Reflecting On Building a Niche Newsletter at 100 Subscribers
How I think about building Niche newsletters and how ScrapeDiary won its first 100 subscribers.
Back in June, during the midst of our Coronavirus lockdown and the ensuing chaos, I read two interviews, here and here, on Indiehackers with founders who had successfully started and monetised newsletters, writing about niche topics. At the time I was incredibly surprised anyone could be talking about starting a newsletter in 2020 as I had all but concluded email had been relegated to password resets, webinar invitations and spam.
3 months later, my newsletter ScrapeDiary has just passed 100 subscribers and I’ve almost completely changed my mind on email as a medium for communicating ideas and adding value to peoples lives. At this point, I thought it would be worth reflecting on the process from a strategic and tactical standpoint as well as lay out some of my future plans for the project. My aim is to help motivate any would-be newsletter creators and to help you clarify your thinking around launching projects in general.
Planning To Start a Newsletter - The Boring Bit
Unlike most of my projects in the past, I had the sense on this one to set out some clear objectives beforehand that I could use both to track my progress, as well as help me get crystal clear on what to spend my time on. From the outset, I set myself a goal of getting to the 100 subscriber mark and was ruthless about what I would and wouldn’t commit to doing.
At a high level, the logic behind building a newsletter is incredibly simple and consists of only two parts;
Write content that adds value to your readers that keeps them coming back
Get your content in front of as many prospective new readers as possible
And thats it…
Everything else we could talk about here is simply tactics, but I used this simplified framework to work out right from the start what I would not spend time doing, ie, activities that would not further my goals set out in either #1 or #2 . As a result of this, to date I’ve done zero branding whatsoever. I have no logo, styling across my landing page, blog and email is inconsistent and I have no style guide to speak of. I’ve also spent zero time building up social media accounts for ScrapeDiary and make no attempt at SEO - two points I’ll come back to.
Focusing purely on writing content and getting it in front of new readers using the most direct means possible means that the effort I put in has the highest chance of adding value to readers, and has the highest chance of being sustainable in the long run.
Looking at starting a newsletter, or really any venture from 6000 feet, the biggest determinant of success outside of the product itself is staying power. There are powerful forces that begin to kick in when a website has be running for over a year, as the mystical powers of SEO, partnership building and brand awareness finally start to go your way. Knowing this, I deliberately only spent time and committed to activities I knew that would be sustainable over the long term.
This means I also rejected any idea of building complementary offers alongside the newsletter which are becoming more and more common, like “community” slack channels, AMA sessions and I made no attempt to monetise the newsletter in any way. All of these things are further distractions from the basic logic of building a newsletter.
Selecting Your Niche - Know Your Audience
When starting a newsletter, conventional wisdom suggests selecting a target audience that is easily defined, one you know and understand and perhaps are even a member of. The audience should be small enough so that you can stand out against your competitors, but large enough to support your project with enough readers, subscribers or customers.
Common mistakes here arise when you miss the mark on the niche size vs competition ratio. Founders who have never heard of the need to “niche down” often write to large audiences, where the sheer number of competitors make it hard for them to differentiate themselves. The opposite is also true, where students of the “niching down” philosophy do so to such an extreme that their niche is devoid of both competitors and customers.
ScrapeDiary teaches the tools and techniques behind web scraping to sales and marketing teams for lead generation and competitor analysis. The topic itself, web scraping, sits at the intersection of two much larger categories, digital marketing and web development. This means that there are multiple audiences for the same topic and we can segment our audience into niches around their business function (Sales, Marketing, Development) as well as the topic itself (Web Scraping).
Restricting my audience to just those responsible for bringing in new revenue for a business, on this particular sub-topic has allowed me to write in a space with few, if any competitors and take advantage of existing large communities that exist for these top-level topics. It also gives me options around my content, with the ability to further niche down, or expand my content out until I find the sweet spot of competition. vs market size.
As a final point around selecting a niche, it’s also worth considering an extra dimension when thinking about market size. In established markets, the amount of competition is largely correlated with the size of the market. This drives the conventional wisdom to go into markets with at least some existing competitors, but it’s also worth working out whether your target market has both a need and an awareness of your topic. If there is a clear benefit of what you’re writing about to your audience but there is little competition, that may be because awareness is low, ie, people don’t realise yet that this this could help them.
ScrapeDiary operates in a space where awareness is low, but the benefits to those who learn the subject are high. This conclusion has lead me to disregard most of the conventional wisdom about low to no competition in a space being purely a bad thing. The trick here is to meet your audience at their level of awareness, and build on this. In my case, this has led me to steer away from more technical, detailed and advanced web scraping topics, to those that appeal to the complete beginner and the engagement of my posts has begun rising even since I made that pivot.
Technology is simply an enabler to get your content in front of a reader. Paradoxically, the rise of software that enables newsletter creation has both steamrolled over the barriers to entry into the space and at the same time ensnared would-be newsletter creators in decision paralysis.
When starting ScrapeDiary, I had some clear guidelines around selecting the software I would use;
Tooling should be easy to learn and implement
Tooling should be easy to replace if my requirements changed
I should have the least number of tools in my toolbox
This was all in an effort to keep things simple, and focus on delivering high quality content to readers. All the software I use has taken me under an hour to set up, without long term contracts and has provides me everything I need to do the job. Point #2 served me incredibly well as I eventually swapped over my email provider to take advantage of a better feature set in under an hour.
My current stack is simply a Carrd landing page, a Ghost blog and MailerLite for email delivery. I also use Google Analytics on the blog to measure traffic from various sources. Quite honestly, this could all be simplified to using just MailerLite for the landing page and email delivery and dropping Ghost if you purely intend to run a newsletter with no blog.
This part of the writeup is really the least important, other than to say, don’t spend more time on selecting tools than is necessary. As long as the time investment to switch in the future is low, it’s better to just choose a set of tools and get started.
Marketing and Attracting Subscribers
Marketing a newsletter is similar to marketing just about anything else online, except it’s much simpler. The value proposition is very straightforward, if the topics covered in the newsletter seem interesting to you, you can enter your email address and have them sent to you weekly. Newsletters are interesting because the content is delivered directly to the reader via email, which means that unless they forward it to a friend or tell someone else about it, potential new readers aren’t going be able to sample your product.
It is for this reason that I run ScrapeDiary both as a blog and as a newsletter, the blog being a public facing version of the same content delivered via the newsletter. Also, because I write longer form content, I’ve found this is best served in the blog format where readers naturally expect to invest more time and bounce around complementary articles.
The blog also acts as the main marketing channel for the newsletter, where the blog content acts as both the product and the content to feed into content marketing. Building up a library of posts on the ScrapeDiary blog, it’s very easy to post these to provide value to online communities, use them to answer questions and (eventually) attract new readers via organic search from search engines.
The growth of the newsletter then is simply a function of the number of people who land on the ScrapeDiary blog, the number who find the content interesting and sign up and then the number that stick around. The latter two really come down to producing repeatable, quality content each week, with the former resulting from driving traffic to the blog. In terms of driving traffic to your page, whether this is a blog or just a landing page, there are really four sources of traffic that are worth considering (but not an exhaustive list);
I’ve written these traffic sources in order of “ease” of acquisition, meaning that paid traffic - users that visit your website based on a Google or Facebook ad for instance are much easier to acquire than organic traffic, where a user searches for a term in a search engine and clicks on your link from the results.
These are all valid traffic sources, but the strategy and tactics behind them are completely different and play out over different time horizons. For instance, for a brand new site, referral traffic, where another site links from their content to yours and organic traffic will be zero, and may stay there for some time, potentially 6 to 12 months. There are things you can do to speed this up, but it’s important to set reasonable expectations. If you’re expecting to gain your first 100 subscribers through SEO or by building backlinks alone, it’s going to take way too long to get there.
Paid traffic and what I’ve called social traffic - where users land on your page from links out from social media sites, forums or other community pages are the two sources of traffic you can gain from day one. Obviously depending on your budget, paid traffic may or may not be an option for you. With ScrapeDiary, we’ve run no paid ads and gained almost all of our traffic entirely through social media sites or community forums.
Over the long term, organic traffic from search engines and referrals from other trusted sites on the web are the two strongest free channels you can build and are critical for building large subscriber bases. Consider working on them as you go along, but prioritise strategies likely to pay off faster as you’re getting started.
What’s Next for ScrapeDiary
Passing 100 subscribers, I’ve achieved my initial goal and learned a whole lot along the way. Of course I’m by no means an expert, and there are number of things I’ve deliberately avoided that are worthwhile figuring out as it scales. The third critical element for any newsletter that hopes to scale alongside writing quality content and getting it on front of potential subscribers is monetising the newsletter.
There is a mountain of advice out there on the topic, with a subscription style monthly or annual billing plan becoming increasingly popular with newsletter creators. I suspect this approach to billing may be an example of using the subscription model so popular with software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies in a field where it doesn’t really fit. Till Boadella has a great video on this if you need convincing. Stripe, which is a billing platform used by a large number of SaaS companies, is firmly entrenched in this space and I’m sure they’re stoking the fires of recurring revenue among the newsletter community.
As the field is so young, there are very little churn benchmarks out there, but I suspect that those numbers are much higher than those seen in SaaS. Also, the revenue we’re talking about here is incredibly low by SaaS standards, with most newsletter subscriptions bunching around the 5-10 dollar mark per month. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but with those unit economics I personally think a billing model based around selling information products makes much more sense for a newsletter like ScrapeDiary.
Getting this right would give the project funding to produce better content, and accelerate the flywheel of growth with funding to put aside for paid traffic. Combining this with longer term strategies like building partnerships, nailing SEO and delivering value through other forms of content, the roadmap to 1K subscribers is just starting to come together.
Over To You
Whether you’re a budding newsletter creator, simply interested in the space or ScapeDiary itself, I hope this has been helpful. Remember that the barrier to entry for just about anything worth doing is getting less and less and time goes on. There has never been a better time to start something, so if you’ve been thinking about it, put together a plan that allows you to succeed and get to work!