Personalized newsletters: a proposal
3 min read

Personalized newsletters: a proposal

Cadence should be in the eye of the subscriber.
Personalized newsletters: a proposal

A song to read by: "Rome," by Phoenix

What I’m reading: "Pnin," by Vladimir Nabokov


What I once believed was a newsletter habit long ago devolved into a full-on newsletter addiction, and I now get virtually all of my news and literary entertainment from a curated smattering of scheduled emails.

From time to time I cull these subscriptions to make way for a promising new entry, making sure the overall portfolio strikes a careful balance between days, times of day and subject matter, so that my inbox remains in perfect harmony.

As a result, I have somewhat inverted the traditional process of digital discovery: Rather than let content find me, I now decide what kind of content my news diet lacks and seek it out, slotting in a newsletter that suits my needs exactly.

For example, the other day I realized I was not subscribed to any regular newsletter that covered climate change, so I began to consider my options. Not only did I know what I wanted to read about, I also knew how often I would like to read about it: once a week.

In the process of finding an inbox gem that fulfilled those two criteria though, I found myself having to disqualify perfectly good newsletter options because they published too frequently. The information critical to my daily life — local news, media reporting and literary inspiration — I want every morning, but a hobby interest should come no more than twice a week, tops.

If only there were a way to control how often you received a specific newsletter, I thought. Then the idea blossomed from there: You should be able to customize how often and when you receive regularly published newsletters, effectively turning your inbox into a calendar whose events you control.

This could range from the simple — getting a 5 a.m. daily newsletter only on Tuesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. — to the more complex, such as being able to mix and match different parts of various newsletters from the same publisher.

(In time, perhaps, someone could invent a product that allows you to create your own daily newspaper, filled with content pulled from various publishers. It is my understanding that Flipboard offers a similar functionality, but not as an email.)

Right now, newsletters are a great tool for building habit, but the reader has to conform to the cadence of the newsletter. For a much stickier product, that dynamic should be reversed: Users should be able to personalize when and what they receive based on what best fits their schedule.

I had initially thought such an idea might be too technically complex, because every reader with a profile would have an idiosyncratic newsletter schedule. But publishers are already offering services with a similar level of complexity, and the back-end mechanics seem feasible. A recent conversation with Felix Danczak, the COO of Zephr, made me realize that the subscriber-pathway capabilities of publishers are growing at a rapid clip.

Obviously, a user could not dictate that they receive a newsletter daily that publishes weekly, but maybe they could have a way of expressing that they would like to receive it more often. If a publisher received enough of these requests, they could bump up the cadence of that newsletter.

Publishers seem to be inching closer to this concept: Most of the technologically advanced media companies invite you to a screen full of their newsletter offerings as soon as you subscribe, an attempt to hook you by getting you reading a newsletter regularly.

But they offer no customizability beyond that, making newsletters a relatively blunt tool compared to the rest of the analytics-driven industry. Once publishers start letting readers control when they receive the emails they want, they might find that readers are far more keen to welcome them into their inbox.

Some good readin'

— My mentee through the Zenith Cooperative, Ashley Bardhan, published a wonderful and hilarious personal reflection on an album that helped shape her. (Bandcamp)

— It's paywalled, but an editorial linking Gov. Greg Abbot's reptilian policymaking to the donations he receives from energy executives is damning. What's new, though? (Houston Chronicle)

— CW: Sad post about dying pets. The perfectly poignant Haley Nahman articulates the sadness and silver linings of losing a beloved animal. (Maybe Baby)

— The Deez Links phenom Delia Cai turned her side newsletter into a staff job, and now she's using that staff job to write about ... newsletters! And a particularly good one, at that. (Vanity Fair)

— This piece, about how evangelical Christian beliefs have given rise to what is essentially marital rape, is chilling and so important. (Jezebel)

— If you know me, you know I love a good Diet Coke! But this great piece from the newly official Vox staff writer Melinda Fakuade casts Big Beverage in an unflattering light. (Vox)

Cover image: "100 Years Ago," by Peter Doig