What I learned from publishing a local news newsletter for 18 months

Since I’ve launched a new personal curated newsletter project and an old related URL shortener project was finally archived, I’ve been thinking about my first experiment with email audience.

In April 2012, we at Technically Media announced Ph.ly, a URL shortener that had a companion content strategy — a curated weekly newsletter sharing the three biggest pieces of local journalism or civic information. Over the next 18 months, I published the weekly newsletter as a side project and experiment. Here are a few things I learned before sidelining the project by 2014.

Some lessons:

  • Have a hook for marketing —  I got lots of positive feedback on our differentiating idea: just three links to the biggest, most meaningful pieces, hoping that we’d all be on the same page of the civic dialogue.
  • Double justify your effort — From our bootstrapping onset, we at Technically Media have always been pretty creative in finding multiple justifications for a project, to really make good use of staff time. This weekly newsletter was both an experiment to learn more about our company email strategy and also a marketing effort for the URL shortener, which we wanted to grow — both to better understand usage through available data and to trial growing a potential product.
  • Set audience goals — From the 100 signups we got on announcement to the 1,500 we grew to by December, we saw growth but nowhere near what I considered success for the project. I approached the project with the idea that civic information needed an audience but knowing there are limits to this audience’s size. Still, I wanted an audience of 5,000 a year in and signs of steady growth. I failed to hit that mark and so I began to de-prioritize the project.
  • It all takes time — I try to plan for projects in six month or year-long experiment stints. Anything less isn’t very realistic. Still, it is also a question of how much time during that experiment you can offer. This was always a small priority of mine, a side project at best, and that surely impacted its success.
  • Imitation is flattery — The local NPR affiliate launched not long after an email newsletter with the same concept, just three links, and then a pair of other email campaigns with similar logic followed too. It was fun to see the thread growing at that time.
  • Respect opt-in — I often cite our early indifference toward email collection as the original sin of our media company’s development, though that slow growth of email also kept us squarely within expectations for opt-in email collection — we didn’t make it easy to get our content via email for the first few years, so you were most certainly opting in if you got our email newsletters. For Ph.ly News Weekly, we wanted to try something different, and I was putting out sheets at events for signups, in addition to online signup campaigns. I did a sloppy job of this once and added a list to the Ph.ly campaign that wasn’t explicitly an opt-in option. A very aggressive user acted within his right and lobbed some pretty heavy claims about us as a spam user, which got our entire company newsletter account labeled as spam. It brought our entire publishing cycle to a halt for lots of reasons. I’ve been far more careful ever since.
  • Don’t be afraid to drop a project — I delivered on the promise we had made to our users. So as growth and new lessons slowed, it was an easy decision to sideline this effort.

The project was worth the time, if only for the learning.


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