Congratulations! You've decided to start an email newsletter. Or you've got one, and you're trying to work out how to build a bigger audience.
I'll write another time about (i) why you might want to start a personal newsletter, and (ii) if and how to consider monetising it by going subscriber-only.
In this post I'm gonna talk through newsletter strategy for individuals. There's a bunch of information out there for business newsletters and copywriting for sales conversion, but less for the regular person (or individual journalist) wanting to start a personal newsletter for the sake of communicating. Thing is, you start a newsletter because you've got something to say - but you quickly realise that what you actually want is for people to read it. How can you make that happen?
First I'll talk about what type of newsletter you're writing, and the implications of this for its growth potential. I'll then share some stats on how my newsletter, Disturbances, grew - and then finally a set of strategies based on my experience, and that of some of the best newsletter writers I know.
What sort of email newsletter are you writing?
The way I see it, there's three types:
Having a clear idea which type of newsletter you're writing is essential to get a realistic sense of how big your list can grow - and how that growth is achieved.
Hint: it's actually all about the reader, not the author. How and why is your work is relevant to your audience?
I'll look at each in turn.
Why do Useful newsletters grow?
Useful newsletters are probably the easiest to grow, and certainly the easiest to monetise. The 4x factors determining growth are:
As you can see, there are obviously trade-offs here: for example, many people are interested in tech startup employee self-improvement (say), but there's a vast amount of competition on this topic and it's hard to stand out. If you started a newsletter on learning to play the tuba as an adult, on the other hand, you're the only person meeting that need! But the total audience available is obviously diminutive.
At their largest, useful newsletters can at their largest reach 1M+ readers - though NB these are all professional operations
The value to readers should be relatively obvious, so priorities for growth are a) communicating that value clearly, and then b) getting the sign-up page in front of as many people as possible. But I'm not going to dwell too much more on this type of newsletter: Dan Oschinsky has it covered with his Not A Newsletter monthly GDoc aimed at pro newsrooms - so go read that instead.
Why do Writerly newsletters grow?
Writerly newsletters grow based on two factors;
Which is really one factor: quality of the writing. Do good work, and the audience will come.
Existing networks certainly help, but if your writing is that good - if it is beautiful, if it is moving, if you are saying things about the world that nobody has ever said before - people who read it will want to share it.
The strategy here is, in marketing terms, that rarest of creatures: organic growth. The question to be asking yourself is, "Is this essay good enough that people who don't know or care who I am will share it?"
This is a high bar, and the challenge with this type of newsletter is that your writing needs to be of publishable quality. Why should the reader pay attention to this newsletter rather than The Baffler or The Atlantic or so on? This isn't, "sit down at the end of the week and pull something together" blogging. You need to have something to say, and you need to have spent the time with your writing so that you are saying it well. Unlike professional writing, you're probably working without an editor here - though it can be worth sending drafts to friends for feedback prior to publishing. And the question becomes, why then publish it in a newsletter vs. pitching it to publications that already have established, large audiences? That's something for you to think about - though I'll write another post on this decision, too.
Each newsletter is, conservatively, a couple of days work, and it can be a lot more - one reason my Disturbances newsletter (where I was writing about dust!) slowed down was because I ended up writing 5,000 word essays. Obviously what 'writerliness' means for you depends on what style of writer you are - for example my friend Daniel Trilling writes a newsletter that's almost a haiku. But by and large, I think it tends to mean essays of at least 1200-1500 words and up: as an avid newsletter reader, I tend to value the ones that feel substantial, and are long enough to properly explore an idea and make a strong and original point. Huw Lemmey's newsletter, Utopian Drivel, on sex, queer history, and memory, is one of the best I know and it's building into a really substantial body of work.
If you're curating and summarising existing ideas, your newsletter might be "useful" (i.e. an aggregator), or it could be interesting to readers because they like to hear these ideas in your personal voice. But to grow an audience for a 'writerly' newsletter, quality of the work is what counts.
Why do Personal newsletters grow?
Personal newsletters are the hardest type of newsletter to grow. Why? Back to what I said at the beginning: it's actually all about the reader, not the author. How and why is your work is relevant to your audience? Personal newsletters are the hardest ones to make more widely relevant to an audience beyond your friends.
The #1 factor determining the audience growth for your personal newsletter is your existing personal audience size.
Newsletters I would include in this "personal" category are:
Where personal newsletters tend to succeed is where they cross over with one of the previous categories:
People with big audiences - e.g. Instagram influencers, popular podcasters, or columnists for major newspapers - can certainly build good-sized audiences. Ann Friedman's Weekly newsletter, for example, has 47,000 subscribers. The links she selects each month are nicely done, but they're recommended by a lot of other newsletters, too. Instead, people subscribe because they like Ann, and they know her from her podcast Call Your Girlfriend, about women's friendships (i.e. topic-based and as much "useful" as it is personal), which has "hundreds of thousands" of listeners.
How my newsletter grew
Jay, how do you know this?
Because in 2016 and 2017 I grew a newsletter to over 2,000 subscribers in just seventeen episodes.
It was called Disturbances, and I was writing about dust, of all things. Nobody is inherently interested in dust - but that was the point: what could we learn by thinking about a substance typically beyond the limit of thought or vision?
Of the three newsletter categories I have outlined here, it was very much a writerly one. The content is, in style, a little rougher and bloggier than I might want to write now - but newsletters seemed 'newer' then, and the competitive standard probably a bit lower. The strength of the work was that it was startlingly original: nobody else was writing anything like this anywhere online. The element of surprise - "Huh! I never thought dust could be interesting" - made it shareable.
Here's a chart of my newsletter growth per episode, both in cumulative terms (line chart, left-hand axis, total subscribers), and the percentage growth between each episode (bar chart, right-hand axis)
What drove this growth? Four factors;
Did I benefit from recommendations from other, more influential sources with big reach? Yes, absolutely. Why did I get those recommendations? The work was good, and they felt it would be interesting to their audiences. Why was Warren following me already on social media? The work was good, and adjacent to his interests.
I can analyse the dynamics of social networks, community and privilege until the cows come home - I have a social anthropology degree and published studies in social network analysis. I know the work isn't the only factor that determines support and patronage. But it's a big one - and, more's the point, it's the one you can control. Be a good community member too. But most of all, do good work. Do great work. Do the best work you possibly can.
Basic tips and tricks
Beyond "do brilliant work", and/or "already be famous" - which are, I'm afraid, the main two principles if you're writing a writerly or personal newsletter respectively - what can you do?
I'm afraid there aren't any magic growth hacks.
But based on my experiences with my own newsletter, my professional knowledge as a digital strategist, and talking to a lot of other newsletter writers about their newsletters - here's what you can and should be doing to maximise your newsletter audience growth:
What doesn't work
1. Paid advertising - for personal, writerly, or free newsletters
There's a place for doing this with a "useful" newsletter IF it's monetised AND you're pro. Why can it work here? Because
If you know what I'm talking about when I say "Cost of customer acquisition", "conversion rates" and "customer lifetime value" - and you can model this in a spreadsheet, A/B test different advertising options, and optimise your strategy accordingly - then fine, you know what you're doing (though it's still not necessarily the best growth method, and go look again at your newsletter sign-up placements on your website...)
For everyone else, paid advertising is wasting your money. Writerly newsletters people need to read before seeing the value; personal newsletters there is no value unless they already know and like you. As such, ads just can't be persuasive enough for either. And if your newsletter is free, then be aware that paying for readers is basically vanity: it's
2. Trying to grow a paid newsletter
People want to try before they buy. By and large, you can't grow a newsletter or mailing list solely from paid posts. Instead, you grow from free - the content anyone can read. This means anyone writing a paid newsletter needs to do three things:
You should go read and sign up to my newsletter Disturbances :D It 100% does not contain any useful information like the above, merely speculative geographies of dust - but I told you above to cross-promote so I must practice what I preach!
As mentioned, I may write about (i) why you might want to start a personal newsletter, and (ii) if and how to consider monetising it by going subscriber-only. These pieces need your input, though - so if you've done these things, please drop me a line via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your reflections and experiences. Stats on conversion rates, growth etc would be especially welcome - i can anonymise in the blog post if you like, and just list your newsletter as a contributor at the end.