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28 Comments

When Your Paid Newsletter Stops Growing

I write a monthly newsletter in Trends.vc format and style called Cybersecurity Market Insights. It’s very specific to people who buy or invest in the cybersecurity product space and I write both a free and paid version.

0-100 subscribers happened in about 10 days. The next 50 took about 3 months, and the next 50 is taking even longer.

I’m getting good feedback from everyone who reads it, and it has landed me a few paid consulting opportunities, but growth has basically stopped on the free and paid side and I’m not sure where to go from here.

For the paid version I offer:

  • Annual subscription (most sales)
  • Purchase individual issues (a few sales)
  • “Enterprise” version that can be shared (No one buys this)
  • Private Label version where I let people use the content however they want for their customers (I sometimes get people interested but no one has bought yet)

Currents stats are:

  • 7 months in to writing
  • 182 subscribers (168 free / 14 paid)
  • Avg open rate is 35% (60%+ for paid)
  • Avg click rate is 7-8% (15-20% for paid)
  • Avg subscriber growth is 5 subscribers a month

What should I do here for growth or from a pivot standpoint?

I’ve tried cross-promoting, but few have been interested or don’t reciprocate when I do it.

Since I write about vendors, sponsorship seems like a big conflict of interest even thought vendors are the most likely group to want to sponsor. Local consulting services companies could be a fit but not getting interest there either (even though they use the content to supplement their own sales!).

Any feedback or thoughts would be great, so thank you in advance!

  1. 3

    I think reddit is a great place to grow a newsletter. From my expereince it got me the most traffic, even more than paid ads.... BUT, you can't be spammy, you will lose. Maybe try making a post in https://www.reddit.com/r/cybersecurity/ (236,000 subs). You could either drop a post thats essentially a sample of the newsletter and drop a link at the bottom, or just ask for feedback. i.e "I started a cyber security newsletter, paid or free, I'd love to get the communities feedback." But be straight up on reddit, or they will crush you. Not reproducable, but worth trying once, and you may get some great feedback.

    Then you could try posting in there once every couple weeks offereing some valuable content to the community. I've done it the spammy way and it does not work.

  2. 3

    I checked your newsletter out, it provides valuable content! The stats you've posted here are a confirmation of this.

    I can see a potentially major reason for why it's not growing any more. While the product itself is great (the content), the project lacks a lot of what comes around the product:

    1. An actual marketing & growth strategy, both for short term and long term user acquisition, in order to drive constant qualified traffic to your sign up page (or maybe you do have a strategy that wasn't obvious to me?)

    2. A professional design and UX. One illustration of this is how the email sign-up field on your landing page is all the way at the bottom, whereas it should be topmost (compare to trends.vc). Another example is the size (and the style) of the visual above the field.

    Regarding the 2nd point, it might not sound all that important, but in reality they're the kind of tweaks that can 1) convey credibility to new leads as you scale, and 2) multiply your conversion rate by a significant amount (I've actually measured such variations in the past).

    1. 1

      Thanks for this feedback @tareksway!

      You’ve nailed 2 pieces I’ve struggled with, as this is my first foray into any kind of digital product or any kind of customer sale. These sound very important and I have been winging it based on piecemeal anecdotes from this community and others on Twitter.

      The website is all on me for not being that great looking. It’s all hand done with HTML, CSS, and Jekyll for the most part and I’m no web designed. I used a theme but really thought I should make my own site when I first started out so it could be a “portfolio” example. I had many early ideas to make money and I spent way more time on that site than I’d like to admit. 😳

      My strategy for customer acquisition so far has been:

      • Try to write good content for the audience I want to sell to (private equity types and enterprise buyer types like how I was for 15 years)
      • Try to post with some regularity on the right channels, which for me is mostly LinkedIn (can be hard to do without sounding spammy)
      • Slowly branch out into other channels like Reddit, HackerNoon, Twitter with non-newsletter content to establish credibility (Reddit gets more likes but no subs or conversions, HackerNoon gets some likes and subs, Twitter gets few likes, few subs, and even a few conversions)
      • ????
      • Profit!

      I’ve had some success but I can’t always tell you why.

      Caveat - I’ve now sold the business that was associated with the newsletter but they said I could keep it separate. I need to migrate it off of my old company website and find a new home for it I guess.

      1. 2

        Congratulations on selling the business! It sounds like the perfect time to move the newsletter to a new place as you said and start fresh with the right foundations.

        I don't think you should spend that much time on the website anymore, as it's not the core business. Maybe consider cutting that dev time by using a clean theme (HTML or WP) and focus on product and growth instead.

        In terms of marketing, it sounds like you have some solid elements in place that need to be put together into something comprehensive and strategic. The more you perceive and treat the newsletter like a business (vs. a hobby or a side project), the more it should grow.

        1. 1

          Agreed on the timing to move to a new place, just now have to figure out what that new place is. I've got mikeprivette.com as my personal domain that could use a refresh and uplift to include content like this. Since I'm not sure about the long term viability of topics for this newsletter (i.e., not sure I can write about for much longer), it probably makes sense to live there as opposed to finding a separate domain home for it.

          In terms of marketing, it sounds like you have some solid elements in place that need to be put together into something comprehensive and strategic. The more you perceive and treat the newsletter like a business (vs. a hobby or a side project), the more it should grow.

          I think you're absolutely right... but like... how do I do that? 😅

  3. 3

    the first thing I noticed was the price - I guess it's a lot for people to fork out. But that doesn't answer why the free version is struggling too. As someone else said, perhaps it is too niche?

    It is a tad worrying as I start promoting my new aggregated newsletter https://gum.co/early-venture-report this week. I am not doing a free version as I have always wondered whether free newsletters give the wrong impression. A lot of work goes into these so why should any of us be doing it for free - what are your thoughts on this?

    My paid one is a flat $24 per year. My strategy has been to set a level that means people don't need to think about it. A volume game. But lets see. please wish me luck!

    1. 2

      Thanks for the feedback here @steveprocter, and your newsletter looks really interesting! Good luck on this venture.

      I’ve actually raised my prices a few times as I make sales. My first paid issue started out at <$70 with a discount for the annual subscription and I’ve moved up from there. I’m not married to the prices and can easily come back down. Seems like I may need to or at least run a special sale to get folks interested in buying again.

      It’s definitely very niche, agree with you there. So niche that I’m running out of ideas and either need to expand the content base, which could get out of my expertise area, or shut it down after 12 issues (1 year subscription). I’m leaning towards the latter over the former because these reports take 25-30 hours each of research, trying to distill insights, and getting it ready for the various delivery platforms.

      I went free and paid at the same time to get content for my company’s blog and give potential buyers something to see. I just followed the Trends.VC playbook, just not as well. 🤔

      If I had to do it over again, I might do free only with sponsorship options on a totally different topic within cybersecurity. There are already a few big ones of these around, so it would be hard to get traction, which is why I went with nothing else seen in my industry.

      I want to carry that momentum into something new eventually, be it a new newsletter, a new digital product, or both. I’m just not quite sure how you do that yet.

      1. 2

        Yeah this newsletter game is very interesting, good luck with it and keep us informed as you decide how to move it forward.

        And remember, you may not think your an expert in lots of things, but to a lot of potential readers who are much further down the knowledge tree you will still come across as very knowledgable - so don't be afraid of widening what you write about.

  4. 3

    Try expanding on topics? The bigger the niche, the bigger the audience. Have patience, newsletters take a long time to get started.

    I'm writing https://www.startupscrushing.com/ and I'm growing 20-25% each month. Started in 2020 November.

    1. 1

      I’m definitely considering expanding topics, although it will get me out of my expertise depth if I stray too far and quality might slip. I’m also considering a completely different kind of pivot to a new topic and format altogether.

      Also, my consulting company that I sold recently was technically a startup that was crushing it. Just saying! 🙂

      1. 2

        will get me out of my expertise depth

        That's how we all grow and learn, I suppose...

        1. 1

          Fair point. I knew about cybersecurity products when I started but no idea about newsletters, no idea about writing for my target audience, and no idea how to monetize it.

  5. 3
    • Pick the social where your readers hang out and be active there
    • Write articles about topics your readers might be searching for
    1. 1

      Thanks @andreboso, that’s how my newsletter got started.

      I had already started my side consulting business (of which this newsletter later became a part of), and I had managed to get in with a large private equity group as their cybersecurity advisor. I found myself repeating or teaching basic concepts about why I would or would not buy or invest in a product and decided to “write it down” so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself and the newsletter idea hit me. The PE firm loved it and started sending to their partner firms and the free and paid channels started taking hold at almost the same time.

      I then went to LinkedIn and picked up most of the rest of my subscribers, as this is the only channel I have a substantial (> 1k) followers on. I get great engagement and encouragement from there, but the subscribers and conversions are dwindling.

  6. 3

    It's not just you. I've been stuck at 50-60 subscribers for over half a year.

    I've also got a couple of shoutouts to my newsletter in a couple popular ones with a thousand subscribers each, but I didn't gain any.

  7. 2

    reddit is a great platform for posting your content. unfortunately, many huge subreddits ban my submissions, due to amateur level or simply that I'm lacking credibility. however, i found a subreddit https://www.reddit.com/r/CyberNews/ , that are more than welcome for you to post your cybersecurity content, if it's news based, or is just a great research on cybersecurity topic

    1. 1

      Thanks for the link to that subreddit, I haven't seen that one before.

      I've been looking for a place to get some feedback on my writing so that might be a great spot!

  8. 2

    Quick update: Sold my first Private Label version of the newsletter to another consulting firm last week!

  9. 2

    Hey, thanks for writing this. I make a subscription-only newsletter product in a fairly niche area (self-publishing genre fiction), so for me the question of how you get people to actually pay for your content - instead of making money from selling ad spots or consulting hours - is a really important one for me.

    For myself, I have about 50-odd paying subscribers now, and I have done what other commenters have suggested, by embedding myself in the communities where my (potential) customers are talking, and providing value there without asking for anything in return. This has worked, but it's a constant ongoing thing, which is a PITA. I am also just now appearing on some podcasts and pitching to give talks at industry conferences, and I think that'll help a bit.

    Another commenter has mentioned subreddits - FWIW this is valuable in my area because it's not purely idle commenters who are there; industry professionals will pop in occasionally to see what's coming up. However, they're also right that you need to come across as authentic and authoritative. One useful tactic I've employed is to provide value, then mention your product, then provide more value. This is contrary to a lot of marketing wisdom where you have a call to action at the end, but it does cut down on the posts complaining that you are shilling. If you become known in a subreddit as someone who provides quality information for free, and a fair product at a fair price, that's useful.

    I agree that there's a lot of value in creating your own content either on your site or as a 'guest spot' elsewhere, and thus driving traffic that way, BUT for myself I've found that that turns me into a blogger, which kind of wasn't what I set out to do.

    EDIT: the only concrete thing I'd suggest for you is to maybe put yourself front and centre in the sales process a bit? This isn't my nature at all, but when I look at Stratechery, a big part of the sales pitch is 'Ben Thompson is someone who knows his stuff.', done in a modest but authoritative voice. That sense of modest-but-authoritative is something I've tried to copy, and it might work for you too.

    1. 1

      Appreciate this feedback @nosecroquet!

      Agree with you on subreddits as well. I have posted and commented a bit on r/cybersecurity and r/SecurityCareerAdvice and trying to build a following. Those subreddits are where I got the idea for a new digital product I'm planning out to help folks advance their cybersecurity careers in the corporate world similar to all of these Jr. Dev --> Sr. Dev or Standout Dev ebooks. It's probably worth me asking the community for feedback and see if I get tomatoes thrown at me.

      EDIT: the only concrete thing I'd suggest for you is to maybe put yourself front and centre in the sales process a bit? This isn't my nature at all, but when I look at Stratechery, a big part of the sales pitch is 'Ben Thompson is someone who knows his stuff.', done in a modest but authoritative voice. That sense of modest-but-authoritative is something I've tried to copy, and it might work for you too.

      I love Stratechery! I had not yet considered this angle and this gives me some new ideas, thank you!

      1. 2

        No problem; I'd really like to talk to more people whose focus is on paid subscriptions for niches. Most newsletter discussion is oriented around monetising free subscribers one way or another, but I think this is a bit different, and I've not found a lot of people in a similar situation.

  10. 2

    I would take some of that content and publish it on other sites like medium, reddit etc. Then have a powerful CTA at the bottom: 'If you like this subscribe etc'

    1. 1

      I’ve done this before with HackerNoon and Hacker News with very little success and I pulled most of the pieces back into draft. I could revisit this, however, as it doesn’t really cost me anything other than time to repost.

      1. 2

        It's a strategy that pays dividends later on. You're building SEO and you might not see any results immediately apart from the initial traffic bump but then a few months down the road things start to pickup.
        Since you already have a lot of content use it to plant the seeds now so you may harvest later :)

  11. 2

    Where do you promote? How much views are you getting for your newsletter / Gumroad page on a daily / monthly basis?

    I don't see anything fundamentally wrong here. The product seems great. You have a good conversion rate from free to paid (almost 8%).

    I think it's just the traffic nut you have to crack. You're audience is very niche so you need to figure out where they hang out and promote constantly. Not once or twice. Constantly. Only continued work over time will you get a steady stream of subscribers.

    What are the niche communities in this space where you could engage with the target audience?

    If there's a big newsletter in your space accepting ads/sponsorships, that could also be a great opportunity, even if it's a bit expensive. One sponsor ad in a big newsletter could get 500-1000 clicks easily (if the audience is a good fit). That could get you a long way to get the ball rolling.

    1. 1

      Thanks for the feedback @timosarkka

      I promote on LinkedIn and Twitter, with the occasional post or mention on HackerNoon and HackerNews.

      The engagement I get from LinkedIn is by far the best (600 - 1,200 views per post at 20-30 likes and comments each). My non-newsletter posts on LinkedIn can get up into 3k-6k views with 60-90 likes.

      I get very little (0-2 likes and less than 100 impressions) from Twitter right now but am working on building my presence there.

      Most of my audience is on LinkedIn and I’ve found growing support on Reddit when I give folks career advise, so I’m trying to cultivate that a lot more, but as folks have said in this thread, it’s a fickle place to promote.

      I have found another large newsletter in my space called tl;drsec that has ~6k subscribers and the guy who writes it is super nice. It’s a story aggregation style newsletter written weekly and he has paid sponsors lined up for the whole year by February. I’m trying to get a shoutout on an issue if possible.

      I’d love to pivot to a format like this so each issue is less work on me personally, but I feel like it’s a winner-take-most scenario when you make a newsletter with that format in a given field. There’s not enough unique content for me to do a similar style without reposting and then why would anyone read mine over his?

      1. 2

        Yes, try to get that shoutout. It could turn out to be big. Otherwise, I think you just need to keep grinding and experimenting.

        You've already seen that LinkedIn is a good channel for you. Maybe do a specific short-term sale for your LinkedIn audience to boost some sales and exposure?

        I think it's important to define your USP when compared to tldrsec for example. Probably best not to do exactly what they are doing - how can you offer value in a way they can't? Can you drill down deeper on some microtopics? Also you could experiment publishing weekly but shorter pieces and see what that does for exposure and engagement. Just some ideas. Don't be scared to try different things and see what works.

        I read a bit of your example posts. The content is good. Maybe you could try to be even more brief and specific in your writing. They need to see the value immediately when scrolling your posts.

        For example: "How will this evolve as companies push to low-code and no-code and XaaS services? Only time will tell." You could have given your own estimate on how the situation will evolve based on facts >> that would be valuable to the reader! The less vague you can be, the better. Also the briefer you can be, the better. These days everyone's just interested in what's in it for them and you have about 3 seconds to capture their attention. I've noticed that myself and try to write that in mind.

        Hopefully I don't come across as overly critical. I think you have a good thing going on here. Just some polishing and you'll get there :)

        1. 1

          Not overly critical at all, this is awesome feedback and thank you!

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