Email, an idea so old that it’s new

Email, an idea so old that it’s new. When we think of email, we think of old platform from the remnant of the old internet age. It would be ludicrous to think that anyone want to build a startup that relies on the email platform these days.

But that’s exactly what we did at Bit of News. Bit of News is a news summary service that summarizes the important news of the day, and sends it to your email every morning. Simple right?

Why email instead of mobile apps, or even a web app? Here are the crucial reasons why email is the best platform to build this on. We believe there will be a resurgence in focus on emails, and we want to be on the forefront of that.

Here are the reasons why email is the future, not the past:

1.) Email is the world’s largest platform. Yes, we talk about the Facebook platform, the iOS platform, etc. But they all shrivel in front of email. If you use internet today, you probably have an email (or a few). It doesn’t matter if you use a laptop, an iPhone, a tablet, you can email anyone. Heck, you can even do it on the Blackberry or a Nokia! A report from Huffington Post revealed that email connects 85% of the world. In contrast, social media only reach 65% of the world; and those are fragmented platforms that aren’t even open. With 5.7 billion people using email, it’d be a shame not to tap into the platform’s full potential.

2.) Engagement in email far outshines apps. Might seem paradoxical. Email has higher engagement? Couldn’t you do much more with an app? The difference between reading the news in an email and reading it in an app, is push vs pull. To drive engagement, you have to lower the psychological barrier to using your product. Email is the easiest because you check your email everyday anyways – the news summary will be waiting right there for you. Whereas with an app, you have to consciously remember to go check it everyday.

Also, the notion of someone sending news right to your “home” instead of you visiting “somewhere else” to get the same info is a wide psychological gap. It’s no wonder that Bit of News enjoys a 45%+ daily engagement rate (open). If you count monthly engagement, it’s at a staggering 92%. The high repeated engagement is something you won’t see on an app.

3.) Everyone else is too jaded to take advantage of it. Maybe perhaps for spammers and advertisers, not many take interest in email. There are tons of news summary apps out there – Circa, Inside, Prismatic, etc. But surprisingly few that focus on email. The only one I found was theSkimm, and they target a very niche market (young women).

Do you know any other startup that delivers daily news via email? Do you think building a startup on top of email is too unstable?  Discuss on HN.

Don’t change link colors in emails

“6:00am” becomes link in iOS

While doing Inbox Inspections for yesterday’s daily news summary, I noticed that iOS annoyingly turns “6 a.m.” into a link to add to calendar. It didn’t apply in this case, because the “6:00am” was part of the news summary. So I wrapped the text in a span, and forced the link color to match the rest of the paragraph. No big deal:

.appleLinksGray a {color: #606060 !important; text-decoration: none;}

<p>Widener University is asking students to remain indoors until <span class=”appleLinksGray”>6 a.m.</span> and reports that the suspect is still at large</p>

Caught in spam filter
This morning, I noticed the open and click rates from the campaign was uncharacteristically low. In fact, they’re about 6x lower than usual. After reading analytics in MailChimp, I found out open rates for Gmail users went from the usual 58% to just 7%.


Could it have been caught in Gmail’s spam? I immediately checked my test account, and surely enough it’s in the spam box:

The only thing I did differently was changing the “6 a.m.” link color, and that resulted in a hefty fine. This morning I reversed the link color change, and the open / click rates went back to normal in the new campaign.

You can compare the two email campaign’s HTML here:

January 21st (caught in spam):
January 22nd (normal):

Redesigned email template

In spirit of New Years, it’s time for the old to make way for the new. Bit of News emails are getting a bit of facelift. Check out the before and after:

Email redesigned, before and after

Email redesigned, before and after

The old template made with MailChimp’s Drag & Drop editor has served us faithfully for the past few months, and it’ll be replaced with a brand new, beautifully redesigned responsive email template made with Zurb Ink. The new design focuses on efficient use of space and maintaining the beautiful padding for easy reading.

Key changes:

  • White logo on green background – Adds more vibrant colors
  • More compact heading – Not the focus of the newsletter
  • Paragraph font size decreased to 14px – Comfortable size
  • Title font size increased to 16px – Allows more focus
  • Changed “More” at end of each summary to “Read»”
  • Removed “More” button at the bottom – Rarely anyone clicks
  • Shortened copyright and footer – No one reads this, takes up space.

Happy New Years!

How I improved open rates by segmenting my subscribers

Over the last few weeks, I experimented different sending times using MailChimp’s A/B Testing tool to improve open rates. Each A/B test is done twice, over 10 days. I averaged the results for each A/B test. Here are the results.

Open rates:

  • 8am (39.2%) vs 9am (47.3%): 9am wins,
  • 10am (41.7%) vs 9am (46.5%): 9am wins,
  • 11am (37.5%) vs 9am (48.2%): 9am wins,
  • 8:30am (50.2%) vs 9am (47.1%): 8:30am wins.
  • 6am (43.0%) vs 9am (46.9%): 9am wins,

> What I learned: 8:30am works the best.

The click rates are more or less proportional to the open rates, so it’s not worth mentioning.

As almost half of my subscribers are Cornell students, I’m curious how open rates will differ between them and non-Cornell students. After segmenting them into Cornell (C) vs Non-Cornell (NC), I sent out two identical campaigns to each group. Each group was given an A/B test of 8:30am vs 9:00am.

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Automating email with RSS

Next Monday (12/16) will mark Bit of New’s 100th email campaign. What started out as a small sideproject for myself now has over 1,300 readers with over 50,000 total issues read! As the project grew, I sought to automate more and more of the process.

Now I’m tackling yet another automation: email. There were a few embarrassing campaigns where I accidentally copied summaries under the wrong titles. Luckily, my early users were pretty forgiving, and many of them politely pointed out the mistakes over email. Nevertheless, it’s so silly to make such a preventable mistake.

Email pointing out mistake

I copied the wrong summaries. A completely avoidable mistake. Woops

I’m using MailChimp’s RSS tags, so what I originally thought as an annoying problem turned out to be a simple fix. I used the same code from my usual MailChimp campaigns, and just plugged in *|RSSITEM:CONTENT|*, *|RSSITEM:URL|*, and *|RSSITEM:TITLE|* to the correct place in the HTML code. Though there’s an option to autosend everyday at a certain time, I’m still A/B test what’s the best time to send out the emails.

Next automation challenge for Bit of News: automatically generate the RSS. It might seem like a simple few lines of code to copy the right content over from the JSON file, but the format of the news on the website is different from the email snippets.

Until then, the RSS link that’s used for the email will remain hidden.

Twitter shares

Google Analytics showed that a chunk of my visitors are coming from Twitter, so I decided to search for Bit of News.  Here are some select tweets that I found:

It’s such an accomplished feeling hearing people talk about your product :)

Integrate your app with Bit of News API

Bit of News now has a developer API!

The API allows you to access, in real time, all the news data displayed on the website.

Use the following three endpoints for each of the three major news sections (also, you have to use cURL). As of now, the “featured” section is not available.

curl ‘’
curl ‘’
curl ‘’

Visit developer API for more info.

PyTeaser is now open-sourced

PyTeaser, the algorithm that powers Bit of News’ summarizations is now open-sourced on Github. You can view it here.

Some notable to-do list for the project:

  • Remove dependancy on NLTK natural language processor. It’s annoying to install and adds barrier to people who want to contribute to the project.
  • Integrate Python-Goose into PyTeaser

Bit of News is going back to its simple homepage.

Bit of News is going back to its simple homepage. Here’s why.

The original goal for Bit of News was to help readers stay informed with quick snapshot of today’s news.As the site grew with more features, the vision of simple, enjoyable news became cluttered.

The frontpage looked so cluttered that even I had no idea where to look. The conversion rate to newsletter signup went down, click rates from the email to the website went down, and a survey sent out to some readers indicate they’re less willing to visit the homepage.

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