You don’t often think of email as something you pay to get. If anything, most people would pay to get less of it. Of course, there are always emails you like to get and opt into on purpose. We have a newsletter right here on CSS-Tricks that we really try to make worth reading. It’s free, like the vast majority of email newsletters. We hope it helps a bit with engagement and we make it worth doing financially by showing the occasional advertisement. It’s certainly not a full-time job.
I spoke with Adam Roberts who is trying to make it a full-time job by running SitePoint’s Versioning newsletter as a paid subscription. I don’t know much about this world, so I find it all pretty fascinating. I know Ann Friedman has a paid newsletter with a free variant. I know theSkimm is a free newsletter but has a paid membership that powers their app. I was told Bill Bishop made six figures on his first day going paid, which is wild. In the tech space, Ben Thompson’s Stratechery is a paid newsletter.
Let’s hear from Adam on how it’s doing it. I’ll ask questions as headers and the paragraph text is Adam.
So you’re doing it! Making the transition from a free, advertising-supported newsletter to a paid, subscriber-based newsletter. There is a lot to dig into here. Is the motivation a more direct and honest relationship with your readers?
Yep, it’s crazy! Versioning provides devs, designers and web people curated links aimed at making them more productive and up-to-date with the bleeding edge of their industry. I’ve done the newsletter for nearly four years and, up until now, it’s been a thing I squeeze in for an hour or two during my day, as a break from my actual job (most recently, head of content for the site). Now, it’s no longer being squeezed, and is my actual job! I can now focus entirely on making it something people find valuable. They’ll know that everything I include is there because I think it’ll make their lives, skills or knowledge better. I’ve always set a high standard for myself when it comes to what I include—never something I’m 50/50 on (unless it’s an emerging tech) and I never include something because we have a deal or something. Now, this is an actual formal thing. Ads were always a means to an end, now we have a better means, and hopefully a better end!
Is it a straight cut? Anyone who doesn’t subscribe for a fee will stop getting it and have no way to read it?
If you sign up as a paid member, you’ll get the daily newsletter. You’ll also get periodic members-only updates, like deep dives on an emerging subject, always-updated posts on important subjects, and media guides. If you sign up to receive free updates, you’ll get a weekly update plus other periodic free updates.
I’m sure there are financial concerns. Anyone in this position would be nervous that paid subscribers won’t match what was coming in from advertisers before. Is that a concern here? How in-depth did you get trying to figure out the economics of it? Is there potential that it’s even better business?
Given this is a SitePoint venture and not my own thing, we had to make sure it was worthwhile for subscribers and that the numbers were friendly! There’s definitely potential this will work better in a financial sense, while also be being better for subscribers—we wouldn’t be doing it otherwise!
Do you have a good sense of what your readers want from you? It seems to me Versioning is largely a link-dump, but with your hand-curation and light commentary. Did you come to that over time?
I have always had a fairly active reader base, with people dropping me a line via email or Twitter to thank me for something they liked. We also have the requisite creepy email analytics (e.g. opens and clicks), which help to spot trends and subjects to focus on or avoid. It’s a challenge to cover a few different subject areas well (like front-end and back-end development, design, etc.) but I think most readers working in a particular niche in our industry find it helpful to know what everyone else is up to. The world also evolves quickly—the first edition covered a jQuery library, for example. That’s not an area that’s stayed in the forefront of the news since! Mind you, the first edition also had a Star Wars link, so maybe some things do stay the same.
I struggle with even knowing what I want from a newsletter. Most days, give me some personality. I want news but I want to know why I should care and I want an expert to tell me. Then other days, I hate to say it, but I want less talk and more links. Cool story about a goat, but I’m here for the performance links (or whatever). Are you a newsletter connoisseur yourself? Are you writing a newsletter you wanna read?
I think if I ran into Versioning in the wild, I’d want to subscribe to it. I’m working to try to get the content balance right—providing the right stuff for people, plus commentary that’s enjoyable. The other day I had links to an article on understanding state in React (I think it was on some site called CCS-Tricks, am I spelling that right? 😉), an article on fake science gurus on Facebook, one on an Australian cyborg who tried to pay for a train with a chip in his hand, and the video for Warren G’s Regulate (an allusion to the likely response to the various Facebook crises).
I subscribe to so many newsletters, and they’re all different. I think consistency in each newsletter helps. If I was to drop the format and post a long, detailed screed about one subject, that would not go over well. My aim is to include one link that every reader wants to click. Often, that’s all you can handle as a reader, especially on mobile where the interface doesn’t make collecting tabs easy. That’s also why I include the destination domain in brackets next to every link—I don’t want people to end up somewhere they’re not expecting. Also, some sites (like the The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Wired) have limits on the number of free articles people can view. I don’t want people to accidentally run out of freebies because of me—I want them to realize how much they value a site and support it.
Do paid newsletters replace the traditional blog or do you see them complementing one another? We’ve obviously been using our newsletter to support the blog and vice versa, but I’m curious if adding a paid layer changes that relationship.
The formats have different, complementary strengths, and so I don’t think the paid layer necessarily changes this. Newsletters are good at highlighting particularly important things, putting them in context, and maybe taking a long view of a certain issue. Sites (or blogs) are good at adding interactive elements and keeping content up-to-date and accurate as things change.
In our case, one of the things our email platform, Substack, allows us to do is send a particular edition out as both a newsletter and a post. This means a member can access it wherever is best for them. It also means I can do things like send out an initial newsletter outlining a particular topic, then update the online version with new content. I will use this to produce updated, canonical posts for a particular subject or technology. And these formats can be either free to all, or only available to paid members. There’s a lot you can do with this level of flexibility, I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface. The key is to produce something worthwhile for an audience and the format is secondary.
What is it about newsletters that seems to be clicking with people lately? If someone asked you, hey, I have a ton to say about this general topic, and so I’m thinking of either starting a blog or a newsletter, would you say newsletter? Any SEO concerns there?
There is a backlash against the algorithmic tide. Instead of opening a feed and hoping for good content, why not find someone you trust, and whose opinion and taste you find interesting and useful, and sign up to consistently receive content from them. You’ll still get the “something new and cool” dopamine hit you would in a feed, but it’ll be more consistent and reliable. And they’re all separate entities; there’s no “if you followed this publication, maybe you should follow this other one” thing. And if you stop enjoying them, you can just unsubscribe.
Newsletters are intimate. Your inbox is your personal space, where you step back from the tumult and take stock of the stuff that you’ve decided matters most to you. That’s why spam and relentless, poorly-conceived marketing emails always feel like such a violation.
I think newsletters and podcasts are both growing in prominence for the same reasons. Both mediums reward consistency and reliability in format and topic, are built on personality, and have an intimate feel. Someone’s either talking into your ears for hours every week, or writing to you in your private space.
Speaking of concerns, SEO is a tricky one. Algorithms are part of the discussion here again. SitePoint has a pretty decent search footprint, but new and niche publications aren’t so lucky. I suspect there will be a mini-industry of newsletter curation services start to develop. I would actually love to be in that space.
Filter bubbles are another concern. Newsletters are another opportunity for people to only read the stuff they agree with. But it turns out algorithms and social networks aren’t so good at stopping that either!
I was very, very, very sad to see the end of the Awl (and the Hairpin). That was a site that was chock-full of amazing content that was not targeted to appeal to Facebook and such, and as a result, it ultimately wasn’t sustainable. It kind of feels like such cases—plus the re-tooling of Facebook’s feed away from publications and towards people, and the rise of newsletters—are all related. It’s reductive to say “newsletters are the new blogs,” but it’s probably not far off. I would 100% be telling someone to start a newsletter. Actually, I’d tell them to use Substack, but I would have to declare my bias!
Tech-wise, what tooling are you using to curate, create, and send here?
I love talking about this stuff! Uses This is one of my favorite sites. Honestly, it’s pretty low-tech at the moment, just busy. I have a Pocket account with a #versioning tag, so that often gives me a dozen or so links at the start of the day, sourced from my internet meanderings through the evening. I subscribe to a million newsletters, both in my work and personal accounts, on a hopefully both diverse and relevant range of topics.
I subscribe to quite a few RSS feeds using Feedly, too. Nuzzel, which sends you a daily/weekly digest of the most-shared links among people you’re following in Twitter and Facebook, is very useful here too. I have a personal Twitter/Nuzzel feed, plus one I’ve specifically set up for this purpose. Refind is another service trying to solve this problem. Its breadth and depth kind of give me a headache though. They’ve got a Nuzzel-like daily/weekly digest, a service for creating your own newsletters, a cryptocurrency—there’s a lot.
I also have the requisite very big Tweetdeck set-up to grab other links that catch my eye. Oh, and Initab is a new Chrome tab extension you can populate with feeds from certain subreddits and other place. I’ve been playing around with psuedo-Tweetdeck-for-Reddit services too. And Spectrum is a new community service thing I found last week, looks like it could be a winner too. And I need to be more active in Facebook groups. Also, Slack!
So yeah, there’s a lot. A bit of a combo of algorithms and people, hopefully I have the balance right. I also change newsletters, feeds, and other sources regularly, trying to find a better balance.
As for collecting and writing, it’s actually fairly simple—I find something I like, copy the URL into a Markdown doc, then write a description. I deliberately use a web-based Markdown editor (currently Stackedit, though I have used Dillinger and Classeur in the past). Something web-based is good because I can easily tab to it without having to switch to a new app. Stackedit is good because you can paste the generated preview directly into Campaign Monitor and (now) Substack and have formatting and links sorted. I then have a Google Doc to collect links I’ve already shared, and to gauge the reception in the audience—I want to spot trends like a rising interest in micro-services.
Building emails is something we all sort of love and loathe as front-end developers. How did you approach your email design and did you learn anything from building it?
Yes, email design is hard! Fortunately for me, the content and approach I’ve adopted lends itself to a stripped-back design with very little going on. Versioning is just text and a few images, so it required practically zero design. Our use of Campaign Monitor and now Substack meant we could sidestep some of the template work. In general terms though, my advice would be:
- Focus on the purpose and content of the newsletter, produce a template based on that. It’s more important to produce something compelling, promote it in the right places, gain an audience, and then keep it (and grow it) by making sure you’re consistent in your production.
- If you can (via a survey or through whatever data your email platform offers) work out what devices and platforms your audience uses to access email. People read email in all sorts of obscure ways, but you can likely cover the main ones for your audience with relatively little effort.
- Don’t forget the plaintext user! Make sure your URLs are short, your images have alt tags, you’re generally nice to those in your audience who are in this boat. Versioning, given the niche, has a high proportion of these.
- If all else fails, work with an expert or use one of a plethora of tools and services to do the work for you. Substack has a stripped-back CMS, Campaign Monitor and MailChimp have built-in template builders, and there are plenty of other services you could use. The compatibility issues with email are legendary. You could instead spend your time on things like a distinctive logo and branding or a landing page that communicates your newsletter’s value.
Ultimately people will enjoy a simple newsletter full of content they love presented in a way they can absorb. The design shouldn’t tie you in knots!