What would FDR think about how frequently you’re sending email newsletters?

Today, it would be impossible to spend any significant amount of time online without running across a plethora of websites willing to deliver weekly (or even daily) email newsletters. And there is nothing wrong with this. There is an abundance of great digital content and plenty of people looking to consume as much as they can of it.

At the same time, I can't help but postulate that for every organization who successfully generates and delivers compelling content daily or weekly and has an engaged following, there are many others failing to keep up. For these organizations, I wonder if Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats" could serve as a great model for how they should communicate and engage with their audiences. 

FDR delivered thirty fireside chats between 1933 and 1944. These chats, if you're not familiar, were 15- to 45-minute radio broadcasts in which President Roosevelt addressed the nation, mostly covering economic topics during the Great Depression and military topics throughout World War II.

Roosevelt never did more than four fireside chats in a single year; in fact, he delivered just one in both 1935 and 1939. Overall, he averaged one address about every five months over their 11-year run.

The frequency, length, and format in which the president addresses the country has changed drastically in the last 70 years, and by today's standards FDR's was a remarkably slow and inconsistent schedule. In 1982 Ronald Reagan began regularly scheduled weekly radio broadcasts, which has since become the norm. President Obama has modernized the practice. His addresses, starting in 2009, are available online as 3- to 5-minute YouTube videos and MP3s.

While Obama's method of frequently delivering short, bite-sized pieces of content is the modern standard, FDR's approach could better suit organizations that can't keep up that pace.

To summarize, the FDR method involves delivering content that is:

  1. Substantial: Each of Roosevelt's chats touched on a big topic, from introducing the New Deal to declaring war on Japan (and he spent up to 45 minutes explaining his thoughts). Obviously, most organizations' announcements aren't going to be THAT substantial, but think about generating content that is more thoughtful, deeper, and better designed than what typically goes out in a standard weekly email.
  2. Infrequent: Traditional wisdom is that if you send emails less than once a month, people will forget about you and this will hurt open rates and such. Personally, I think that if people forget about you after a couple of months, you weren't very memorable to begin with. If done right, communication sent less frequently than once a month should be a pleasure to receive - like a letter from a friend who you don't see all the time.
  3. Irregular: If you promise people weekly or daily emails, then you should probably deliver what you said you would. However, what if the promise at sign up was that you would only send an email when there was a compelling thing to talk about?

The important point is that all three of these qualities need to work together. A boring email sent randomly a few times a year won't work. A thoughtful, engaging newsletter delivered when there's a big event to talk about can be a winner.

Kevin is Viget's product design director in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He concepts, launches, and optimizes products for the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Privia Health, and OPOWER.

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