By all counts, email should already be dead.
Just to name a few: Chatbots were supposed to kill email. So was Facebook Messenger. Project management software Asana led the email-slaying circuit for a while, and more recently, thousands of words have been written about Slack’s sure-thing mission to obliterate our inboxes.
Oh, and don’t forget the millennials. Those blasted millennials are absolutely, positively on the brink of ending email once and for all.
Yet, for all the animosity, email, by most measures, is not only thriving but also spawning a whole new style of publishing—one that promises to fill an important void in the modern media landscape.
And a tiny Dutch company called Revue wants to make sure everyone—from large publishers all the way down to individual writers—can tap into that power.
Personal publishing 2.0
Martijn de Kuijper first saw the seeds of email’s editorial evolution taking shape three years ago. De Kuijper—a serial entrepreneur based in Utrecht, Netherlands, 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam—found himself growing frustrated with the less-than-stellar venues the internet offered for following his interests.
“I was missing out on topics and on information,” he says. “I was following people on Twitter, and I thought: ‘There must be a better way.'”
So de Kuijper got to work. He noticed a then-small number of individuals using email to create their own personal publications and connect directly with readers, and he realized how few tools existed that were truly designed for such purposes—not for coordinating marketing efforts over email but for crafting editorial-style newsletters. Ones that would deliver information people actually wanted in a visually compelling way.
Four weeks later, he had a rough version of the service that would soon become Revue. Within a couple more weeks, about 2,000 users had signed up—and it dawned on de Kuijper that he wasn’t alone.
“I said to myself, ‘I must be onto something,” he recalls.
Today, de Kuijper’s early vision for Revue has turned into a full-fledged publishing platform. The service aspires to be the Medium of email newsletter creation—a plug-and-play system which lets content creators produce polished and professional-looking newsletters without having to worry about the technical aspects of design.
Revue’s web-based editing interface is as simple as it gets: You just paste in links to articles, tweets, or even YouTube videos, then add in whatever text and images you want—and the system formats it all for you. You can even connect different types of feeds or use Revue’s Chrome extension to save content throughout the day and then have it waiting to be dragged and dropped into place.
It’s that focus on simplicity and design that led writers such as Casey Newton of The Verge, Jon Russell of TechCrunch, and M.G. Siegler of GV (the venture capital arm of Alphabet) to sign up with the service and start creating personal editorial newsletters. (Full disclosure: I recently did the same.)
“I thought that it was a newfangled way of approaching it—a very WYSIWYG style of getting into newsletters,” says Siegler, who made his name on the internet writing for VentureBeat and then TechCrunch before turning to venture capital. “I liked the notion of it being first and foremost reader- and editorial-focused rather than trying to cater to business, which a lot of email newsletter services do.”
For Siegler, who has a sizable following on Twitter and publishes regularly on Medium and Tumblr, too, expanding into the realm of email newsletters offered a unique kind of appeal: an ability to connect directly with his readers, without any reliance on volatile algorithms and in a more intimate manner than social media allows.
“It feels much more like a one-on-one relationship,” he says. “In our age, everyone is used to refreshing Twitter streams and Facebook feeds, [so] there’s something nice to feeling like you’re slowing down the pace of info that’s coming your way.”
The email newsletter evolution
You don’t have to look far to see the inspiration for Revue’s editorial newsletter model. Just across the internet, the business publication Quartz is widely credited with helping to “reinvent” the email newsletter, moving beyond mere collections of links to provide a distinct voice, format, and style crafted specifically for that medium. Quartz, however, operates on a much grander scale than Revue’s typical customer—with five different newsletters now reaching a total of over 750,000 subscribers—and it relies on its own custom-built software for content creation.
Still, the underlying principles remain the same, and it’s easy to see the link between what Quartz is accomplishing on its own platform and what Revue is trying to democratize with its online offering. Both scenarios, in fact, seem to share a common ancestor: the print magazine.
Just ask Jessanne Collins, the editor of Quartz’s relatively new Obsession email newsletter. Collins relies heavily on her experience in the print world—where she recently served as editor in chief of Mental Floss, prior to its online-only transition—to bring a sense of purpose and cohesiveness to every issue she creates.
“To me, there’s a similarity to magazine-making with that, where you’re really thinking about the thing as a whole and how it stands,” she says.
Collins also sees parallels between the way print periodicals and email newsletters are consumed: Unlike the infinite streams of social media, in which one more thing is always lurking around the corner and a sense of closure evades you, a newsletter presents a complete and finite package—something reminiscent of a magazine-reading experience and something conspicuously absent from most online media consumption.
“You start at the beginning and can skip through and skim around, but it comes to an end instead of being dispersed throughout the day in the overwhelming atmosphere of the web as a whole,” Collins says.
It’s that same sort of cohesive packaging Revue aims to enable—only for companies or individuals that don’t have access to the sorts of resources a publication like Quartz enjoys.
Thinking both big and small
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that ambition, de Kuijper and his team have turned their focus increasingly toward journalists. Already, such professionals make up the largest chunk of Revue’s 35,000 users, most of whom use the service’s free starter plan, with a maximum of 50 subscribers.
The company’s goal is to convert more of those users into paying customers—with plans ranging from $5 to $135 a month, depending on the number of subscribers involved—and also to attract the attention of publishers who want a platform for managing multiple newsletter projects.
To that end, Revue recently unveiled an option for customers to create and maintain both free and paid subscription newsletters, with Stripe integration for payment processing. It also offers publisher-level accounts, which provide tools for team management.
While roughly two-thirds of Revue’s users are from the U.S., the company’s primary publisher clients currently stem from the Netherlands. The Dutch broadcasting organization NOS, for instance, uses Revue to publish a weekly newsletter called Trump Weekly (yes, about that Trump). De Kuijper says he’s in the midst of talking with several U.S. publications about how they could similarly utilize the service.
He may be headed down a fruitful path: Now more than ever, publishers ranging from The Washington Post to The Times of London are joining the ranks of newer media companies like Quartz and Vox Media in emphasizing email newsletters as a way to reach readers. At the same time, many publishers are struggling with the technology that makes newsletters work, as media trend-tracking magazine Digiday reported last year. And while the larger outlets may have the means to create their own in-house software solutions, smaller publishers—the precise types of companies likely to be looking at ramping up newsletter operations in the coming years—frequently do not.
“Email is a medium that still works well,” de Kuijper says. “Journalists and publications are looking for other ways to reach their audience, and we believe you can do that in a truly meaningful way with newsletters.”
Quartz‘s Collins agrees. “Email came back into the forefront at this interesting time when people were evaluating their relationships with platforms and sources,” she says. “I think we all started to take it for granted and then just recently re-realized the immense power it has.”
In 2014, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal described email as a “tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can [be] and have been built”—”an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services. He also called email the “cockroach of the internet” for its uncanny ability to escape death time and time again.
Thinking about email newsletters in the context of the current digital media landscape and the goals Revue and publishers like Quartz are trying to achieve, both parts of that assessment are eerily spot-on.