What You Need to Know About Newsletter Platforms Before You Jump In

By Natalie Burg September 10th, 2020

In the game of musical chairs that is self-publishing platforms, writers have recently been racing toward newsletters. Substack, MailChimp, Medium, and Patreon are among the most popular platforms. Earlier this year, Substack alone claimed to have “tens of thousands” of paid subscribers. The company also told BuzzFeed in 2019 that their 12 biggest writers earn an average of more than $160,000 annually.

With numbers like that, the draw is clear. But there’s no one way to newsletter—and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a single paid subscriber.

Here are how some newsletter writers have found success along with advice you can use to approach your own potential launch.

Set newsletter goals that align with your career goals

When writer, speaker, and strategist Lauren Razavi started her newsletter Counterflows in January, her major goal was to get out of a creative rut.

“I was suffering from writer’s block,” she said. “I really wanted to just start publishing again, but I was fairly turned off by the idea of trying to pitch at a time when I didn’t feel like writing.”

Counterflows was an opportunity to reconnect with her voice and publish regularly. Already, she feels like she’s accomplishing her goal.

However, misalignment between newsletter and career goals can lead to disappointment. Freelance journalist Sonia Weiser started Opportunities of the Week in 2018 to help fellow freelancers. Her weekly roundup of calls for pitches brings in steady income and remains a must-read for 4,000 subscribers, but it doesn’t always advance her own career goals.

“I was hoping I would end up getting more writing out of it,” she said. While many editors now know her, it’s more for her role as messenger to the freelance community. “It wasn’t great at making my brand image ‘Sonia the writer.’ It was great at making my brand image ‘Sonia that person who compulsively looks at Twitter.'”

Pick tools that fit your vision

There’s no shortage of newsletter tools. MailChimp and Constant Contact have long been email marketing standards. Substack was created in 2017 for writers to create free and paid newsletters. Patreon is famous for helping creators monetize their work—though it wasn’t specifically designed for newsletters. And then there are tangential tools that can supplement a newsletter on any platform, like Buy Me a Coffee, which lets users add a button to their newsletters so readers can send money to creators.

“So much of the opportunity online now is about looking at what tools are available,” Razavi said.

Razavi uses Substack, though she doesn’t charge subscribers yet. (For now, she relies on Buy Me a Coffee to gather voluntary payments.) To her, the upside of Substack is it’s simplicity.

“You have very limited formatting options, so it makes you focus on what you’re doing,” she explained. “In the past, I had newsletters on MailChimp, and I spent so long trying to make it look right. With Substack, it’s very plug-and-play.”

However, she called Substack’s audience analytics “quite rubbish.”

For Weiser, that’s one of the reasons she sticks with MailChimp. “It helps to be able to see what people’s patterns are and who’s opening what,” she said. “If they’re having an issue with their server not letting them access my newsletter, I can look and see if that’s the problem.”

Weiser also likes to give her subscribers payment options. She accepts suggested payments of $36/year on PayPal or Venmo, or $3/month on Patreon. Keeping payment options separate from her publishing platform may be a little cumbersome, but it provides flexibility for Weiser.

“Every platform is going to have its thing that drives you nuts,” she said. “And you just kind of have to decide which one is worth putting up with.”

Be prepared to do more than write

Self-publishing platforms have programmed freelance writers to be entrepreneurial since the dawn of the internet, and newsletters are no exception. Weiser began charging for Opportunities of the Week when it became too much work to do for free. At that point, she was spending 5-10 hours on it per week. Today, it’s more like 20 house.

It’s not just the business-end of the newsletter that takes time. Since her publication is rooted in helpfulness, she feels it’s important to embody that brand, responding to every tweet and email.

“If your newsletter is designed to be some kind of resource, it’s helpful to really take that mission to an extreme in everything you do,” she said. “You’re gonna end up being a guidance counselor and a career coach and a therapist.”

For Razavi, growing Counterflows involves engaging with both her subscribers and her subject matter, the future of work.

“You can’t just make a newsletter, you really have to do other things as well,” she said. “I speak on podcasts. I’ll speak at public webinars. And that’s really reinforced the newsletter nicely.”

Monetize with care

One of the best pieces of advice Razavi got from newsletter-writing friends was to build an audience for at least a year before monetizing. Unless you happen to launch with an overwhelmingly compelling benefit to readers and an existing audience, the format isn’t ideal for an instant revenue stream.

“I understand the potential, but I still don’t know if I will ever charge on Substack,” she said. Instead, she may switch from Buy Me a Coffee to Patreon option for monetization. Or she may add a paywall on Substack for access to exclusive content such as an essay series.

Another piece of monetization advice comes from Weiser: Build an exit strategy into your payment structure. New subscribers sign up for a year of Opportunities of the Week on a regular basis. So there will never be a set date when Weiser feels everyone has gotten what they’ve paid for, which makes it harder for her to stop—no matter what other opportunities arise in her own life.

“Unless this is something you want to dedicate your entire life to, put something in place so that you can stop it with maybe a month or two heads up,” she said.

The reasons to launch your own newsletter can be as compelling and diverse as the ideas you have to fill them with. With the platform and tools that best fit your vision to build something great, you could become your own next anchor client. Or simply have a fulfilling new writing project. Neither seem like a bad way for a freelancer to spend some time.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer and editor covering technology, business, finance, development, healthcare, and wellness. She lives in Ann Arbor. She has two daily newsletters. One is in kindergarten and the other is potty training.

Photo Credit: Vlad Plonsak