Is your newsletter a path to reader revenue success, or a dead end?

birds on a wire

We must do a better job of selling journalism. Your livelihood depends on it. Our communities depend on it.

“But Cory, you say, I’m a [your title here]. I’m not a sales & marketing person.”

I know! That’s why I want to help guide you to an easier road to reach your goals.

Being a journalist in 2019 is hard. Getting people to pay for journalism in 2019 is damn hard. That’s why it’s important to be good at selling your work. Journalism isn’t going to sell itself.

For a lot of people — paying for journalism isn’t self-evident. They have read all this free content for a while.

Where did readers get the idea that news should be free?

Last fall, I signed up for 99 totally free newsletters. Didn’t pay one silver dime. I’ve read some interesting stories from all over the country. It’s pretty great.

Additionally, 96 of those 99 newsletters said I should follow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Those platforms are all free to catch up on news.

To be clear: I’m not saying you shouldn’t use social media. But for many publications, a reader can get enough free information to feel satisfied — from the publication itself!

That’s a lot of news and information. All for free. All from original publishers.

People didn’t dream up the idea that news is cheap. They’ve experienced an all-you-can-eat buffet of free news for two decades now.

But we know the real story. Journalism isn’t cheap. It’s an expensive enterprise, and it’s getting harder as a business every year.

The importance of selling your journalism

I love seeing more newsrooms moving toward reader revenue. The hard part is that you can’t flip a switch to make the change. Building loyal audiences takes a different strategy than getting more clicks. You have to change your strategy to connect with people in a different way.

You have to sell the work.

Think of it this way. If a new friend asked you why they should pay for a subscription, would you tell them some good reasons?

Or, have you ever posted a link on Twitter or Facebook asking people to subscribe?

That’s selling your work! The difference is that I don’t want you to ask people to pay for your work. I want you to give them a compelling reason to pay for your work.

A lot of journalists see business functions as outside of their responsibility. I’m not saying remove the wall between editorial and business. I’m saying your newsletter can be a great place to sell your work. The Seattle Times found that readers referred by a newsletter are 25x more likely to subscribe than a Facebook referral.


Set ’em up and knock ’em down

Here’s a great email to get inspired by. It’s so good at guiding the reader to where you need them to go. I’ll even give InsideClimate News a pass for violating an important newsletter rule: Don’t use the “Dear Reader” intro.

One thing that makes this so great is it follows an old copywriting rule: What’s the job of the first sentence? To make you read the second sentence. What’s the job of the second sentence? To make you read the third sentence. Check this out:

InsideClimate News fundraising email
  1. Chances are ICN readers are more inclined to buy a smaller, more efficient car. This subject line “Remember when we were all going to drive small cars again?” introduces tension between what was supposed to happen — and what is actually happening. Open!
  2. A bold vision a year ago. You can feel the “but…” coming. This opening sentence gets you to read the next sentence.
  3. General Motors isn’t keeping their promise, and it’s making things worse? How bad is it?
  4. Here, ICN does two important things: (1) bold the outrage-inducing number and (2) link to their coverage to give more details about what this means. The bold and the link are visual cues.
  5. Boom. ICN is telling you that they have your back. Strong and sharp: “No news outlet is bringing clarity about the climate crisis, and those responsible for it, like InsideClimate News.” That’s powerful. It makes me want to stand up and pump my fist when I read it. They are not asking you if you value journalism. They are not asking you if you have thought about supporting their journalism. They are telling you to give them money so they can kick a polluter’s ass.
  6. “We need you to be our 1 in ten!”. That seems pretty achievable. They don’t need 50,000 people, they need one.
  7. Big easy to spot button dying to be clicked on.

What purpose does your newsletter serve?

Take a minute to think about that. It’s not a trick question, but it’s a question that trips a lot of smart people up. It’s really two questions in one.

  1. What purpose does your newsletter serve for your newsroom?
    This will depend on your business model and newsletter strategy.

A few common answers:

  • A tool to develop a deeper relationship with your readers.
  • Part of a strategy to convert more readers to paying subscribers, members or donors.
  • Increase reach and distribute your stories to a wider audience.

Got your answer to the first question? Good! Here’s the second question:

2. What purpose does your newsletter serve for your readers?

The answer to these two questions may be different, but they need to be facing in the same direction. For example, what if your purpose is to convert more readers to paying members, but your readers see a free way to catch up on the stories of the day? Sounds like you have a problem. Do your metrics show you are converting readers?

No need to get fancy: Short and to the point examples

Make it clear as day and super obvious like The Colorado Sun: “Three Ways to Help The Sun”.

The formatting is helpful, too. Each item is numbered, bold and includes a link. Tells you exactly what they want you to do. Disclosure: I supported the Colorado Sun’s Kickstarter campaign, although I am not a current member.


Julia O’Malley writes Anchorage Eats, the food newsletter for Anchorage Daily News. Each week, she signs off and includes a link to subscribe.

Alaska Eats closing subscription ask

Alaska Eats gift subscxription ask.

Alaska Eats subscription ask

What I love is that each week, it shows some personality while tying back to the great work going into the newsletter. The Tang comment is a bit of an inside joke, referring to Julia trying to remember a Tang drink from her childhood.


The Texas Tribune does a solid job of connecting the dots.If you love the newsletter — you will know who you are — then show them with a donation.

Here’s the flipside: Texas Tribune launched a much-ballyhooed membership push last year, yet they haven’t asked me to join a handful of times: in the first email, one month after signing up, and twice at the end of the calendar year for those last minute deductions. Not a peep about their membership program in 3 months since.


Show your readers what you want them to do

You need a plan for what you want people to do. Then you need to show them what you want them to do.

  • If you want people to buy your product, sell it to them.
  • If you want them to join your membership program, show them the benefits.
  • If you want your newsletter subscribers to attend an event, invite them.

If that sounds like oversimplification, think about how many notifications you get every day. Plus emails. Plus text messages. It’s a lot of information. People don’t know everything you think they know. Guidance helps.

The reader’s next step may be different for different newsletters. In most cases it should be. The key is to be as clear as possible with the goals of your newsletter in the planning process. Be deliberate and specific about what outcomes you want from your newsletter.

The clearer you are, the easier it is to visualize the path from stranger to customer.


Don’t give bad email.

This is bad email. There are no notes on it, because it lacks any useful information. It also doesn’t tell me what it wants me to do, or where to go.

Marshall Project fundraising email.

The worst part is this email is a waste of my time. Emails this bad are telling me I can ignore emails from Bill Keller. They provide no content and no value.

Not to be outdone apparently, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky send me this email almost two weeks later (there were some better ones in between).

Second Marshall Project fundraising email

Again, what do you want me to do? This email points out The Marshall Project is “entirely donor-funded”, but it doesn’t ask me for money.

This close-the-deal paragraph is especially odd. How do I “participate further” in your mission? I haven’t participated at all. Do you need money? Do I need to share something? Call my Governor? I have no idea.

This last sentence is a doozy. No one wants to “engage” with another person, much less an organization. Talk like a human, not a conference panelist. People may want to talk to journalists, or ask them questions. Use familiar words.

The important thing to remember is that I’m not a normal reader. I read these and break them down to analyze how they work (or don’t). Normal readers won’t give this a half second of extra thought. They will delete and forget you ever emailed.


Visualize the path from reader to customer

The most common visualization for how a stranger becomes a loyal customer is the purchasing funnel. If you’ve been to a conference lately or a webinar, you’ve heard of the funnel. Some people use a pipeline or a ladder.

No matter the shape, it’s all the same idea. In 1898, E. St. Elmo Lewis created the AIDA model. The letters in AIDA stand for Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action. In each stage, the number of people decreases, so the Funnel is narrower at the bottom than the top.

The Purchase Funnel

Funnels are useful for planning your strategy to get new readers and convert them to paying customers.

There’s one problem with funnels that fools even experienced marketers. Liquid moves through a funnel because of gravity. You don’t have to do anything, it just happens.

Customers don’t work that way.

Customers need to be persuaded to move to the next step. They aren’t whisked away by gravity. You have to guide them.

Give your potential customers a friendly nudge

Have you ever lined up a bunch of dominoes to trigger a chain reaction? If you spaced them too far apart, it didn’t work. And if you bumped your domino masterpiece too early, well…


Instead of a funnel, let’s try another visualization. Think of each step a person takes from total stranger to happy paying customer. Imagine each step as a standing domino. We have a series of steps as dominos standing next to one another.

The first domino needs a nudge to knock it over. If we set them up right, each domino falls forward. This creates a nudge for the next domino, which knocks it over. Like this:


People need a nudge to get from Awareness to Interest, another nudge to get from Interest to Decision, and so on. You have to provide the nudge, otherwise people don’t know where you want them to go.

If you don’t nudge people, they are likely to stay right where they are. A few people will take the initiative to figure out how to give you money for your work, but most won’t.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about subscription fatigue. I’m less concerned about that. You aren’t competing with the New York Times, and you aren’t competing with Netflix.

You’re competing against inertia.

Leverage your newsletter relationship to encourage reader revenue

24 of the 99 Newsletters didn’t mention how to support their work in the after I signed up. Never brought up how to give them money. Not through a paid subscription, not through a donation for nonprofits. Nothing.

19 of the 99 Newsletters included a button or ad, but no sales pitch.

5 of the 99 Newsletters mentioned how to support their work in the Welcome Email, but didn’t bring it up again.

That’s 48% of the 99 Newsletters who didn’t try to convert me from a free newsletter subscriber to a paying customer.

I’m shocked.

It’s damn hard to avoid intrusive subscription pop-ups and paywall reminders on news websites. But there is virtually no attempt to drive more readers to subscribe in the newsletters.

Longform newsletters are getting more popular. They spend 500-1000 words — or more — each edition. Yet how many take a few sentences to nudge people to pay for the main product once a month?

A “subscribe” button ain’t gonna cut it. Mailchimp says Media & Publishing averages a 4.55% click rate. How many of those are on a Subscribe button rather than a story link?

If I’m dead wrong and you have numbers to prove it — shoot me an email. I’m happy to share your story.


Be excellent to each other

ProPublica Illinois and Block Club Chicago partnered on a fantastic project analyzing parking ticket disparities around Chicago. Both newsrooms are nonprofits. Block Club is reader supported with a paywall, but ProPublica Illinois has no paywall. Look at how ProPublica shared the spotlight with their partners:

Not only did a Block Club reporter write the intro, but ProPublica gave space to sell Block Club’s work! We need more collaboration and sharing like this. The more people pay for great journalism, the easier it gets to sell. Disclosure: I am a Block Club Chicago member. I worked at ProPublica in 2017.


Scolding people isn’t a strategy.

One last important point. Scolding people who don’t pay isn’t selling. Scolding people who question why they should pay isn’t a strategy.

It might make you feel better for a fleeting moment. But it’s going to hurt you in the long run.

Do Costco servers with free samples scold customers who don’t buy the product they are promoting? Of course not. They are there to promote and educate people on the product. It’s an introduction. The first step in a potential new relationship.

If people handing out meatballs on toothpicks aren’t scolding people who don’t buy a box, then why are we scolding people who don’t pay for articles we share?

Should we scold a person who had to work and missed a zoning meeting, so they rely on our coverage?

Should we scold people who go to the library and read the articles there — for free?

Should we scold the obnoxious daily Facebook commenter who complains about the paywall? Absolutely not.

Maybe he’s an asshole. But maybe he’s broke. Or poor.

Even if he really is an asshole, don’t scold. There are too many people reading that don’t know he does this every week he annoys you. It’s likely they will see you as out of touch or rude.

This is an opportunity to sell your work. Nudge the lurkers and the frequent friendly commenters. And share where your work can be read for free — like the library. There are probably people who don’t know and are afraid to ask.

You may not get a new subscriber every time. But you’ll get more in the long run than if you scold people who complain.


Featured Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

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Cory Brown

Cory Brown

I help newsrooms develop email and subscriber strategies so they can reduce churn, grow revenue and build a sustainable future.

I don’t growth hack. I build.

I don’t want to disrupt. I want to have impact.

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