the gap

How to Build a Six-Figure Newsletter Without Anyone Knowing

An update six years in the making.

Six years ago I wrote a blog post titled, “How to Build a Six-Figure Blog Without Anyone Knowing”.

For a very short period of time, it was the 14th most popular page on the entire internet.

To be honest, Alexa was very skewed in favor of marketing and tech blogs at the time so I was probably nowhere near that popular. Just don’t tell my Ego.

In that blog post I introduced the phrase “Email Blogging”.

This wasn’t an attempt to coin a new term, but instead an attempt to make people feel differently about a term they already knew: Email marketing.

More specifically, I wanted people to think differently about newsletters.

Back then, newsletters were primarily thought of as an ‘add-on’ to your existing site, rather than its main focus.

I called these new sites one-page blogs rather than newsletters, in the hope they’d be taken a bit more seriously.

I also argued that in the future, there would be more one page “blogs” making a lot of money.

Admittedly that wasn’t a very impressive prediction since there would be a lot more of any kind of website in the future.

That said, at least for profitable newsletters, the data supports my theory six years later.

Unimpressive predictions aside, one thing is clear: Running a newsletter as a primary business focus has become a profitable strategy for a lot of people.

The original headline is a little sentimental to me, so that’s why I’ve copied it here.

These days I would replace ‘six figure’ with ‘highly profitable’, as there are different levels of opportunities.

I originally wrote “Without anyone knowing” because most newsletter owners keep their ‘funnels’ private, so it’s not easy for anyone to figure out how you segment subscribers, your most lucrative revenue streams or approximate reach.

With a more public medium like a blog, data is approximated by many tools – and highly accurately – and your product or service offerings are wide open.

I hope that with the following research, you’ll not only be inspired by the potential of this business model, but see an opportunity for something you can build in your preferred industry.

I Wrote About Scott When He Made $6,000 in 3 Months…

Today his newsletter makes more than $320,000 per month.

When I mentioned this on a recent Detailed.com article, someone reached out to make sure I really meant to say three hundred thousand dollars per month.

I did.

Scott started a website called How to Fly for Free which was built around eBook’s he was trying to sell on how to get great flight deals.

He also set-up a newsletter as a separate page on the site at /email-list/.

It turns out that far more people were interested in this list than he expected, with Business Insider coverage helping to grow it significantly faster.

I’ve been obsessive for years with finding as cheap airfare as possible. In 2013, for example, I found an amazing deal to fly nonstop from NYC to Milan for $130 round trip! When I got back, all my friends wanted me to alert them next time a deal like that popped up.

So rather than trying to remember everyone I was supposed to send the bat-signal to, I created a free Mailchimp account and let friends sign up to get alerted.

Fast forward a year and a half to April 2015. Just as I was about to embark on a 13-country trip around the world, Business Insider got wind of it and wrote an article that ended up viral and gave me my 15-minutes of fame.

Pretty soon my 300-person list ballooned to 3,000 and all of a sudden I was hit with hosting fees if I wanted to keep using Mailchimp.

Since then, Scott’s newsletter has been featured on the New York Times, CNBC and enjoyed multiple spells on the Reddit homepage.

While How to Fly for Free still exists, the newsletter portion was rebranded to Scott’s Cheap Flights, which today boasts over 531,000 subscribers.

Reaching up to 600,000 visitors per month, it seems like there’s no slowing down Scott’s rapidly growing success (or revenue numbers).

Logodust Is an Incredibly Smart Newsletter Side-Project

I recently discovered a graphic design firm named FairPixels who built a side-project that currently reaches up to 100,000 visitors per month.

They created a newsletter under a new brand name and used it to offer ‘open-source logos’ to subscribers.

This new brand, Logodust, has reached hundreds of thousands of people in the past six months.

It’s also been shared on Facebook more than 1,300 times.

While Logodust is free and open-source, it does funnel traffic back to their main website, Fairpixels.

Here they offer logo design services for $89 if you’re willing to wait three weeks for your design, or $220 for a three-day turnaround.

Both Logodust.com and Fairpixels.co were set-up at the end of 2015, making it seem that Logodust was a planned marketing tactic from the outset.

Fairpixels could have easily added a newsletter to their main website, rather than put it on a separate domain, but I’m sure they don’t regret that decision now.

This Danish Startup Decided to Make Their Newsletter Their ‘Main Thing’

Launched in 2015, Føljeton was founded by two friends looking to promote a Danish site as a “mobile-first news outlet.”

They started by creating card-based stories which took up one or two ‘screens’ on your phone, with each card containing around 200 words.

Five of these stories were produced per day, with each running as long as they continue to receive interest.

Six months in, they abandoned the idea due to how expensive the stories were to produce, and because another part of the website began picking up traction.

As they said in an interview with NiemanLab,

“[We were] hearing over and over again from people that they really liked Føljeton, but they were just talking about the newsletter. We were spending so much time trying to make all these serials work out, it was really a lot of work, and we could see that people didn’t really read that much in the middle of the week. We thought, okay, let’s follow through with our gut feeling and make the newsletter our main thing.”

Føljeton now has 5,500 paying subscribers, each paying the equivalent of $7.55 per month.

While not yet profitable, the team state that they need 8,500 subscribers to break even, which likely isn’t too far off with their current growth.

Cooper Press Built an Entire Brand Around Newsletters

Peter Cooper is a familiar name with developers around the world.

His library of newsletters on all things programming reach a third of a million people each week.

The biggest site in his portfolio is Javascript Weekly, with over 100,000 active subscribers.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re more into Javascript or React, Peter has a newsletter to give you the latest in your specific area of development.

His array of newsletters consist of:

  • Javascript Weekly: 100,000+ Subscribers
  • Frontend Focus: 70,000 Subscribers
  • Ruby Weekly: 40,000 Subscribers
  • Node Weekly: 30,000 Subscribers
  • React Status; 5,000 Subscribers
  • DB Weekly: 10,000 Subscribers
  • Web Operations Weekly: 10,000 Subscribers
  • Serverless Newsletter: # Unavailable
  • Mobile Web Weekly: # Unavailable
  • Go Newsletter: # Unavailable
  • Postgres weekly: 10,000 Subscribers

Despite the lists likely having some overlap between subscribers, Peter claims to be sending emails to over 300,000 developers each week.

I couldn’t find any direct income figures, but Cooper Press has at least nine full-time staff and in the founders words, “three swanky offices.”

Death to the Stock Photo – Unsplash, in Newsletter Form

I only recently became acquainted with David Sherry, the founder of Death to the Stock Photo.

He reached out to me after the article I wrote on Google cutting my audience in half.

I won’t reveal the subscriber numbers he shared with me, but others have been fine to report Death to the Stock Photo gained 200,000 subscribers in its first 18 months.

For four years David and his team have been sending out free stock photos every month to subscribers.

With 70% of his 200,000 monthly visitors coming to the site directly, people are clearly enjoying the newsletter updates and clicking through to the site when they receive an email.

David’s project really made me think of it as an “Unsplash for your inbox.”

If you don’t know about Unsplash, I’ll quickly get you up to speed: It’s an “attribution-free” stock photo side-project so successful that it now reaches millions of people per month and saved the main company of its creators.

‘Now I Know’ Is a Newsletter for Fans of Learning New Things

Now I Know is the newsletter-equivalent of sub-Reddit /r/TodayILearned.

Their daily email promises to teach you interesting things, like how carrots used to be purple, or how Abraham Lincoln invented the Secret Service.

For such a simple idea, it’s impressive to see a homepage testimonial from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

The site averages around 300,000 visitors per month with a surprising majority of traffic coming from search engines.

I say surprising because the main pages they have indexed in Google all just redirect you to other sites.

Founded by Dan Lewis, the project is monetised by a number of best-selling books with the ‘Now I Know’ title and a Patreon campaign generating $1,100 per month.

The Hustle Funnelled Subscribers to Their 7-Figure Annual Conference

I’ve never been a follower of The Hustle but I get the appeal.

Their daily newsletter focuses on tech and business news, with the latest instalment talking about the website Snopes.com and their current legal woes with their ad partner.

For me it seemed like The Hustle appeared out of nowhere a few years ago, and while new it made me feel like I’d been reading it forever.

Though there is more to their website than a newsletter, their infrequent blog updates combined by the fact that they’re hidden away shows their main focus is on growing their newsletter.

The Skimm Daily Newsletter Capitalises on How Busy We All Are

The Skimm was launched in 2012 by two former producers for NBC News.

Their tagline, “We read. You Skimm.” perfectly describes their offering. The news, bitesized, and with a twist.

Founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin both had professional experience in the news world so the idea for the site came fairly naturally to them.

In their own words,

News is not only our career, it’s our passion. Because of this, we have always been the go-to source for friends seeking the scoop on current events or breaking news. We soon realized three things: Reading the news is time consuming; Wanting to read the news is a hobby; lastly, not everyone has the time or interest.

theSkimm solves all that and makes it easier to be smarter.

What started out as something to help keep friends in the loop has turned into a media powerhouse.

The Skimm now has 3.5 million active subscribers, 1 million social followers and boasts an open rate of 40%.

Although they’re fairly adamant in interviews that they don’t want to be seen as a “newsletter company” and instead as a real business, the newsletter here really is their business.

The Daily Email from Former Harvard Students

Launched at the end of 2015, the Daily Pnut (Peanut) is a newsletter that “will help you discover the world and make you sound marginally more intelligent in a four-minute read.”

Founders Tewfik Cassis, Alex Schuster, and Fred Spring knew they were on to something when Spring was sitting on a train one day and heard someone repeat a joke from that day’s email.

The idea behind the site appears to be largely influenced by theSkimm. When asked about this, the founders said,

We love what theSkimm is doing, and we think they’re doing a good job, but we wanted to delve deeper into global topics.

theSkimm clone or not, the Daiily Pnut has attracted a large (and growing) audience interested in their unique take on the news.

Further is a Newsletter That Aims to Help You Live Your Best Life

While Further is only reaching 15,000 people per month, that’s 15,000 people going straight to an email opt-in form.

Even though I’ve had recent issues with email deliverability, I would still rather have an earned email subscriber than any other form of ‘follower’.

Founded by Brian Clark of Copyblogger fame, Further promises to send you something new each week that can help improve your current life situation.

Recent articles that Brian has linked out to include:

  • 11 Foods That Are Good for Your Liver
  • This 8-Hour Movie *Wants* To Put You to Sleep
  • Nature Calls: 4 Meditative Hikes You Need to Take

Though the overall aim for the newsletter is clear, the individual updates do appear to be on fairly random topics.

Brian considers himself to be the ‘curator’ of the website, regularly linking to the best content he can find.

While their monetisation end-game isn’t clear, their latest update features an Amazon affiliate link.

Brian also has a number of online properties that he may want to steer subscribers to in the future.

How I Would Monetise the Platform (The Six-Figure Part)

As I said six years ago, I think we’re going to see a lot of successful newsletter startups.

As I said in the introduction, today I wouldn’t mention an amount and instead just talk about making money.

After all, if you don’t believe you can make six-figures from a venture you might not even try to make five.

The aim here is to help you find a way to truly serve an audience, and make money in return.

Some monetisation angles become obvious depending on what you’re giving free information about.

Logodust provides a free version of what Fairpixels charge for as a service.

Scott saves his best flight deals for premium subscribers.

Cooper Press sells sponsorships to those who want to get in front of developers.

Examine target both consumers and businesses to explain medical updates in layman-terms.

The Hustle funnel all of their subscribers into a conference which generates them more than $1m per year.

If you find something people will pay for, then focus on growing your list as big as you can.

If that’s you, skip to the end of this article where I’ll try to entice you with my email list.

If not…

If there’s nothing you could obviously monetise your newsletter with, then consider what I think is a huge growing industry: Market research.

Learning everything you can about a specific aspect of a specific industry and sharing your new found knowledge via premium guides.

Market research sounds pretty boring on the surface, I agree, but to give you an idea of how lucrative research reports can be, this Reddit discussion might be eye-opening for you.

A Redditor named Ongem was complaining about the high price for market research in his niche.

What he probably didn’t expect was to hear how cheap people thought the research was at “only” $1,000.

The company in question – Euromonitor – posted revenues of $144m for 2016.

The truth is that the right research is worth a lot of money to the right people.

Skift are Dominating the Travel Market With Their Research

Skift are a research company you’ve probably only heard of if you’re in the travel business.

Their research department put out dozens of premium reports each year on the trends in the space.

Some of their upcoming reports for 2017 include:

  • A Deep Dive Into AirBNB’s Impact on Travel
  • Analysis of Emerging Outbound Markets in Travel
  • A Deep Dive into Priceline’s Competitive Position in Travel

Their cheapest pricing option starts at $1,795 per year, which gives you access to up to 20 yearly reports.

A review of their company by Poynter shows how that’s working out for them financially:

Skift will cross the eight-figure revenue mark next year through a combination of branded content, conferences and subscriptions to its $1,795 per year research service, Ali said.

These premium reports are big business.

And Guess What Skift Recently Purchased…

A newsletter.

A newsletter about creativity in the restaurant business, to be specific.

If this doesn’t signify how valuable newsletters can be, it should signify that Skift are looking to get into premium reports for other industries.

Chefs and Tech was started as a weekly newsletter but Skift co-founder, Jason Clampet, is tasked with turning it into a daily operation.

Trend Hunters ‘Trend Reports’ Turns Down Eight-Figure Offers

If you’re looking for inspiration when it comes to any topic online, Trend Hunter is a great way to kickstart your creativity.

It’s common to check the site out for ‘a few minutes’ and later discover you’ve been clicking through links for hours.

While the privately-owned company is secretive about their revenue, Owler estimates it to be in the $10m per year range which aligns with the CEO’s comments on rejecting multiple eight-figure offers for the business.

Trend Reports could be considered as the ‘premium arm’ of Trend Hunter as it’s home to their private content.

They pricing options they have are as follows:

  • $199/m: Access to all reports from 2017
  • $999/m: Same as above but you’re also given a dedicated advisor
  • $2K/m: Same as above but also includes ‘custom reports and training’

We’ll be coming back to Trend Hunter later, but for now let me say I’m a big fan of the site.

Examine.com Are Profitable Thanks to Their Research Reports

In a profiling on Forbes, Examine.com founder Sol Orwell says the company generates seven-figures in annual revenue.

The piece highlighted that the key to Examine’s financial success was their “reports on nutritional supplements.”

These reports promise to keep you up to date on all that’s happening in the world of health.

For $29.99 per month you can receive six studies every month on the latest in medical research.

For a site that’s reaching up to six million visitors per month (SimilarWeb data), it’s one of the smartest ways I’ve seen to make money in the health niche.

Business Insider Intelligence Now Has 7,500 Subscribers

According to Digiday, Business Insider’s research arm consists of 40 staff and 7,500 subscribers.

Subscriptions currently cost $2,500 per year, but will soon rise to $3,000.

Some simple maths tells us Business Insider Intelligence is currently generating over $18.7m per year.

In the Digiday report they also commented on the research market as a whole, stating,

Research is a popular add-on for publishers. Global media intelligence and research will be a $3.2 billion market this year, according to research released on Wednesday by Burton-Taylor.

I’ve long praised Business Insider for writing the type of articles people want to read, but now I’m just as impressed by how they’ve monetised their massive reach.

Even Nasdaq.com is Monetised by Research Providers

As I was procrastinating on this article and browsing Techmeme, I started reading about Google’s latest earnings report.

What was quite the coincidence to see was a sponsored ad on Nasdaq, promoting a service called Zacks.

Here’s what their site looks like:

Zacks offer a lot of different services – but a key part of their website is their premium research guides.

When they’re reaching up to 4 million visitors per month, they’ve clearly figured out what their audience are interested in.

Step #1: Figure Out Your Niche

Whenever I’ve been tasked with helping someone find a niche idea, I always go back to asking “What do you like reading about?”

Whether it’s books, magazines or websites, the things you find yourself reading about in your spare time are often a good indicator of what you should build a website around.

It’s tempting to want to focus on wherever the most money is to be made, but I can count on one hand how many people I’ve seen make a lot of money in industries they have no interest in.

RedditList can be a great source of inspiration. A newsletter mentioned before, Now I Know, seems to have had its popularity rise in sync with the /r/TodayILearned sub-Reddit.

RedditList allows you to see the 5,000 fastest growing sub-Reddits so you can see what hot topics are as they become more popular.

Some that stand out just from 30-seconds research include:

  • This Week in Review – This could make a great newsletter, with topics constantly changing
  • I Neeeed It – A newsletter which documents (and finds where to buy) incredibly cool items
  • Bodyweight Fitness – A weekly update on new exercises to try and how to perform them

Don’t rush into a decision on the niche you’re going to serve, but don’t take weeks about it either.

The great thing about newsletter-focused websites is that you can change the angle and focus very easily if you find people just aren’t subscribing to what you want to offer.

Getting too much into niche ideas is beyond the scope of this article, but a simple rule of thumb is to try whatever angle interests you the most, and just see what happens.

The most important thing is that you do something.

Step #2: Turn That Into a Weekly Offer

You can update your newsletter as often as you like but once-per-week emails seem to be the most common.

Weekly is often enough that you can provide regular value but it’s not too often that you risk having your ‘Unsubscribe’ link clicked for sending too many messages.

About 18 months ago I ran a private newsletter on ViperChill where I shared expired domains which had backlinks pointing to them.

As link building is a big interest to most ViperChill readers, those who found the list typically subscribed, and I had a great open rate on the few emails I sent out.

As I offer SEO services and talk about SEO, it was really the perfect fit for my niche and something that made sense to share weekly.

The only reason I don’t do the updates today is because many people asked if I could spam-check the domains before I share them (which I agree I should).

I just didn’t have the availability at the time, but I would love to start it up again one day.

Step #3: Set-Up Three Pages and Test Them

If you have an existing brand, don’t make a big deal out of the launch of a new email list.

Instead, gently ‘place’ it on your website and see if loyal visitors discover your new navigation bar link and enquire about what’s inside your offer.

For the website itself, all you need are a simple squeeze page homepage (an opt-in form), a Privacy Policy page and a Contact page.

There are plenty of squeeze page designs to be found on places like ThemeForest or you can use tools like Instapage or Leadpages if you can’t build them in HTML.

If you need something now and you’re happy with simple, I shared this four years ago that you might find useful.

Step #4: Analyse Some Aspect of Your Niche (Optional)

What you give away in your free updates depends on the monetisation angle you’re considering.

Some angles already have premium offerings that fit. For instance, with my free expired domains newsletter I could also have a marketplace which sells the best ones I find.

The premium research and report ideas I mention are just options if nothing else ‘fits’ in regards to how you’ll monetise your audience.

If you’re going to create premium reports, then you need something to report on.

I’m not suggesting you try to become (or expecting you to become) some academic research pro overnight, and nor is it a requirement.

You need to think about some aspect of your niche that you could analyse in a lot of detail and then report back your findings in a more digestible way.

Examine.com take all the new research in the health space, read it, and then report it back to subscribers who don’t have to spend painstaking hours looking over reviews as they did.

Another good source of inspiration on Reddit is r/dataisbeautiful.

You can find people who have collected data about any topic and made it easier to consume.

It’s hard for me to give examples without knowing the angle you’re thinking of so please forgive me for being a little random here.

Let’s propose that you run a consulting and marketing firm for colleges and universities.

The type of data they might find interesting is knowing the demographics of people who are joining universities.

A recent /r/DataIsBeautiful post covered exactly that and received more than 11,000 upvotes.

I’m not saying “Go and take this angle and sell this content” but showing how big amounts of data can be broken down into something really valuable for someone.

Step #5: Create a Simplified Report

Whatever you decide you can create a report about – I’ll share a specific example in a moment so don’t worry if you’re confused – don’t create the entire thing.

Without knowing if people would actually be interested in it, there’s no point in putting in weeks or months of research for something that people don’t care about.

Instead, offer a simplified version of what you plan to create and see if people are interested in that. Even if you just offer it for free.

This slows down the process a little, but also makes sure you don’t potentially waste a lot of time.

Step #6: Send Samples to Gauge Market Interest

Recently I started sending out samples of a big project I’ve been working on for four or five months.

Normally I would suggest testing if you can sell something before you create the final version, but it made sense for me to complete the work even if it wasn’t for others.

It’s something I needed for myself.

That said, I’ve still reached out to people in recent weeks to see if they would be interested in learning more about it.

I’ve had some great replies after sending personalised outreach emails.

Even before you have to create the sample you can get an idea if people would be interested in seeing some variation of it for free.

Step #7: Pivot or Go Full-Throttle

Last year I got to visit Kuala Lumpur for the first time.

When I wrote about locally-focused news blogs making a lot of money, I had the idea to create a locally focused newsletter.

As I had recently visited the city, I decided to pick Kuala Lumpur for my experiment.

I set-up a page on Facebook and purchased just over a thousand targeted likes.

Since advertising in Malaysia is fairly cheap, these 1,000 likes cost around $100 even without any split-testing.

Once I saw I could pick up new Likes cheaply, I decided to release the most minimally viable version of my squeeze page (newsletter) as I could.

I set up a site which was little more than a headline and some made-up testimonials.

The testimonials were just a placeholder to see if people would be interested in the concept. I wouldn’t keep any emails received and actually didn’t receive any.

Unfortunately it turned out that people weren’t as interested in my up-to-date city news as I thought they would be.

Literally hundreds of Malaysian’s went to the site and not a single one opted-in.

I wasn’t bummed out by this. You should expect to fail more times than you succeed.

If you’re fortunate that something you create does start to connect with people, don’t do anything else.

Stop reading marketing blogs.

Stop looking for some magic niche.

Unsubscribe from my newsletter.

Just go at it and make it your main focus. Try to get everyone in your space to know about the newsletter.

I couldn’t end this Gaps update without giving an example for a niche I would build a newsletter around, and the type of premium report I might put together.

An Idea for a Newsletter: The Weekly Bucketlist

If you’re adventurous and up for a challenge, one site I would definitely follow is the journey of someone trying to cross items off their bucket list.

A website I use now and then for niche-inspiration is Bucketlist.org.

Reaching up to 150,000 visitors per month, Bucketlist shows the most important things people want to do before they die.

You can sort them by most popular, which shows that more people want to swim with dolphins than anything else.

After discovering the whole world of travel bloggers and vloggers during my Patreon research, I’ve become more interested in the topic.

I would love to see someone follow the challenges on the site and share their journey in a weekly newsletter, crossing off items from the site.

It could easily be monetised by having different companies sponsor the next item someone crosses off their list.

Of course, this is just a personal example. Feel free to let your imagination go wild.

An Idea for a Research Report: Instagram Irresistible

If the example above would have been successful, I likely wouldn’t have monetised it via research reports.

Although I could put together reports on consumer interests in Koala Lumpur for business owners in the area, I would rather see if I could get them to advertise in my updates.

I’m not trying to tell you that you need to create a research report: We’ve established they only lend themselves to certain angles.

Since TrendHunter covers such a broad range of topics and they’re already proven to make money, it makes sense to look into them more for my research.

Here’s a question for you: If you were to only focus on researching a single topic area from TrendHunter, do you think you could do a better job than them?

Since they cover tens of thousands of different topics, I’d like to think the answer is “Yes!”

To see what’s popular on the site I decided to look at their most popular Pro trends databases and look at how many clicks each received on their website.

One that stood out to me – even though it received 10x fewer clicks than a report two rows below – was a list of insights on ‘Instagrammable installation’.

It has received over 61,000 clicks and covers different ways that you can motivate active-Instagramers to take photos of your business.

The reason this caught my eye is because I recently read an article about a restaurant designer always considering Instagram when designing new spaces.

It’s not really a topic I’ve ever thought about but found it really interesting:

I could totally see myself doing more research into how hotels, restaurants and other public places could incorporate design features to get more customers talking about them on Instagram.

I could delve into the most ‘Instagrammed’ hotels by country. The most popular swimming pools. The most popular restaurants in any location and so on.

My report could consist of the most popular design features that people love to take photos with around the world that you may want to incorporate into your own establishment.

It’s clearly a hot topic, and I think I could sell that report fairly easily.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything here at Gaps so I hope you enjoyed this update.

Thank you, as always, for following!

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