Email still isn't dead

Thrillist founder Ben Lerer on the staying power of newsletters.

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarEmail lacks the flair of check-ins or the pulse of real-time data. And we all know it’s got plenty of technical issues and eager competitors. But ask yourself this: How many times per day (or hour) do you check your inbox?

It’s clear that email is still viable.

Ben Lerer, co-founder and CEO of Thrillist, knows this firsthand. His company, which creates and sends daily newsletters to more than 2.1 million subscribers in 17 markets, is the rare web outlet that puts email first and everything else second. Thrillist is a good reminder that when it comes to technology, “mature” is not synonymous with “dead.”

Lerer explains his company’s ongoing commitment to email and offers some useful lessons learned in the following interview.

Was a newsletter part of your original plan for Thrillist?

Ben LererBen Lerer: It was always part of the gameplan because it was very simple. We understood the idea of getting an email each day, and Daily Candy had done a good job creating a model that we could copy in some regards.

What’s interesting to look at is with all of these cool new technologies that are coming out, very rarely does one stick for a long period of time. Email isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, but it hasn’t changed because it’s a spectacular product.

How did you know the newsletters were catching on?

BL: We measured success by hearing from businesses we covered and getting feedback that our coverage was working. That meant we were writing about a restaurant and people went. Or we would write about a service and people used it. We got validation from the actual subjects of our editorial. It showed that people trusted us and were taking our content seriously.

What tips do you have for companies considering newsletters?

BL: The first thing you need to do is know why you’re creating an email newsletter. Don’t just do it because you know you should be doing something with email.

You need to define the product. There are two options: one is you’re using a newsletter as a traffic driver, the other is the newsletter itself is the product.

If you’re creating a newsletter to be the product, create a rich experience on one page that provides everything the user needs. Don’t make a teaser that clicks off to the website.

On the flip side, you can also build a successful newsletter product that’s a traffic driver. You can use email to highlight the best or the most timely stories and bring people to the site.

Ben Lerer will explore the opportunities for online publications at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Radar readers can save 20% on registration with the code “radar.”

What mistakes have you made?

BL: We’re still making them. There’s mistakes in every piece of the business, in every department.

For example, we’ve made mistakes when we’ve been too obsessed with timeliness. There have been times where we haven’t written about things because we didn’t get to it first. But what we found was that other publishers in the space were not doing the same quality of reporting.

Sometimes, we would have been better served to wait a little while. To make sure the place we were featuring was as great as we thought it was, that we had better photos, had better menus, and had better information.

There’s lessons there for any newsletter publisher: Make sure you focus on quality and make sure you’re willing to change your approach if the audience isn’t responding to what you’re sending.

How do you deal with spam filters and other technological hurdles?

BL: You absolutely need to worry about deliverability. That’s where relationships with the email service providers come in. As long as you’re not doing sleazy things to build your list, as long as you’re building it organically and through smart partnerships, you don’t have a ton of problems with spam filters. There’s a lot of companies that you can work with that have the technology to send at the proper speeds and use the correct throttling. When you’re sending out to the email service providers, you’re playing by the rules that they set up.

The technology behind newsletters can become challenging once you get to a certain volume. If you have ads or content that’s intended for segments of the audience, there’s heavy server load that comes in there. You need to have your servers set up properly.

There’s a lot of angst in the online advertising world. How are newsletters holding up?

BL: In the past, email at a lot of the big media companies was always looked at as an afterthought. You’d do a big print buy or a big digital buy with GQ and as added value, they’d give you email. What people found over time is that emails are a very efficient place to advertise because you have a captive audience and a subscription mentality.

Email is susceptible to the same ups and downs of any sort of digital advertising. If companies are spending, the market is going to be good. If companies are spending less, the market is going to be not as good.

We grew very nicely through the recession and we’re still growing from an email and advertising perspective. Ad dollars are finding us because dollars are moving online.

Thrillist targets a specific demographic in specific cities. Would your business have worked if you had pursued a national audience?

BL: I think that it would have worked, but it would’ve worked because we’d eventually figure out we had to go local.

This interview was condensed and edited.


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