Community Building for Newsletter Companies

Welcome to chapter three of our guide the newsletter industry.

In this section, we’ll be looking at how newsletter businesses build a strong sense of community among their readers, and why that’s important.

We’ve talked to founders, writers, and editors across the industry, including deep dives with our team here at The Hustle, early hires at Morning Brew, and the teams behind third-party products like Substack, Pico, Sparkloop, and more.

We’ve distilled their advice into a few simple lessons. In this sections, we’ll unpack:

  • What community building REALLY means and how most get it wrong
  • Why community building is so important for media companies
  • How to understand your audience better
  • Tactics for building community both in and out of the newsletter
  • Examples from publications of all sizes
  • And much more…

When you finish here, you should understand the key steps you need to start taking today in order to foster a sense of community among your readers.

Table of Contents

1. What Is Community Building, Really?
2. Understanding Your Audience
3. Building Community Inside The Email
4. Building Community Outside Of The Email

If your unique voice is the beacon that attracts people to your newsletter early on, then the sense of community you build in and among your readers is what keeps them around long-term.

It’s a retention play, and a strong community protects you from competitors while increasing the value of either free or paid newsletters.

To grasp the power of community, think about the biggest sports fan you know…

Would they ever switch teams just because a rival’s jerseys were on sale? Absolutely not.

Die-hard sports fans illustrate why community building is so important:

When people find an authentic community that they identify with, they’ll stick with it even if they have options that cost them less, pay them more, or are more prestigious.

Knowing how to build a real sense of community around your newsletter is crucial to its long-term success.

What is community building, really?

The term “community” is thrown around a lot today, and as with most overused terms, its meaning has gotten muddled.

Many people mistake audience building for community building, but there’s a key difference.

An audience is a one-to-many communication pathway: you broadcast a message to lots of people, and they have the ability to respond to you, but they don’t really know or care about each other.

A community, on the other hand, goes one step further, actively fostering relationships between readers:

Fostering these connections takes time and effort — community building can’t be gamed or hacked. But that’s exactly why it remains such a successful tool for both retention and growth.

Community building is rare — even large newsletters with millions of readers don’t necessarily have strong communities — but anyone willing to put the effort in can reap the rewards.

As Jarrod Dicker of The Washington Post told us, these strong bonds offer smaller newsletters a leg up when it comes to retaining their audience.

When we talk about building a community, we’re really talking about doing two things at the same time:

  • Creating a space where people can gather, often done through the use of digital platforms (like Facebook or Slack) or in-person events
  • Creating a shared sense of identity among those people  through the use of language, symbols, and rituals 

Together, you have the power to both retain your audience and bring in new readers.

And while community work is definitely slow going in the beginning, if you do it right, your community will begin to pull in outside members and its size will grow exponentially.

You have opportunities to do both of these inside and outside of your email, in both the digital and physical worlds. Next, we’ll explore how several successful newsletters are achieving both.

Understanding Your Audience

As you go through these early stages of growing organically, one of your main goals should be to develop an understanding of your audience based on individual interactions with them.

Gather audience insights by:

  • Talking to readers: It would be hard to overstate the value of a 15- to 20-minute call with one of your readers. Anuj Abrol, founder of the Witty Wealth newsletter, has talked to more than 100 of his subscribers since launching in May 2020, using their insights to shape the direction of his product. We also do this frequently at Trends (see below for some of our favorite questions).
  • Running surveys: If used properly, surveys can be great tools to gather demographic data and insights on your readers’ content preferences. The trick: use them sparingly, and only to supplement your existing data. Never ask a survey question your other analytics tools can already answer for you.

For example, your ESP will tell you exactly who opens your newsletter, and how often. So you wouldn’t want to ask that question in a survey. Instead, try to collect data that you don’t have yet, but that would offer a more interesting picture of your audience if added to your existing data.

In a 2020 survey of our Trends community, we asked readers about their favorite Trends feature. Then we correlated those responses with data we already had about when each reader had joined.

We found that many early members weren’t aware of new features like AMAs, lectures, and databases. We were then able to take action on this data, raising awareness of those features, and improving people’s feelings about the overall product.

  • Studying user behavior: Understand how people actually consume your content. What do they click on? How engaged are they? Ask them to be part of beta and focus groups to help you improve your product.

One of the first things Cory Brown, a former audience insights manager at ProPublica and independent audience consultant, asks people he works with: Will you let me talk to your subscribers? 

A structured conversation with your readers can reveal gaps and opportunities you didn’t even know existed.

Here are some of our favorite questions to ask subscribers of our paid newsletter, Trends:

“Tell me the story of the day you decided to pay for Trends.”

Forget asking people why they subscribed; instead, get them to tell you a story. Their mind will travel back to the day they joined, and they’ll surface details they otherwise may have never mentioned.

“Since joining, what has surprised you most (good, and not so good)?”

Surprises are great because they reveal a difference between expectations and reality. If people tell you about a pleasant surprise (e.g., “There are so many interesting people commenting on your articles”), then you’ve found something you should be advertising but might not be. 

On the other hand, if they share a negative surprise, you now have something your team can work on fixing. 

Be sure to encourage both — tell them you need constructive criticism in order to get better. Then, when they tell you about your weaknesses, just listen and try to understand. Don’t try to defend yourself, or convince them they’re wrong.

“What kinds of challenges do other people in your industry face?”

It can be tricky to get people to talk about challenges they’re facing, especially if it’s the first time you’re talking. If you come straight out and ask, you’re likely to get answers that are predictable, incomplete, or inaccurate as they try to answer your question without appearing weak or flawed.

A better lead-in to that conversation is to get them to think about other people who are like them. It’s easier to think of challenges others are struggling with — structuring the question in this way offers some room for interviewees to project their own experiences onto some unnamed “other.”

Building Community Inside the Email

People love to see their name in the content they consume, and one of the simplest ways to build a sense of community is to go out of your way to mention them in your newsletter.

In our inaugural Trends email, our founder Sam Parr found a clever way to mention the names of new readers right away:

These kinds of callouts are similar to what late-night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel do when they interview random tourists on the street. 

When people know they’re going to be on TV, they tune in, they tell their friends to tune in, and it forever changes their relationship with that show.

Writing about the people who read your newsletter does the same thing. It also forges connections between members of your audience who were previously unaware of each other, reminding every reader that they’re part of something bigger.

This doesn’t need to take a lot of time. For example, look at the way Packy McCormick welcomes new readers of the Not Boring newsletter each week:

With two simple sentences, he’s reminded people that they’re part of a group while simultaneously boosting the social value of his newsletter by showing how many people read it.

On their own, these callouts might not have a huge impact, but they humanize your newsletter (you can bet Joe and Vickie noticed).

One interesting and useful opportunity is answering community questions right inside the newsletter. Morning Brew does this with a segment they call “Mail Bag”:

As David Cohn, co-founder of Subtext, told us, answering common user questions inside your newsletter actually accomplishes three things:

  • You answer the person (or people) who asked the question.
  • You answer the people who wondered about the same thing but never asked about it.
  • Most important — you show you’re paying attention to your community.

To this, we would add that you take a small step toward building that sense of community that’s so important in retaining readers.

If you’re willing to invest time and energy into creating unique content focused on members of your community, there’s really no limit to what you can do. But two other versions of this that are worth thinking about include:

  • Highlighting individual members of the community
  • Publishing guest posts from members of the community

The key to a great community member highlight is to make the information as useful as possible to the rest of your readers. 

For example, when the stock market crashed at the beginning of the  pandemic, we surveyed our audience of business owners to learn how they survived the last economic recession. 

We turned their answers into a series of posts and highlights that shared interesting data, quick snippets, and even longer profiles of real readers, all of which were helpful to other business owners.

The same goes for guest posts by community members.

Codie Sanchez and the team over at Grow Getters does an excellent job of leveraging the intelligence of their community through guest posts, as the example below shows:

As you can see, this goes way beyond the simple one-to-many broadcast structure of building an audience. 

In the example above, Sanchez uses her platform to help one of her readers build his own audience. That’s the kind of thing people never forget.

Not only is Roman likely to be a longtime reader of Grow Getters, but he will also likely follow Sanchez into other projects she tries in the future, and may even spread the word to his own audience.

That’s the power of dedicating a little effort to building a real relationship with people and leveraging your newsletter to bolster it.

Building Community Outside the Email

Each of the methods above is worthwhile, and there are doubtless many more, but at some point, in order to foster strong ties among readers, you’ll need to step outside the inbox and create a space where they can interact.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind when they start focusing on community building is: What platform should I use?

We’ll discuss specific platform options in a moment, but before we do, it’s important to understand two things:

  • Just like the rest of your tech stack, there are lots of options out there, and none are perfect. Rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution, we’ll give you frameworks and examples for assessing your own needs.
  • Even with a great platform, an active community doesn’t happen on its own. The effort you put in as the leader will make all the difference, and we’ll outline three key pieces of that equation.

Platform Options

There are tons of community-building platforms out there, with more emerging every day as companies wake up to the importance of community building.

Popular options can be broken into a few main categories:

  • Social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube
  • Messenger platforms like Slack, WhatsApp, and Telegram

Each has its own benefits and drawbacks…

The most important question you can ask yourself…

… is “Where do your readers naturally gather already?”

If you want your community to be active, then participating in the daily conversation needs to be easy and natural for them. The ideal solution is to build on a tool they’re already using.

For years, we’ve used Facebook at Trends because, historically, Facebook was a website people in our audience had open all day already. Joining the conversation inside our community didn’t represent any new work or learning on their part.

People see Trends posts in their native feed and are pulled into the conversation without even trying. Facebook is also asynchronous — people can chime in on a discussion days, or even weeks, after it starts. This is much harder on platforms like Telegram or Slack.

However, after the widespread adoption of remote work during the pandemic, other tools like Slack are now more popular than ever, making them more viable as community-building platforms.

Founder of A Media Operator Jacob Donnelly, for example, runs his community on Slack.

Later, we’ll see some of the diverse examples used by other newsletters. 

But first, here are three more questions you’ll definitely want to consider before choosing a platform for your community:

  1. How will you keep track of everyone?
  2. How will you communicate with them?
  3. How will they communicate with each other?

1. How will you keep track of everyone?

You’re investing time, effort, and resources into attracting people to your community. Protect that investment by making sure new members don’t fall through the cracks. 

The platform you choose should make it easy for you to see an overview of all your members, and, ideally, give you some sense of who is active and who may need some attention in order to be more active.

For example, one thing that’s frustrating about Facebook is that they don’t really give you granular control over your data; Slack does a much better job of giving you insight about activity inside your community.

2. How will you communicate with everyone?

How will you share important information? Do you need to be able to contact people individually? Decide how you want to interact with your community, and let that inform the platform you choose to build around.

3. How will they communicate with each other?

As we said, the key difference between an audience and a community is that an audience is primarily a one-to-many communication stream. Brands talk to audiences, and members of that audience talk to the brand. 

Communities, on the other hand, are all about connection. 

The goal is not just to talk to your tribe, but to get them talking to each other. Therefore, when considering your platform, be sure to pick one that will make it possible for members to hold group conversations, DM each other, and see the history of the group’s chat.

Basics of Community Building

In the end, the platform you choose will be less important than how you use it. So let’s turn our attention to some of the key things you’ll need in order to give your community the best chance at success:

  • Active leadership
  • High-quality conversations
  • A code — clearly communicated and enforced

Active Leadership

As a leader, you set the tone and pace for the rest of the community. So if you want people to be active inside your community, it’s crucial that you lead by example. Rather than asking people to behave in a certain way, you need to do that thing yourself, early and often.

Sam is always posting inside our Trends community, along with other members of the team, and it builds strong connections between people, not just readers and a brand.

It’s important that you’re not just posting, but being part of the conversation — replying to people, offering your opinion, and engaging with other posts the way you would want people to engage with yours.

Polina Marinova, author of The Profile newsletter, does a great job of this in her private Telegram community for premium subscribers.

Notice how this isn’t rocket science — it’s just having conversations with real people. Many people overcomplicate community by trying to find some unifying theory to guarantee success.

Keep it simple — just talk with people. Ask them what they care about, and show them the things that interest you. Help them get to know one another. That’s a community at the end of the day. Here are a few go-to conversation starters that are particularly helpful in a community scenario:

  • Intro new users who’ve joined in the last week
  • Highlight an expert member and let them give advice to other members (organizing AMAs is a great way to do this)
  • List job openings or help-wanted posts 

High-Quality Conversations

One key to building a community people rave about is to make sure you have high-quality conversations going on inside.

You don’t want drive-by traffic or trolls jumping in to cause a ruckus. One way to do this is by limiting who’s allowed to comment in the first place. Only people who are invested in the success of your community should be part of the conversation.

Some platforms make this easier. Substack, for example, makes it easy to limit commenting to paying subscribers only.

Facebook also offers features that allow you to moderate posts. You can allow everyone to post freely, or change the settings so that posts from certain users have to be approved before going live.

Facebook also allows you to require that all posts be approved and lets members report posts they feel aren’t aligned with the group’s purpose. 

This ability for the group to help moderate itself is key in growing any community, which brings us to our next point…

You Need A Code

Even if you’re careful about who gets into the group, things can get complicated quickly any time you bring a group of people together to discuss something they care deeply about.

Inevitably, you’ll run into situations where you need to make decisions about what behavior is allowed, and what’s not. So it’s important to set some rules for what you expect from people, communicate them clearly, and enforce them.

Recall that we said building a community is partly about building a shared sense of identity through language, symbols, and rituals.

The code you create contributes to that identity by helping members understand what’s expected and how they can uphold their side of the bargain.

For example, our rules at Trends look like this:

You can call this set of rules whatever you like — community guidelines, a code of ethics, commandments, etc. — but no matter their name, their purpose is to codify the group’s understanding of what it means to be a member.

The consulting group McKinsey has a saying that every employee learns: “One McKinsey.”

What it means is that, even though there are lots of different branches and offices, they’re all part of the same company and, therefore, they’re all expected to help each other succeed.

If a McKinsey office halfway across the country calls you with a problem at 8pm on a Sunday, the unwritten rule — “One MicKinsey” — is that it’s the same as having your office call with a problem.

Having a shared value system is what empowers community members to make decisions on their own that are in the best interest of the community, allowing the group to self-moderate as it grows.

Going Beyond the Code

You can also build this shared sense of identity through symbols, which allow community members to recognize each other and define status within the group.

Some interesting examples of this include Morning Brew’s use of the ☕ emoji on Twitter.

Employees add it to their Twitter handle, and members of their ambassador program are also invited to use it to mark themselves. For more on this, be sure to check out our Morning Brew case study later in this guide.

The New Yorker has a similar example, applied in the real world: the famous New Yorker tote, which has become a cult fashion icon taking on a life of its own:

Source: @NewYorkerTote / Instagram

The study of how to create a shared sense of purpose goes somewhat beyond the boundaries of this guide, but below are three of the best resources for this:

  • The Culting of Brands: This book by Douglas Atkin (who led community at both Meetup and Airbnb) explores the psychology behind cults, and shows how some brands have adopted their principles in order to create lifelong die-hard members.
  • Building the Minimum Badass User: This fun talk from technologist Kathy Sierra teaches you the most important thing you need to know about building a raving fan base.
  • This Is Not a T-Shirt: Bobby Hundreds’ fashion brand has such a strong following that he literally runs an incubator in their office for future competitors. For more on how they built their following, read Bobby’s book.

You can also find notes on community building in each of our case studies, and check out our bonus resources on how to build a strong brand community, as well as this five-part framework for building your brand community.

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