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Ask HN: Do newsletters work? Why do websites push them so much?


Tangent: do web push notifications work?

A lot of websites ask if I want to be notified via a web push, which I personally find very annoying and have never tried it. But perhaps people (consumers/users and sellers/creators) find them useful?

Bonus question: are you subscribed to any web push notifications? Which ones and why do you like web push vs. a newsletter or RSS?


I guess many people hate them, but subscribe without thinking about it and don’t know how to unsubscribe. For the websites I would expect them to be quite useful, because they will get a lot of extra traffic and returning customers. Even if people don’t like the volume of notifications, they will still click on them if the headline sounds interesting enough.

Bonus answer: I think they are quite useful for web applications (mail, calendars, slack etc) and I usually prefer enabling notifications to installing a native client.


I believe they are intended to support effective webapps but in practice are just used to confuse and abuse non-techy users that suddenly get 100s of notifications for random websites which they don’t know how to turn off. Same as notifications from all the spam addiction-based-and-not-actually-fun free-to-play apps.


Me neither. IHMO the best option is to check “Block new requests asking to allow notifications” in Firefox (Settings -> Privacy -> Notifications -> Settings).


Yes, they work and people do actually check their emails. Even if you have a 20-30% click rate, that’s 30% of people that may read your headline, click through to your blog post, product announcement, etc.

If you’re smart about your strategy (don’t spam, think twice about when to send a mail, lead with interesting content, visually appealing), a mailing list can be a huge asset to any business. People tend to not want to follow companies on Twitter or Instagram, if they want to stay up to date, a lot of them might want news in their easily filterable inbox, in my experience.


> People tend to not want to follow companies

Also many companies got burned thinking the smorgasbord of free traffic on social platforms would never end.

It turns out that when your primary business model is selling traffic (via ads), giving it away for free is antithetical to your margins.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok (sometime soon) started off giving creators (and businesses) tons of free traffic only to eventually suppress it to push people towards paying to reach the followers they worked so hard to get.

On the other hand, once someone has given you permission to email them then it really doesn’t matter if you do it from your own mailserver, mailchimp, or anything else… They are still expecting you to be in their inbox (hopefully delivering great value).

Source: I was reading the internal newsletter in the bathroom of a major social network’s office ~6 years ago when they were announcing (in celebration) that they had suppressed organic reach to sub 5%


Most businesses I’ve bought things from online (notably not Amazon) want to send me at least one email a day and it is more than I can keep up with.

In the beginning for instance I would get emails from Best Buy that often had good offers, but at some point it got like ArsTechnica’s dealmaster and the offers became insipid. Even if the offers were compelling I couldn’t buy something every day.


Normally, click rates are more like 0.1%.

But it’s also about brand recall. Having someone’s email address lets you put an ad (subject line) in front of them for almost free, as often as you want, without having to go through the algorithms of the social networks.


>Normally, click rates are more like 0.1%.

Some email campaign stats from Mailchimp (which may be self-serving but does match other numbers I’ve seen) … says “open rate” is about 20% – 30% and “click-through-rate” (of a link embedded within the email) is about 2% – 5% :

https://mailchimp.com/resources/email-marketing-benchmarks/

If people are not tricked into email newsletter signups via dark patterns (e.g. a default check box on an ecommerce shopping checkout), a lot of readers do actively open and click on emails they voluntarily signed up for. In such cases, click rates will realistically be much higher than 0.1%.


Managed and initialized a few newsletters. With CTR >40%. It’s all about value and expectation. i.e.: If you send out a vegan recipe every sunday to people who have subscribed to get vegan recipes on sunday – and you constantly deliver reoccurring value to these users, it works like a charm.

From all traffic channels Newsletters are my most favorite ones.


For boutique newsletters in small niches, sure, you can see much higher click-through rates.

But if you’re New York Times, Walmart, AllRecipes – you’re sending a daily email to > 10 million uniques, and your click-through rates will be < 0.1%.


Channel Hedging

If you depend on SEO, SEA, Adsense you depend on Google.

If you depend on Facebook, Insta, you depend on Meta.

If you depend on Linkedin, you depend on Linkedin.

If you depend on Newsletters, you depend on Spamfilters.

Every channel has its risk. So hedging your traffic channels is the best thing you can do. And Newsletter is the least annoying one, as Google and Facebook maximize for ad-spendings. Spamfilters don’t.


> Newsletter is the least annoying one

That’s not saying much. Those are still highly annoying, to the point where I will often permanently cancel service with companies that do it.

Don’t email me ads for shit, unless I told you to do that.


A number of reasons:

Because other platforms own you, but you own your newsletter.

Not everyone opens a newsletter, but everyone checks their email. So if they don’t open the newsletter, at least they see something from you.

It’s near zero cost.

I don’t like it when sites push their newsletter constantly, but I do like educational content pushed to where I often am (my inbox).


What do you mean “you own your newsletter”?

Your newsletter is owned by a massive corporate platform such as Mailchipm, which will ban you for wrongthink/wrongspeak just like other massive corporate platforms like Facebook.

Just the first news story I found: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/ncna1017221 – keep in mind that “antivaxxer” doesn’t mean what it used to mean but could simply mean you’re pointing out that vaccines aren’t 100% safe or 100% effective which is absolutely true but was considered fake news by mainstream propaganda a year or so ago. Besides the point but I expect I’ll get some replies so just noting preemptively.


Other providers can still ban you.

Switching providers sometimes requires all existing subscribers to “opt in” again.

Regardless you’re still owned by a platform. Gmail ain’t gonna let you deliver 1000s of emails yourself.


> You’re still owned by a platform.

There is a clear difference between lock in to a single provider and their commercial interests and strategy and the possibility that your content might fall foul of a number of providers.

For many email is a much less risky option than alternatives. Do you have a better option?


Sure, you might get kicked off a newsletter provider platform. It’s a risk.

But you have far far more options to take your subscriber list and go to a different provider (substack, tinyletter) or even build your own solution using something like mailgun or AWS SES. (Yes, that latter option would be quite a bit of work, but if you had, say, 20k email subscribers, it might be worth it.)

If you get kicked off twitter or facebook or even a place like HN or Lobste.rs, you have exactly zero ability to export the contact info of people who knew you and want to continue to hear from you.


It took me about four hours to build an SES based mailing system. With dynamodb, lambda and the API gateway it is almost trivial. Put docker in the mix and it’s more like going to the moon.


That’s great first hand experience, thanks for sharing. Personally I’d probably look at an open source package, but my biggest worries about building my own emailer would be:

making sure I followed the best practices (DMARC, DKIM, etc).

building IP reputation. Not sure how SES does with deliverability, but I know that can be an issue.

email clients rendering of my newsletter. This could by using text only, I suppose. That might work depending on your audience.

Again, though, at least you have the option of building your own solution when you have a newsletter.


It’s not a technical problem.

The difference between you and Amazon is that Amazon can deal with Gmail by picking up the phone. You aren’t even going to get as far as ‘talk to the hand’.

You can do all the things like DKIM right and still go straight to spam. If you’re a real DIY fanatic you’ll run your mail server at home or some other IP address which is doomed from the viewpoint of deliverability and be too stubborn to change it.

The SES/Dynamo/Lambda system is perfectly balanced for email lists that generate a huge amount of traffic for short bursts but still need to handles bounces and subscribe/unsubscribe requests whenever they come in, even if you don’t feel like getting around to rebooting the server stuffed under your bed. If you try to do it on a conventional server you need to pay for a lot more server if you don’t want it to get overloaded at peak load.


Email is a great thing, I use it heavily.
Why newsletters doens’t work for me:

1. I don’t want to give my email.
2. I don’t want to receive spam.
3. I don’t like long letters with massive amount of different news (even in single domain).

In my view newsletters/digests take more time to read and I prefer to receive small pieces of topics more often (what I’m interested in specifically, not whole the editor choice) than to recevie bunch of them on weekly basis.


I think it might be a filtering thing, like Nigerian scammers including things that make them look dodgy to make sure they’ve got someone particularly gullible on the hook. The people who end up subscribed to the newsletter are the easiest to get money from, sell junk to, con into buying cryptocurrency, scam, whatever.


It’s “push” instead of “pull” for content authors. A casual visitor my read one of your posts, then never visit your site again. If they sign up, you can send them monthly content.

I get it, but I do wish sites would give it a rest with the Newsletter pop-ups.


That doesn’t hold up to me. Why would a casual visitor sign up to a newsletter after reading half a paragraph of the article? Surely the bottom of the article would be a better place to ask if that was the purpose.


I have a blog in which I publish six days a week, plus a newsletter I publish once a month. Some people prefer (and subscribe to) one over the other for various reasons. A multichannel strategy just lets me reach more people who are interested in what I’m doing.


They do work to some extent (which is greater than zero). I have a newsletter to share links related to Python, Linux, Regular Expressions, Vim, etc. 38 issues later, I have close to 500 subscribers (I don’t do pop-ups, but thanks for the reminder – I should at least add them in the footer of my blog posts, been promoting mostly to my readers on Gumroad/Twitter).

Based on Gumroad stats, open rates are above 40%. I send 10-15 links per week, and the total link clicks average around 150 (not sure if adblockers affect such stats). I try to optimize links to share based on interest shown in topics so far.

And as others have commented, one of the reasons to start a newsletter is to have your own platform for sharing content.


It’s a “push”. If I go to your website because I see an interesting article on Hacker news or Twitter I’m unlikely to return for newer articles, even if I’m interested I will simply forget. However if you get my email you can push content to me.

If you have enough people in your newsletter you can increase your traffic and keep it more consistent, more traffic is more ad revenue. You could even get your newsletter sponsored and make it a source of revenue.

I have not worked on newsletters specifically but I can attest that sending emails is generally very effective.


I am sure they work because Substack’s whole business model relies on it. More importantly, a lot of bloggers/writers have been moving to substack because of this very reason.

Substack lets your readers easily subscribe to your paid/free newsletter and deliver new publications to their email which is expensive to run/maintain on your own(think of wordpress blog + mailchimp costs).


>I am sure they work because Substack’s whole business model relies on it.

Is Substack profitable? Because it’s easy to meddle hype/popularity with having a business model that makes sense. So I’m questioning how sure one can be about it just yet.


Here is a recent Techcrunch article that shows the current state of things: https://techcrunch.com/2022/05/26/report-substack-the-highly…

Here is an excerpt from the article:

> Substack told Axios late last year that the top 10 writers on the platform collectively generate $20 million in annual revenue. According to the Times, Substack separately told investors that it saw revenue of just $9 million last year. (It told the Times directly in a story last month that it has hundreds of thousands of paid newsletters now on the platform.)

That’s not a lot of revenue for a company boasting a $650 million valuation.

It seems the newsletters seems to be working for the content creators, same cannot be said about Substack itself.


I think it’s a way to negotiate with potential advertisers/sponsors.

Look at my audience of 1000+ people/emails that are potentially interested in your product, which i can shill or plainly advertise on my newsletter for a fee.


I read newsletters fairly regularly and I go search for them too sometimes.

While I appreciate using RSS to get a taste of the spectrum of current events, newsletters tend to be more curated, sometimes carrying a theme, and have the feeling of quality.

I used to flip through the weekly ads in newspapers but oh boy there was nothing quite like getting a company’s sales catalog. The feeling is similar for me.


I don’t believe they “work”, but IMO as a company you want as many way to push information to your customers. Today it’s principally emails or notifications. And so this is why you see newsletters form and every apps under the sky seems to ask to enable push notifications on your phone.

Another way is RSS feeds, but many companies seem to consider that there’s not enough users for the trouble.


Newsletters work because email will never ever die. Email is the one constant that will exist forever. So if you can reach a persons inbox you can reach their attention


>So many blogs promote their newsletter, […] What is the rationale behind it?

A website (and also RSS) — that is not hard paywalled with account login — is a “pull” by anonymous webbrowser clients. The website’s content creator doesn’t have a direct relationship with readers because you’d only have web browser IP addresses or aggregate statistics with Google Analytics, etc.

In contrast, newsletters can be “push” by content creators because you have collected email addresses that want the newsletters and therefore have a more direct relationship with readers. Building the audience via email addresses is valuable because it works outside centralized platforms like Youtube, Patreon, etc.

My previous comment dissecting example of Tim Ferris website-vs-newsletter : https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27716442


> Are there good equivalent ad networks like AdSense for newsletters

My experience has been “no”.

I don’t know of any networks that do newsletter ad placements; our placements have all been direct with the publisher. Some publishers have more than one newsletter so you can get some scale with them, but it’s still direct discussion with the publisher.


Yes they do work,

Its the only way to actually own your audience. Rather than asking permission to access someone else’s audience.

For example, I get emails from some people for the last 10 years. I would have forgotten about them many times over.

Having a Facebook page with a lot of likes use to mean you could get on their feed, now you are lucky to get any views without paying for them.


Well, I have 7 subscribers of my newsletter. I don’t really push it I just have a signup form at the bottom of posts and occasionally in the middle of longer/popular posts.

I don’t really know if newsletters work.

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