In these days of government-toppling tweets, 8-second feature films over Vine and Facebook’s steadily assimilation of the planet, the unfashionable uncle of social media; email, seems a tad neglected. Like LinkedIn, it’s often seen as a professional necessity for work, rather than the multi-purpose, tantalising playground offered by Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr et al.
So it’s somewhat unusual to see a digital publishing start-up basing its entire business model on the platform. As part of the part-time MA in Online Journalism I’ve recently started, our class met Tom Cullen, former FHM and Shortlist writer, who’s recently relocated to Birmingham to set up a new, daily digital ‘magazine’ distributed and accessed exclusively by email, iCHOOS_Birmingham.
Describing iCHOOS_Birmingham as an “email mini-magazine of sorts, that doesn’t have a parent magazine”, Tom’s plan is essentially to “publish fremium content to the Birmingham market” about things to do in the city to affluent men and women, entirely via a daily email.
You can listen to the audio, recorded by Paul Bradshaw, on this Audioboo board. The nasal, brummie questions that tail off towards the end of sentences are asked by me.
Interestingly, at a time when anyone can publish their own content via their own website or blog, and so competes with everything-else-ever-written-ever, Tom’s plan was to avoid publishing articles online (although an email archive will be present on the site), and instead publish micro-articles of around 100 words each, just to subscribers. In doing so, the idea is to ‘reward’ subscribers with good quality content through – somewhat unusually in 2013 – what is essentially a closed off, non-public domain; an email newsletter.
“It’s really important to make people feel like they’re part of a club,” says Tom, who formerly ran Shortlist Magazine’s daily email, Mr Hyde, which boasts over 100,000 subscribers. “So you sign up for it and you’re one of a very few people who receive this very cool thing that keeps you in the know.”
“The more I learned about email the more I saw that it’s a beautiful crossover between the old school magazine publishing, in that you hit send and it’s published, but that it’s also online in that you have a website to drive traffic to sign-up, so it’s a cross-over of the two worlds.”
As someone who used to run an email newsletter to 1,000+ animators for Animation Forum West Midlands (AFWM), I can sympathise with the often-underestimated value of a humble email newsletter. Members of the AFWM group at the time (around 2008-10) would sometimes tell me how much they valued the email newsletters – which contained a round-up of local animation industry news and jobs – but would rarely mention the website’s news feed or Twitter feed. After all, anybody could access the publicly posted content, it wasn’t just for those outside of the ‘club’.
Sadly, the time-consuming nature of having to hand-code HTML, Outlook-compatible emails at the time, eventually meant the Animation Forum WM email newsletter become too inefficient to compile (this was before the brilliantly simple MailChimp – which Tom intends to use – really took off). The ‘club’ part of the group however, still remains on the Facebook group.
In an age where everything is open and accessible, it’s interesting to see local-content geared publications attempting something new, by reinventing something seemingly old-fashioned, the email newsletter.
Do you run an email newsletter? What type of content tends to get the best user engagement?