• Shreyas Prakash

The Plainletter Manifesto

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

We have a shiny object syndrome right in front of our eyes. And this has something to do with newsletters. Allow me to explain.

Roughly a year back, I was enamoured by the appeal of newsletters through the Twitterverse. Eager to publish one of my own, I discovered the Substack platform and started toying with it.

In the beginning, I thought I could just write some text and press the publish button. But no, it didn't go in that fashion. You had to make a theme, choosing your colour palette, your banner, your preamble, a footer, a logo and whatnot. It reminded me of the other design projects I had done which involved setting up all these design guidelines and systems.

*Why can't I just do it the same way I text my friend or the way I write to my aunt?*

In the end, I managed to publish my newsletter and then again, and then again. I managed to publish roughly 10 editions until the shine in the 'shiny object syndrome' started wearing out.

However, something about the 'designerly' aspects of an email unsettled me. At that time, I couldn't articulate or pinpoint the matter, and I just let things be.

I was then seeing an even higher surge among indie creators who were sharing newsletter threads on Twitter left and right. Usually, their bios were linked on Twitter, so I used to subscribe to them as well. I initially liked all this brouhaha, followed all these creators and went on a massive subscription spree.

*What's the worst that could happen, right?*

Back then, It was just some 4-5 creators whom I was following quite avidly. You had James Clear's 3-2-1 newsletter as well as Tim Ferris' Five Bullet Friday for that matter.

Going through email was much more peaceful back then. However, when the subscriptions began to rise, the email was a Wild West all over again.

It was as If I was drinking water from a hosepipe. When it became too much to comprehend, the subscription spree was followed by a massive unsubscription spree.

Being a newsletter creator myself, why was I not reading other newsletters?

Most of them ended up in the Promotions/Updates folder. And that's equivalent to hiding a dead body on the internet.

It might not sound as tragic as I make it sound, but there is a certain element of truth to it. Your brain automatically categorises these emails. In the book *Boron Letters* by Garry Halbert, talks about our tendency to classify our emails into two piles. The A pile and the B pile.

You had the A pile, which had all things personal. Like letters from friends, relatives, business associates and so on. And on the other hand, you had the B pile, containing envelopes which more or less contained commercial messages.

Interestingly, The A pile, almost never contained graphic elements, visual styling or any such cool retro-hip HTML graphic elements. They were deceptively simple text-only emails. However, the B pile was flooded with graphics, images, colours, logos.

Graphics, Images, Colors, Logos.

Graphics, Images, Colors, Logos.

Graphics, Images, Colors, Logos.

In fact, there were so many from the B-pile that we have unconsciously decided what we have to ignore.

Graphics, Images, Colors, Logos.

All the email marketers were nerding out on adding banners, custom logos, visual elements, graphics, interaction elements and so on.

However, the emails which almost always get read were the **plain text email**.

This was when it hit me. We are trying to add glitz and glamour to a format that didn't require such an addition in the first place.

In fact, think about the email which your old aunt or your long lost friend had once sent you.

Close your eyes.

Was there a logo on the header? A custom banner on the topic? A gif to spice it up?

It was just plain old text email.

I realised this aspect when I received a message from a close friend of mine who used to read my newsletters avidly.

As soon as I read it, I was deeply touched. For some reason, those textual molecules had some effect on me.

In fact, it reminded me of my eighth grade when I used to scribble handwritten notes to my childhood crush during those tuition classes. There was this 'warm-fuzzy feeling' which I found difficult to explain. It was surprising how this was recreating the experience I once had for handwritten letters.

That too on email.

Plain text emails are the digital version of handwritten notes.

This reinforced my understanding of Marshall McLuhan's famous quote - 'Medium is the message.'

In fact, within the modality of the email, adding graphic elements makes it less authentic and personal. The distribution matters as much as the product.

With this renewed mental model, I started looking at all these substack newsletters which used to appear in my email and realized why I have been avoiding them.

It was very much in the 'Pile B' category.

There was a lot of glitz and glamour, but where was the warmth?

What if we could consciously choose to facilitate connections and trust more than the metrics such as click-through rates, engagements and subscriber counts.

What if you could create such a deeper engagement on email with a small group of close confidantes. Your close friends, your mentors, your advisors. In fact, I would proceed to claim that small is beautiful.

Those 10,000 random email subs which you are aiming to achieve using some snake-oil-salesman growth hack tactics. They might in fact be pretty shallow.

Even if they are just some 20 highly valuable readers who seek to have deeper engagement with you, that would do the job.

Could we think of a new way of expressing ourselves through a newsletter that prefers quality over quantity?

Tryst with Text

With this as the premise, I started researching email newsletter providers that could provide such a simple service. My criteria were very simple.

1. It had to send a KISS letter (Keep-it-Simple-Silly) No cards, no banners, no HTML. Just plain text.

2. It had to be delivered to the Primary inbox.

3. It had to be a private list for subscriptions.

The reasoning behind this criteria was as follows.

Keep it Simple Silly

As I've tried to explain through my story, I wanted to re-create a deeper one-on-one conversation with that your reader. I wanted it to be similar to the messages you'd get from family or friends.

The more it looks 'marketese' or 'legalese', the less it looks 'personalese'. Not just that, a plain-text email strategy is also adopted by several successful marketeers out there. Kevin Fontenot talks about how text-based emails have higher open and reply rates. Jennifer Lux of SmartBug Media confirms the same.

*But hey, we are not looking at marketing anything. We are here to make deeper connections.*

Besides this, sending a plain-text email also had a fair share of advantages in terms of its compatibility across interfaces (even with Apple Watches), reduced loading time as well as deeper engagement (obviously)

Less is more

I strongly feel that putting a gated wall to your 'inner circle' makes it much more meaningful. This artificial demarcation could provide a different perspective for the members who want to join this tribe. This could hone down the message of importance and value. Just like how Bitcoin starts becoming valuable because of its scarcity, even though it is merely a piece of fiction in our mind.

Scarcity could provide a similar such 'value'.

In fact, Kevin Kelly, in his piece, 100 True Fans, talks about how successful creators do not need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans.

Whether it is living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker or even as an entrepreneur, all they just need are a handful of true fans with whom they have a direct relationship.

The 'direct' relationship is an important element to invoke the magical 'warm fuzzy feeling' which I was earlier mentioning.

Fans, customers, patrons have been around forever. However, with the advent of modern retailing, creators have slowly lost direct contact or a deeper connection with their customers. By focusing on quality instead of quantity, it would be possible to revive this direct relationship with a handful of fans.

The heart of any email is its personal nature, and by deliberately restricting the number on the inner circle, it might create a sense of tribe and belonging.

Gated Gardens

The first rule of the fight club is that you don't talk about the fight club

Previously when you used to subscribe to a magazine, you had to use your credit card, put up a piece of information, fill up the checkboxes etc, add your delivery address so that you could receive it by post next week.

There were so many points to opt-out in this journey.

Roughly 10 to 12 such points of friction have dramatically got reduced to a meagre three in the digital world (enter email, sign up, confirm subscription). Although email newsletters have reduced these points of friction, on the flip side, you have so many emails to which you subscribe leading to a very unhealthy information diet.

So instead of keeping it open and available for every Tom, Dick and Harry to join, you keep it closed. You make it difficult to get into. The public is now earnestly requesting to be subscribed to this 'inner circle'.

One of them somehow find a lead, an uncanny referral and they are led to a deeper Q and A to see if it's indeed a newsletter-consumer fit.

You then get access to this private list. Contrary to reducing the points of friction, you are increasing the points of friction (by design). The garden is getting gated.


The Plainletter Manifesto

All the fluff from the newsletters would go away soon.

We're going back to square one.

It's about time newsletters deserved a second chance. This time in the avatar of a private-plain-text-newsletters (let's just call them plainletters)

I frankly don't have all the answers on how plainletters could disrupt the Substack-doped crowd, but I see some glimpses of its future.

We have seen enough of its past. Truth be told, plain-text-emails have been around since 1965, and they are nothing new in this internet world.

But there could be repurposing, repositioning and some rebranding. The old wine in a new bottle. plain-text-emails in the format of a private-plain-text-newsletter.

And this would give those branded HTML emails a run for their lives.

It's about time that we shed our Shiny Object Syndrome and go back to the old school format.

To just get the ball rolling, I will start by burning some effigies.

And I am starting with these four pillars of our modern Substack newsletter.

The toughest part of this movement is to deliberately remove all the 'designerly' elements being a designer myself.

All you need is text.

As Steve Jobs once described, 'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.'

Let's keep it plain.


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