By Tom Sandford on September 04, 2020

Briefing: Paid-for email newsletters

How much would you pay for an email newsletter subscription?

Seems like an odd question, doesn’t it? It’s not like there’s a shortage of emails to subscribe to and some of them are actually quite good. Why on earth would anyone pay for them?

Well, it turns out that a growing number of our peers are paying for newsletter subscriptions. And I’m not talking about The Economist or the FT’s digital offerings, but emails from B2B marketing folks like you and I. 

It seems that people will pay for better, more specific content.

This past year a few of my favourite newsletters have ‘gone premium’. So I got to wondering...

  1. Is this a cottage industry that’s only of interest to content nerds like me? 
  2. If it’s a growing trend, what might it mean for our clients - should they be considering a paid for newsletter subscription as part of their content mix? 
  3. Finally, If our audience is prepared to pay for an email subscription, does that change what counts as a premium content experience?


Who pays for a newsletter anyway


Quite a few people pay for newsletters, as it turns out. 

Substack, a premium email newsletter platform, raised $15.3m last year after independent writers using its tech bagged 50,000 paying subscribers. That figure is reported to be over 100,000 a year later and, apparently, the chinese market is ten times the size of the english speaking market.

Stratechery, a premium newsletter that looks at technology strategy (and one of my favs), is estimated to be raking in around $3m dollars a year. Not bad for a lone writer.

Despite those numbers, it’s still a small market and probably under capitalised. Youtube creators of similar stature are more likely to be earning $11m+ and Podcast hosts can make equally large amounts. 

Skimming through the top writers and publications on Substack it looks like the majority of premium newsletters fall into the following categories. 

  • Business 
  • Finance
  • Technology
  • Personal productivity
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Interest-specific journalism (e.g. climate change)
  • Professional community (e.g. freelancing)
  • Personal

(The more business or finance oriented, the higher the fees).


What makes for a premium newsletter?


Three things make for a premium newsletter… 

 1. Niche

In our research we couldn’t find a single ‘broad’ premium newsletter. Every one of the top writers has their niche - tech, climate change, their split-personalities. And they never stray from that topic. 

2. Volume

The general mix is a free newsletter - once a week or once a month - and paying subscribers get an additional 1-5 newsletters per week, depending on the nature of the newsletter. Part of the deal often includes other premium content formats, like exclusive podcasts and webinars.

3. Community

Part of the ‘pitch’ to paying subscribers is direct access to the writers, or access to a forum of some description. AMA’s (Ask Me Anything) form part of the package, as do behind the scenes type posts. 

Finally, and probably most relevant to us, we couldn’t find a single, successful corporately branded newsletter. They all come from an individual. The newsletter itself may be branded - “Stratechery”, “The Exponential View” etc - but it’s very much from an individual. 

So, does that mean that, as corporate content marketers we should dismiss this as not relevant to us? I don’t think so.


How might premium newsletters form part of the content marketing mix?


If you can say yes to three or four of the following criteria, a paid-for newsletter may be something to consider investing in:

  • You’re looking to build a personal brand. Maybe as a team, maybe as an individual. It seems unlikely to me that the future content newsletter is going to go premium successfully. But what if my colleague Marc Woodland got further into the weeds of ABM for SaaS businesses? Might a few brave people pay for that? Possibly.

  • You already have an audience. As with launching a podcast, the advice has to be to launch it when you already have an audience. You’ll already be on the speaking circuit, already have a free newsletter with thousands of subscribers and/or social following in the tens of thousands. (Something to work on, Marc!)

  • You have an insights department. There are several consultancies that have their own insights departments. Financial advisors often have a team of in-house economists. I can see a paid newsletter working well as a nice added benefit to clients (“pay us £££££££ and get a free newsletter!”) and as a way of raising the perception of your innovation team. Perhaps this could be an avenue for cybersecurity experts too, given the ever changing nature of the threats? 

  • It could form part of your lead profiling. Paying for a newsletter is a pretty strong buying signal and a clear invitation for sales to build a relationship. 

Generating direct revenue from your content marketing efforts is the dream. A word of caution; as people pay, expectations rise. The leading premium newsletters are full time jobs for senior people supported with research teams. For writers and content teams that choose to go down this route it is reasonable to expect a significant increase in costs as revenue trickles in. 

A bigger benefit could be increased engagement. Paid-for emails will likely get better engagement than free emails.

While I expect few of us to launch a premium newsletter anytime soon I do think that we should pay attention to this space. 

Our free emails are increasingly competing for attention alongside emails that the audience is paying to receive? What does that mean for our marketing efforts?

So, go on, break out the piggy bank and sign up for a premium newsletter, try one or two out for a month. I bet that you’ll get a few ideas on how to improve your newsletters. And you may actually enjoy it!

Guide: How to adopt ABM

Published by Tom Sandford September 4, 2020