Publishers are having a love affair with newsletters. Their ability to give a direct line to readers provides a handy bulwark against Facebook. Traditional publishers are pouring resources into them, like The New York Times, with its 12-person newsletter staff and others that have appointed newsletter “editors.”

It’s typical for publishers to say the primary function for their newsletters is audience development, and with reason: Newsletters have a measurement problem. There’s no comScore for newsletters. Advertisers have to take publishers at their word when it comes to numbers like subscriber size and open rate.

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Pete Sena, chief creative officer of digital marketing agency Digital Surgeons, said he automatically discounts the subscriber numbers publishers report, knowing they can be inflated by multiple email sign-ups by the same person or ISPs blocking delivery.

“It is a problem,” he said. “I don’t trust that number, because we all know lists come and go. I don’t believe [publishers] overtly lie, but I do believe there’s a little bit of omission of how valid are those emails.”

Not only that, but publishers don’t share information like what device the subscriber is using and what time of day it is when they open the email. “You get very limited metrics,” he said.

Adding to the problem, MailChimp, the company that serves many email newsletters, has technological limits in how it measures open rates, which can lead to underestimates of how much email newsletters are read.

Then there’s the issue of publishers fluffing their subscription numbers by using come-ons like contests, which may yield email addresses if not necessarily loyal readers.

Yet these issues are missing from the frothy coverage of newsletters like TheSkimm, with its “massive subscriber list” (it claims 4 million) and the “exceptional” Lenny Letter (it claims 400,000 subscribers).

Newsletters face something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Right now, buyers are OK with the lack of independent, third-party measurement because they’re not buying newsletters on their own, so there’s little incentive for the publisher to provide it. Newsletters are usually part of a larger ad buy (and sometimes thrown in for free), or a sponsorship, and as such, they’re low risk to the advertiser.

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