Twice as Many Online Newsletters Expected in 2004

The number of newsletters in an online format has nearly doubled over the past year, according to the Oxbridge Directory of Newsletters. The 2004 edition of the directory lists 4,909 online newsletters, compared to just 2,500 last year. Overall, the combined number of email and print newsletters rose only 3.1 percent, going from 12,796 to 13,197, which means the number of newsletters in print-only format is actually in decline.

Chris Selland, vice president of sell-side research at Aberdeen Group, says that the growth of newsletters comes mostly as an addition to existing marketing efforts--and, he says, it's a good one. "Customers appreciate value-based content," he says. "Newsletters are a great opportunity to provide that and enhance relationships accordingly."

Some companies are just discovering email marketing, according to Loren McDonald, vice president of marketing for EmailLabs, a provider of email marketing-automation solutions: "There were companies that were late to the party." For example, those that simply posted PDFs of their existing newsletters online for downloading. Today, he says, "it's really affordable to create HTML newsletters and send them out."

"Despite all the coverage in the media about spam and deliverability issues, email marketing is [still] growing and rising," McDonald says. "It's still a very efficient and effective medium. It's becoming more complex to do it well, but there are just so many advantages over print, [such as] the immediacy of it and the interactive relationship you can have with the recipient."

Those efficiencies are too compelling to pass up. "You expend a similar amount of energy producing an email newsletter and a print one," he says. "But the email one goes out the day it's done, whereas a paper newsletter needs to go to the printer and may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get to the recipients. By the time your print newsletter gets there, your competitors will have already talked up the Big New Thing."

The relatively inexpensive start-up costs of a newsletter may have something to do with their explosion in number. Lower costs are "certainly not a bad thing," Selland says. "But for the customer the value is in the content, not the low price." According to the Oxbridge directory, there are 1,449 more online newsletters this year, and 1,913 more newsletters overall--which means online newsletters represent about three quarters of overall growth.

Selland says print-only newsletters aren't likely to fade completely. "Firms that tailor their products and services to non-technical audiences will, of course, [continue to] stick with print alone," he says.

The rapid expansion of online newsletters, however, isn't necessarily a good thing--not if the collective noise begins to eclipse the individual signals. "These days everyone is doing newsletters," Selland says. "It's becoming a 'tragedy of the commons' situation: Nobody has time anymore to read all of the newsletters that land in their inbox. The only solution is to differentiate your content." That kind of differentiation is hard to come by, Selland says, "because many of them these days have little interesting to say; they're just efforts to stick the logo in people's faces."

As the novelty of the electronic format begins to wane, and the various content begins to blur, the pendulum may begin to swing back in the other direction, Selland says--or at least more toward a hybrid solution. "I'd expect that we will see some companies...returning to paper as a differentiator or complement for their e-newsletters."

That hybrid model seems to be blooming. The new directory notes that, of the 4,949 online newsletters included in this year's edition, 3,309 are also available in print format.

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