14 Feb 2023

(Re)introducing Yakread: a smart newsletter reading app

I'm Jacob O'Bryant, maker of Yakread and other tools for online speech. I write about practical ways to make the internet better.

Recently in I'm going to delete most of Yakread's features, I talked about how I was planning to overhaul Yakread to make it more focused on newsletters. Those changes are now complete. Though I ended up not deleting any features; I just moved them out of the way, under the settings page. So you can still import your bookmarks, Mastodon posts, tweets (for now, anyway...), ebooks, and so forth; but those things are not emphasized on the landing page or within the app. I did also decide to continue to emphasize RSS, though I haven't made it quite as prominent as email/newsletters.

Take a gander at the landing page copy, pictured in the screenshot. I feel great about the wording. I think I've finally hit on a clear, succinct explanation that nails Yakread's core value prop. Narrowing the focus to just newsletters helped a lot.

Besides reorganizing the UI, I have also made a big change to the way Yakread's feed works. I've split it into three separate feeds, shown in the screenshot: "Curated," an assortment of posts from your subscriptions selected by Yakread's algorithm; "Recent," a plain chronological feed of your posts; and "Discover," an algorithmic selection of posts that were liked by other Yakread users.

I was attracted to the idea of having a single feed with everything in it, in order to make the reading experience as simple as possible: scroll the feed, click on the first thing that looks interesting, repeat. However that may have been a little too minimalistic. The real goal is to find the right level of control for users to have. I find I have different "reading modes" at various times, corresponding to the three separate feeds. Trying to mix the three modes together was a bit like throwing your salad and mashed potatoes in the blender.

I've also updated the daily emails to match. There's now a "Curated" section with 5 links; a "Recent" section with up to 50 links for posts from the previous day (or since the last time we sent you an email, if you aren't getting it daily); a "Discover" section with 5 links; and a sponsored "Newsletter suggestions" section with 3 links. Here's a super tall example screenshot (I removed a bunch of links from the Recent section, otherwise it would've been even taller):

Screenshot of the daily Yakread email

This enables the perfect workflow:

The discover section/feed is particularly important for new users. If you haven't added any subscriptions yet, you'll still get a daily email, but it'll only include the discover and newsletter suggestions sections. It'll also have a little reminder that you can add your own newsletter/RSS subscriptions. At this point IMO the discover stuff is mostly there to help people get started with Yakread. The advertisements also help with that, since they're all ads for newsletters.

There are still various improvements I want to make, but I think all the essentials are in place. I've started booking more newsletter ads since I think that'll be the best growth channel for Yakread. If I can optimize things enough to make the numbers work out, then I intend to grow Yakread quickly.

But if not, I'll be happy to continue iterating for as long as it takes. I've been thinking a bit about something Justin Duke, the Buttondown founder, wrote:

Q: How did you market this and get traction?

A: This may be an unsatisfying answer: slowly. [...]

I'm tentatively going to timebox my Yakread work to Mondays—I'll spend half the day on Yakread and the other half writing this newsletter. Booking ads mainly requires money, not time, and a few hours per week spent on incremental improvements should be all the code time that Yakread requires.

I'll put the rest of my time into my open-source work and consulting business (they're related), which will ensure that I have both infinite runway and plenty of cash with which to run paid acquisition experiments.

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So yeah, about The Sample

I also discussed previously that as part of my minimalism-ification of Yakread, I might outsource discovery to The Sample and continue to work on both Yakread and The Sample in tandem indefinitely. Since I've swung back towards leaving Yakread as a more full-featured reading app, that's no longer the plan. Instead I'm resuming my previous plan to eventually have Yakread subsume The Sample.

The biggest fundamental difference between The Sample and discovery in Yakread is probably that The Sample sends you full newsletter issues, whereas the discover section in Yakread's emails just has a list of links. But... I think a list of links is probably better anyway. That gives the machine learning a break, since instead of trying to pick the one thing you'll like the most, it just has to narrow it down to five choices.

I guess another big difference is that after you hit the "1-click subscribe" button, The Sample steps out of the way. Your email address is added to the newsletter author's list, and the relationship from then on is between you and them. There's no opportunity for The Sample to get in the way.

But there is with Yakread! If Yakread recommends your newsletter to someone and they subscribe with their @yakread.com address, Yakread is still an intermediary. A mustache-twirling version of myself could, theoretically, update the curated feed so that it de-emphasizes newsletters that talk about cheese, or whatever. I'm not planning to do that (I have nothing against cheese), but the risk is there, know what I mean?

(I very well may de-emphasize, without loss of generality, cheese-related newsletters in the discover feed—but your curated feed is different because it contains things you've explicitly opted in to receive.)

However, my experience has been that a standalone discovery service just doesn't work, business-wise. After you've subscribed to a bunch of newsletters, discovering more is less valuable. I think for discovery to work as a standalone product, it has to replace subscribing. You go to an aggregator like Hacker News or subscribe to a curated newsletter, and then you don't need to subscribe to the sources they pull from. You just go to the aggregator. If you want to build some kind of discovery solution that drives subscriptions for authors instead of just aggregating individual posts, I think it needs to be a feature, not a product. And that's how it is in Yakread.

So I think it's best if I press forward with a reader app that has integrated discovery and look for other ways to help preserve writers' independence. Besides, as long as the number of @yakread.com address on your list is smaller than the number of @gmail.com addresses, it's not like your eggs are all in one basket. Until that point, getting more Yakread subscribers will diversify your list.

And if I ever get to the point where Yakread has more market share for newsletter subscriptions than Gmail... mission accomplished? I'll deal with that problem once I get to it!

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