeks to produce that breadth of material. And if they wanted help, they would need to pay for it, meaning they would need to spend money on an idea whose chances of success are completely unknown, an unsavory proposition for an early-stage founder.

But, let’s say that you have managed to put together a website with 50 pieces of robust writing, complete with a seamless tech stack and striking artistic direction, all for free. How then do you get your material in front of readers? If you have a massive social following, you could share it there, but the nature of platforms and algorithms means that your work has only a small window of relevance. Chances are most of your followers will never see it.

Or you could publish it onto the wide ocean of the web, sit back, and wait for that sweet, sweet SEO to start sending unsuspecting surfers to your site. But SEO is a fickle mistress, and it favors established websites over nascent ones, rich backlogs of material over paltry ones, and dozens of other factors that advantage incumbent publications. In short, very few people will stumble upon your site, and even fewer will pay to read your material.

Enter: the newsletter.

MVP: Most valuable piece (of writing)

Newsletters solve most of these problems. Rather than having to dazzle potential readers with a website full of material, you are evaluated only by the strength of your last newsletter. This makes it a substantially easier row to hoe solo.

And while a sign-up for a free newsletter is not as compelling as a sign-up for a paid newsletter, it means more than a page view. Subscribing to a newsletter is a pretty strong indication of interest, at least compared to landing on a page, skimming it, and then jumping off. If you show an investor that you convinced several thousand people to sign up to read your material week in and week out, that’s pretty strong evidence of a market interest for your product.

Newsletters, Substack et al., also cost next to nothing. Most websites charge hosting fees, and they require time investments to set up, maintain, and optimize. Meanwhile, in the time it’s taken to read up to this point (thank you!), you could have launched a newsletter for free.

Newsletters also offer immediate feedback, and that feedback comes from your entire user base. This makes newsletters a great platform for A/B testing, because you are comparing pretty similar apples to pretty similar apples each time: it’s the same audience, you’re (hopefully!) publishing on a regular cadence, and it’s coming from the same author.

Because these are constants, you can tweak the variables to see what hits. Nobody opened your newsletter with the subject letter in all caps? CUT THE CAPS. Above-average number of shares on your post with a picture of a sunset? Get a new audience, your current audience is whack! (Just kidding … )

Finally, newsletters are easy to monetize. If you want to keep it free, you can pepper your piece with ads. Advertisers pay a premium for newsletter readers, so you can make even more money off of an ad-supported newsletter than you can off of an ad-supported website. And if you find something that really resonates with your audience, you can throw it behind a paywall no sweat. This way, while you’re tweaking your product, you can be generating revenue at the same time, an enticing premise for both potential investors and you, the overworked newsletter writer.

Twin tweaks

Using a newsletter as an MVP solves a lot of problems, but not all of them. If newsletter platforms want to lean into this use-case, they would do well to make a few tweaks to their tech.

For one, as I’ve written about for Business Insider, the Ur-newsletter platform Substack has woefully bad SEO. This is the result of a trade-off, as users sacrifice search engine juice for extreme usability. As it stands, in the words of content technologist Deborah Carver, “On Substack, you’re only as good as your last post.”

On a normal website, the more you publish, the greater your SEO becomes; on Substack, each post seemingly disappears into the wind after a few days. As a result, newsletters rely almost exclusively on being shared on social, which puts the focus on writers’ social followings, rather than on their writing. It also leaves thousands of potential viewers and subscribers on the table, as it virtually eliminates organic traffic.

Second, newsletter platforms across the board would do well to up their analytics offerings. When I spoke with the publisher of Discourse Blog, Aleksander Chan, he told me that one of the primary reasons their publication left Substack was because of its lack of analytical tools.

Modern publishers are used to seeing gobs of data — who’s reading what, when, where, to what point in the article, from which article, from which site, how many times this month, what kind of articles usually — and most newsletter platforms offer little of that. If they could offer their users more data, it would make them vastly more appealing as a jumping-off point for a nascent publication.

Where do we go from here?

Good question, reader. It’s twofold: First, we keep supporting newsletters, because newsletters hatch into publications, and publications produce good writing, sometimes.

Second, we keep our eyes peeled for a newsletter platform that thinks of itself less as a tool in a tool belt, and more as the first level in a series of escalating tiers. Substack, for instance, could keep its newsletter offering free, but offer a paid version that imported your existing listserv, archived content for more efficient SEO, and gave users a greater depth of analytics. Like a Pokémon evolving, a newsletter could turn into a website, and then into a multi-medium enterprise. It’s not a newsletter, it’s a baby publication.

Any way you slice it, a year ago it felt like launching a publication was impossible. It required substantial up-front funding, a sophisticated website, and an idea that was somehow an a priori known success. With the rise of the newsletter, a publication can grow from a newsletter, building momentum, audience, revenue, and relevance, all for next to nothing.

So, whether you’re a trio of veteran political journalists or just a tenacious writer with a good idea, the first step in building out that dream publication might be starting a newsletter.

Some good readin’

— The biggest piece I’ve written for Business Insider is coming out later this week. There’s no link, I’m just letting y’all know.

— A great profile of CAHOOTS, an Oregon-based program that offers a realistic blueprint for a world with fewer police. (The Atlantic)

— Food journalism at its best. (Grub Street)

— This piece is a glimpse into an idea that controls 50% of my brain usage at any given time. (The New Republic)

— This from Nathan Baschez is right on the money. Good writing is (don’t get mad!) what tech can only hope to be. (Divinations)

— Will there ever be a poet-musician better than Gil Scott-Heron? (Pitchfork)

Cover image: “Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” J.M.W. Turner