The Startup
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The Startup

How I Got My First 2000 Subscribers

I’ve recently passed 2000 subscribers on my IdeaEconomy newsletter with a 50% open rate. Here is exactly how I got those subscribers. I also share what I’d do differently if I were to start over.

Background

It took about 10 months to get my first 500 subscribers. Since then, I’ve been averaging about 100 net new subscribers per month. While this isn’t record-breaking, I’m happy that readers continue to find my newsletter valuable.

Unsubscribes

Let’s start with the bad news first. I’ve added more than 2500 new subscribers in total, but I’ve had more than 500 unsubscribers over the past 22 months I’ve been publishing the newsletter. (The chart above is only counting current subscribers.)

I don’t know if an attrition rate of about 10% per year is high or low, but every lost subscriber feels like a piece of flesh is getting ripped off my body. Just kidding!

It’s disappointing to see the 0.4% to 0.6% that unsubscribe after I send out each newsletter, but losing subscribers is a normal part of the newsletter game.

The First 50 Subscribers

My first 50 or so subscribers all came from direct outreach. I emailed friends and acquaintances and asked them to signup and provide feedback. Most of those that signed up early on went on to unsubscribe. Of course, they are no longer my friends. (My attempt at humor, again.)

I was publishing daily for the first couple of months. That left little time for promoting the newsletter and was probably overwhelming for readers.

While I still think a daily newsletter focused on independent entrepreneurs and creators could work, it makes more sense to build up an audience first.

The Next 200 Subscribers

Subscriber growth was very slow for the first 7 months. It took almost 3 months to get to 100 subscribers, and another 4 months to get to 200.

In those early days, I changed the format and design of the newsletter multiple times to try to hone in on what I enjoyed and what readers want to see.

I also spent a lot of time changing my sign-up page to try to maximize the conversion rate. I still don’t have a great landing page, but it’s definitely better than what I started with.

Original Articles (500 New Subscribers)

The most effective way of getting new subscribers has been through writing original articles and promoting them widely. It’s very difficult to get shares or mentions from a newsletter of curated links. Original content gets shared, generates search engine traffic, and encourages backlinks from other sites.

I’ve only written a few articles so far, but they’ve driven about 500 new subscribers. The articles continue to drive traffic and subscribers long after I first published them.

Here are the 3 articles that have driven most of my traffic and subscribers.

After I publish new articles, I reach out to all the relevant newsletters I know to ask them to share. I’ve gotten many shares and backlinks to my website from this outreach.

It’s important to point out that I try to promote and support other creators as much as I can. I’m not asking strangers to share my work. I continue to invest in building real friendships with other creators and will continue to do so whether they promote my content or not.

I’ve purchased ads in many other newsletters. I’ve taken courses from other creators. I promote others on Twitter and in my newsletter. I have ongoing discussions with many different people online. I work hard to build as much social capital as I can so that when I ask for a share, it’s not a one-sided transaction as so many online requests are now.

Newsletter Advertising (466 New Subscribers)

I’ve been advertising in other creator economy and marketing-focused newsletters mostly as a way to support my favorite creators. I think it’s a great way to build connections with other like-minded creators and it helps to get subscribers already interested in reading newsletters.

I’ve spent $1413 advertising in other newsletters for a net gain of about 466 subscribers. It’s hard to attribute every subscriber to a specific ad, however, these numbers should be a good estimate.

Here are the newsletters in the order I advertised in them.

Newsletter Name— Cost Per Subscriber

For the Interested — $4.44
The Slice — $1.33
The Slice — $3.33
For the Interested — $2.86
Landing Letter — $1.67
Deez Links/Study Hall — $6.00
MarketerCrew — $1.25
Dense Discovery — $2.00
For the Interested — $1.67
The Curious Bunch — $1.25
Creativerly — $3.75
Ann Friedman — $9.69
Dense Discovery — $3.63
MarketerCrew — $15.00
10words — $4.75
For the Interested — $1.82
TheSample — $3.27

Notes:

  • For the Interested started promoting advertisers twice for the cost of one ad. This greatly improved the performance of the ads.
  • TheSample offers a pay-for-subscriber model. I’ve got 127 subscribers through them at a cost of $415.

Mentions in Other Newsletters (About 300 New Subscribers)

I always link to the secondary source of the content I curate. I promote a lot of different writers, YouTubers, and podcasters each week. I know this has led to others mentioning my content as well.

Occasionally, when someone reshares a link I had in my newsletter, they will mention me as the source. Most curated newsletters don’t do this, however, I think it’s a good practice.

I estimate I’ve gotten more than 300 subscribers from mentions in other newsletters. Josh Spector has been my biggest supporter by far.

Cross-Promotions (About 350 New Subscribers)

My recent focus has been doing cross-promotions with other newsletters. I’ve exchanged mentions in about 15 other newsletters now. Sometimes these only result in a few new subscribers. A larger newsletter might send more than 30 subscribers immediately and a slow trickle for weeks after.

(If you have a business or marketing newsletter and would like cross-promote with IdeaEconomy, please reach out to me.)

What about the other 600 subscribers?

That brings the total number of subscribers up to about 1900. I don’t know exactly where the other 600 have come from, but I suspect the breakdown to be.

  • Twitter — 50 to 100 — New Twitter followers sometimes sign up for the newsletter. I’ve only added about 1100 Twitter followers in the time I’ve been writing my newsletter, but I’m trying to get better.
  • My Articles -100 — My 3 main articles still drive traffic so I suspect I continue to get 5 or 10 new subscribers from them every month.
  • Discussion Forums — 50 — I’ve gotten a small number of subscribers on platforms like IndieHackers and Trends.vc. I know of about 20 for sure, but there must be others I haven’t counted.
  • Newsletter Directory Listings — 30 — I submitted IdeaEconomy to all the newsletter directories I could find. While this doesn’t drive many subscribers, I do notice the occasional traffic in my analytics.
  • Other — 350 — That still leaves more than 350 unaccounted for. I’m not sure exactly where they came from, but it’s likely a mix of all the above.

What Would I Do Differently?

If I were starting from zero today, I don’t think I’d start with a curated newsletter. Curating content alone is not enough. It’s very difficult to get shares or mentions from curated links.

Niche Websites

I’m seriously considering shifting my focus to a niche website where revenue can be earned from affiliate commissions, website ads, and my own products. A newsletter can support this, but I don’t think it should be the primary product.

Some great examples of this are:

  1. eBizFacts.com — In about 2 years, My friend Niall Doherty built a 23,000 subscriber email list and a business that earns $10k to $20k per month from reviews of make-money online courses. This is a very smart business model that drives newsletter subscribers through high-quality content that ranks in search engines.
  2. Adam Enfroy built an $80k per month business in less than 2 years focusing on reviews of online business tools.
  3. Chase Reeves of Matterful does travel bag reviews on his popular YouTube channel. He partnered with Pakt to create his own travel backpack.
  4. MustDoCanada.com is doing really well with Canada-focused travel content. They are on the first page for most of their target keywords, they are doing sponsored video shoots with big brands, and they’ve built a massive email list. There are many opportunities when you have lots of organic traffic and a large email list.
  5. AmandaRachLee has her own line of stationery products she can sell to her 2.14m YouTube subscribers.

Niche websites are a more attractive business model than a newsletter because the content is largely evergreen. Once you review a product, it can earn you income for years. You don’t need to keep publishing content every week to succeed.

Also, a niche website is an asset that can sell for up to about 50 months of earnings. A site making $5000 per month can often sell for around $250k now.

This would value eBizFacts.com at about $750k and AdamEnfroy.com at up to $4m. A very solid return for a couple of years of work!

Original Content

If I were to start a new newsletter from zero, I’d put all my effort into creating many comprehensive guides like Julian Shapiro or James Clear to build up a waitlist of subscribers first.

I’d also try to organize collaborative ebooks, round-up posts, or virtual summits to build that initial base of subscribers.

It would make a lot more sense to build up a waitlist of 1000 or 2000 subscribers before starting to publish a weekly newsletter. It can be demotivating to publish to almost no one for many months.

What comes next?

There are many different ways to effectively grow subscribers. A curated newsletter is not one of those ways. Curated content doesn’t generate many shares, backlinks, or search engine traffic so it doesn’t add many new subscribers on its own.

Every successful content creator needs at least one effective distribution channel to get new subscribers. I’m having some minor success with cross-promotions, original articles, social media updates, and paid ads, but there are ways to grow faster.

Here are some examples:

  • Packy McCormick of Not Boring has grown his audience through comprehensive business case studies.
  • Jack Butcher and Sahil Bloom have built huge audiences on Twitter that feed their newsletters.
  • Josh Spector built a 18k subscriber newsletter and six-figure business from being incredibly generous to his followers and readers.
  • People like James Clear, Brian Dean, and Niall Doherty built their audiences through search-engine-optimized content.
  • John Lee Dumas and Srinivas Rao have built large followings through hundreds of podcast interviews.
  • Justin Welsh has amassed over 230k followers on Linkedin.
  • Codie Sanchez is a genius self-promoter utilizing podcast interviews and discussion forums to gain access to other people’s audiences. She is also a prolific content creator.
  • Justin Moore and Jake McNeill are doing really well on TikTok.
  • MorningBrew‘s main source of new subscribers is its in-house referral system.
  • The Peak in Canada has added tens of thousands of subscribers through giveaways.

If others can add tens of thousands of subscribers in the time I’ve added 2000 subscribers, then clearly there is more I can do to improve.

I’ve added many thousands of subscribers for other projects through collaborative promotions like giveaways and roundup articles and ebooks, so I know they can work for IdeaEconomy, too. I’m working on the outreach for two new projects now and will share the results in my next newsletter update.

The most important factor for success with any creative project is just showing up every week with a willingness to improve. I’m approaching 2 years of publishing IdeaEconomy.net now. That’s a solid foundation. The newsletter has become part of my identity now. It’s just something I do every week, so it’s no longer a struggle.

Overall, I really enjoy curating links for the newsletter each week. I always learn something new and I continue to connect with other interesting creators. That alone makes it worth it.

I’ll keep publishing as long as I enjoy the process. Finding ways to grow faster is an added bonus.

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John Bardos

John Bardos

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