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Blog vs Newsletter - What is the difference?

You've traditionally created a printed publication, but now you want to go online to save printing costs. Do you create a newsletter formatted website or do you use a blog?

We have been asked this question many times and recently the answer has become increasingly clear. First, let's define what is a blog and newsletter. The definitions below are courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blog

A blog (A contraction of the term "web log") is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order.

Newsletter

A newsletter is a regularly distributed publication generally about one main topic that is of interest to its subscribers. Newspapers and leaflets are types of newsletters. General attributes of newsletters include news and upcoming events of the related organization, as well as contact information for general inquiries.

If you look at the definition of a blog and a newsletter there are not a lot of differences. Many of the differences that come to mind are because of what historically the words mean to us. Newsletters were originally printed pieces that came out on a regular schedule, usually monthly, on topics of interest to an specific audience. For organizations these newsletters range from human resources to information technology and most of us get PDF versions of newsletters with a wide array of readability and use. PDFs are often not used appropriately and cause your information to be more difficult to discover and read.

What was the stigma with blogs?

The blog was one of the first Web 2.0 and social media platforms. Blogs initially were given a bad name because the general public felt that it was only one person's opinion of a topic. This was true for a period of time in the early stages of Web 2.0, but blogs are now one of the primary methods of communications between professionals. If you remove all preconceived notions about blogs, you have a simple platform to share information to an audience on a timely basis around single or multiple topics.

With today's blog tools many authors can contribute to a blog and can release a batch of "posts" on a regular schedule or release each post at a time. Tools are available to allow people to subscribe to the RSS feeds or even receive an email notification when new posts are published. Since blog entries are time based on a particular subject, they can be a helpful way to inform an audience on a timely basis.

Any benefits to a blog?

With today's technology there is not much difference between a blog and an online newsletter as a communication tool. Blogs by default are categorized or grouped by year, month and day. If you have a monthly newsletter, you could simply publish all your posts as they are completed. You could then send a link to just the blogs for that month via email or using automated method. Another benefit to using a blog format is that visitors can comment on the posts and easily share them on social networks.

Posting on a continuous cycle will also make the search engines happy because they will see content being updated regularly. When content is updated often, search engines will index your site on a more frequent basis thus driving more traffic to your site by people searching on keywords. In addition, search engines will see your blog entries as discrete pieces of content, rather than one large chunk of loosely related information. This will improve the chances of your blog entry showing up in search engine results, as well as improving the overall quality of your site.

When creating blog posts you can keep them in a private or draft state until you are ready to publish so it is not a continual stream of edits during the creation of an individual post. When creating posts you can also tag or categorize each one with simple words to allow visitors to see all posts related to a topic. For example, if a communications unit was creating a newsletter with a blog tool, you could categorize posts with topics like Web, marketing, publications, photography and so on. Visitors could look at all the posts related to a topic that specifically interests them and even beyond just the latest issue. Tagging is an important characteristic as most newsletters go out to an diverse audiences and this gives the visitor a way of creating a filter based on their interests.

At the core, a blog and a newsletter is simply a webpage. Each communication format can contain text, images, and formatting styles. The important distinction between blogs and newsletters from general websites is that they are time based and are for an intended audience. Blogger and WordPress are a few examples of free tools that will allow you to quickly create your online newsletter. Most content management systems can also be structured like a blog and provide many of the same Web 2.0 features.

Any common trends with newsletters online?

Historically, online newsletters were created using print publication software, like Word, and digitized into a PDF to be either emailed or placed on a website. This creates more work for the author due to design elements like multiple columns and clip-art. PDF technology was not invented to present information for online reading. Creating an online newsletter using print software and PDFs may give more design freedom, but it does not benefit the consumers of the information or the ease of content creation. Online newsletters in PDF are usually created based off an author's experience with print newsletters and their comfort level with older technologies.

Another important consideration is mobile devices, such as smartphones. As of June 2011, 9% of the AgSci web traffic comes from mobile devices (iPhone, Android, iPad, Blackberry, etc.) In some sites that people commonly use "on the go", such as the Penn State Creamery site, 18% of the traffic comes from mobile devices. While some mobile devices can view PDFs, it's far more friendly to present the information as a simple web page.

As time passes, some of the information in a newsletter becomes obsolete, and other information stays relevant.  For example, newsletters can contain information on upcoming events, conferences, etc. which are not very useful after the event has passed.  However, articles on specific topics are usually relevant for a much longer time after the newsletter is released.  From a search engine perspective, this mix of out of date and useful information reduces the ranking of the useful information, causing it to show up lower in search results.

Email Delivery

Content creators often cite the ease of creating a PDF and emailing it to a distribution list on a weekly or monthly basis as a reason to use the newsletter model. However, we can achieve similar functionality for a blog. Google provides a service called Feedburner, which automatically emails a daily article summary to distribution list of your readers. No email will be sent if your blog has not been updated.

In general, people process information better in smaller chunks. For example, if you publish a weekly newsletter with ten articles, people may read two or three of the articles. If you were to publish those articles as they were written (say at a rate of two per day) your readers would see smaller chunks of content more frequently.  They would be more likely to read one or both of those articles than they would to read all ten articles (or even five out of ten) in the weekly distribution.

There are currently over 650 subscribers to our blogs using this method. You can contact the Web Services team to set up a Feedburner email for your blog, and add an "Subscribe to email updates" link to your site.

As mentioned above, mobile devices are becoming more common, and receiving frequent small updates via email (or RSS) works well with how people use these devices.

Next steps

In closing, we recommend using Plone or a blogging tool to get your online newsletter content into a Web-friendly format that allows for easy reading and sharing with others. You will find that a blog is simple just a tool with a wide variety of possible of uses. Blogs are one of the best tools to communicate content to an audience and are simple to create and maintain. Remember, a blog is simply a web page formatted a specific way to read content that is shared on a regular and timely basis.