Look: There aren’t any get-rich-quick secrets in this post. I actually never meant to build a business around a subscription-based newsletter. It happened kind of accidentally.
But because that business (TeachingStartup.com) took off, I get a lot of questions about how to make a subscription-based newsletter successful. I'm not kidding myself; I know the demand for my knowledge in this arena has little to do with me and much more to do with the recent success of newsletter-business-in-a-box companies like Substack and Revue.
There's definitely money in newsletters if you do them right.
But I'm also not kidding myself in thinking I have the secret formula for newsletter success. Like I said, I never meant to build a newsletter business. But in a weird, kind-of-backwards way, I think I can tell you exactly how to build a better newsletter — either as a standalone product or as part of a marketing campaign — by telling you why I set out not to build one.
Why Newsletters Are All the Rage
Why now? Email marketing has been around for decades, and email marketing platforms have been around almost as long. And what's more, it's not like they've been skulking in the shadows, waiting for their moment.
For example, not one, but two entrepreneur friends of mine sold their platforms in 2012 (iContact) and 2015 (Bronto). Both of those were awesome exits, but to be fair, not quite the $12 billion that MailChimp just sold for a couple months ago. Despite what some other opportunistic messaging startups might tell you (looking at you, Slack), email is not going away anytime soon.
The current newsletter trend has less to do with MailChimp and more to do with podcasts. Or better yet, it's more like the Medium to multimedia’s YouTube, Twitch and Patreon. There are dozens of newsletter-business-in-a-box companies now, platforms that will take care of all of the business for you — leaving you free to get creative and write words that are worth paying for.
But here's the thing: Unlike their entertainment or celebrity-based subscription-model forerunners, newsletters aren't all that… exciting. There are no visuals, no audio. It can often be equivalent to reading someone's journal or diary, which can be fun for about five minutes.
Thus, the newsletter-as-a-business model needs an extra kicker. And in most cases, a subscription-based newsletter finds that kicker by educating, motivating or informing the reader.
The problem is, email is a shitty way to do that.
Why I Didn’t Use a Business-in-a-Box
Instead of a newsletter business, I initially set out to build a new kind of educational model. I say “new” because the education aspect is around startups and entrepreneurship — which is a continually evolving, necessarily interactive process more akin to advising than teaching.
But if I wanted to make that type of advising more universally available and affordable, I'd have to lean on a different model, one I would possibly have to invent or at least duct-tape together.
I went for the latter.
What I really needed was a combination of a one-to-one communication channel, a knowledge base and the means to establish a rhythm, like you would with a weekly advisor meeting. Email could solve all three of those needs, but not perfectly. In order for the content to succeed as a product, I'd need it to feel like a one-to-one meeting, not a one-to-many email blast.
I started with a newsletter as an MVP, and it worked, but like I said, not like the product I ultimately wanted to build. When I moved to the next step, evolving to that product, I looked at Substack, Revue, MailChimp and about a dozen other newsletter-business-in-a-box platforms. I ended up choosing none of them, instead going with a no-code platform (Bubble) to handle all the business, the knowledge base and the interactivity.
In order to be successful, I realized I would have to rebuild all the easy newsletter parts in order to get control over the difficult (but important) product parts. I still use MailChimp strictly to deliver the emails, because they're really good at that, but I'm building the email delivery into the no-code platform soon.
The reasons I didn't choose any of the newsletter-business-in-a-box platforms as my solution were all based on that extra kicker I needed to make the content more of a valuable product.
Here are those reasons.
4 Reasons to Build Your Own Newsletter Solution
- Control the presentation.
- Control the customer funnel.
- Control how your content is archived, organized and accessed.
- Control where your product goes next.
I Needed to Be in Control of the Presentation
None of the business-in-a-box solutions are great at UX and UI. Some of them are pretty decent at what I'd call “look and feel,” but I wanted a more interactive email experience. If you're going to do a paid newsletter using a service, the platforms are all going to function in the same manner: one way, out to your readers.
I Needed to Be in Control of the Customer Funnel
Sure, all the platforms are great at providing metrics once the email hits the inbox. They track opens, clicks, and some of them take a shot at reading time. That said, Apple has made some privacy moves that have made these metrics much less trustworthy.
But even with that post-delivery data parsed nicely for me, I can't learn anything about the value of the product if I'm not able to dig into how and why someone becomes a customer. The business-in-a-box models assume people are already coming to you because they want your newsletter. If I want to do any selling or marketing, I'd be adding clicks and losing potential customers along the way.
I Needed to Be in Control of How Content Was Archived, Organized and Accessed
Not only do the provider platforms assume that your potential customer already wants to be your customer, they also assume that the use case for that customer is to read your newsletter when it's delivered and immediately forget about you.
This is the model of magazines, and magazines died a long time ago. It reminds me of how all the newspapers just tried to be newspapers but online, or how broadcast networks just tried to be broadcast networks but online. Digital didn’t just change the medium, it changed the entire model.
From an educational perspective, there was too much value in my content for it to not be organized, searchable and to be flagged for repeated access.
I Needed to Be in Control of How the Product Would Expand
I didn't want a weekly newsletter to be all the product did. In fact, I think the paid-newsletter-as-product trend is going to peak soon. Maybe not tomorrow, but as digital continues to evolve from mobile-first use cases to only-mobile use cases, email is becoming just another messaging app in what's probably an entire screen of apps on your phone.
None of the providers gave me anything I'd call control over any of that stuff. Thus, a newsletter-business-in-a-box service is fine for an entertainment, celebrity or vanity project, but not if your product drives its value from the content.
If newsletters are the core of what you want to do, I'd say choose a service that you like and just use that, maybe use no-code tools to connect other functionality to it.
But if, like me, newsletters are just part of what you want to do, take the time to build a dedicated subscription based website — whether it’s no-code, low-code or real code, depending on how digitally complex your product will be. Then use a vanilla bulk emailer like MailChimp to handle the actual creation and delivery of the email.
Either way, success will come from delivering value to your customer. So figure out where that value is, and build your product around it accordingly.