For the last three weeks, I surveyed the readers of Life Is So Beautiful, and I found out some interesting things.
As I said in this blog post, a friend who is a movie critic once told me that it’s the job of the critic to tell the artist what they are doing – that it’s the critic (or audience), for example, that decides whether a movie is sad, or inspiring. And since I believe all writing is a partnership between the writer and the reader, getting feedback from the reader is critical to my creative process.
So, I was excited to learn what I could from these survey results.
The first thing is, I suck at designing surveys. At least, I would if I were after quantitative data. But I’m more of a qualitative guy, myself – I want to know how something makes you feel. This is less useful for making quantitative decisions, as you can imagine.
Knowing that a reader in California feels less stressed after reading my newsletter on Monday mornings is good information that lets me know my messaging is working, but I can’t take that to an advertiser and use it to get sponsorships, say. But that’s OK, because all my projects are reader-supported, and I don’t take sponsorships.
The survey asked nine questions, which I have put below. Then I have written something about the results of each question, then I have a summary and what it means for the newsletter going forward.
1. The newsletter hits your inbox before lunch on Monday. When do you get around to reading it?
This was a multiple-choice question, and the options were:
- When I get around to it
- I deliberately save it to read later in the week.
Overwhelmingly, people either read it on Monday or just leave it in their inbox to read it when they can. Only 11.2% of respondents save it to read on a specific time later in the week.
I asked this question because, anecdotally, I had many people who told me they would save the email to read on Saturday or Sunday morning, to fully enjoy the links, which made me wonder if perhaps Monday was the wrong day to send a link-heavy email. But it seems like those people are fine, and a distinct, if vocal, minority of readers.
Of the remaining 88.8% of respondents, they were almost perfectly split between opening it on Monday, or just doing it when they got to it. It seems like Monday works – but more about this in a minute.
2. Assuming I was starting over, and you knew what you know now, what day of the week should I send the newsletter out?
This was a free-response question, so I got a lot of commentary, but overwhelmingly, people wanted it to remain on Monday. There were about 10 percent of dissenters, who would rather get it on a different day – Friday and Wednesday were the most common requests. From a nerdy point of view, I wonder how many people who would rather get it on Friday are the people who save it to read on the weekend. Regardless, it is obvious that Monday is the best day for most folks, and for those whom it isn’t, they find workarounds.
I loved the responses, however, and it’s obvious that Monday is a hard day for a lot of people, and they look forward to the email.
I got a lot of responses like:
It hits me at the perfect time – right after the boss has obsessively emailed me all the pile of crap he thinks is important this week and before I have to actually start producing any of it.
Mondays suck, and your newsletter makes them suck a little less.
I still like Monday. Keeps the juices from Sunday flowing. Makes Monday brighter. Monday’s can tend to be blue for me.
I like receiving it on Mondays. Starting the work week (well, most people’s workweek, not mine) with your shot of hope? It’s an excellent antidote to the abounding bleakness.
3. Of the options listed below, what is your favorite part of the newsletter?
This was a multiple-choice option, and the choices were:
- The opening quote or poem [An epigraph of sorts I include each week]
- The picture [Sometimes a picture I took, but also sometimes a beautiful picture I found while surfing]
- The short opening essay [Usually about 500 words, where I talk a bit about where I found beauty that week.]
- The links to 5 beautiful things [The stated purpose of the newsletter: 5 beautiful things in your inbox every Monday]
- The other misc. links [These links are usually links to things I’m working on, or books I’m reading, or, for example, this survey.]
The respondents were almost perfectly split between the opening essay and the links to 5 beautiful things.
Nobody voted for the opening quote or poem, or the picture, and 1 person (bless them!) voted for the other misc. links.
It doesn’t surprise me that so many people voted for the 5 beautiful things – that is, after all, the purpose of the newsletter. It does surprise me that fully 50% of readers rate the essay as more important to them than the links. This is counter-intuitive to me, and in the past, when in a hurry, I have just sent the links, skipping the essay. Apparently, this was a mistake. But more on this in the next question.
4. Of the options listed below, what is your LEAST favorite part of the newsletter?
Again, multiple-choice, and the options were the same as the previous question.
And as we look at this, I understand that least favorite is strong wording, but I wanted people’s gut reaction. And having looked at the data, one thing is clear: People hate the miscellaneous links.
57.5% of those who responded to this question chose misc. links as their least favorite part, while 35% chose either the opening quote or the picture. Far more people dislike the picture than the opening quote, however.
Luckily nobody chose the 5 links to beautiful things as their least favorite part, but six people who responded really don’t like the short essay.
This was useful as it lets me know what to spend time on. Finding quotes and pictures is a major time consumer for me, and not intuitive at all. Things like this make me wish I had asked these questions oh, say, six years ago.
5. What would you like to see me do differently?
Another open-ended question, and as you might expect, the answers were all over the place. Some people advocated for a day change, and others asked for more prose and fewer links, and yet others asked for more prose and commentary on the links.
I did get a fair amount of people who said they liked it just as it was, or some variation of they were OK with however I wanted to do it, which is nice and affirming. I also got some responses with good ideas (like embedding the videos in the email itself rather than making people link) that are not bad ideas and would make total sense if I were doing this as a stand-alone blog post, but that are difficult to do in email. However, some upcoming structure changes will make some of those things more possible (more about that later in this post).
Lots of affirming messages though, which are nice, and which my ego requires me to post samples of here.
Honestly, nothing–it’s the perfect balance of personal story while also encouraging us to see beauty in big things and small.
Sometimes a thing doesn’t need improved. You are helping us to be human and you do it well. Seeing and calling attention to beauty is your gift – just keep doing it.
I really love your writing. The things you observe and describe are beautiful in themselves, without any other links or content. Sometimes I click on a few of the links, but honestly, I wouldn’t stop reading if you included fewer or skipped them.
One pragmatic soul wrote, in what I assume was a show of support, “It is what it is. Keep on.”
6. What would you like to see more of?
Another open question. More responses all over the place. Strong recurring votes came in for things like more content that isn’t US-centric, more book reviews or recommendations, and more commentary around the links themselves.
There were a few calls for more of my wring in general, but as close as we came to negativity in this survey was a near equal number of people who want me to say less and just share more links.
7. What age range do you fall in?
It seems that 5% of you are under the age of 35, and 15% of you are over the age of 65. I don’t know that there is a lot to be learned from this – I would have predicted roughly the same thing. I happen to fall firmly in the middle of the age range of most of my readers, and since the folks who tend to read me are generally dealing with stuff – you don’t look for an antidote to an ugly world until you realize we live in an ugly world – it makes sense they would be older.
Some would say that my use of email as my primary delivery medium is a restricting factor – email not being as attractive to the under 30 set – which may be true, but I also maintain that when people get desk jobs, they get email, which also accounts for the drop off after age 65.
In short, it doesn’t surprise me that most of my readers are similar in age to me.
8. If you were going to describe this newsletter to a friend, what would you say?
I included this question because, as I said above, I wanted to know what the readers thought I was doing. As one might expect with an open-ended question, I got a lot of variation in the answers.
Among the 10 most common words used were:
I feel good about all of that. (The image at the top of the post is a word cloud I generated from this question: The more often the word was used in a response, the larger it is in the image).
9. Anything you want me to know?
I included this question because I have learned that often the people asking the questions don’t ask the question I want to answer. So, I wanted to give people a place to say anything I wasn’t smart enough to ask.
This question didn’t really give me any actionable advice, but instead quickly turned into a lovefest. I was not prepared to hear so much praise, and my ego requires me to share a few examples with you:
Your willingness to look at and name the brokenness around us, and to share your struggle to continue living into hope, faith, and love have made me feel less alone in my own struggles. There have been many times I thought I was the only one who saw or felt something, and then you named it. Thank you.
I really do enjoy reading your stories and your outlook on things. You are honest and I appreciate that in you. Sometimes I don’t agree with you but then as I read I see things through your eyes and it shows me a different way to look at things. I love that. Thank you.
This last year was a very stressful one, for personal reasons as well as the worldwide crises we all had to deal with. Unfortunately, things seem to be getting even worse. Your newsletter is very important to me as it frequently helps to let me find hope when I think all hope is lost. Thank you!
Yours is one of the very few newsletters where I will often actually read all the way through it.
I love this newsletter!
I’m so glad I’m able to be part of your community. You’re influencing and helping people that you’ll maybe never know about — but that does nothing to diminish your impact. Thank you for putting yourself out there for us. Sending lots of gratitude and positive thoughts for you and your family and friends.
I appreciate the work you do on this. I share it with friends who need something positive to hold on to.
So, what does this all mean?
It was overwhelming that people really want a short essay and 5 links, preferably with more commentary around the links, so that is the direction I will be going. I’m also simplifying the format by eliminating the photo and epigraph quote. It’s obvious they don’t provide a lot of value, and so there is no point in spending the energy on them if relatively nobody wants them.
It’s also obvious that nobody – I mean nobody! – wants the extra links I have been including, such as personal updates or recommended books, or so on. I will be moving those to the Friday, more personal, newsletter whenever possible.
Another thing that has come up in the comments was the diverse ways people interact with the links – some folks (who are far more organized than I am) build a playlist of the videos and watch them on the weekend, some say they never watch the videos. Others say they want more pictures and diversity in the links, others say they never rarely even click the links.
In short, what I got from it was to have a diverse set of links each week – some videos, some photos, some short reads, and so on, with a bit more commentary and context than I have been doing. So expect me to be moving in that direction going forward.
In the weeks to come, there will also be some upcoming changes to the infrastructure of the newsletter. For one thing, I’m changing platforms, from Mailchimp to Ghost, which will give more of a web-based ecosystem, rather than just being an email newsletter. If you subscribe to any Substack newsletters, it will be very similar to that, although there are numerous reasons I don’t want to use Substack (which I will go into in another post).
Practically, this won’t change anything for you – you will still get it in your inbox just like now, but there will also be a web version, an RSS feed, and a searchable archive. The new system will also have comments available on the web version of the newsletter. In short, it will be a much more interactive experience for those who want that. It will also allow me to do some things to improve the service levels I can provide to the subscribers and readers.
In short, I hope that whatever you have liked about this newsletter, the new version will be just like that, only more so. I love this project, and I love that it is meaningful to so many people. And as always, I remain grateful to the Patrons who make it all possible.