This article was published on January 10, 2019

7 lessons we learned from our year-long newsletter experiment

7 lessons we learned from our year-long newsletter experiment
Georgina Ustik
Story by

Georgina Ustik

Former TNW editor and creative

Georgina created Big Spam, and wants to see more inclusion in tech. Georgina created Big Spam, and wants to see more inclusion in tech.

One year ago today, our daily newsletter, Big Spam, was born. And oh what a year it’s been.

Big Spam, if you don’t know, is a sassy love/hate letter to technology that we handwrite daily. Besides for delivering the most important tech news of the day, BS also has polls, disgusting GIFs, puzzles, and artist takeovers.

We wanted to reflect back on the year, and the great (and terrible) things we subjected our subscribers to, and what we learned along the way.

Lesson 1: People hate change

When we sent out our very first Big Spam newsletter, it was like the apocalypse. People reacted as if we had slowly murdered their childhood dog in front of their eyes with a blunt sword.

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It’s worth noting that at the time we had an automated daily newsletter, which sent out the headlines to our top stories from the past 24 hours. It was really boring… and apparently beloved.

Our switch over to the new newsletter did a few things — it pushed us into a lot of primary inboxes, which boosted our open rate and pissed a lot of lame people off.

Here were some of our first responses:

We got quite a few racist/homophobic gems from Kenny over the year.

Our favorite was from Karim, who called us a LAS VEGAS CASINO. We considered it a compliment.

There was a lot of nice ones too, but hate mail is more fun to read.


We decided early on that this newsletter wasn’t going to be for everyone, so we embraced our inner trash.

Our earliest iterations looked like this:

If one could sum up our aesthetic inspiration, it would be if someone aimed a lit firecracker at a Microsoft Word 2007, and when the firecracker exploded the sparks turned into kittens and puppies and puns about genitals.

Then we introduced our seizure-inducing header GIF, which REALLY pissed people off.

Karim was really onto something when he called us a casino.

We included custom images, sometimes using the poll results to create them:

Then, on June 14th, something truly magical happened. The design team decided that we were ruining TNW’s reputation, as well as their own, with our art. They created a beautiful new template for us to mess with.

So clean. So minimal. At first we resisted, but it’s undoubtedly prettier.

Lesson 3: Subject line is key

Here were our favorites from this year:

God, we’re good at subject lines.

Lesson 4: People love polls

One of our most engaging newsletter features is our ugly poll.

Features like this take no time to make — we pick random words most days — and are popular because they take very little effort to participate in.

We also used the poll as a guide to feeling out what our subscribers wanted. We asked questions to feel out how long or short the newsletter should be, GIF usage, how many emoji are too much, etc.

This is the feature that has stuck with us since the beginning, but Big Spam is a graveyard littered with the bones of BRILLIANT ideas that didn’t make the cut…

Lesson 5: Kill your darlings

Have you ever felt misunderstood? Like the world doesn’t get you?

We’ve been there pal.

Many a brilliant Big Spam feature was rejected by our subscribers, who, while they exhibit exquisite taste by being subscribed, are idiots.

Here’s a list of all our favorite features that are no longer with us:

Cabjazzle Chronicles

We took the death of this one especially hard. You see, we were growing weed plants in our office, and they were beautiful. We decided to name them all, and then through a bracket system, have people vote on their favorites using the ugly poll. We were going to smoke the winner (and probably the losers) and film it. We named the competition the “Jazz Cabbage Chronicles,” which a fateful malfunction turned into “Cabjazzle Chronicles.” No one was really that into it, so we finished it a bit early, heartbroken.

Artist residencies

Now, this was one of our best ideas, and just because people weren’t super into it, doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it. We had artists such as Zach Lieberman and Natalia Stuyk curate Big Spam with their favorite internet things. Our favorite had to be Omayeli Arenyeka, which we turned into an article.

April Fools

Ok, this one was our bad. We had a brilliant idea on April 1st to trick our readers by rewriting classic texts from the Gutenberg project as if the plot applied to Silicon Valley CEOs. You can read it here — funny right? Well, either because of tech or human error, the newsletter was scheduled for April 2nd, so people were confused and angry. Yikes.

Our horse friendship newsletter

Can’t explain this one because we can’t remember why we did it in the first place.

Number countdown

We started a random countdown in our subject line halfway through this year because we thought it’d be mysterious and funny. Apparently it wasn’t.

Just because other people tell you to not do something, doesn’t mean you need to listen. If we had done that, Big Spam would still be boring. Know when to listen to others, and when to ignore everyone.

Lesson 6: Find a Deb

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you meet a soul so kind, so pure, that you swear you’ve met an angel. We have — and that angel is Deb.

Deb sent us this email earlier this year:

She RAN OUT OF FRIENDS to tell to subscribe. Deb is an earth angel, and she inspired us to dedicate an entire newsletter just to her.

Lesson 7: Money is king

We gotta eat, and as cold-blooded capitalists we’ve been searching for ways to monetize our gorgeous newsletter. We started the “Commercial Break” section, which is defined as the following:

This is the section we try to sell you shit, like the true capitalists we are. But you can also sell your shit. Want to write a sweet note to your grandma? Advertise your business? Hire a hitman? Send us an email with what you want us to broadcast in this section, and we’ll tell you the price. It’s VERY cheap.

We place newsletter ads from companies, but also place our subscribers’ ads. We were able to make our very first euro from Håkon, who wanted to advertise his SoundCloud:

We have spots to fill every day, so if you want to advertise anything…

Looking ahead

There are a lot of shitty ways to communicate on the internet. A new social platform emerges, and in no time it’s a cesspit.

The best part about Big Spam is… wait for it… its readers. *tear*

Tech is cool, but people are better. Pardon the corny, but Big Spam would not nearly be as fun without the weird, sometimes, mean, but often wonderful responses from the thousands of people we send our love letter to every day.

If you read Big Spam, we hope you continue to do so. And if you aren’t, stop being an idiot and subscribe.

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