Yesterday I delved into emotional design, and how to take the theory’s recognition of humanity – a “personality layer” – and bring it into the little details of all the things journalists regularly do in online space. Much of that dovetails with another characteristic people tend to like in real-life, and hopefully online, too: being authentic.
There are tons of engaging, seemingly honest personalities that do this right out there on the interwebs, but I thought I’d highlight one that was introduced to me earlier this summer. He’s especially worth learning from because 1) he does nice job with something that’s easy to have trouble with – an e-newsletter – and because 2) he’s grown a huge following for the e-newsletter—all as a side project.
Dan Lewis started “Now I Know” in June of 2010. The idea for the e-newsletter, which is powered by MailChimp, is eerily simple: it’s literally just a short piece on something that he learned about in recent weeks. He writes on weekdays, uses his own personal Gmail account, and admits that there’s no real theme or editorial calendar. At a glance that may seem a recipe for wasted time – who would follow such an undefined project? – but it’s quite the opposite. Lewis has amassed a following of over 80,000 email subscribers.
You don’t just get numbers like that. And some of the success is probably a testament to the writing and value of the content. An appreciation of acquiring knowledge comes through in the voice of his writing, which you can see in his posts, archived here, which cover a spectrum from illegal gun activity in Pakistan’s village of Darra Adam Khel to how turkey got its name. (Today he wrote about “phantom vibration syndrome.”) The content is indeed interesting, and conversationally engaging. But again, to the reader, it is rather, well, random.
So how does someone grow an audience to over 80,000, with no theme, all as a side-gig? He’s a real person, and readily admits it, and rarely hides it. Taking being real as an example, here are the raw answers from a conversation I had with him.
KL: What can digital journalists do to build a fan base that interacts consistently, or engages with content consistently?
DL: I think “consistently” is the key word. Being daily is important — people grow to expect the email. The same format, basically, helps too — you know exactly what you’re getting if you subscribe. Etc.
The other part you also hit on — “interacts.” At scale — I’m well north of 75,000 — is tough. But you have to try. I reply to (almost) all people who email me back. Keeping it personal helps a ton… I’m a person, not some weird nameless/faceless thing.
KL: What’s one thing you’ve learned about engaging with readers through Now I Know?
DL: People are surprised when you talk to them. Everyone once in a while a reader, intending to forward the email to a friend or relative, hits reply instead. So I’ll reply back saying “hey, I think you meant to hit forward” or something like that. Without fail, that’s right. But what occasionally happens is that the person also says “holy cow, you read all these?!” or “you’re a real person?” and that *still* surprises me to this day.
KL: What feedback have you received from the project that would prove helpful for someone else working to develop an audience online?
DL: Be open that it’s an experiment, because it is. I still have no idea what I’m doing