How Meta’s Bulletin could succeed in a crowded newsletter market
You can’t dismiss the audience growth potential of the single largest distribution platform on the planet.
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How Meta’s Bulletin could succeed in a crowded newsletter market
The world collectively rolled its eyes when Meta (aka Facebook) announced earlier this year that it was launching Bulletin, its own newsletter product. Just as every platform developed Clubhouse clones, those same companies also rushed to build/acquire their own Substack competitors. By the time Meta debuted Bulletin in mid-2021, it had entered a crowded market that included Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, and Google, not to mention dozens of other newsletter-centric startups. To many, Bulletin probably seemed like a me-too tool developed by a company that’s long been accused of merely copying the most popular features from other tech platforms.
And yet it’s pretty easy for me to look at Bulletin’s current offerings and envision ways that it can differentiate itself with distribution, monetization, and audience engagement.
Before we get into all of that, let’s take a look at where Bulletin currently stands. It recently published a six-month status report and also granted interviews to Business Insider. From those two pieces, we learned a couple of things:
There are only 115 Bulletin publications and the platform remains invite-only for now. It’s focused on recruiting two kinds of writers: 1. Well-known authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant. 2. Local news journalists.
Most of these writers received a monetary advance and signed two-year contracts.
“More than half of the creators on Bulletin have over 1,000 free email subscribers, with many having more than 5,000 or 10,000.”
Some Bulletin newsletters are being featured in Facebook’s News tab.
It plans to sign on more writers in 2022 and presumably will open to all comers at some point in the future.
I think it’s smart that Meta is severely limiting the pool of Bulletin writers. With so much regulatory scrutiny directed at the company, the last thing it needs is an Alex Jones-like pundit launching a newsletter while Meta is still in the midst of building the product. Too many people are rooting for the company to fail and would relish the opportunity to label Bulletin as yet another hotbed of misinformation.
At its current headcount, Bulletin has just enough scale to test out new features but can also control for quality. It’s also building up goodwill within the journalism community by supporting local news projects. Obviously, that quality control will go away once it opens up the product to all users, but it also has some runway to build moderation checks into the platform.
Now, let’s talk about the ways that Bulletin could differentiate itself from many of its competitors. I’ll group these under three umbrella categories:
One of the most consistent complaints against Substack is that it can be difficult to grow an audience on the platform, especially if you don’t have an already-existing following elsewhere. Email distribution is decentralized — in fact, that’s one of its perks — and so a newsletter doesn’t benefit from the network effects that can be found on social media sites.
Meta has billions of users across all its products and plenty of ways to algorithmically insert content within its various feeds. Circa 2011 - 2016, that’s how how publishers amassed huge followings for their Pages, and it’s also how the most popular Facebook Groups currently attract new members. Facebook is already promoting Bulletin posts on its News tab, but it’s probably only scratched the surface in terms of how it can amplify newsletter content.
Meta also has access to all of its users’ email addresses, which means it can implement one-click subscriptions on users’ profiles and within the Newsfeed. We’ve already seen Twitter launch this functionality with Revue, and it essentially eliminates most of the friction that comes with signing up for a newsletter and verifying the subscription.
Upon Substack’s launch, its founders declared that the product would never include advertising in its business model. This was in 2017, a time when we were all reckoning with the fallout from the 2016 election and our collective disillusionment with advertising-based incentive models. There was something refreshing about the idea of content that only appeals to paying users.
But many writers have come around to the idea that diversifying newsletter revenue through advertising isn’t such a bad approach, especially when you consider how difficult it can be to convert free readers into paying subscribers. Thus far, Substack has remained steadfast in its refusal to build out ad tech, even though many of its top writers have begun to accept newsletter sponsorships.
Meta has no such aversion to advertising. In fact, it’s the second biggest digital advertising behemoth in the world. I doubt it would have any qualms about integrating its ad products within Bulletin.
First it could start with the low-hanging fruit of Facebook Instant Articles. By allowing Bulletin writers to opt into the program, they can generate revenue every time someone reads an article within Facebook’s mobile app. From there, it could launch a self-service ad platform that allows brands to reach consumers within the newsletter itself. When I buy an ad on Facebook today, I can simply check a box to include it on Instagram and other Meta-owned properties. Facebook could add another box that will allow brands to distribute their sponsored posts within Bulletin newsletters.
Newsletters are basically one-trick ponies: they’re good for distributing text and images to subscriber inboxes. If you want to offer other features like video, audio, or community engagement, you have to send your readers to other platforms. For instance, even though I host my newsletter on Substack, I interact with my audience mostly through a private Facebook group.
Meta’s platforms have all sorts of creator tools that will allow it to enhance Bulletin’s core offerings. In fact, Bulletin’s status report highlights how its writers are already taking advantage of these features:
Experimentation with engagement tools across Facebook and Instagram have led to subscriber growth and deepened reader connections, particularly in places where appetite for relevant coverage is high. The Kerr County Lead, a local news publication in Kerr County, Texas, hosts Facebook Live videos every weekday to engage its local community of readers. Born Wild’s Paul Nicklen did a Q&A on Instagram Stories, which he then published as a Bulletin article for his audience. As people across our platforms continue to show a high appetite for information about health and mental health in particular, experts like Gratitude Weekly's Alex Elle regularly engage with their audience – check out this Facebook Q&A. And when Maria Celeste posted this video to her Facebook Page with a link to subscribe, it drove hundreds of subscriptions to her Bulletin, Así Lo Veo that week.
We’re also seeing writers beginning to build a business on Bulletin by paywalling their content and offering readers subscriber benefits, like Madison Minutes’ subscriber-only Facebook Group and Virgie Tovar’s exclusive questions and essays, which she sends to premium subscribers every week.
It’ll be especially interesting to see whether Bulletin writers get the option to publish paywalled content on other Meta-owned platforms. For instance, what if you could publish Facebook videos or Instagram photos that are only available to your Bulletin subscribers? That would vastly increase the value proposition of a newsletter subscription.
Look, I know Facebook’s history just as well as anyone, especially as it relates to content creators. It’s launched dozens of new products over the years only to later shutter them when they failed to gain traction. I also know that publishers are rightly wary of giving more distribution power to a company that causes industry-wide whiplash every time it updates its Newsfeed algorithm.
But I also recognize that Facebook has access to billions of global users and attracts massive brand advertising budgets. With that kind of market dominance, I don’t think it should be overlooked as a potential player in the newsletter space. Given that members of the “creator middle class” struggle in achieving scale, you can’t dismiss the audience growth potential of the single largest distribution platform on the planet.
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Did The Guardian just prove that paywalls are overrated? [The Business of Content]
Twitter did a really good job of copying Clubhouse's core features. Spaces now has 2 million regular users. [NYT]
Axios has been hiring writers to helm its Pro verticals, which may end up costing subscribers around $500 a year. [Twitter]
Brands are flooding TikTok with sponsorship deals. [NYT]
WashPo "had 2.7 million digital subscribers as of October, according to the internal document, down from roughly three million in January." [WSJ] Its editors have determined it needs to diversify beyond political news.
Nearly every major media and tech company invested heavily in non-music audio products this year. [The Verge]
"A growing wave of veteran sports media personalities are leaving behind traditional outlets ... and creating video segments, streaming shows, radio programs and podcasts directly on behalf of sports-betting companies." [Bloomberg]
A good profile of Alison Roman, a food writer who was semi-cancelled last year and has since built a healthy business through her own social media and newsletter channels. [New Yorker]
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.