a thesis i’ve clutched close to my chest the past year or so is that the newsletter “industry”, as it were, is hewing pretty closely to the podcast industry. here are some completely unorganized thoughts in that vein: this post will be chaotic (and probably evolve over time) because every time i sit down to outline my thoughts they spiral out of control.
also, as a contextual bit: everyone was anticipating the podcast bubble to burst and, exogenous events that dramatically change consumption habits aside, that hasn’t happened. the industry has grown in the head and the tail: per listennotes, more podcasts have been made this year than every year before, and the most successful ones have grown into legitimate media entities.
i point that out because i think saying “newsletters are the new podcasts” is, on the face of it, somewhat pessimistic: i mean it largely as a positive thing. watching the podcast industry grow has been fun and rewarding; there is going to be a gold rush that i think largely results in good consumer habits.
i also offer as caveat that “the newsletter industry” is different than “the email industry” but in a not-so-meaningful way. this is where my biases come in: buttondown sits somewhere in the intersection of the two. the majority of buttondown’s users are writing personal-ish newsletters (editorial, email-first, consumptive, personal, monetizable) but the majority of buttondown’s revenue comes from people sending emails (corporate, part of a broader content strategy, focused on some sort profit motive outside of the email itself). these two sides are converging: people with ~200 subscriber personal interest newsletters are suddenly interested in open rates, churn, and community-building, whereas people with ~20,000 subscriber corporate email lists are suddenly interested in evergreen content and content strategy.
one big wind-shift in the podcast industry is the sense of the grown-ups coming over and ruining everything by destroying the open ecosystem. its pretty easy to project so many aspects of this onto newsletters (not currently, but two years from now).
- dynamic inserts are absolutely going to happen for emails. there’s already some pretty sophisticated stuff here, especially with amp, but nobody has made a serious go of it outside of some back-of-shop CMSes.
- content discovery is a largely unsolved problem and nobody has even done the early, low-hanging fruit work of, like, “let’s make a big database with all newsletters in them” 1
- people are rediscovering some of the growth hacking lessons learned by early podcast networks, like limited backlogs or cross-promotional bundles
- if RSS is the beautiful part of podcasting that must be protected at all costs, then IMAP is that for newsletters. one of the many things that makes me like substack a lot is that they are very email-friendly: you could imagine a company in their shoes recognize the graph of the social and interest graph they are collecting and protect it at all costs, but they have not done so. even though substack is (and i don’t mean this in a diminuitive way whatsoever) a blog host with a Stripe Connect integration and a mailgun attachment and email is a distribution channel rather than a commitment, they’re being incredibly good citizens and growing the ecosystem incredibly well.
i have some more things i want to commit to paper, but the ending notes i have now are:
- that this is a very good time to build against the email ecosystem. the renewed interest in collecting and growing a list of email addresses is going to rise and there is going to be a lot of demand for things that meaningfully interact with them.
- the sword of damocles (and closest thing i’d declare to be an enemy) is a powerful institution deciding it wants to own distribution and tries to separate a publisher from its email list.
- it is very trendy to start a newsletter and it is very easy to tell people to start a newsletter. nobody has time for dozens of newsletters; nobody has the purchasing power to pay for even a subset of those dozens. but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mess around: writing is good, creation is good, and you should write a newsletter not because it’s going to turn into a community or be the future of whatever niche you choose but because writing five hundred words a week and publishing them on the internet and engaging with folks who read those words is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself, whether it’s as a newsletter or a blog or a zine or whatever
this is particularly surprising to me as it seems immediately and obviously monetizable, and the main reason i haven’t done it is that buttondown keeps me busy ↩