ACDS Extra: March 2023

An animated motion graphic of a woman sitting at her desk as a wave of emails and notifications grows bigger over her.

THE POWER OF STORY

Some thoughts on newsletters at our four-year mark

James Morgan,

Editor, ACDS Newsletter

EDITORS, BY DEFINITION, should remain in the background, but this month’s newsletter is a milestone. We published the first ACDS newsletter four years ago this month—49 consecutive editions—and I wanted to acknowledge a few people and tell you about some of the things we’ve learned along the way.

It was late 2018 when Charles Morgan said to me, “There’s going to be a thing called ‘the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences.’ Why don’t you go over there and produce a newsletter for them.”

“What?” I said. I’m an old print magazine guy who didn’t have a clue about electronic publishing. I couldn’t even get the acronym right: ADCS? ASCD? But I soon met Executive Director Bill Yoder and discovered that he and I wear the same kind of cap, so maybe this would work out.

When we published our first issue, our newsletter email list was something like 123 people. Today’s newsletter went to 7,000+ recipients. This remarkable growth is in no way due just to our monthly newsletter. Since those early days of working to establish both name recognition and a meaningful toehold in this state, ACDS has become a real presence. Its compelling story of closing the skills gap between tech supply and tech demand is increasingly embraced by both corporate Arkansas and citizens who want to have an IT career right here at home. So, thanks to the diligent spadework of Apprenticeship Director Lonnie Emard and ACDS’ Client Development team, the life-changing coaching of Ashley French and the Talent Acquisition and Development team, the instincts of Marketing Director Clint Hankinson, and the daily efforts of the rest of the ACDS staff—all under the able leadership of Bill Yoder—that newsletter list has kept steadily growing. For those of us on the newsletter, we’re just proud that all those people haven’t unsubscribed.

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YOU MAY HAVE noticed that I used the word story in reference to ACDS’ mission. It’s a word we apply frequently in relation to the newsletter. From the very beginning, we set out to tell the story of tech in Arkansas through the many people who’re driving that ambitious narrative forward. According to Upland Software, the average open rate of newsletters in the publishing and media sphere is 22 percent. We regularly notch an open rate north of that—often in the 30-percent range, and sometimes higher. I’d like to think that reflects our audience’s receptiveness to the stories we’re telling.

Crystal Hartman is the person who makes the newsletter look the way it does, but that’s just the start of it. An accountant who also studied marketing, she deciphers our monthly numbers (“We have a higher open rate when it goes to a personal rather than business email,” and “The best time to send it is Friday morning at 7 a.m.”). She also has a keen sense of how we fit within the growing tidal wave of newsletters washing over your inbox these days. “At first, virtual newsletters or emailed newsletters were trendy,” she says. “It was exciting—ping! ping! ping! on my phone and iPad and laptop, and I can read the news anywhere. Then when everything went virtual with COVID, that changed the picture drastically. Some of the other newsletters I get turned more salesy. So instead of focusing on technology updates and news, now they’re pushing their own products and services. We have a pretty good open rate compared to other organizations, and just based off of other things that I see, I think it’s primarily because it’s an actual newsletter.”

Crystal and I have been working together on the newsletter since almost day one, though neither of us can recall exactly how that came about. When we met, ACDS was sharing office space with Forge Institute, and Crystal worked then, as she does now, primarily for Forge. Her business card showed her title as Chief Chaos Officer. While she and I have experienced our tiny share of chaos—she often emails me about various layout and graphic design issues at 3 a.m.—she’s brought great stability, and advanced storytelling ability, to the newsletter.

I marvel at her own story within this wider narrative of technology in Arkansas. Is she the way she is because she’s an accountant? Or did she become an accountant because she’s the way she is? In any case, she has a penchant for burrowing down into a problem until she finds the answer—even if it drives her a little nutty. “I stress myself out because I know you’re waiting for a reply sooner rather than later,” she says. “I have a perfectionist problem with the images, so I’m like, ‘Oh, I need to move that line down just a hair more.’”

The stress intensified when Crystal discovered that she could produce animated images for the newsletter. It started with a late-2019 change to the phone-scrolling visual we still use for Data in the News; despite its simplicity, it felt to me like a leap from a cave drawing to a Pixar film. I loved it and asked for more. Crystal delivered. At the start of 2020, she produced a slightly moving illustration for a piece on what business wants from data science. Then she upped her game with a hilarious “flying money” image to accompany a column called “You Can’t Manage It If You Can’t Measure It”—the winged greenbacks were flapping their way into a proverbial Black Hole. Since then, she’s animated everything from COVID-era toilet paper, to a magician pulling dollar signs from a top hat, to the tsunami of newsletters that leads off this column.

“I am far from a graphic designer,” Crystal says. “But fortunately, there are programs out there that allow even people like me to create intricate custom graphics without the use of real graphic design tools like InDesign.”

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FOR SOME TIME now, Crystal has been saying she needs to take a break from the newsletter in the interest of work-life balance, so there’s a real chance that this will be her last issue. I hope not, in spite of my fervent lip service to work-life balance. But I wanted to write this piece to thank her publicly, just in case.

Lately, she and I have had many a conversation about whether continuing to do the animation is worth all the trouble. Crystal’s take is that there are probably a lot of readers who don’t even pay attention to the images—they’re just there for the meat and potatoes. “And yet I’m going to still have hope for humanity and say yes, the animation is important because there will be some people who appreciate it. Most of the animated graphics have some sort of humor tie-in to the story without directly spelling it all out. There’s almost like a hidden message in all of our animated images.”

My opinion is that if you’re working in a medium that enables moving pictures, why not use it? Those images themselves tell stories within the stories—and besides, they make the newsletter more fun. So, thanks to all of the readers who have appreciated these first four years of the ACDS newsletter—for whatever reasons. Going forward, you’ll probably see some changes over the coming months, most likely in formatting. As for the content, however, I see us doubling down on the stories of people across Arkansas who’re doing fascinating things with, and for, technology. This includes our many partners who help make ACDS’ work possible, our apprentices, our ACDS team members, and more that we haven’t even thought of yet. For me, these aren’t just “tech stories.” Technology is changing us all, both individually and as a culture, so this is a very big story indeed. Pictures and all.