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The Future of Privacy in Newsletters

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
2 min read

There's been more momentum towards email privacy in the last month than in the last decade. It's such a strange coincidence that it's all happening while I'm taking a month to blog daily on newsletters.

I had prepared all kinds of posts on techniques that newsletters employ to help with deliverability (both getting the email to the reader and making sure that the email lands in their inbox, not spam or promotions folder). But it's becoming clearer to me that this wasn't such a huge problem until Gmail became dominant and that should be the primary focus.

There's always been methods to ensure your email gets delivered on any system, but it's Gmail's algorithm that's changed the game. They're deciding (and changing their minds regularly about) what you are allowed to read.

So, the first, and most important, deliverability technique for newsletters isn't about deliverability to every inbox. It's about mitigating Gmail's harmful algorithm.

The Markup posted an article yesterday about how Gmail is deciding which political candidates' emails you will see in your inbox, which will go to the "promotions" tab, and which will go to "spam."

As an example, Pete Buttigieg had 63% of his emails get through to the inbox, Bernie Sanders had 2%, and Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren got 0%.

When I saw that, my first thought was that Sanders, Biden, and Warren must’ve hired terrible email marketers to handle their campaigns. That could be true, since these campaigns often resort to buying lists and using tactics normally only employed by spammers, but it misses a bigger point.

Do we want an algorithm deciding what we’re allowed to read, without our consent or knowledge about what that algorithm is basing its decisions on? Do we want the future of our nation to rely on the wisdom of that algorithm?

The founders of Basecamp are betting you are going to say no. They released a manifesto yesterday for a new email product they’re about to launch called Hey. It promises to bring privacy back to email and allow you to control the experience, not an algorithm.

They have a great track record, and I really hope they can persuade the industry to change, like they did with their original manifesto on web design back in 1999. But, I fear that for now, the majority of the public will still opt for the spying and manipulation of a "free" product like Gmail.

Look at Alexa, Ring, Instagram, and Google search to see how much the public cares about privacy right now. As long as that's still true, there's still mitigation we need to do around Gmail.

If you publish a personal newsletter, pick a provider who will honor your readers' privacy and provide your readers with instructions on how to whitelist your newsletter on Gmail. Only a small percentage of readers will follow those instructions, but any little bit helps. I used to also throw in a plea to switch from Gmail occasionally, but that sounds preachy pretty quick (I quit Gmail years ago and somehow I survived).

If you publish a newsletter for an organization, things are still complicated. Google is probably already pressuring you (as well as Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to pay to play. Even if you honor privacy and have great relationships with your readers, it may not be enough to get you to the inbox. Deliverability also depends on your provider's relationship with Google, so there's that to consider as well. Did they pay? Get yourself a good email marketer.

If things aren't so great for readers right now privacy-wise, the choices for publishers are also not so great. I remain hopeful for change, and will probably switch providers for my personal newsletter to one that is better for reader privacy. And if Hey is all it’s promising, I’ll have a new way to read email as well.

Check out the rest of this month’s posts on creating email newsletters.

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