Content Strategy For 7-Figure Newsletters

So you want to build a newsletter biz?

Great. You’ve come to the right place.

We’ve spent thousands of hours untangling the newsletter business like no one else.

This report is packed with lessons we’ve learned from growing our own email list to 2m+ readers and millions of dollars in annual revenue. 

It’s also filled with the wisdom of dozens of other successful newsletter publishers — from Morning Brew to Axios to AppSumo and more.

The media landscape is more important (and more competitive) than ever before – 14k+ new email marketers join Mailchimp every weekday. And for the first time in history, individual creators wield more influence (and have larger audiences) than entire news organizations.

This guide will show you how to be one of them. How to stand out, grow, profit, and influence like never before.

We distilled their knowledge into a universal model…

We call it “The Newsletter Engine,” and it’s the key to building a profitable media business (in any industry). 

Want to know a secret? You don’t need a big audience to build a big newsletter business…

And having a big audience won’t guarantee success either. 

Instead, you NEED to know how the business model works; How all the pieces fit together.

What are the options for monetizing an audience? And how do you decide which to take? How much is a reader worth? And how do you create something people love to read?

The newsletter engine answers all these and more. And it works for every newsletter. Other types of media businesses too. Over the next several chapters we’ll explore every piece…

In this section, we’ll start by breaking down the most important part of the newsletter business: Content. 

With it, everything else becomes easier. Growing. Making money. Everything. But without it, nothing will save you. There’s no growth hack or pricing strategy that can overcome bad content.

This chapter dives deep into the content strategies of multi-million dollar newsletters to show you:

  • How to define your voice and audience
  • Real examples of newsletters finding “riches in niches”
  • Four ways to make content people care about
  • The eight components of a great newsletter
  • And much more…
  1. How To Define Your Content Objectives and Voice
  2. The Anatomy Of An Effective Newsletter

1. How To Define Your Content Objectives and Voice

Every newsletter needs to have a unique voice. You may not know exactly what it is on Day One, and it can evolve over time, but your voice is what makes you stand out from the tens of thousands of other newsletters on the market. 

Your voice acts like a beacon, drawing in readers, advertisers, and even employees who share your vision and see the world the same way you do.

With a unique voice, it doesn’t matter if someone else is writing about the same topic that you are. There’s always a market for “different” and “better,” and your voice can make you both.

When Kendall Baker launched his Sports Internet newsletter in 2017 — which was acquired and rebranded as Axios Sports in 2019 — there were thousands of websites and newsletters covering sports. But the unique voice he brought to his newsletter has made it an essential read for hundreds of thousands of sports fans. 

Click Here To Hear Part Of Our Interview With Kendall

There are three crucial questions involved in defining your objectives and your voice:

  1. What’s missing from the current landscape?
  2. Who must you reach?
  3. Why should they care about what you have to say?

What’s missing from the current landscape?

Why are you writing this thing in the first place? What do you think is missing from the world? The answer to these questions might be simpler than you think.

When we started The Hustle, we didn’t see anyone talking about the startup world the way we talked about it with friends. We thought most business reporting was too stuffy, and our newsletter was an experiment to see how many people agreed.

When you understand what you feel is missing from the current media landscape, you’re in a better position to define a strong voice for your newsletter. 

You’re also in a better position to take the next step and define your target audience.

Who must you reach?

To develop a strong voice, start off by defining the smallest possible group you can possibly target.

This is the part most people get wrong. 

It’s tempting to go after a big audience. But venture capitalists have a saying: “There are riches in niches.” You don’t need a huge audience in order to make a lot of money, you just need the right one. 

Check out these newsletters creating riches with very different-sized niches:

You should notice a couple of things about these numbers.

First, revenue doesn’t grow linearly with the size of your audience. There are two reasons for this:

  • There’s no fixed value on a set of eyeballs. Every audience is different, and some are worth far more than others.
  • There are many ways to monetize an audience, each of which offers different revenue potential. The Newsette, for example, does mostly ads and affiliate deals, while Petition generated 100% of its revenue from its $49/mo. subscription.

The second thing you should notice is that each of these audiences is relatively small. 

The Ferrari Market Letter and Petition could seat both of their audiences together inside Yale’s football stadium (with room to spread out). And even if The Newsette’s entire readership lived in New York City, they would still only represent about one in every 17 residents.

Each of these could have targeted broad categories (like all car fans, or all women). But by niching down, they can appeal more strongly to a particular crowd, and turn those people into raving (paying) fans.

Why should they care what you have to say?

You need to align your content with your audience’s needs, and doing so often speeds up subscriber growth.

When Anuj Abrol started his newsletter, Witty Wealth, in mid-2020, his idea was to write entertaining posts about investing and build a suite of paid products around them.

But after interviewing 100+ early subscribers, he learned that they were primarily looking for advice on how to become financially independent, which led him to write more about long-term investment strategies.

Dan Oshinsky, a former director of newsletters at BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, told us that when members of your target audience find your newsletter, they should think, “Where have you been all my life?”

You can do this by tapping in to any of these four main things:

  • Identity: Who are your readers, and what do they identify as? Think political party, sports team, ideology, or other major tribes. When BuzzFeed launched the This Week in Cats newsletter, it was a rallying cry for those who identified as cat people.
  • Service: Service newsletters help readers by bringing them more of what they want. The New York Times’ Cooking newsletter generates millions of dollars each year by being of service to home cooks.
  • Utility: Utility newsletters bring people more of what they need, typically by giving readers info they use at work. Our Trends newsletter and other premium pubs for business operators fall into this category.
  • Personality: These are newsletters specifically built around a well-known individual and their thoughts. People sign up for Pomp’s newsletter, or James Altucher’s, because they are interested in the thoughts of those two people.

Click Here to Hear From Our Interview With Dan

The Hustle’s Steph Smith, author of Doing Content Right, points out that when people say a newsletter is their favorite, it typically is not because of what they cover, but rather how they cover it.

Check out how these readers describe some of their favorite newsletters:

The One Decision That Makes a Hundred

The great thing about understanding your priorities and unique voice is that it simplifies many of your future decisions. 

You don’t have to be all things to all people. 

You just need to do a great job at that one thing your readers want.

One thing we pride ourselves on at Trends is coming up with surprising industry analyses. We know our audience is looking for ideas no one else is talking about, so behind the scenes we’re constantly asking whether our articles are surprising enough.

We even have an unofficial scale we use on Slack to visualize how surprising an idea is. We call it the “Duh” to “Wait…WHAT?!” scale:

This need to serve up surprising ideas makes our work harder (it’s tough to find truly surprising ideas) but also simpler because it clears away a lot of the noise in deciding what to write about.

Understanding your voice helps with growth, too. When you know what’s unique about your newsletter, it’s easier to tell new readers why they should sign up.

Check out some of these early landing pages from The Hustle, Morning Brew, and The Newsette, and pay careful attention to how each one describes itself:

Each one covers similar stories on tech and business news. But notice how each is positioned differently, and is able to say what makes them unique with just one or two sentences.

How would readers describe your newsletter in one sentence? What about one word?

2. Anatomy of an Effective Newsletter

While every newsletter will look and sound different, they’re built using the same basic blocks. 

The difference between a good newsletter and a great newsletter is that the people who produce great newsletters are always trying to make their design better at catching readers’ attention, keeping them interested, and delivering value.

They do that through the creative use of a few key components. A good email service provider (which we’ll talk about soon) should make it easy to create each of these.

Let’s zoom in and look at some examples in the wild… 

From Line

Your “from” line is really comprised of two things:

  • The “from” name people see in their inbox
  • The email address you send the newsletter from

The goal of both is to create a sense of familiarity and connection with the reader. 

When they see your name in their inbox, they should immediately recognize who the email is from and, ideally, be excited to open it.

As you can see below, you can use your personal name, the name of your newsletter, or some combination of the two. 

The most important thing is that you’re consistent so that people actually recognize you.

When they see your address, it helps if it looks personable so that they feel they have a connection with you.

Check out how Dan Primack from Axios Pro Rata does it:

Compare that with the slightly less personable (but still totally acceptable) corporate email:

Do you see how those feel different compared to this from line in Science Daily’s news roundup?

Sure, this won’t sink your newsletter. But if you’re trying to create a sense of connection between your readers and your brand, these little details matter.

Related to this idea, if you link a Gmail account to your sending address, it’s possible to add an image, avatar, or logo that shows up in readers’ inboxes. This adds a nice personal touch, and is one more way to set yourself apart in the minds of subscribers. For instructions on how to do this, check out this page.

Subject Line 

Your subject line is a chance to hook readers. For more on how to craft them, we turned to Chris Orzechowski, owner of The Email Copywriter and author of Make it Rain, a book on high performance email marketing.

Chris has written thousands of email campaigns and has sold millions of dollars worth of products. 

The key to selling through email? People need to open the message. 

The subject line is your main shot at making that happen. Chris says that great subjects can be boiled down to three simple rules:

  • Keep it natural — what subject would you use if you were emailing a friend?
  • Start a story that the reader needs to know the ending to
  • Keep it focused on the reader — what’s in it for them?

In the audio clip below, Chris talks in more detail about the brands that are winning with subject lines by writing sales emails that don’t sound like sales emails.

Click Here To Hear From Our Interview With Chris

Building on Chris’ ideas, take a look at the snippet below. If you could only open one of these, which would you click?

Not Boring and The Pomp Letter are doing the best jobs at telling a story, but Heated’s subject line reads the most naturally — like it comes from a friend. 

As a reader, it’s clear what I’m going to get: a few short updates — the fact that they’re short and to-the-point means the writer at Heated has kept this focused on me and what I need.

At The Hustle, we test four subject lines each morning by sending the newsletter to four different groups of highly engaged subscribers. 

We wait 30 minutes to see which subject line gets opened the most, then we use that subject for the remaining sends.

Eyebrow 

The “eyebrow” is like the greeting to your newsletter. It consists of any information that comes before the first headline and is designed to draw readers in. 

It may also be the only thing people see if they’re busy or get distracted. So make it count.

At The Hustle, we used this space to display our branding, flex our voice by saying something fun and attention-grabbing, and share the logo of our main advertiser for the day.

Check out how The Newsette does something similar, showing off their advertiser and linking out to an article their readers will likely enjoy:

Body Copy 

The writing that makes up the bulk of your email is called “body copy.” 

Here’s the big thing with body copy — you’ve gotta make it easy to read.

It should flow well and be pleasing to the eye. 

You can write long emails, as long as they’re structured to pull people in and keep them moving. A few ways to do this:

  • Short sentences and paragraphs
  • Strategic bolding and bulleting
  • Good use of tone to keep people moving

Check out this example from Balthazar de Lavergne, who helps publish The Family, a newsletter for entrepreneurs:

Even though there are no images in this section, the use of short sentences, bolding, and bulleting make it feel easy to read, so we keep going.

Pro tip: Remember mobile readers

Many people are reading on smartphones these days. What looks good on your computer when you’re drafting can seem overwhelming on a small screen.

Check out how the experience of this paragraph changes from desktop to smartphone:

On the desktop version, the top paragraph seems lengthy, but manageable. You can see there are some shorter segments coming up, which might keep you reading. But on mobile, you’re left staring at a wall of text:

Axios is great at writing readable emails

They’ve actually got a custom-built content management system for their writers which prompts them when paragraphs get too long, or words get too complex.

Take a look at this issue of Axios Pro Rata:

Even though there’s a fair amount of text, the bolding and paragraph breaks help direct your eye.

On mobile, the effect is even more pronounced, making for easy reading and almost automatic scrolling:

You can pack a lot of information into a newsletter — just do it in a way that doesn’t stop the eye from moving easily. It’s also great to give readers multiple entry points, because no matter how well you word something, you have to honor your readers’ need for brevity.

Images

Images do a few important things inside your newsletter:

  • Grab people’s attention
  • Break up text, making your stories easier to consume
  • Inspire people to share, exposing your work to new audiences

One newsletter that’s excellent at making images that do all three of these is Chartr. As you may have guessed, it’s a newsletter about charts. They report the news through interesting data visualizations.

Here’s a look at one of their images. Let’s examine why it works:

Grabs attention: Rather than a simple line graph, Chartr uses colors and flags to draw you in.

Helps tell the story: In addition to the data — the crux of the story — Chartr includes the title and extra info (like the dates of Finland’s lockdown) right in the image, which makes this picture more valuable as a stand-alone piece.

Exposes new readers: Notice how they mark the image with their logo. That way, even out of context, readers know who made this. The image itself becomes marketing for their newsletter.

Here’s another example…

Your images are part of your voice, and just like your writing, their style can evolve over time. There’s no magic formula to creating the perfect graphic. Instead, ask yourself the same questions you asked when thinking of your voice:

  • What’s currently missing from the media landscape?
  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • Why should they care?

Check out this coverage of 2020’s second US economic stimulus bill, one from Morning Brew and another from a newsletter for investors called The Daily Shot:

Can you tell which is which?

If you guessed that The Daily Shot’s image is the one on the right (the one with “The Daily Shot” logo, lol), then you’re right — a great example of why it’s important to mark your images.

Over time, readers will recognize your visual style the same way they do your writing.

Scott Galloway does a great job of this, using the same illustration style for his charts each week in the No Mercy, No Malice newsletter.

Even though there’s not much detail to them, and he doesn’t include his name (shame, shame), frequent readers can stumble upon a chart of his anywhere (like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) and recognize it as something he made, even if someone else shares it.

If you have a designer on your team, they often have the skills to help with this, or you can hire affordable help on demand through freelancing sites like Upwork and Fiverr.

You don’t need to be an artist, though. Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why, leaned in to his sense of humor and stick-figure art, and it’s now a calling card for the site.

(Notice how he still marks his images with his website URL… Good move, Tim.)

Calls to Action / Linked Text 

As a newsletter writer, it’s tempting to include lots of links to supporting information or interesting resources in the email. But used indiscriminately, links can become overwhelming, distracting, and confusing. 

Your goal, therefore, is to link only to the things that are most important, and to do it in a way that benefits your readers.

Here’s an example from Trends

We used to include a section at the top of the email called “Leads.” It was a collection of links to great articles from other publications around the web. Pretty chaotic, right?

Then, one day, we realized two things:

  • People were clicking links, getting distracted, and not returning to the email. We basically spent all week doing original research, only to distract people from ever reading most of what we wrote.
  • We weren’t giving our readers any unique value by just dumping a bunch of links in their lap. Anyone can do that.

So, we changed that segment. We moved it to the bottom of the email, limited it to the few best outside stories, and offered a brief summary or key takeaways from each. That helped us prioritize our in-house research while still sharing a selection of interesting pieces produced elsewhere.

Here’s how it typically looks now:

Limiting links keeps readers from getting distracted, but if something’s super important, the opposite rule applies: link to it several times in different segments of the newsletter.

For example, we often link to our original research several times inside our weekly Trends email, including in the:

  • Short introduction to the email
  • Title of the related research
  • Body text of the research
  • “Read More” button following the blurb

You’re never quite sure what’s going to grab someone’s attention, and readers end up clicking all of these each week:

Links and calls to action are especially important in ad-supported newsletters, where you get paid to send traffic to your advertisers. 

Check out this example from a recent issue of The Hustle:

See how there are three links and a big red button? They all go to the same landing page.

People scan your email, and you never know when you’re going to grab their attention. So don’t be shy about linking to something more than once.

Check out another example from The Newsette:

They link to the advertiser a half-dozen times. About half of these links all go to the same page while others link to individual products they know their readers will love.

Notice how the call to action invites readers to “Learn More + And Look Amazing”…

… That “look amazing” part is crucial because it speaks to the reader.

People don’t want your product (or your advertiser’s product) — they want the result that using that product will give them. What’s in it for them?

From your subject line to your calls to action, tapping in to this need is the key to getting people to click.

One more concept for making great calls to action is something called the inverted pyramid.

When you want someone to click on something, structure the content as an inverted pyramid, grabbing their attention with a big idea up top, building their interest, and calling them to act.

Here’s an example from The Hustle.

Notice how this ad grabs people’s attention with a bold headline. Then, we move you through easy-to-read bullets that build interest and anticipation. Finally, there’s a clear call to action.

Here’s another interesting example from Chartr.

They sandwich the ad between call-to-action buttons, and include three links in the text. Rather than a big bold headline, they grab readers’ attention with some strategically bolded words that appeal to a common problem — the nightmare of finding tech jobs:

By contrast, look at this message from Lucidchart. They get points for keeping this short, but notice where they could probably be doing better:

  • The subject line (“Don’t forget about Lucidchart”) is completely focused on them.
  • The text is bland — nothing draws your eye.
  • There’s just one link.

Don’t make these mistakes.

Social Sharing

Make it easy for people to circulate your stories online. Most good email platforms will let you add share buttons into your newsletter, and you may be surprised by how many people use them.

Include the platforms you know your target readers are active on. 

Here’s a quick example from Morning Brew, which makes it possible to share any individual story from their newsletter via social.

If you click one of those buttons, it opens a window on the platform of your choice, pre-populated with a message that makes sharing quick and easy.

Taking it to the next level, check out how Prof G has customized the social sharing icons in his email to match the rest of the visual aesthetic:

Request for Feedback

When you ask readers for feedback, you build a stronger relationship with them while also helping build a better newsletter.

There are lots of great ways to ask for feedback.

Some email platforms like Substack offer built-in features for reader engagement. Anthony “Pomp” Pompliano uses them in The Pomp Letter.

Each issue has icons for liking/commenting, along with a visible call to action:

Audience feedback can create a virtuous cycle, where popular articles become even more popular thanks to their social proof.

If your email platform doesn’t offer a tool to collect feedback, you still have options. For starters, you can simply ask people to reply directly to the email.

Here’s an example from Polina Marinova’s newsletter, The Profile.

Not only is replying to an email easy, it gives readers the sense that they’re interacting with a real person, rather than some huge company sending emails from a corporate account. 

Here’s another example from The Pudding, a journal of visual essays:

There are also third-party tools like SparkLoop that you can tie into your email system, allowing you to collect this data in a different way.

Finally, you can build your own feedback collection system. Here’s a quick example from Trends:

Each smiley links to its own Google form, where readers can tell us more about why they clicked and offer ideas for how to make the newsletter better.

We track all of those responses. By keeping track of the proportion of “Love It” clicks vs. “Mehhh” and “Hate It,” we get an idea of how well any individual newsletter aligned with our overall audience. 

Another way to gauge audience feedback is by calculating Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Typically, an NPS survey is done by asking people on a scale of 0-10 how likely they would be to recommend your newsletter to someone else.

0-6 = Detractor — not likely to recommend

7-8 = Neutral 

9-10 = Promoter — likely to recommend

NPS basically weighs the percentage of promoters against those who are detractors.

NPS = (% promoters) – (% detractors)

If you survey 10 people, and find seven people who loved your newsletter, one who disliked it, and two who were neutral, your NPS calculation would work like this:

7 promoters = 70% of those surveyed

1 detractor = 10% of those surveyed

NPS = 70% – 10%

NPS = 60%

Notice how the neutral readers aren’t factored into NPS at all. You’re just gauging the difference between the proportion of promoters and detractors.

Tracking NPS over time shows you how your content resonates with your audience, though it’s important to understand that NPS is a proxy for reader happiness and shouldn’t be treated as the be-all and end-all of reader satisfaction.

Ultimately, all of these things — from the subject lines you choose, to your body copy, and the way you ask for feedback — have an impact on your newsletter.

There is no right or wrong method. Almost anything is possible. Your goals will simply have an impact on the tools you choose to use.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the technology behind successful newsletters.

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