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Lessons from growing a 2000+ newsletter subscriber base in 12 months

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Newsletters have well and truly re-emerged as a way to not just build, but own an audience within a particular niche, without the complexities that come with social media and search algorithms. In the same way, the original bloggers of the late 90s and early 2000s attracted huge audiences of the tailwinds of the ‘dot com boom’, a growing number of today’s content creators are delivering email newsletters as their core business offering and then launching a range of related products and services, rather than only seeing email as an add-on to help promote existing products. The result is a swathe of amazing content inspiration for creators and business owners alike, showing the true potential of the somewhat ‘old-school’ channel of email as a tool for growth.

Overnight Success is a weekly newsletter covering the latest headlines, fundraising announcements, wins, events and opportunities from across the Australian start-up ecosystem. In just 12 months it has grown from 0 to over 2000 highly-engaged subscribers who don’t just read the newsletter, but attend events, provide feedback and reach out to collaborate.

How did we do it? Here are a few lessons we’ve learnt from sending over 50 newsletters in 12 months and growing our audience from the ground up.

1. Choose an email platform that will grow with you

For Overnight Success, we chose to write and send the newsletter using the relatively new platform, beehiiv. Beehiiv was created by some of the original team at the world-famous newsletter brand, Morning Brew. The team has taken what they learnt from building Morning Brew to a readership of millions of people worldwide and successfully monetising it to the point of eventually being acquired by Insider Inc. (the parent company to Business Insider) and applied it to building the tools that make up the beehiiv platform.

Beehiiv’s functionality is very specific to those looking to build a newsletter as a business, so might not suit all business use cases. You may prefer to use Substack, Mailchimp, or the email automation system associated with your business’ CRM.

The most important considerations are to ensure your tool:

  1. Allows you to track core performance metrics such as open rate, click-through rate, number of clicks per link and subscriber acquisition sources.

  2. Is both practical and flexible when it comes to designing your newsletter for maximum readability and engagement. The easier it is to consistently produce beautifully designed newsletters, the more likely you are to keep delivering them and the more likely your readers are to keep reading.

  3. Gives you the ability to own your audience data. You should have access to all your subscriber’s email addresses and any other associated information they provide and you should be able to easily download this information. This will ensure you’re able to switch platforms at any time.

  4. Gives you the ability to easily monetise your work, in the way you envisage doing so. For example, beehiiv has its own in-build ads platform that allows you to easily find ad partners and track revenue.

2. Design your strategy with routines & timeliness in mind

Newsletters tend to perform best when they’re delivered consistently enough that they develop a kind of habit in the audience. You want readers to know when to expect to hear from you and to make reading it an essential part of their daily or weekly routine (not an annoying distraction cluttering their inbox).

Unlike social media posts which might take only a few seconds to consume, newsletters require someone to make a concerted effort to open and take the time to read them. So, you want to make sure you’re catching people at a time when they’re most likely to have a chance to read it, and ideally, you should also be delivering information that is timely so they feel some sense of urgency to read the email now, rather than bookmarking it to read later.

3. Focus on growth as much as creation

It can be tempting to spend all your time thinking about what the newsletter says or what it looks like, and focusing on producing quality content is certainly important. However, if you’re writing week after week to a tiny audience, you’ll not only have a limited impact but will also have limited data to learn from to improve your writing and content curation skills. Especially once you feel comfortable to start sharing your work with a wider audience, focus at least 50% of your time on thinking about how you will grow your subscriber base.

Build growth strategies into your workflow early on so you can start to reap the benefits of compounding growth that come with the nature of a larger audience.

4. Be cautious of ‘growth at all costs

While growing your audience is important, maintaining the quality of your audience is critical for long-term sustainability. When choosing your growth tactics, consider whether they will attract the kind of reader who will genuinely enjoy and engage with your content. If you attract hundreds of readers but only a small percentage of them actually open the email, you’re still effectively only reaching a small number of people. If you start noticing your open rate dropping, one solution is to use your email platform’s analytics to segment your audience and uncover what attributes are common to those not opening the emails. In particular, look out for specific acquisition sources that are consistently delivering low-quality subscribers.

5. Write for the reader first, brand second

Most businesses, no matter what they’re selling, have some form of newsletter they send to existing or potential customers on a regular basis. But if you scroll through your own inbox right now you’ll probably notice that the “newsletters” you receive are much less about “news” than they are about selling you something. What the current emergence of successful newsletter-first businesses is showing us is that delivering high-quality, timely content that genuinely interests and educates the audience is much more likely to drive successful business outcomes via this channel than producing a thinly-veiled e-catalogue filled with products and offers. If you already have an existing business and want to communicate regularly with your prospects or customers, think about what your customer needs or wants to know about right now that you can help them with, rather than only thinking “what do we want to tell or sell to our customers today?”.

6. It won’t be perfect from the start

Before you start, it’s important to know that no matter how carefully you plan or design your first newsletters, the only way to make meaningful improvements is with the insights you get from experience. So, don’t overthink it, just send it! The sooner you can start gathering data on what your readers like and don’t like the sooner you can start iterating (and growing!).

I hope these tips on writing a successful email newsletter give you some ideas about how to approach creating a newsletter for your business in a way that drives genuine engagement. And if you are interested in seeing how we do it, subscribe to the Overnight Success email newsletter to receive the next edition!

About the author

Gemma Clancy is the co-founder & Head of Growth for Overnight Success and also provides accessible marketing support to early-stage startups via her consultancy, Stella Startups. Connect with Gemma on LinkedIn.


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