Sam Holstein

A Case For Personal Newsletters

I recently read a piece called The Personal Newsletter Fad Needs to End. As someone with a personal newsletter, I was honor-bound to read it and assess my life choices and read it I did. The call to action for the article was “give up personal newsletter-ing; you can connect to your readers via social media instead.”

I completely disagree. Here’s why.

1. Social media is a crap business tool

Buist calls for us to connect to our readers via social media. Social media is fun, but except for those top 1% social media influencers, social media is basically inert as a business tool because it has a few critical weaknesses:

  1. It’s subject to the algorithm. If Facebook decides businesses shouldn’t be able to reach followers as easily (which they have), then with a snap of Facebook’s fingers, I can’t reach my readers anymore.
  2. It’s subject to character limits. Since I’m a writer hoping to build her brand on thoughtful and balanced treatments, character limits are a problem, since thoughtfulness and balance rarely fit in 140 characters.
  3. Social media has what marketers call a ‘low conversion rate,’ meaning very few people who see a link on social media click it. Personal newsletters have a high conversion rate, meaning a significant proportion of people who read them click on links inside. The exact numbers are: in a newsletter, 15–30% of people click. In social media, less than 1% click. Since I want people to, you know, click my links and read my work, social media isn’t going to cut it.

Personal newsletters don’t have these weaknesses. Nobody is gatekeeping whether I can reach my reader’s inboxes, nobody is telling me how much I can and can’t write, and what I write actually reaches people.

Personal newsletters also have a key strength social media doesn’t — leverage with publishers.

Mark Manson used this leverage to get a great publishing deal for The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck. Since he already had a mailing list of many thousands of people, he was able to go to the publishers and effectively say “I have this great mailing list, and I could self-publish my book no problem today and make bank. I’ll only publish with you if you can give me a better deal than that.” (Not his exact words).

Since social media has the aforementioned low conversion rate of less than 1%, a writer with many thousands of social media followers can’t do the same thing. If 30% of 50,000 people buy a $9 self-published book on Amazon, the author makes $90,000. That’s leverage! But if 0.7% of 50,000 people buy a $9 self-published book on Amazon, the author makes… $2100. That’s not leverage, and publishers know it.

2. Social media sucks anyway

And look, even if these things weren’t true… speaking as a writer, and also as a person with a pulse, social media just sucks.

As a writer, it sucks because it doesn’t really connect me to my readers. That low conversion rate means nobody sees what writers post, and that character limit means readers are limited in what they can say to me in response. It’s public nature also means readers aren’t likely to really open up to me or get vulnerable.

Having a newsletter is completely different — very frequently, readers email me their own long and thoughtful responses to what I write. Unlike social media, which at it’s best feels like conversing in a crowded bar, email is a space where every issue can get the attention it deserves.

As a person, social media sucks for all the usual reasons. Social media companies prey on our worst instincts, and due to that, very rarely does social media use improve someone’s life. There is the odd Facebook group here and there making the world a better place, but for the most part, I really think all the social media companies could fold tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter. To stay connected, we’d all just start group texts, group email threads, and other group things. And as anyone who has been part of a squad chat knows, squad chats are hilarious, and definitely more of a value-add than social media.

3. Writing a regular newsletter makes me a better person

Where social media changed me for bad, keeping a personal newsletter changed me for good.

Keeping a newsletter forces me to be on the lookout for what adds value to my reader’s lives. It forces me to stay accountable because if I have no new articles to share with my newsletter subscribers at the end of the week, I will look like an idiot. My readers are like my bosses; if I don’t have work to show them and I can’t describe how that work meets a larger goal, readers respond to me and tell me I need to get it together.

And unlike social media, where people look like idiots all the time, people expect more of newsletters. When I look like an idiot in my newsletter, several people respond to it and say “hey, you looked like an idiot,” teaching me both thoroughness in my writing and how to take criticism.

The long and short of it is, I love the form so much I wish my friends would start their own personal newsletters. It would be a hell of a lot easier to quit social media if they did.