Hit ’em in their inboxes

“Email is the largest social network”

Inside, an email-only news network started by online media pioneer Jason Calacanis, is a year old and closing in on 300,000 subscribers. While that number is not particularly interesting in itself, Inside’s approach to publishing certainly is. The company is a big believer in email exclusivity. Its publications aren’t available on websites or even shared on social networks. “Email,” says Inside, “is the largest social network.”

We suspect that Inside is onto something.

The rise of social networks and mobile messaging is supposed by some to have killed email, good and proper. But the statistics tell a different story. More than three billion legitimate emails are sent every hour, according to the latest numbers, and there are more than 3.7 billion email users worldwide. But when it comes to distributing written content, email’s scale is only one of its advantages. What Inside knows, and other savvy publishers are finding, is that email is the most personal, direct, and effective way to reach the readers who want to hear from you.

If your story is in a reader’s inbox, it’s because they have invited it in there, or because one of their friends personally passed it on. As we’re inundated with low-nutrition content from our unrelenting social feeds, inbox presence offers a strong signal that a story is likely to be high quality and highly relevant. Meanwhile, there’s no middleman watching to gather data on how you interact with that story or publisher. By taking traffic incentives and shareability completely out of the equation, the publisher is incentivized instead to focus on what is best for the reader.

Email is likely to be a feature of many successful subscription publications because all of the above factors are even more important in a membership-type context, where trust and direct relationships are critical to the model. When a reader makes a decision to pay for your content, they’re effectively accepting you into their trusted friend group. The inbox is the gathering place for that exclusive group. What’s more, it ensures they will see every item you publish–or at least that they’ll notice you have published something. Ever since Google crippled RSS by shutting down Google Reader, it’s been difficult for publishers to find a channel that reliably puts every piece of content in front of a committed reader’s eyes. In fact, email offers a useful variation of RSS–not “Really Simple Syndication,” but “Really Simple Subscription.”

For publications for whom it is important to offer easy access to content on the web, email exclusivity won’t be the best choice. But for many others, it may make more sense to be email exclusive than web exclusive. Subscription publishing is about trust, quality, and the relationship between producer and consumer. For that, there is no medium more powerful, nor more personal.