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#9 How Newsletters Are Redefining Media

(and how they can help grow your business)

“For me, the newsletter is the most important tool that I have in building a global denim brand. Second only to the sewing machine” – David Hieatt. ‘Scrapbook Chronicles’ has become a cult offering from Hiut Denim Co and it’s grown his company by 25% each year for the last three years.

Pretty cool, huh. For a humble email newsletter (which costs next to nothing to produce, just your time).

I’m obsessed with newsletters. I subscribe to loads – business, marketing, remote work, fashion, travel… new ideas, inspo, fab design – they are a THING. As is newsletter curation – there’s so much great content out there, where do you start? Check out Really Good Emails. Email is such an old school platform, but it’s not going anywhere. I had my first Hotmail account 20 years ago when backpacking around Australia pre-mobile brick (I thought I had to go back to the same internet cafe to send emails til someone put me straight). I still use email every day, multiple times a day, for work and personal stuff. It’s is a bit like a comfy cardigan, no matter how holey, you keep wearing it.

And it has huge potential. Email is so much more than a sales tool – you’re building a relationship with your reader.

Substack has spawned a new class of newsletter entrepreneurs with successful writers like China expert Bill Bishop and the liberal political writer Judd Legum earning well into six figures annually, according to the New York Times. Judd says he’s turned down freelance work because it makes more sense to self-publish. Emily Atkin has been open about how much she’s earning from Heated, her controversial climate change newsletter. With redundancies on the rise and fewer opportunities on mainstream publications, it’s not surprising to see so many writers going for it on here.

It feels like a throwback to the early days of blogging, in the 2000s when people were having fun and trying stuff out.

Anna Codrea-Rado started The Professional Freelancer on Substack to document her journey into self-employment after redundancy and is helping other writers wanting to be happy and make a living from freelancing. She’s also running newsletter masterclasses with Sian Meades-Williams (Freelance Writing Jobs). Their last one was sold out, so there’s clearly an appetite for learning how to monetise them.

Substack has become a beacon of light and is seen as a saviour, helping writers to earn a living. They’ve given us a business model, tools to grow, a community, and seem happy to take a backseat as a ‘faceless’ publisher – unlike Facebook. The first phase was attracting top writers which they’ve done and now the focus is on finding new writers – they’ve just launched their second Substack fellowship for independent writers.

Its success lies in its simplicity – it’s easy to use and turn on paid subscriptions. But it doesn’t have the same features as MailChimp (you can’t do A/B testing, the design is limited, and you can’t have your own domain name.

Strategy for successful newsletters  

Maybe you’re not looking to earn six figures or self-publish full-time, but it’s still useful to know how to write a good newsletter. I recommend David’s book (tips above). The ones I subscribe to share useful info, inspire me and don’t try to sell me anything.

  1. Good content that’s easy to read. It’s a letter, not an article.
  2. Persistence and consistency – by publishing at a set time, you’re training your reader to anticipate and look forward to your email.
  3. Make it visual – have good graphics.
  4. Killer headlines – learn from the masters, BuzzFeed.
  5. Pick a niche – Brian Clarke at Copyblogger recommends the curation model – helping people find great content and adding your personality & perspective.
  6. Community – send it to your friends and ask them to share with theirs… it will grow organically. Ask your readers what they want in your welcome email.

Give it a try. As Luke O’Neil (Hell World) says, “maybe you only get 150 subscribers, and it doesn’t work out. OK, no big deal. We’re all working constantly for free all the time anyways. Let’s say all you can get is 100 people subscribing giving you $5 a month. For most freelance journalists, $500 a month is something.” That’s your anchor client. Recurring monthly income is a good business model, as startups know. It’s more stable than advertising and has long-term benefits.

It’s great to see platforms like Substack shaking up old media. They are putting writers in charge, and hopefully, it will provide a source of steady work for journalists doing good work. There’s lots of innovation too – writers teaming up and publishing ‘bundles’ like magazines, community events, discussion threads… Jung has some great ideas on how they can grow.

Lots of female voices on here too. As the French feminist writer, Hélène Cixous says, the only way women can make up for their absence from recorded history is to write themselves in now, super-fast, with lots of detail and energy.

I’ve invited Lauren Razavi to talk about newsletters and virtual writing communities at the NUJ London Freelance branch meeting tomorrow night. Hers is called Counterflows – an excellent read on the future of work, creativity and global living. I’m looking forward to hearing what she has to say.

If you want to join us as a guest, email me – nicci@niccitalbot.com, and I’ll add you to the list.  

Here are some I subscribe to – what’s your favourite newsletter and why?

🔗 the links

theskimm – daily newsletter, info & tools you need to live your smartest life.

The Hustle – daily briefings – business and tech news in five minutes or less. 

Morning Brew – the most informative (and witty) daily newsletter around. 

Marketing Brew – marketing news you’ll actually want to read.

Next Draft – the day’s most fascinating (witty) news from Dave Pell.

Further – health, wealth and personal growth for Gen X – live your best life at midlife.

Podnews – a global view (daily) on podcasting and on-demand.

Sonder & Tell – a creative content agency. Expert tips from their community on what to read, watch and listen to… writing worth reading. 

The Browser – carefully-curated writings (& listenings) of lasting value.

The Professional Freelancer – A newsletter and community for people who happily work for themselves, written by Anna Codrea-Rado.

Counterflows – A big ideas newsletter designed to make you think about the world we live in, by Lauren Razavi. 

Freelance Writing Jobs – a weekly FSB Award-nominated newsletter which lists freelance writing opportunities in the UK, by Sian Meades-Williams.

Do Open – How a simple email newsletter can transform your business, by David Hieatt

🎧: Copyblogger – the power of curated newsletters for content marketers

Pssst. Can you help Moiyah Berge out, she’s studying for an MSc in International Management and International Relations at Oxford Brookes Uni. She wants to know your motivation for working in the gig economy as a freelancer – take the survey here.

Thanks for being part of The Shift this Sunday.

Comments, questions, tips? Send me a note.

Image credits: Nicci Talbot. Excerpt from Do Open by David Hieatt.

By Nicci Talbot

Director, freelance journalist & copywriter

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