Newsletter Crew November 14, 2020

When should you shut down a newsletter?

Steph Smith @stephsmith

I recently launched a book, Doing Content Right, and I had one of the customers write in with what I thought was likely a question that many people are facing.

Newsletters are back in their heyday, due to recent emergence of new tools, communities, and of course, celebration of successful newsletters. But of course, not all of them succeed. And as a creator, sometimes it's more important to know when to stop pursuing something, rather than to know when to pursue something.

The question posed was, " Newsletters could be assumed to be some sort of a startup project in itself - and I would think that there would be indications that something is not working or growing as fast as we would like then we shelve the project and move on to the next. With that analogy would you say there are any markers/numbers to indicate when it's time to "move on" ?"

I wanted to publicly share my answer and see if others had anything else to add. Here's what I said:

I hate saying “it depends”, so I’ll try to give you some concrete milestones. Of course, it does actually depend on the size of your market, whether you’re free/paid, how often you’re writing etc.

  • If it takes you more than a couple months to get to your first 100 subscribers.
  • If you’re not doubling every few months (this is on a small base). Consider that if you’re at 20 subscribers today, it would take you 6 months to get to 1000 (20, 40, 80, 160, 320, 640, 1280). And if you made it doubling every two months, it would take you over a year. For the first few months, you should be growing pretty quickly on that percentage basis.
  • If your open rate at the beginning is less than 40%. This indicates that most people aren’t getting value from your work. Early on, your “true fans” should be engaging heavily.

Also, if you're sharing your content across many different channels that your target users are hanging out and no one is reacting or engaging with the material, that is a bad sign that they don’t like your solution or perhaps they don’t need a solution for that thing at all. Additionally, if there is no growth organically and everything is coming from your concerted efforts, that’s not a good sign either. You should have at least a few people come through by other people sharing your work, referring their friends, etc.

All of this is to say that it’s banking on the idea that you’re creating and distributing your work pretty consistently over this period of time.


I posted this answer in our little community and @harrydry added a great point that you can ask your readers to reply. If you're doing something awesome, people will want to talk to you.

I'm really interested to hear what other people think of this question. What metrics would you pay attention to early on? Have you shut down a newsletter before? If so, what gave you the resolve to move on?

  1. 5

    Agree with the doubling milestones — cool idea! I'd add that it's a good idea to start a new newsletter (or blog series) with the assumption that you're going to have to iterate a couple times before you find "content/market fit." No need to throw in the towel if you aren't growing adequately right away.

    @harrydry added a great point that you can ask your readers to reply. If you're doing something awesome, people will want to talk to you.

    Big +1 on Harry's advice. Content is just like any other type of product: it has to address the problems of its audience. So, especially in the very beginning when you can directly talk to a large percentage of your audience, it's a great idea to connect with them and get to the bottom of what they're into, what other books/blogs/newsletters they like reading, etc.

    1. 2

      Completely agreed! During the first couple months, you're going to need to explore a whole bunch of things before "exploiting" what you find working.

  2. 3

    Mmm... I’m not sure I agree with the idea of shutting down a newsletter that doesn’t grow.

    You might have a really good newsletter that doesn’t grow because you haven’t found the right acquisition channel yet.

    In that (very common) case, the problem isn’t the newsletter itself but the fact they you need to get better at marketing it.

    I don’t think newsletters grow organically. You’ll still need search and social traffic just like any other product (SaaS, eCom, etc.)

    I’d focus more on how engagement evolves over time. If after a few issues people stop opening your emails or unsubscribe... then I’d be worried.

    1. 1

      I 100% agree that newsletters don't grow organically. Part of this suggestion is that along the way, you're investing in distribution (the book mentions this is often one of the most overlooked areas for creators -- especially writers).

      When I say organically, I don't just mean Google in this case. What I mean is that people, other than yourself, are sharing the material. I disagree that this can't happen with newsletters. Harry's Marketing Examples is a perfect example of where he does a lot of the promo, but so many people are also actively featuring his work on their own accord.

  3. 2

    As I write my newsletter mainly to learn, the metrics don't matter as much to me!

    When I defined my newsletter's guiding principles early on, BrainPint was meant to be first and foremost my learning vehicle. So although I'm pretty obsessed about subscriber growth now, even if people stopped reading, I would still continue writing as long as I believe that it can help me learn better.

    1. 1

      Yes, I should've clarified that this was in response to someone that was clearly viewing their newsletter as something that would eventually become a monetary asset for them, similar to a startup. If you're doing it just for your own learning, it's more of a hobby that may also be or become more than a hobby.

  4. 2

    I wouldn't say that not hitting pre-set goals is a good measure to shut down your newsletter. It might just be the opposite: work more on it.

    Additional reason: if you find it increadibly hard to put together the newsletter and time-consuming, no longer fun - that might be a reason (for personal newsletters) - assuming you did try long enough to get into a flow.

    1. 1

      I should clarify that this is specifically for people that have the intention of the newsletter becoming an asset to them in some way. For those doing it just for fun, AKA a hobby, there is no need to be so mechanical (just like other hobbies).

      With that said, if someone has the intention of growing this into something sizeable and really is iterating (meaning testing many different things) consistently for several months or even a year and isn't seeing much progress, I still think the right thing for them would probably be to pack it in. I feel like people too often are stuck with a sunk cost mindset. If something is clearly not working, there are so many other things that will.

  5. 2

    Yes, Steph. Agree with everything. It's challenging to decide when to stop and pack in.

    One example that comes to mind is a story about Vincent van Gogh.
    He was not commercially successful.
    Only after his death, his painting started to sell for millions.

    And who knows?
    Maybe he needed someone to help with marketing, sales or advertising.
    Maybe he was very, very close to becoming successful while alive.
    Maybe he was too great for his time.
    Maybe...

    I often think about Barbara Corcoran quote.

    In sales, everybody wants what everybody wants, and nobody wants what nobody wants. You have to create the illusion of demand, even when there is none!

  6. 1

    Oof the subscriber rate goals...I've been doing Lean Code Weekly for 27 weeks, and am at 56 subscribers. By these goals it's a complete failure and I should stop.

    However I haven't launched on ProductHunt yet, or really pursued any channels other than my LinkedIn and Twitter accounts so far. Also I've never shared or forwarded anyone's newsletter email before...who does that? Maybe that is the key for many newsletters but I don't even identify with that behaviour, yet I subscribe to a bunch of different newsletters that are still around.

    I'm giving myself about a year until I re-evaluate my newsletter, until then, just doing the work, and laying the foundation (issue archives site) for future readers (and maybe even advocates)

  7. 1

    Some awesome points here Steph.

    I have to disagree on this though.

    Additionally, if there is no growth organically and everything is coming from your concerted efforts, that’s not a good sign either.

    I don’t have a blog along side my newsletter so I have a slim chance of any organic traffic coming my way (I do have few thanks to some nice high quality backlinks), but that’s not to say that I can’t get a nice steady stream of traffic and subscribers from referrals and word of mouth, and a large amount my audience came from that “concerted effort” you speak about. It helped my grow my newsletter to my first 1000 subscribers.

    If you’re talking about a blog, than that would be a different can worms and I’d happily agree. Not many newsletters do keep a blog along side their newsletter.

    1. 1

      I 100% agree that newsletters don't grow organically. Part of this suggestion is that along the way, you're investing in distribution (the book mentions this is often one of the most overlooked areas for creators -- especially writers).

      When I say organically, I don't just mean Google in this case. What I mean is that people, other than yourself, are sharing the material. I disagree that this can't happen with newsletters. Harry's Marketing Examples is a perfect example of where he does a lot of the promo, but so many people are also actively featuring his work on their own accord.

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