Lessons from running a successful niche newsletter

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Lessons from running a successful niche newsletter

Neil Cybart published a fantastic rundown of lessons he’s learned after five years of running a successful paid membership program. In 2015, he launched the program for Above Avalon, a niche publication that covers Apple, and for $200 a year members get 2,000-word newsletters four days a week. 

His article is packed with great insights for anyone who wants to create their own niche newsletter and monetize it through paid subscriptions. Let’s run through a few of them.

Defining the niche

The upside of focusing on a narrow niche is that you face less competition. By covering Apple exclusively, Cybart doesn’t need to compete with the mainstream tech blogs and can cover more arcane topics that they can’t touch on.

But the downside to going super niche is you limit the potential audience that can be converted into paying subscribers. Cybart discussed how he threads the needle of speaking to both narrow and broad audiences:

Since Apple doesn’t operate in a vacuum, an “Apple focus” includes analysis of other companies including, but not limited to Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Spotify, Netflix, Disney, Fitbit, and Sonos. In addition, industries that Apple competes in receive my attention. This ends up being my secret sauce for covering Apple - start with a company focus and then move outward to cover an entire industry while keeping Apple at the central point. This is the opposite of what is typically done as many start with an industry focus and then analyze specific companies. 

Offering discounts

Studying  paid membership models closely, I’ve noticed that many try to lure users in with massive discounts for some period of time. Cybart argued that this just increases churn and dilutes the value of the membership:

With Above Avalon, I made the decision to focus on long-term, high-quality membership relationships. This has resulted not only in reduced churn (a good thing), but also continued subscriber growth as my priorities have allowed me to remain focused on adding value to membership (versus trying to boost subscriber numbers). The end result is membership that offers more value than its cost with these two variables not being anywhere close to each other. 

The pressures of being a one-man band

As someone who’s trying to build his own paid subscription offering, I struggle each week to produce enough high-quality content to deliver to both paying and non-paying subscribers. If you don’t produce enough good free content, then you can’t get new readers into your sales funnel so that you can convert them into paid subscribers at a later date. If you don’t produce enough paid content, then your already-existing subscribers will wonder why they’re paying you at all.

A large media organization can service both of these constituencies easily. When you’re a one-man shop, the labor can get pretty intense. As Cybart wrote:

While those who work at massive media outlets with teams numbering in the hundreds or even thousands have built-in amplification apparatuses for sites like Twitter (where everyone retweets each other’s articles), Above Avalon has to fight for exposure. At times this can be challenging, especially given my niche focus. I depend primarily on word of mouth for new Above Avalon weekly article readers and podcast listeners. Those two products remain my primary funnels for member acquisition. This is why having Above Avalon readers, listeners, and members (and there may be overlap among those three groups) share articles, podcasts, and daily update links is highly appreciated. 

Simply put, I work a lot, to the point of being embarrassed some days by how long a daily update took to write (up to 12 hours). However, I’m happy to say that every update that I’ve published to date has met my publication standards. A consequence of this reality has been scaling back on the number of articles and podcast episodes that are published as there is only so much time in a day. Instead of rushing ideas out via shorter pieces or rushed podcast episodes, I decided to simply publish and record less often and instead dedicate the vast majority of time to Above Avalon members. My estimate is that 90% of my time in any given month is dedicated to membership with the remaining 10% going to weekly articles and podcasts (which are accessible to everyone). 

There are lots more insights in the piece, but I don’t want to cannibalize it by block quoting too much, so be sure to go read the full thing.

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Apple News+ still has some tricks up its sleeve

I think it’s safe to say that the Apple News app hasn’t lived up to expectations for the publishing industry.

On the one hand, it does have a massive audience. Apple recently reported that it’s grown to 125 million regular users, a reach that rivals even the largest news organizations. Many media outlets list it as one of their biggest traffic drivers, right up there with Facebook and Google.

But in terms of revenue, it’s been a huge disappointment. Advertising sales have been paltry, mostly because Apple as a company has been reluctant to leverage its user data for better ad targeting. And then Apple News+, the paid offering that grants subscribers access to hundreds of magazines and premium news sources, doesn’t appear to have taken off. Most publishers report shared revenue in the low five figures.

Apple hasn’t abandoned the product just yet. Digiday reports that it’s recently approached publishers about creating audio versions of their articles:

Apple will handle production costs, and compensate publishers in the same way it compensates them for the written content available on Apple News+, two sources said; Apple metes out 50% of subscriber revenue to publishers based on how much time those subscribers spend with publishers’ content in a 30-day period.

Even with Apple handling most of the heavy lifting, several publishers regard the plans skeptically, three sources said. One said it has not seen evidence that Apple News’s audience will want to listen to audio versions of their stories. A second worried that if Apple emphasizes audio for News+, it could further skew the picture of who gets compensated: Listening to a story, after all, takes longer than reading one.

I actually think this could go a long way to increasing the utility of the app. Recently I wrote about The New York Times’s acquisition of a text-to-audio company and the success publishers have seen creating audio versions of their articles. As it turns out, there’s a pretty large audience that’s hungry for this kind of content, and some publishers have seen significant improvements in their subscriber churn rates after introducing audio versions of their articles.

I think one of Apple News+’s biggest downsides is that the average user probably doesn’t want to read longform magazine articles on their small iPhone screens. But being able to listen to those articles? Millions of Apple users already spend dozens of hours each month listening to podcasts and audiobooks on their phones, so convincing them to listen to a 10,000-word New Yorker article can’t be too much of a stretch. And with Apple footing the production bill, I can’t seem much downside to publishers participating in the experiment.

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Other news

Luminary supposedly has 80,000 subscribers, which would put its annual revenue at somewhere around $5 million. For context, Slate Plus has something like 50,000 subscribers, and its main draw is exclusive podcast content. [link]

Whatever your feelings are about Medium, you have to admire their attempts to create a clean reading experience, which is more than can be said about most advertising-supported news sites. [link]

"More than half [of Politico's] business is long-term, premium subscription contracts ... The second thing that makes us cautiously optimistic is that our advertising business is not directly exposed to the hardest-hit sectors." [link]

"Rappers, producers, D.J.s and entrepreneurs have turned [Instagram Live] into a nightclub, a telethon, a variety show, a history lesson, a talent show and much more." [link]

There's a Medium writer who made $28k on the platform in April. There's at least one article that earned out $12,800, which is more than most writers get paid for features published in glossy magazines. [link]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Public domain image via Needpix