Are tech giants actually bringing innovation to newsletters, or is it just about capturing a piece of the creator economy pie?
Clubhouse peaked in February 2021, according to data from SensorTower. Back then, popular figures like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg would show up in audio chat rooms. These appearances drove tons of news articles and provided great promotion for the social audio app.
Quickly after Facebook announced it was building its own Clubhouse clone, Twitter was already testing its competitor, LinkedIn joined the social audio excitement. Spotify bought Locker Room, an early Clubhouse sports-oriented rival, and re-launched it months later as a standalone app under the name Greenroom.
Social audio fever has since waned – for which some blame Clubhouse itself. Arguments include iterating on the product too slowly (late Android release, a long invite-only access period) and ignoring creator demands (allowing recordings right away for everyone, more data, more people allowed in rooms). But tech giants flooding the market with competitors didn’t help.
It might be too soon to write the Clubhouse obituary. In August the audio platform said more than 700,000 rooms were being created each day, up from 300,000 in May.
Still, if you asked creators or publishers how important Clubhouse (or its competitors) were as part of their paid content strategy, I doubt you would get many positive answers. Sure, audio, in general, plays a big role, but that’s different. Podcasts and audio articles are becoming a must-have for many publishers, alongside newsletters and e-mail.
So why did I start with Clubhouse when talking about newsletters? I believe the fate of social live audio and its quick fall from grace (much faster than the once hailed “pivot to video”) was caused by many factors. But having tech giants stepping in did not help, on the contrary.
Google joins Facebook in creating its own newsletter platform
After reading that Google is also working on a newsletter tool, my mind went back to the fate of Clubhouse. Yes, I know, Clubhouse is just one app. Newsletters on the other hand are alive because of e-mail, a way of open internet standard communication. But for a while live social audio was synonymous with Clubhouse.
Google’s Museletter is a product from the company’s internal R&D division, Area 120. It allows anyone to publish a Google Drive file (Slides, Sheets, Docs…) as a blog to their Museletter public profile or send as a newsletter to an email list.
Google wants the Drive integration to be a differentiator, compared to Facebook’s Bulletin platform outright copying of Substack’s model (even the design is almost the same). Newsletters can be written in a Google Doc and creators could offer paid access to their Google Slides or Sheets.
As you might have guessed, using Museletter itself will be free. The project aims to monetize with premium features like custom domains, welcome emails and more. A good bet is that Google will also introduce ads as a form of revenue.
Although there is no information when Google will open the project to a wider user base, there is a form where users can request early access. It’s geo-protected, so unless you request with a US-based IP using a VPN (or simply open it from the US), you cannot access it. If you manage to send the form, Google will reply that you can expect the launch “within the coming months”.
In terms of innovation in the newsletter space, Museletter seems to have some added value when it comes to features. The Google Drive integration seems neat and will be helpful for some, though it isn’t anything revolutionary anyone on different e-mail platforms couldn’t do now.
More than one year after the COVID-19 outbreak, global studies of its impact on media business are starting to be published. The newest Resilience Report 2020 from The European Journalism Centre (EJC) is based on interviews with members of fact-checking, local and investigative news outlets from all over Europe. The strategies the EJC suggests publishers employ to adapt to fast-changing environments:
- Be audience-focused, not audience-led
- Invest in providing credible and trustworthy news
- Believe in fast changes
We have reviewed the European media market trends described by EJC in detail, and here are the main takeaways:
The speed of business model changing was incredibly high, but financial challenges are far from over
According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, the advertising revenue of some media decreased up to 50%, many news organizations have laid off staff and reduced the print run, resigned from it, or closed completely. To survive, some publishers developed new revenue models in the first few months of the pandemic.
The most popular among these discovered by the EJC publishers throughout their interviews were one-off or monthly donations and paid membership schemes. However, according to Reuters, reader payment alternatives are likely to benefit a relatively small number of highly trusted national titles or smaller niche media brands. Local media will need support from government and technology companies, which threatens their own independence.
As stated by the EJC, these types of initiatives would take 6-12 months to implement and even longer in normal conditions. Interviewed publishers admitted that managing the membership or subscription journey, pricing optimization, communication testing, and budget reviewing took the most time. Some media relied on donation platforms like Patreon
and Steady for a head start. The advantages of using the tools mentioned by these interviewees are as follows: a quick launch with minimal effort, data on users activity and conversions. For example, the creator’s dashboard on Patreon allows not only to set the financial goals and observe real-time state changes for any pledges from the patrons but shows the following metrics as well: patron retention, engagement of the patrons and non-patron viewers to your content.
The EJC recommended focusing on operational support instead of restricted project funding, as well as working with foundations, CSR programs, for-profit investors, and other companies via community campaigns and affiliate revenue, for example. Supporting the overlooked by the funds media outlets or market-related organizations is also worth including into strategy.
What are tech giants bringing to the newsletter space?
It would be unfair to say the tech giants are not bringing anything to the table for newsletter creators (even though that was my first thought looking at their products). Having easier tools for creating, distributing and reaching new audiences is always helpful as any creator or publisher will tell you.
But Google and Facebook entering the newsletter space still remains in my mind more than a little controversial. Not only because of their “land-grabber” profiles and motives.
Both companies had tried before taking a part of the open internet and making it their own, whether it was Facebook with Instant Articles or Google with AMP.
Having more alternatives is a sign of a good market. The problem arises when some of them have very deep pockets and try to grab a big part of the market for themselves. We have seen social media innovation stagnant for years because no one saw an opening. Then TikTok came and the creator economy boosted some other alternatives.
E-mail has remained a widely open platform for decades (sure, we could debate the role of Gmail in all of that or Apple’s recent efforts in making emails more private while giving less data to newsletter creators).
It would be unfortunate if the tech giants somehow destroyed the good rap that newsletters have built up in recent years.
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.