In 1978, Gary Thuerk — known (reluctantly) as the “Father of Spam” — sent history’s first mass email to 400 Digital Equipment Corp. customers using ARPAnet. He was trying to garner attention for Digital’s new T-series of VAX systems.
To everyone’s surprise, this marketing effort generated $13 million of business.
But it came with a dark side. As sales rolled in, so too did complaints.
In the 90s, as email became more commonplace (and less expensive than postage), marketers flooded consumer inboxes with all sorts of offers.
In 1998, to manage spam, the Data Protection Act was updated to ensure that all marketing emails included an opt-out option. And in 2003, the Can Spam Law was introduced in the US and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations were introduced in Europe. Sender Policy Framework (SPF) was introduced a year later.
There’s no question that email marketing is a very different thing now than it was in the 1900s.
Spammers are less successful than ever before, many laws exist to protect consumer data, and the winners of email marketing are typically those who focus on quality over quantity.
Today’s most successful email marketers maintain lists of people who trust them, value their emails, and look forward to future content.
These subscribers trust them so much that they’re willing to buy from them over and over again.
In fact, over the last year or so, a new business model has emerged, where emails are the product that people pay for. It’s called the paid subscription newsletter.
Here’s how it works.
What is a Paid Subscription Newsletter & How Does it Work?
A paid subscription newsletter is a daily, weekly, or monthly email that people pay to receive.
The cost of a paid subscription newsletter varies greatly depending on the depth of the target market’s pockets and the value being provided.
But typically, a paid subscription newsletter is a low-ticket offer. Many marketers and entrepreneurs use this to create recurring income and then sell other courses, products, and services.
Newsletter Crew, for instance, lists 11 of the “best” paid newsletter subscriptions alongside their cost, and the average is $13.50/month.
That might not sound like much, but each of those newsletters has thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers. Pretty quickly, even $5/month becomes a respectable amount of revenue.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Stratechery is Ben Thompson’s paid newsletter that consists of “substantial analysis of the news of the day delivered via three weekly emails, in addition to the free Weekly Article (four total emails per week).” It costs $12/month.
Cleaning The Glass is a sports-focused paid newsletter run by Ben Falk (former VP of basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers). They offer clear sports data for people who love sports.
Their newsletter costs $5/month.
The Browser is a newsletter with over 58,000 subscribers. Their value proposition is as follows: “Every day we read hundreds of articles and select our favourite five for you to enjoy, so you’ll always have interesting things to ponder and fascinating ideas to discuss at dinner.” They charge $5/month.
(Anecdotally, check out this Twitter thread where Shaan Puri shares how he started a paid newsletter as an experiment and ended up generating almost $50k per month!)
We could go on.
But for now, we just want you to understand that the business model is viable.
You can build a successful paid newsletter subscription and you can craft emails that people will be happy to pay for.
The main steps are to (1) define the unique value you’re going to provide, (2) create a launch-day and ongoing growth plan, and (3) consistently delight your audience with high-value emails.
Let’s look at each of those steps in turn.
Step 1. Define Your Unique Value Proposition
Who is going to sign up for your newsletter?
Why are they going to sign up?
More importantly, why are they going to pay you for it?
You should have crystal-clear answers to those questions well before launch day.
The more specific your answers, the better. You’ll want to know the demographics, interests, and challenges of your target market as well as the irresistible recurring value you’re going to provide for them.
Take Shaan Puri from the Twitter thread that we mentioned earlier. He built a paid newsletter and quickly grew it to $50,000/month. One of the reasons he had such explosive success was because he gave his target market what they already wanted.
Give this a look.
More specifically, he actually tried to build $1m businesses and would report back to subscribers with regular updates.
The average subscriber was paying $155/month and the profit margin was a whopping 96%.
This was just an experiment, but a very compelling one.
What we want to point out, though, is just how detailed Shaan’s unique value proposition was.
I’m going to build a new business from $0 – $1m every month and show you exactly how I did it.
What entrepreneur-minded person wouldn’t sign up for that?
To help you define your unique selling proposition, let’s take one more look at the two questions we started with.
Who is going to sign up for your newsletter?
Who is your target market? What are their fears, interests, and desires? What is their worldview? What are their goals?
How old are they? Where do they live? How much money do they make? Are they married? Do they have kids? What does their typical day look like?
The more information you gather about your target market, the better you’ll be able to serve them with your paid newsletter.
It can even be helpful to create a customer avatar so that you think about your target market as an individual person rather than a large group of people.
This is something that Russell Brunson recommends in his book, Traffic Secrets: he suggests that you go so far as to name your customer avatar and find a picture of how you imagine this person looks.
That might sound like silly advice, but it’s a matter of getting yourself to fully understand who you’re serving and, more importantly, to get yourself to serve that person… even if it means excluding other similar personas.
Here’s a helpful list of 12 questions you can use to better define your target market.
Why are they going to sign up?
The idea behind having a niche is to offer value to your audience that isn’t really being offered anywhere else, not to the same degree, or not in such an easy-to-consume way.
To find your niche, get specific about why people are going to sign up for your newsletter.
What are you going to offer them that they won’t be able to resist?
For Shaan, it was offering real-time updates of himself building businesses to $1m.
For The Pomp Letter, it’s providing finance and crypto investors with real-time information about the digital asset market.
And for Exponential View, it’s making informed predictions about how technology is going to impact the future.
Paid newsletters are all about the value of information. So what valuable information are you going to give your subscriber?
Are you going to curate content in a way no one else does?
Are you going to interview top achievers in your niche and report back?
Are you going to provide expert insights from your own experiences?
What are you going to offer? And why should your target market care?
Once you’ve answered those questions, move onto the next step.
Step 2. Create a Plan For Launch-Day & For Ongoing Growth
At a high level, the way to grow a paid newsletter is to create a compelling offer (you should’ve already done that), get your offer (the landing page) in front of your target market as often as possible, and then consistently create emails that people are happy to pay for (we’ll talk about this in the next step).
Here, we’re talking about launching your newsletter and creating a plan for ongoing growth.
For launch day, here are some low-hanging (and inexpensive) tactics that everyone should take advantage of…
- Get Listed On Newsletter Sites — Here are a few directories where you can list your newsletter for free: Newsletters, InboxStash, InboxReads, Find Your Newsletter, LetterList.
- Tell Friends & Family — Start with the people you know. Message them on Facebook, shoot them an email, or call them on the phone and tell them about what you’re doing.
- Launch on Social Media — Don’t forget to announce your new venture on all your social media channels!
And here are some slightly more advanced strategies to consider for immediate and/or long-term growth.
- Create a Referral Program — Referral programs are a great way to encourage your subscribers to tell their friends about your newsletter. Here’s how it works: you offer rewards (merchandise, discounts, etc) for every person that someone brings in. SparkLoop is a great tool for building a newsletter referral program.
- Encourage Sharing — No marketing tactic is as powerful as word-of-mouth. The more that your subscribers share, the more your newsletter will grow. So encourage them to forward at the end of every email.
- Build an Affiliate Army — Many company’s sell products through affiliates. And you might be able to do something similar with your newsletter, especially if your newsletter costs $100+ per month. You can offer them a percentage of sales and recurring commission for as long as subscribers stick around, which will incentivize them to sell your newsletter. Find influencers in your niche and come to an agreement that you’re both excited about.
- Advertisements — You can also run advertisements on Twitter, Facebook, other newsletters, or elsewhere to grow your paid newsletter. Where you run the most successful ads will depend on where your target market is the most active.
- Trade Mentions — Newsletters are hot right now. And there are probably quite a few newsletters in your niche that would be willing to trade mentions — you mention their newsletter to your list and you’ll mention theirs. The goal is to find newsletters that aren’t direct competitors, but that still have some target market overlap.
- Notify of Cancellation — A day before a subscriber’s cancellation takes effect, create a triggered email that sends and lets them know that their subscription is about to end. This is a great way to recapture some lost customers at the last minute.
Now you have some strategies to try. But here’s the main thing we want you to understand: growing a newsletter will always be a process of trial and error.
You’ll want to test out a lot of strategies, ditch what isn’t working, and stick with things that do work. Because what works for you might not work for other newsletters… heck, it might not even be in the above list.
These strategies give you a good starting place, but don’t be afraid of getting creative with your growth-hacking strategies — after all, you know your newsletter best.
Step 3. Creating Emails That Are Worth Every Penny
You’ve defined your unique selling proposition, you’ve launched your paid newsletter, and you’ve put some growth tactics in the pipeline.
Now it’s time to stick the landing.
Churn is the enemy of a successful newsletter — to grow, you don’t just need to get people signed up… you need to keep them signed up.
And the only way to do that is by creating emails that people are happy to be paying for.
The key is to make your emails feel like a product — people should feel like they’re getting exclusive access to something special. And ideally, they should feel like they’re getting more value than they even paid for.
That brings us to our first piece of advice for creating value-heavy emails: try to provide some unique value — this could be interviews with industry experts, information that’s difficult to find, or your own personal experience and advice.
It could really be anything that aligns with your unique selling proposition.
Consider the content of Lenny’s Newsletter emails, which contain “weekly advice about product, growth, working with humans, and anything else that stresses you out at the office.”
Lenny starts by encouraging subscribers to send him their questions (which provides content for future editions) and then he spends the rest of the email providing detailed answers to a question from the previous week.
This is a dead-simple way to provide real value for your audience!
(It’s helped Lenny collect more than 50,000 subscribers)
Of course, there are a lot of different ways to provide value for readers.
However you do it, remember that your emails are the product… and so long as you keep delivering awesome value, your subscribers are going to stick around.
The paid newsletter wasn’t always a viable business model.
But now, people are happy to pay to receive weekly or daily emails that provide unique value… something that they can’t get anywhere else from a brand that they connect with.
The steps are simple. Define your unique selling proposition, create a growth plan, and write value-heavy emails.
Now it’s just a matter of getting started!