April 22, 2020

How I grew my newsletter to 130k subs in 20 months

tldrdan @tldrdan

Since starting TLDR (a tech newsletter targeted towards the kind of people who read Hacker News, Slashdot, Indie Hackers etc.) in August of 2018, I've been growing it steadily with a combination of forum posting, paid ads, word of mouth referral marketing, cross promotion, and link building. I notice a lot of indie hackers are now trying to start newsletters and since I have a bit of extra time in quarantine, I wanted to give a few tips to people starting out:

  1. Optimize your landing page (especially for mobile)

There are a few tweaks that led to big improvements in mobile landing page signup rates, adding OAuth (see https://www.tldrnewsletter.com, there are OAuth signup buttons for GitHub, Google, and Twitter, roughly 50% of mobile visitors sign up via these buttons instead of the traditional email field), improving page speed by caching via CloudFlare (the site is blazing fast and it's free!), and automatically focusing the cursor in the email input field (for desktop). In addition, it seems like most modern email marketing landing pages have converged on a very minimalist design that gives users fewer options to get distracted, I used to have the full latest issue of the newsletter on the landing page and that performed a lot worse than the current signup page because people would get distracted clicking on links and never come back.

  1. Ask for links in "Best Newsletters for _______" type lists and answer questions on Quora

Getting to the top of Google is generally really hard for newsletters because most of your content isn't inherently super linkable (most of your content tends to be in "archives"). A good way to get a bit of traffic especially early on is to Google things like "Best newsletters for insert your target audience" and reach out to the authors asking to be included (or at least leaving a comment under the article if that's allowed). You may also try piggybacking off of Quora's excellent SEO by leaving answers on questions for people who are looking for newsletters to subscribe to.

  1. Run cross promotions with other content creators that are roughly your size

Doing cross promotions is a nice way to help out another content creator and get more subscribers, it's really a win win. The way I usually do this is I'll reach out to another tech/developer focused newsletter with roughly the same number of subscribers as me (you can usually find out how many subscribers they have by looking at their sponsorship/advertising page) and ask if they want to run a cross promotion where I add their newsletter as a sponsor in my daily update and vice versa, here is the template I use for reference:

Hi ____,

I run a newsletter called TLDR, it's a daily, curated tech news newsletter that's mostly read by developers (sort of Hacker News type of content, but each link also comes with a TLDR). I have ____ subscribers at the moment, with a _____ open rate and ____ click through rate. Since there's almost certainly a good amount of overlap between the audiences for TLDR and _____ would you be interested in doing some sort of cross promotion (maybe a shoutout in my newsletter for yours and vice versa) to help grow both of our audiences?

Let me know if you'd be open to this!

Dan

As you get bigger, the cross promotions you do will get bigger as well, so it scales in proportion to your newsletter audience!

  1. If you have an ad budget, start with smaller ad networks

Starting out, I spent about $50 a day running ads to get the ball rolling with some subscribers. I found that it's really important to keep the growth momentum up in order to stay motivated with any project. If you happen to have a budget to run some ads, I would recommend looking for places other than Facebook or Google to start with, as those are two of the more competitive, efficiently priced ad marketplaces. Because this newsletter is geared for the Indie Hackers/Hacker News crowd, I started out running ads in places like Reddit (you can bid as low as 10 cents per click for any geo and any topic, there's almost nowhere else you can get clicks from US based software engineers for that cheap!) and Quora (with a small time budget, you can actually pick individual questions you want to run ads on. You may only be able to spend a few dollars a day on a group of 20 questions, but those will be the most targeted ads you can possibly run and will be a super efficient way to stretch your dollar).

  1. Utilize Facebook lookalike audiences

Once you get a few thousand subscribers, you may try Facebook lookalike audiences, this is a Facebook ad product that allows you to target users that look similar to your current subscribers. Try to be specific as possible, targeting people similar to people who open or click on your newsletter is better than targeting people who are just subscribed to your newsletter.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them as comments and I'll respond to as many as possible!

  1. 3

    Hi @tldrdan

    Thank you very much for this post, it is very enlightening! I actually just subscribed to the newsletter right now.

    I'm writing to you because I wanted to ask you, what the stack that you use for your Newsletter?

    • Do you use Substack, Ghost, or some other sort of platform like that?

    • Why don't you run a paid Newsletter instead of having a free one and then having to find Sponsors?

    • How have you find your first readers and how did you grow up to your first 1k subscribers? And then 1k? And in how much time did you accomplished that?

    Thanks and congratulations on your achievements! 💪

    1. 2
      1. I custom coded it because I'm an engineer, but I think any platform would support this use case.
      2. As a general rule I think with a broad audience (like this one) you should go for building a large following and getting sponsors, for a very niche audience (say if I were writing about only ecommerce or something I would go paid only.
      3. In the beginning I spent $50 bucks a day on Reddit/Quora ads and was also doing a good bit of forum posting so it didn't take long to get to 1000, maybe a month or so?
      1. 1

        Nice!

        I pretend to use Substack and my newsletter will be about Digital Strategy, Content Marketing, and Copywriting. Do you think it is niche enough to go with a paid newsletter or should I go free first?

        1. 1

          Do you have another distribution channel if you decide to go paid? If so that might work, if not you may want to try a Stratechery sort of model where you make some issues free and some issues paid.

          1. 2

            @tldrdan yes I intend to have. My strategy is to grow through social media too, by using multiple social media platforms to convert people into my newsletter. Basically, what I offer others with the company I'm building (www.thepopcornmedia.com), I intend to do for myself.

            And yes, maybe I'll do that as you say. I'll convert first people into my free newsletter and only then into my paying one. That way the first gives me an audience, the second may give me some revenue to pay my bills.

            I'd love to be living just from my newsletters and writing abilities until the end of the year. 7 months to go!

  2. 2

    I love it, I am subscribed and there's really good content.
    Keep up the good work Dan

    1. 2

      Thanks, I'm glad you like it!

  3. 2

    Thank you for sharing this Dan! I'm currently struggling a bit to grow the two side projects I'm currently working on, which are both newsletter-based, and I think I will definitely try to put into practice your tips!

    1. 2

      The Spotify one looks really cool, feel free to message me if you have any specific questions later!

      1. 1

        Wow, really appreciate that Dan! Thanks for checking it out!!

  4. 1

    Great insights and great comment section. Thank you for both, Dan!

  5. 1

    What platform are you using - Substack, Mailchimp or?

    1. 1

      Email Octopus, but most email platforms are fine.

  6. 1

    Thanks for the great story. You're doing amazing!

    I had a question still.

    What kind of churn numbers do you see per month or per issue?

    Cheers!

  7. 1

    Great job!! I'm curious how do the sponsors verify the number of subscribers to your newsletter ? do they request any proofs before paying ?

  8. 1

    You've had amazing growth for your newsletter. Thanks for sharing the tips. Also, would you be open to doing an exchange with my newsletter? We've got similar audience but my newsletter isn't as big as yours, just about 3400+ subscribers. Also, let me know if you've got any other suggestions.

    Here's my newsletter page,
    https://productdisrupt.com/newsletter.html

  9. 1

    Hi @tldrdan, Love the content keep it up ! A couple of questions from me ... 1) How do you keep on track with sourcing your stories for your newsletter do you use and RSS feed or anything like that ? 2) What does your workflow look like putting the newsletter together each day and what are the criteria for a story/source that gets in the newsletter ?

    1. 2
      1. I use a combination of aggreggators, Google searches, RSS feeds, and Twitter.
      2. No particular criteria, just whatever I find interesting. The big advantage of being painfully mediocre is that you share the same taste as many other people 😂
  10. 1

    Some great insights! Thank you. I just started an email newsletter (https://bullish.email) and got around 1.5k subscribers from Hacker News but like you said I need to keep the momentum going.

  11. 1

    I love how you have explained exactly what you did. Exactly being the keyword here!

    1. 2

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  12. 1

    Great job !!
    And amazing landing page : clear, straight to the point, no bullshit or useless illustration.

  13. 1

    Awesome job. Curious about the emojis - have they always featured? Or did you test their use?

    I’ve subscribed.

    1. 1

      Yeah, people seem to like them and they raise open rates by a bit. Also, it's better than using pictures in the email itself because a lot of clients block images from loading which looks ugly.

  14. 1

    Wow this is amazing! Well done on your success. I'm building a daily marketing newsletter so these tips really help a lot. Congrats :)

    1. 2

      Thanks, and good luck!

      1. 1

        Thanks man! Will share when it's ready as would love to get feedback from you :)

  15. 1

    TLDR Newsletter, nice name :)

  16. 1

    Congrats Dan!

    Do you have a sense of your visitor to subscriber rate? Email opt-in rate?

    1. 2

      ~40% conversion rate on the landing page. Don't measure the rates on the opt-in email.

  17. 1

    great post - thank you

    1. 1

      Glad you liked it!

  18. 1

    Great write up - thanks for sharing. And congrats - that’s some fantastic growth.

    How successful have you been with monetizing with sponsors? Are you selling out your inventory? At a CPM you’re happy with?

    1. 2

      Selling roughly 40% of inventory at a $10 CPM. Just started looking for sponsors for real earlier this year (see revenue chart), but since the virus hit I'm concentrating on growth while everyone's online and people aren't looking to spend as much money. I might write a post on how to find sponsors later this week.

      1. 1

        Thanks. That sounds like an interesting post 👍

          1. 1

            Awesome. Will check it out

  19. 1

    Thanks for sharing this! It is definitely informative and useful.

  20. 1

    This is awesome Dan. I sent you DM via Twitter

  21. 1

    Why cloudflare and not cloudfront?

    1. 2

      It's free 😂. Also I like the interface and how easy it is to purge the cache.

  22. 1

    Thanks for the detailed write up. Instead of building one I was trying to find a place in some of the newsletters. You detailing seems like it's not that hard to build one as well if we super target and place the content as an engaging one.

    1. 1

      If you're just looking to advertise stuff, I would highly suggest just sponsoring other newsletters instead of starting your own it's much less work! Very similar to the more general build vs buy argument you hear a lot in software.

  23. 1

    How did you come up with sponsor prices? Are you intentionally keeping them around $1/2 CPC?

    I’d also be interested in knowing more about Quora Ads. I’m experimenting with Reddit Ads (just tweeted my results) and was wondering if you could get similar CPCs/CPAs there.

    1. 1

      Sponsorship prices I just started with a $10 CPM but if I start selling out of slots then I can always raise them. I think Pieter Levels' school of pricing makes sense to me, start low to validate that at least somebody is interested and then raise them until it seems to be the correct market price with respect to other constraints (e.g. supply of sponsorship slots).

      1. 1

        Got it. What about Quora Ads? How good is it? It's probably the only ad platform I've never tried and I'd be curious to know if it's worth it.

        1. 1

          Pretty good for small amounts of money, you can target individual questions like "What are good tech newsletters for developers?" and super super specific questions like that. If you're more budget constrained than time constrained, you can literally handpick ~50-100 questions and target your ad spend only to those.

  24. 1

    Great write up thanks for this. Interesting idea starting out with something cheaper e.g. Reddit for paid marketing. Has that worked out better for you than the retargeting on FB?

    1. 2

      Retargeting on FB is now pretty cheap because I have a ton of data (I'm mostly targeting a lookalike audience of people who click specifically on the programming/design/data science links), but in the beginning Reddit is much cheaper (you can bid down to $0.10 per click even for usually expensive audiences like US software engineers).

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