Give it away! Give it away! Give it away now! Why e-mail newsletters are cool, but not if they’re paid.

Matthew Ingram asked the question today of whether or not people should start an e-mail newsletter.  At the same time, two of the most awesome people I know, Mike Galpert and Amanda Peyton, are using Sam Lessin’s letter.ly to create paid e-mail newsletters—effectively nailing the coffin on what were sometimes sparsely updated blogs.

I get it.  I get why people like Jason Calacanis wanted to stop blogging (even though he really can’t).  My suspicion, though, is that it’s not the blogging that’s hard, it’s the writing.  I’ve been blogging now for a little over 6 1/2 years.  It’s not the medium that’s the issue.  Some people just aren’t passionate about writing or making time for it.  I’ll bet that half of the e-mail newsletter folks eventually give it up, just like most people give up their blogs, too.  It’s a big commitment.

I’ve learned a lot about how effective a targeted e-mail newsletter can be, too, and for certain kinds of messages, it really works.  My weekly NYC events newsletter has nearly 2,000 subscribers, has almost 50% open rates, and even nailed a 20% clickthrough a couple of weeks ago (usually get 12-15%).  I get a ton of positive feedback and it drives a lot of event signups when it goes out.  I’ve even had offers to sponsor it, which you can now do.

I also like e-mail as a consumption method better than RSS.  Your inbox is the best mobile RSS reader out there, and I’ve started using FeedMyInbox to subscribe to blogs by e-mail.  They call get a special tag and so when I want to read blogs, I just click the blogs tag in Gmail.  If something isn’t good enough to wind up in your inbox, it’s probably not worth a subscription.

E-mail has been a great medium for me and it’s been that for a lot of businesses as well—like Groupon, Gilt, etc.  Even Facebook is sending around close a billion e-mails a day to notify people about what’s going on in the ecosystem and getting them to return to the site.  Ridiculous pronunciations that e-mail is dead have been rendered severely premature at best—and probably completely wrong.  E-mail is alive and well—but that doesn’t mean everyone should make them paid.

I’ve also had people say they’d pay for the newsletter and that I should charge.  In fact, I’ve had a lot of people say I should charge for a lot of things, like membership in nextNY.  I’ve always had two responses to that:

1) These things just wouldn’t be the same if they had a paywall.  nextNY wouldn’t be what it is if it were paid.  My blog wouldn’t have the community around its ideas the way it does.  I wouldn’t have the same relationship with the community if I charged for my ideas.

2) I get *more* out of giving stuff away, monetarily, over the long term, than if I charge for everything.  My ability to have a career and to generate revenue for myself is a direct result of my giving away a lot of stuff for free—advice, events, networking connections, introductions to capital, etc.

I subscribed to Galpert’s newsletter b/c he’s a smart guy that I’d like to be supportive of and continue to know over time.  As a general trend, though, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be sustainable, nor is it a particularly good move for up and coming professionals, for a bunch of reasons.

The biggest reason?  You’re discoverability goes down to pretty much zero when you switch from a blog to e-mail—especially to a paid one.  You can’t search for e-mail newsletter content (particularly with paid ones), you can’t tweet them, share them on a blog, etc.  I would say that half of the new introductions I get a week are because someone read something that I wrote on my blog and felt like it would be worthwhile to reach out to me.  A good chunk of the rest of the people are referred by others inspired by something that I wrote that made them think the introduction would be appropriate.  By locking down the content you produce, you’re basically saying that web serendipity around meeting new people isn’t providing you any value.

Sam Lessin says that giving away free content is “disingenuous”.

Really?  And charging your friends and best contacts to hear what you have to say isn’t?

The second reason I think paid newsletters are problematic is because you’re monetizing your closest connections.  Let’s be honest.  For most people, it’s basically their friends and closest connections that read their blogs.  Directly monetizing these people just creates all kind of friends+money issues—and in my opinion, just isn’t such a hot way to build a relationship over time.  If I’m slow to catch up on your blog or I just don’t think your writing is that interesting, but I think you’re an awesome person, it’s fine with a blog.  I can just say I’m swamped.  If I don’t pay to subscribe to your e-mail newsletter, am I going to fall down a rung in your friend ladder versus people who pay?  Tell me you’re not going to feel slighted.  People used to feel slighted when I had a blogroll and they weren’t on it.  People say that it’s just building a community of people who *really* are interested in the content.  I think you shouldn’t have to prove your interest with your wallet—and I certainly don’t only want to build a community around my ideas of people who are able/willing to pay.

Let’s not forget that either.  Some people just aren’t able to pay.  Finding a budget of an extra $15-30 bucks a month on top of everything else might not be doable for a college student or lower income person accessing the web from a public place.  When I was building a company, I was cashflow negative and so an extra expense just would have meant extra debt.  I don’t want anyone going into debt to read what I write.  Call me disingenuous.

If you want to have a little tipjar—or create a system whereby you fill a universal tip jar and disperse the money based on pageviews, RTs, etc, that’s cool.  I’d be more than happy to “tip” friends who write well.  Perhaps FeedMyInbox should allow people to claim their blogs and grab a share of subscription fees in the service.

I just don’t like being forced to pay.  Similarly, I also don’t like being forced to check my coat at a place that charges for coat check.  It’s like a tax for being appropriately dressed for the weather.

To me, blogging is all about knowledge sharing—to contribute your ideas, to mix and share with others, so that we could all benefit from the collective feedback, pushback, or just overall awareness of who is thinking about what.  I wasn’t writing because someone paid me to, I was writing because I was passionate about the topic.  Doing that for free is no more disingenuous than wanting to play baseball for food money.  Giving away things for free because you like doing them and you get connected to others with the same interest is possibly one of the most authentic things you can do.

Now, playing the counting followers game, trying to get up on Techmeme—I get that.  That sucks.  It grows tiresome—just as tiresome as the game of trying to make the most money in a success-rich city like New York.  You can, however, simply opt-out of that game.  Just don’t play it.  Share what you want to share, and don’t worry too much that not as many people are finding it or you’re not the most followed person.  If you want to do that in an e-mail, cool…  but if you’re not in the content business, why bother putting a paywall on top of it?  You’re creating barriers to interaction, which is much more valuable than the content itself.