Email newsletters... Don't you just hate them?

Well… I do.

I mean - we used to get individual emails from people across the organization containing useful information sent to a well maintained distribution list. Anyone could send, but as each email would go out to lots of people, you would be careful to compose your email, and ensure not to send if it wasn’t going to be valuable to the recipient.

Recipients had the power to filter the content email by email - because if I determined that a certain person was sending content that wasn’t relevant to my job, then I could simply un-subscribe from their distribution list, or auto-filter their emails into a ‘I’ll read this someday’ folder. Conversely I could look for keywords in the title of useful emails, and mark them as bold & red in my inbox to highlight them as important to read - because each email generally contained one item.

The rise of the newsletter

Now zip forward to 2012, and newsletters have taken hold within the enterprise. Someone somewhere decided that we all get too much email. So they determined what we need is less email, and the solution would be to bury all of the interesting and useful content into a stream of utterly irrelevant content. Oh - I’m sure the content is interesting and valuable to the publisher; and that they try to create email newsletters customized to a particular audience to make sure it is all relevant, but to me… most of it is irrelevant. We don’t all do the same job in this company, and we don’t all consume information in the same way.

Newspapers are fine for browsing content on a Sunday morning over a coffee and croissant, but when every email in my inbox is another newsletter… things have got out of hand.

Now because the process for pushing content into an email newsletter has become so much easier, publishers don’t think about the effort the readers have to go through to filter out the gems from the dross; so they put less effort into making it concise, and send more, rather than less content.

The worst crime I see these days is the repeat-summary newsletter… where a second person thinks the content from the first newsletter was so important that they recycle into a new format, and send again - making me have to scan through for a second time to determine if it is indeed something interesting or not.

How do I respond?

When I receive an email today, I scan the subject line to see if it is worth opening. If it passes that test, I scan the first page to see if there is anything there worth reading. If not - it gets filed in Archive or Trash depending on whether I might want to be able to search for the content later. I NEVER scroll past the first ‘fold’ unless I see something on the first page that draws me in.

I’m considering changing my email filters in Outlook to auto-file all newsletters into an archive folder - just so that they’ll be there if I have to go search for the content, but otherwise not getting in the way of doing my job.

So how would I fix it?

Personally I find twitter and feedly both excellent ways to consume updates and information. I can follow, or un-follow sources of information at will. Sources tend to be either very subject specific, or are generalists that have the same interest base as I do. All headlines are concise, and designed to fit the teaser into as few characters as possible - so that I can scan and read quickly, without getting bogged down.

But how could this apply to the enterprise?

Well - the simplest answer for me would be to ban email newsletters (or at least use best practice and put concise summaries above the fold for everything in the newsletter).

I’d love it if we managed to convince folks to go back to sending one email at a time about a specific subject, and to let us subscribe and autofilter - but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

How about an enterprise microblog (twitter-like) service, with publishers forced to create one article at a time, then published with a short teaser, appropriate #tags, and a link back to the article. The number of clicks on the item would indicate the popularity of the item, making it possible for others to discover to popular topics. Then as the user I could subscribe to the sources that I need to do my job - whether people, or topics (#tags). Assuming we also built a mobile interface to the service - we could also scan the news via mobile while out and about.

Does the technology exist today to do this? Yes - of course.

Question is - will we use it?