Curiosity and consistency: thoughts on growing a newsletter

Today, the Maker Mind newsletter just hit 25,000 subscribers! To celebrate, I asked you to share your questions about launching and managing a newsletter. Here are my thoughts. Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you find these answers helpful.

How long did it take you to build up that audience? (David)

I launched the Maker Mind newsletter in July 2019. I don’t display the date on my articles, so for posterity: I’m publishing this in December 2020. I titled this article “curiosity and consistency” but maybe “patience and persistence” would be more appropriate.

Ness Labs - Maker Mind newsletter growth animated graph

What surprised you the most about writing a newsletter? (Janel)

How such a consistent process can lead to such unpredictable results! If I zoom out, the growth of my newsletter has been fairly steady. But, in reality, I can attribute lots of the growth to a few articles that did very well. Here’s the kicker: I have no idea why these articles did better than others. That’s why I believe consistency is the most efficient strategy for writing a newsletter: focus on producing quality content, and let readers decide what they find most interesting.

Are there any specific patterns in the articles you find convert best to subscribers? (Monica)

I just checked my top converting articles, and… Well, that confirms my answer to Janel. No specific pattern that I can see. Some articles that convert well are short essays about big questions (such as my article about time anxiety), while others are technical tutorials about Roam Research. They probably bring different kinds of subscribers, though!

Are there any differentiators for a quality newsletter that are not well-known? (Clo)

Beside being consistent and bringing value to your readers, there is something that’s not discussed enough: the tone of your newsletter. A friendly tone can go a long way. It will encourage people to reply to your emails, to give you constructive feedback, and maybe even to tell their friends about your work. The best newsletters are not a one-way broadcast; they offer a two-way conversation. Your tone can communicate that you invite and embrace open exchange with the readers.

Do you have any secret sauce for getting constant shoutouts and mentions? (Darshan)

I wouldn’t call it a secret sauce, but it may be related to Clo’s question. I genuinely care about the Ness Labs community. I wrote more than 200 free articles in the first year; today, there are almost 300 articles available for anyone to read. I do my best to support members of the community the way they support me. For lots of readers, an easy way to give back is to share my work, and I’m grateful for that.

What was the biggest mistake you made early on that you’d want to warn fellow newsletter creators to avoid? (Dave)

I made lots of mistakes in the early days, but… The biggest mistake is to try avoiding making mistakes! I see lots of creators spending 80% of their time reading guidebooks, tutorials and case studies about growing a newsletter. In the early days, all that matters is to build the habit and to be consistent so you can find your voice and define your value. Making mistakes is one of the best ways to grow. Try to only look up information on a “need-to-learn” basis.

How do you get traffic when SEO hasn’t yet kicked in? (Alberto)

At the beginning, most of my traffic came from Twitter. Most people I know who managed to reach their first 1,000 subscribers were consistently sharing their newsletter on social media. You don’t need a big following to get started. Here are a few ideas:

  • Share your editions on traditional social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (I personally mostly use Twitter but people have had success with other platforms as well)
  • Talk about your newsletter in Slack, Discord and Telegram communities (don’t spam, only do this where you are actively contributing otherwise)
  • Consider ad hoc communities where your specific audience hangs out
  • Tell your friends and colleagues about it!

Do this for a few months and you will get a bit of traffic until SEO kicks in.

Do you have a social media strategy? (Adeel)

Well, if you could call what I just described a social media strategy… I just try to post my articles on social media. I used to be much better at it. And I try to engage with people there. My DMs are open on Twitter and I always check my mentions. But that’s about it.

What are some interesting ways to grow a newsletter? (Aakarsh)

Beside sharing on social media, events are a great way to grow a newsletter. Organise a workshop or invite an expert for a conversation, and give access to email subscribers. That’s a great balance of fostering growth (by attracting new subscribers) and loyalty (by giving value to your existing subscribers). An interesting way to grow a newsletter that has not worked for me is exchanging newsletter shout outs with someone else. I think it can work, but you need to make sure there is lots of overlap between your audiences. Finally, something I’ve started experimenting with recently is a referral programme: offering extra value to subscribers who share your work with others. Several successful creators I know are using referrals to grow their newsletter. It’s very early, but promising!

Any tips on promoting a newsletter without feeling like you’re annoying people? (Tristan)

Try to not think in terms of promoting your newsletter. Think in terms of how you can provide value. I don’t just shout: “Hey! Subscribe to my newsletter!” Instead, I write free articles that help people understand new concepts or navigate complex situations, and then I offer them to subscribe to the newsletter if they want more of that kind of content in their inbox. As long as you provide value, most people won’t find it annoying. (and the ones who do, you probably don’t want as subscribers anyway)

How did you get to the first 100? (Kjell) How much time and effort did it take to acquire your first 500 subscribers compared to the rest of the way? (Grigori)

I had about 300 subscribers when I launched Maker Mind. These 300 people were a mix of friends and former colleagues who had subscribed for my personal updates when I left Google, and people who had subscribed to follow my startup journey before I started working on Ness Labs. So, in my case… Very little effort, but it also didn’t happen quickly since I never really tried to grow that list. I just had the link in my email signature. However, despite the lack of viral mechanism (such as the YouTube algorithm), growing a newsletter does become slightly easier over time as readers start sharing your content with their personal and/or professional network.

What did your super early days look like? What did your workflow look like back then and how did it improve? (Vandan)

Something that really helped in the early days was a challenge I gave myself: write 100 articles in 100 (week)days. I announced the challenge on Twitter and in my newsletter, and shared my progress along the way. Many people joined the newsletter just to follow my journey. This forcing mechanism also helped me build the consistency of writing everyday. Since then, my workflow hasn’t changed that much. I still block time every morning to write, and I still send the newsletter every Thursday. I just write fewer articles every week.

How has your strategy changed as your subscriber base changed? (Santiago)

Similar to my workflow, my overall strategy hasn’t really changed. I just try to consistently deliver value every week. The only thing that may have changed is that I’m less focused on growth now, and more focused on nurturing the community.

Can you trace spurts of growth to specific events? (Janel)

Absolutely! The biggest spurts of growth were when I launched on Product Hunt; the couple of times when one of my articles made it to the front page of HackerNews; when Ali Abdaal talked about Ness Labs on his YouTube channel; and when I was featured on the meditation app Calm’s podcast.

One thing that really stands out for me are your graphics and images. How do you go about designing them? (Kareem) How do you go about designing your graphics/images? (Aniket)

All the graphics in my articles are designed with Google Slides.

With people joining the newsletter all the time, how do you pick topics in a way that brings new folks up to speed while not boring the old subscribers? (Kareem)

I have designed Ness Labs in a way that doesn’t require to read the articles in a particular order. It’s a bit of a choose-your-own adventure kind of platform. So there is no need to bring people up to speed when they join. That being said, I include a few of the most popular and representative articles in the welcome email, so new readers can get a little taste of what to expect!

How much content should go into the newsletter? Should the newsletter only contain links to content on your website? Would it ever make sense to post short articles directly? (Eric)

There are several schools of thought. I personally have a short introduction, then links to my new articles and to interesting tidbits from around the web. Many newsletters are successful with all of their content in the body of the newsletter. In my case, the content I write every week simply wouldn’t fit into one email, and I like having a way to link to specific articles. But if you write one essay a week, include the content in your newsletter, and make sure to post it online for SEO purposes, you would also get the benefits of engaging your existing readers directly in their inbox while being discoverable to new readers online. My opinion is: as long as you consistently deliver value, the format is not that important.

When have you started sending offers/selling with your newsletter? How was that experience? (Detoni)

A couple of months in, I started receiving emails from companies who wanted to sponsor the newsletter so they could reach my audience. I said yes a few times, but it was a lot of work and back-and-forth. When I launched the Ness Labs community, I stopped doing sponsored inserts altogether. Now, the only revenue I have is from the paid membership and the Collector to Creator online course, and I really like it that way: it means my interests are perfectly aligned with the interests of the community.

When should I paywall or launch a community? (Nivi)

I don’t think there’s any strict rule, but I have seen a few seasoned creators mention 1,000 email subscribers before you start thinking about launching a paid element. I personally had 10,000 subscribers when I launched the community, but it’s because I never really had a plan for a paid membership before the pandemic. Being in lockdown, feeling isolated, and craving human conversations was the catalyst for creating an online space for all the newsletter readers to connect together. A good question to ask yourself is: who is the community for and what kind of value would they get out of joining? If you want to create an intimate mastermind with 5-10 highly engaged members, you can afford to charge more to make it sustainable. If you want to create a buzzing agora where people may come and go, you may have to charge less.

How do you make promoting your newsletter routine and consistent? I have spurts of energy to promote some weeks but others I just send it out and that’s it. (Clayton)

Well… It looks like we’re the same! I used to be very consistent in the beginnings, but now sometimes I also just send it out, and that’s it. I think that’s fine. Over the long run, what’s more important is to be consistent in writing and sending your newsletter. I try to never miss a week. But if I’m tired and I don’t have the mental energy, I skip the promotion part. Don’t beat yourself up. Especially as a solo project, writing a newsletter is a lot of work as it is.

I’d love to learn more about your evolution as a writer—how did you evolve over time and how did it affect the newsletter content? (Alberto)

My articles used to be much, much shorter. I still write some short articles from time to time, but in the early days I would sometimes publish 300-word articles. At the time, I was still struggling with consistency, and posting something short was better than posting nothing. Now that I have a strong habit of writing everyday, my articles tend to be more in-depth, and I give myself more space to think about complex topics. As a result, I’ve had a few readers tell me they don’t have the time to read all of the content of the newsletter anymore. But most are happy about it: as I cover a wide range of topics, they can pick and choose what seems most interesting.

Was there a moment you wanted to stop? And if yes, what made you go on? (Annette)

There are weeks where it feels like a lot of work. It’s usually an early sign of burnout. Two things that allow me to go on: first, reminding myself of the incredible ways the newsletter has changed my life, from connecting with the kindest people to getting the most interesting work opportunities. Secondly, taking a break! I’m a big fan of flexible consistency. Yes, it’s important to be consistent, but any long-term ambitious project requires you to manage your mental energy. I have taken a few breaks since I launched the newsletter, and I have never heard any reader complain. One fewer email in their inbox and my batteries all recharged… That’s a win-win decision 🙂

What are the best things that have happened to you as a result of your newsletter? (Janel)

The first and most important one is becoming part of something that’s larger than me: a community of curious minds from all around the world. Everytime I receive a thank you note it makes me incredibly happy. Not to mention the intellectual stimulation from interesting conversations. Then, the newsletter has opened lots of doors, from being featured in cool podcasts to giving presentations at places like the World Economic Forum or the Hustle. Coffee chats with fellow creators. People sending me books. Early access to fun products. I’ve had a few publishers reach out as well. I’m always amazed at the diversity of opportunities writing a newsletter can create!

I hope these answers were helpful. Starting a newsletter can change your life. The barrier to entry is lower than YouTube and other video-based or audio-based platforms. You just need a decent amount of curiosity, patience, and persistence. Most online creators quit before their blog, newsletter, podcast or video channel is one-year old. If you manage to stick to it for long enough, you will already be in the top 5% of online creators. Good luck, and see you in your inbox!

P.S. If you want to learn more about starting and managing a newsletter, I have an older article with 50 lessons learned from writing 50 newsletters.

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