Why Co-op Digital writes a newsletter

The Co-op Digital newsletter recently turned 3 years old. This week we’re writing newsletter number 139.

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The newsletter is a weekly email that looks at what’s happening in the internet/digital world and how it’s relevant to the Co-op, to retail businesses, and most importantly to people, communities and society. You can:

“Poke the organisation”

In 2016, Co-op Digital was in its infancy and Deputy Group CEO Pippa Wicks and Russell Davies, then the Digital Strategy Director, asked me to put together a weekly newsletter. Pippa’s simple brief was to “poke the organisation!” Their plan was that it should challenge the Co-op Group to think about how ‘digital’ changes retail and how retail could use digital. The newsletter summarised what was happening on the internet, and explained how other retailers were using technology.

It also helped set a tone for Co-op Digital because it demonstrated to senior leaders, the wider Co-op, and to the rest of the world that we were watching the internet and that we understood it. All of this was important because the Co-op Group was in a period of reinvention after some difficult years.

Content and tone

Many of the early stories were “Amazon is cominggg!”, or this is what Tesco’s doing with AI, here’s a funeral startup, or an AI is surprisingly good at chess. We were explaining what was happening on the internet, and what some of the new technology weirdness promised.

We write it in fairly plain language, and in a way that readers don’t need to click the links unless they want to read about a story in more detail. Sometimes there are jokes. “They’re trying to make me ICO to rehab” was a story about hospitals helping cryptocurrency addicts (and yes let’s acknowledge here that explaining a poor joke makes it even weaker). But the humour can make the words more engaging and accessible, and can let us talk about things that aren’t the Co-op’s ‘official position’.

The importance of images

Each newsletter is published with an image which is there to catch the eye when the reader is scrolling through their Twitter timeline. Some studies say tweets with image links result in up to 200% more engagement so we always include one. Sometimes the image is just decorative, sometimes it relates to the newsletter’s content.

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How it’s made, and how it’s read

The newsletter is made by a team. Stories are found and then debated by Co-op colleagues in the #newsletter Slack channel – big salute to Richard Sullivan, Jack Fletcher, Linda Humphries, Gail Lyon and others who’ve found and written about many excellent stories. Suggestions also come from readers to me on Twitter.

It’s published as a public-facing email newsletter, and as an internal email, and to the web. Mailchimp (which handles the public email bit) reckons it has an open rate of 50%, compared to an industry average of 11% for other retail organisations.

Plus it’s been well-received internally too…

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Evolving with the organisation

The newsletter has evolved, mostly in response to feedback from readers, but also to the Co-op’s maturing digital capability. We don’t need to explain ‘digital’ in the same way these days because many teams and departments at the Co-op have transformed the business over the last 3 years. Where the Co-op was once an organisation of tradition, now it is also an organisation of the internet. This evolution has given the newsletter space to look at wider concerns, like privacy, ethics, climate change, and occasionally even Brexit.

External intelligence

It’s still valuable to keep track of what other organisations are trying and to think about whether what they’re doing could mean something new for us, our members, our colleagues, or for co-operativism. So the newsletter is both external intelligence for the Group and an informal channel to communicate with the public and members.

We’ve learned that newsletters are good at showing our thinking in public, exploring new ideas and clarifying them, speculating wildly about what’s next, and occasionally ‘poking the organisation’.

Still the same

There are still “Amazon is coming!” stories, and there are frequent “this seems like a problem for big tech companies” stories. Occasionally we add small bits of fiction if we think they might be a good way to explore an idea.

However the jokes are still terrible. “Do you want frAIes with that?” needs not an explanation (machine learning at McDonald’s) but apologies forever, sorry.

You can help

You can help make the newsletter better. Sign up to get the newsletter by email and participate by sending us ideas, questions, thoughts. And better puns.

Rod McLaren
Newsletter writer

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