How to Grow 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 the following section, we’ll break down:

  • How to get attention across free, paid, and audience-driven channels
  • Step-by-step funnels for converting that attention into new subscribers
  • Tips on activating readers and minimizing churn
  • Best practices for tracking which growth funnels are working best
  • And more…

But before we dig into the specifics, let’s look at the overarching idea behind growth of any kind…

AIDA: Turning Attention Into Action

When you get right down to it, growing your newsletter is all about attracting eyeballs and convincing people to sign up.

A common framework used to describe this process is AIDA:

  • Attention — Readers become aware of your newsletter.
  • Interest — Readers become interested in your newsletter.
  • Desire — Interest changes to desire as they form positive opinions of your newsletter.
  • Action — Readers take action, signing up for free or paid subscriptions.

For some subscribers, the process is extremely fast, with only a few seconds passing between the moment you grab their attention and the time they hand over their email.

Others may need to see your work several times before finally signing up.

That’s why many people talk about growth as a funnel. Often, there are far more people at the top of the funnel (aware of you) than there are at the bottom (signed up).

The goal of your growth strategy is to get as many of the right people into that funnel as possible, and to optimize the efficiency of your funnel. (No one likes a leaky funnel.) 

Notice we said the right people. Like pouring diesel into your Tesla, fueling your newsletter engine with the wrong types of readers is a waste of time and money, and a great way to ruin the machine.

Differentiating between qualified and unqualified leads…

Qualified leads are those that fit your target audience. They have a high chance of being an active, longtime reader. 

Unqualified leads don’t fit your target audience, and often enter your funnel when your marketing is either unclear or offers incentives that aren’t aligned with your brand.

For example, at Trends, we write primarily for operators and founders of businesses with $100m+ potential. We also have a few other “personas” such as investors and employees of tech companies that just like staying up to date on the latest news.

Anyone who fits these profiles would count as a qualified lead. By contrast, high school students, who aren’t in the industry and (typically) haven’t founded companies, would be unqualified leads.

Even if we could reach thousands of high school students extremely cheaply with a funny ad, and get them to give us their email address, it would be a waste of money since they don’t fit the group we’re targeting with our paid newsletter.

This is crucial because it dictates the kinds of growth tactics you use.

Giveaways, for example, can attract lots of leads. But they can be more trouble than they’re worth if the bulk of those leads end up being people who don’t care about your newsletter and just want the gadget you’re giving away.

Choosing the Right Growth Tactics

We’ll get into specific growth tactics in a moment, but first, let’s zoom out and look at the big picture. When it comes to growth, you have three main levers you can craft your strategy around:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Audience

Early on, when you have no growth budget, time is your biggest asset, and you should use it to experiment with free tactics like content marketing, social media, or PR.

As you generate revenue or raise funding, you might be able to spend money on marketing. We’ll talk about tactics like paid ads, paid search, and influencer marketing, as well as the key metrics you should track to make sure you’re getting a good return on your investment.

Once you start spending money, data and analytics become essential. We’ll discuss the key metrics you’ll want to track, like the cost of acquiring readers and their lifetime value, as well as how to calculate those.

Over time you will build one of your strongest growth engines ever: your audience. 

If cared for properly, your existing audience will not only be the first ones to buy a product from you, but they’ll encourage their friends and colleagues to do the same, growing your list through word of mouth.

In the following section, we’ll unpack growth opportunities in the following areas:

  1. The Time Lever: Growing Your Audience for Free
  2. The Money Lever: Paid Growth Tactics
  3. The Audience Lever: Building Referral Programs

But first, we need to cover one more key concept of your growth strategy: attribution.

The Importance of Attribution

Attribution is the process of identifying where your readers are coming from, and what actions they are taking.

This essential process helps you figure out which marketing funnels are working best and, by extension, where you should be spending more of your time and money.

If you are building a newsletter, here are key variables to consider about your audience’s engagement:

  • Where did they come from?
  • How much did it cost to acquire them?
  • Are they opening the email?
  • Are they clicking on ads or other calls to action inside the newsletter?
  • Did they buy your paid newsletter(s)?
  • Are they enjoying the email or referring other readers?

A good email service provider will track opens and click-through rates, telling you which of your readers are most engaged. But determining where people come from often takes a little extra work.

Here’s how: 

Ad Trackers: Many social media platforms have a “tracking pixel” or a snippet of code that you can embed in your site or newsletter that allows you to analyze traffic you get from that platform.

The way you install these will vary depending on how your site is built, but each platform offers instructions (below).

Even if you have no ad budget, you should install tracking pixels for any platform you think you might one day advertise on. Pixels give you insight into what kinds of readers are visiting your site, and the more data you collect early on, the easier it will be for you to target qualified leads when you decide to start advertising.

We’ll get into the specifics of paid advertising in the paid section, but one other thing to know about pixels upfront is that you can use them to set up “conversion actions” — things you want readers to do on your site.

You can learn more about the various pixels, including instructions for installation, and conversion trackers at these links:

Pro Tip: You can snoop out which pixels competitors have installed to get an idea of where they’re advertising.

Several tools can show you which tracking pixels websites are using, such as:

  • BuiltWith — a freemium tool that shows the technology used to build a website.
  • Ghostery Insights — a paid tool that tracks scripts and pixels on any site.

Check out the pixels on Morning Brew’s site:

UTM Parameter: Another way to monitor where your website traffic comes from is through the use of UTM parameters, which allow you to easily create a custom URL without building a whole new page on your website.

Simply tag an existing page with a unique tracker (called a UTM parameter) to create a custom URL, then share it with a specific group of people and your analytics dashboard will tell you how many people visit that unique URL.

Check out this example from one of Morning Brew’s advertisers:

The ice cream company Brave Robot has created a unique URL using a UTM parameter. Whenever Morning Brew links through to the Brave Robot website, they do so using this URL so that Brave Robot can count exactly how many people come to them from Morning Brew’s link.

Several tools make it easy to work with UTM parameters:

  • Google Analytics can detect UTMs, showing you how much traffic flows through each, and where it goes.

With that, let’s look at each of the major growth levers you have at your disposal, and some key tactics within each.

The Time Lever: Growing Your Audience for Free

You don’t need money to grow a newsletter. You need attention. 

Early on, nobody knows about you. So the most important thing is to focus on making high-quality content, and getting other people to talk about it.

While building a great product is the foundation of a successful newsletter, it alone will not guarantee your success. You need people to talk about you and tell your story; that’s what most free marketing strategies are all about.

You’ve probably heard of Paul Revere… 

… the American colonist who rode through Boston to warn patriots that the British were coming. 

But chances are you’ve never heard of Israel Bissell, who also rode that night (along with three others), traveling nearly 30x further than Revere. 

Revere’s famous not because he was the best or most important, but because a writer named Henry Longfellow immortalized him in a poem called Paul Revere’s Ride. The other riders were largely forgotten.

The dirty little secret to media success: You don’t have to be the biggest or best, as long as the right people are talking about you.

Google Ngram shows how often words have appeared in text over the last two centuries.

Jacob Donnelly, founder of A Media Operator, says his newsletter got its biggest bump in sign-ups after Sean Griffey, CEO and co-founder of Industry Dive, gave him a shoutout:

Source: Twitter

Delia Cai, author of Deez Links, says her list exploded when Morning Brew mentioned her newsletter:

Source: Deez Links newsletter

So how do you get people to talk about you? 

In technologist Kathy Sierra’s talk “Building the Minimum Badass User,” she says that if you can help your readers be more impressive to the people they care about impressing (their partner, boss, clients, etc.), they will talk about you.

When you make your newsletter truly essential, you attract superfans like Rob Allen. A few years ago, after missing a crucial piece of news that lost his company $1m, Allen scoured the web looking for a way to stay up to date (and, hopefully, impress his boss).

He found Morning Brew, and became so enamored with it, he’s gone on to become one of the Brew’s highest referrers, getting 4k+ people to sign up for it.

Here’s an exercise many newsletter operators never take the time to consider:

1. Who do your readers care about impressing?

2. What format will make it easiest for them to do that? 

The most effective free growth tactics revolve around this idea of getting others to talk about you by providing value:

  1. Blogging/SEO: Blogging starts with understanding what topics people care about and which keywords they search for online, then crafting the best result for those people.
  1. Social Media: Posting to social media is meaningless unless people engage with and share your content, boosting it out to their friend networks.
  1. PR: Getting trusted media outlets to mention you and your work.

Let’s dive deeper into each of these to understand how they work.

1) Blogging/SEO

If you write about anything that’s evergreen — basically anything other than daily news — SEO can offer a huge opportunity to gain readers long term.

In Doing Content Right, a guide to digital marketing, The Hustle’s Steph Smith distills much of her expertise on blogging and content marketing, including ~20k words on SEO alone.

“SEO is the most underrated tool in the publisher’s toolbox,” Steph says. “[It] is the most dependable way to grow your audience consistently.”

Here’s an example. If you want to get 30k page views on your website, you have a few options:

  • Have your post trend on Hacker News: A front-page listing will often land 30k clicks in a day. The problem is, this isn’t predictable — you have to get lucky.
  • Pay for clicks: Using paid traffic, you can get consistent traffic — but even at the extremely low rate of10 cents a click, you’d pay $3k. 
  • SEO: By publishing several articles that rank on search engines and drive daily clicks — whether it’s 3k articles that each get 10 clicks, or 30 articles and 1k clicks — you build “bedrock” traffic that consistently trickles in day after day. 

The Hustle started this way, winning early attention with eye-catching stories like “Confessions from the Scammy, Underground World of Kindle eBooks” (parts I, II, and III), and “The Soylent Challenge: 30 Days without Food”, which still bring in hundreds of page views a day.

In this section, we’ll unpack some of Steph’s best advice on SEO, along with newsletter-specific examples collected from around the web.


SEO is often made to sound more complicated than it is. People try to game the system, using hacks to boost their rankings, but these aren’t necessary.

At the end of the day, SEO is just a process of understanding what information people are searching for, and providing it to them in as clear a way as possible.

While there are lots of factors that go into Google’s rankings, they can be boiled down to:

  1. Relevance: Is this page what the reader intended to find?
  2. Credibility: Can the reader trust your page?
  3. Usability: How do readers interact with your page?

Google’s goal is to provide the best results for what people are trying to find. If you align your content with this goal, it will naturally rise in the rankings.

Make sure you’re publishing your newsletter articles on a website somewhere. Ideally your own website, since publishing on platforms like Substack helps their SEO, not yours. For more on good website-building options, refer to the technology chapter of the product section.

Once you’re publishing your content to the internet, rather than just sending it to people’s inboxes, you’re ready to begin investing in SEO by optimizing your articles’ relevance, credibility, and usability.

Relevance: Understanding Search Intent

People use search engines to solve problems. If you want your article to rank high on a search engine, then it needs to solve a problem. More specifically, it needs to solve the precise problem that the reader intends to solve — something known as “search intent.” 

When you understand the problems people are trying to solve, you can make your content more useful than anyone else’s and maximize your odds of ranking well.

Luckily, if you know how to look, search engines like Google will help, telling you:

  • What do people care about?
  • How many people care about this?
  • Is it becoming more or less popular?
  • What type of solution are people searching for?
  • What existing solutions are there?

In the following section, we’ll show you inside secrets that will help you uncover the answers to these questions so you can create outstanding articles people love and share.

What do people care about?

The most effective way to figure out what people care about is simple — let them tell you!

People all over the internet are searching for and commenting on things they care about, and if you pay attention, they will literally tell you what they want to know more about.

One great place to understand what people want is Reddit.

Let’s say you write a gardening newsletter. You can start by going to Reddit, and looking at the gardening subreddit, which has 3m+ followers. 

Sort the posts by all-time top posts…

… then look at what comes up. Each post title offers a clue about topics people might want to read more about.

Taking it one step further, click through to read the comments on each post, and sort those by most popular too.

For example, on the dragon fruit post, we quickly see many people are fans, either experimenting with growing them or wishing that they could.

You can also search Subreddit Stats, which highlights the most popular posts of all time on any subreddit.

We now have a few ideas for topics people seem to care about. With a little brainstorming, we’re ready to move onto the next step: figuring out how many people care about a topic.

(Pro Tip: This also works in brainstorming ideas for viral content, as our founder Sam Parr discusses below.)

How many people care about this?

The next step is to understand how many people are searching for something. One great tool for checking search volume is Keywords Everywhere, a simple browser extension.

Once installed, Keywords Everywhere will automatically tell you how many other people are searching for whatever you type into Google.

In the image above, we see that ~12k people/mo. search for information on how to grow dragon fruit. The tool will also give you an understanding of what adjacent queries people are searching for.

As you can see in the image above, Keywords Everywhere gives us a rough idea of how searches are trending. 

We can get a more precise idea by going to Google Trends, and entering the search term there:

What solutions are people searching for?

Now that you have a topic in mind, it’s imperative that you provide readers with the right solutions. Even the most well-crafted articles will not rank if they aren’t targeting the right intent

There are a few different types of solutions people search for when they use a search engine:

  • Informational: They’re searching for information of some sort. These queries can typically be rephrased as a 5WH question (who, what, when, where, why, or how something happens). 
  • Navigational: They’re trying to reach the website for a specific company and use a search engine to do so.
  • Transactional: They are looking to do something. For example, if someone searches “Convert PNG to JPEG” it’s because they’re trying to complete that action and in search of a tool to help them achieve that. They’re not looking for an (informational) explanation of how to do X, but rather wanting to actually do it. 
  • Commercial: They want to buy something specific, but are in the research phase. If they are ready to buy X, they would fall into a transactional query.

When you understand the intent behind people’s search terms, you can ensure that you’re creating content that serves a person’s query and, therefore, is more likely to rank. 

This is often the most overlooked part of SEO, and helps avoid wasting time targeting search terms that aren’t aligned with a user’s intent. 

For example, instead of targeting the navigational query “apple” with your teardown of Apple’s business model, you will search for a more aligned informational query.

What other solutions exist?

Another thing to consider doing as you’re trying to get your articles to rank is to look at the current search results for the terms you’re targeting.

Not only will this give you a fair idea of the competition — and whether or not you’re up against other players who are stronger than you (in terms of domain authority) — but reading through those result articles can show you what Google is already ranking for your target keyword and give you ideas on how to make yours better and stand out.

One other benefit of installing Keywords Everywhere: If your original search term is too heavily contested, meaning that you’ll have a hard time ranking high on Google results, you’ll see similar search terms that might be easier to win.

Search intent is something you can act on immediately to make better content today. But the other two legs of the SEO stool — credibility and usability — must be built up over time. They’re just as critical. Failing at one will keep you from ranking altogether.

Credibility: Understanding and Building Your Domain Authority

Domain Authority is the term Google uses to describe how trustworthy or credible a website is.

As with so many things on Google, there are lots of components that ultimately go into your domain authority, and Google doesn’t share all of them publicly (in order to keep people from gaming the system).

But one of the most important factors in boosting your domain authority is the number of other sites that link to you.

So one key strategy in building a strong SEO foundation is to develop backlinks from other reputable sites.

There are two different types of backlinks though, and only one will help you…

… They are called “follow” and “no-follow” links.

  • Most links are “follow” links — search engines count on these to show how credible or popular a certain website is. The more of these you get, the better.
  • But some links, like those from user-generated content, are “no-follow” links — search engines have decided that these are simply not strong enough to prove your domain authority, and no matter how many you get, it won’t help your SEO.

If you look at the code of a webpage, you can tell whether the links are follow or no-follow. On many user-generated content sites, like Medium, Facebook, or Quora, links are automatically no-follow because the owners of those platforms are basically telling Google, “We’re not sure how credible this shared content is.”

It’s crucial to understand this so that you don’t waste your time developing links that do nothing for your SEO.

You build your domain authority by developing high-quality links to your website by using things like:

  • Your other web properties — If you own another website that’s been around for a few years, you can add a link from there to your newsletter archive to boost its credibility.
  • Guest posts on other websites — Use the outreach methods from our earned media section to contact other bloggers, and write content for their sites that includes links to yours.
  • Interview on other websites or podcasts — When others interview you, they often link to your work. More on how to land these in the earned media section of this chapter.
  • Community link directories lots of websites function simply as directories, collecting and curating links to other sites in a specific category. Find those related to your field, and submit your site to them.
  • Competitive research using tools like Ahrefs, you can see where your competitors’ links are coming from and decide whether any of those sources might be worth contacting for interviews, guest posts, etc.
  • The “skyscraper technique” Related to the idea of competitive research is something known as the skyscraper technique, wherein you find a piece of competing content with lots of backlinks, create something way better, then ask everyone linking to that page to link to you instead. 
  • Custom-built tools readers love and link to — Depending on your industry, you can create a tool that readers use, and let it live on your website. For example, personal finance author Dave Ramsey offers pre-built tools for comparing the cost of living in different cities, planning accelerated mortgage payments, and paying off student loans.

Google will guess whether your page should rank based on your relevance and credibility. They will even test you out by temporarily placing your content on the front page of the results.

But whether you stay there relies on the last piece of the puzzle: usability.

Usability: How People Engage with Your Content

Broadly speaking, usability is the combination of how well your site functions, and what people do when they land on it.

  • How well your site functions: If your site doesn’t load fast enough, or if it doesn’t work well on mobile, Google sees that as a usability problem and will not rank you as high.
  • People’s behavior: If people land on your site and immediately bounce off, Google assumes it’s because your site isn’t very good, and eventually ranks you lower.

Similar to credibility, usability is something that evolves over time. You’re always working on it. Google offers some tools to make sure you stay up to date on your site’s usability issues, and we recommend that you begin learning how to use each of them:

  • Google Search Console: This tool is specifically designed to help you manage your search visibility. It’s where Google will alert you of any major SEO issues, and also where you can submit new pages to be indexed by Google.
  • Google Analytics: The other major insights tool from Google, make sure this is installed on your site in order to see how users behave, and where they come from.
  • Test My Site: A site auditing tool that will test how fast your mobile site loads, and offer suggestions for improvement.
  • PageSpeed Insights: Another tool that will analyze how fast your website loads, and offer tips on how to speed it up.
  • Lighthouse: This tool is built in to all Chrome browsers, and offers feedback on 10 key SEO metrics that Google tracks

2) Social Media

Social media offers your newsletter three main benefits:

  • It offers top-, middle-, and bottom-of-funnel content that can get readers to join your list.
  • Even if people don’t join your newsletter, when followers engage with your social posts, social media platforms alert their friends, growing your potential reach. 
  • Followers who like, click, or reshare also trigger your tracking pixels, enabling you to reach them with other messaging (like paid ads) later.

The following section compiles some of the best insights from The Hustle’s social media maestro, Alex Garcia.


Social media is a chance for you and your company to show that you’re culturally relevant, flex your voice, and build real connections with the people who are superfans of your product.

Using Social Media to Draw Traffic

While social media is primarily a top-of-funnel tactic, meaning its main purpose is to grab people’s attention, it can also serve as a mid- and end-of-funnel medium.

By using different types of posts, you can grab people’s attention, build interest and desire, and ultimately prompt them to take some important action, like signing up for your newsletter.

The trick lies in understanding the culture of each platform and using a healthy ratio of top-, mid-, and bottom-of-funnel posts to avoid seeming spammy. We recommend 70%/20%/10%, like so:

Let’s take a look at examples of each type of post…

Top of Funnel: These are the witty, culturally relevant posts that simply catch people’s attention, drive likes and shares, and work their way around the web, acting as a megaphone for your brand’s voice.

One newsletter that’s great at this is Morning Brew. They’re a regular part of the conversation on Twitter with funny, timely posts like these:

These tweets often work more because of what they don’t say. Without using any words, the Brew crew has played off some popular twitter memes, all at once showing that:

  • They’re culturally relevant
  • They have a sense of humor
  • They know what year it is 😉

Funny posts are one way to do top-of-funnel because they get liked and shared widely. 

Middle of Funnel: These posts are all about building value and trust. This is where your smart, info-heavy posts go. Repackage your newsletter content for social, or create custom stories that even your newsletter readers don’t see.

For example, around the time that Airbnb IPO’d, Morning Brew shared the early story (complete with email screenshots) of founder Brian Chesky struggling to raise money.

Remember, if you can help readers impress the people they care about impressing, they’ll talk about you.

Look at how some of the Brew’s followers retweeted this story in an effort to inspire their own respective audiences, exposing thousands of new eyeballs to Morning Brew.

Another great way to build interest and desire among your readers is to share insights directly from members of your team.

We do this at The Hustle, boosting posts from our writers in order to keep readers connected to our team.

Morning Brew does this well, too, retweeting behind-the-scenes stories from Brew reporters and even the co-founders. These shares achieve a few things at once:

  • Delivers valuable info straight to their audience
  • Creates a sense of human connection between readers and the newsletter
  • Helps employees build their personal following and influence

That last one is key because influential writers are an asset to the newsletter. They help spread ideas, and can get people to act when it’s important.

You’ll do a better job attracting strong writers to your newsletter if they know that working with you will help them build their personal brand and audience.

Bottom of Funnel: These posts are specifically designed to get people to sign up. Use them sparingly (~10% of the time) to avoid burning out your audience.  

Check out this one from Morning Brew. They don’t just ask people to sign up; instead, they hook readers with a story, then place the call to action (C2A) at the end of the thread.

Polina Marinova, author of The Profile newsletter, does a great job of this. In the example below, she takes a shoutout from The Rock and turns it into a call to action:

Remember, social media is designed to be, well… social!  People like following people, not “brands.”

Some brands forget this and just use their account like a megaphone. Even with large followings, they don’t see the same kind of engagement as smaller, more personable social media users.

For example, TheSkimm is a juggernaut of a newsletter, with ~7m email subscribers and 216k+ followers on Twitter, but they use their account mostly to post stories, not to take part in the conversation. 

As a result, even though they have more than 2x the Brew’s following, they see much lower engagement. 

Check out this example below. Over the course of a week, most of their posts got only a handful of likes. The most popular tweet (on MLK Day) took two seconds to compose, but it’s human and people connect with it. 

Seventeen likes is not many at all, especially for a brand with 200k+ followers. But when you consider that it’s ~3x-4x their typical engagement, the point is clear: being authentic and personable is the way to go with social media.

Social Media Attribution Tips

To make sure you’re tracking the people who land on your site from your social posts, be sure to set up your tracking pixels using these sites:

Best Practices

  • Post 4x-5x/day on each platform: If something highly relevant is happening in your industry or the news, then post more. Caveat: You need to post valuable stuff. If you post for the hell of it, your posts will become noise, and people will tune out.
  • Post on-platform: When you post your content on the actual platform, rather than using a third-party scheduler like Buffer or Hootsuite, you get a boost from platform algorithms, leading to more engagement. 
  • Find the right ratio: Don’t overwhelm people with too many bottom-of-funnel calls to action. A good ratio is 70/20/10, top/middle/bottom.
  • Social is a long-term play: Early on, don’t worry too much about converting people. Focus instead on building connections with people, and learning the landscape.
  • It’s about more than likes: Don’t limit yourself to vanity metrics. Instead, look at how many of your landing-page visitors are coming from posts, and what percentage of them are converting.
  • Build community: Pay attention to (and interact with) the 50-100 people who frequently engage with your posts. Talking to these people regularly will do wonders for the social media algorithms, and they’ll be stoked to hear from you.
  • Plan your day: Posting 4x-5x across multiple platforms adds up to a lot of storytelling each day and a lot of content to create. Build a checklist of stories you need to post based on what people engage with the most.

More Tips — Instagram

The main thing to know about Instagram is that their algorithm rewards you for using all of their content types. If you limit yourself to just posting timeline photos, you’ll get a fraction of the visibility you would receive if you experimented with photos, stories, IGTV, and other features.

Structure of a Story

Features like carousel photos are an opportunity to tell an entire story. Don’t waste them by posting a haphazard photo series. The first photo should act as the punchline, setting the hook and catching the viewers’ attention. The rest should tell a story, taking the reader on a journey that ends with them realizing they need to sign up for your newsletter.

More Tips — Twitter

It’s best to think of Twitter posts as falling into one of two buckets:

  • Timely: Something happens in the news and you riff on it in a smart or funny way, picking up engagement and showing that your brand is culturally relevant.
  • Informative: Something more evergreen, like a surprising or interesting tweet thread (remember, arm your readers to impress their friends).

Both are important, but of the two, threads are hands down the best way to grow your engagement.

One theory for this: When people expand the thread to read it, Twitter counts that as engagement similar to a like or a retweet. By contrast, if you post a single tweet, even if people enjoy it, Twitter has no way of knowing if someone engaged with it unless they like or retweet it. 

So, similar to a carousel story on Instagram, when writing threads, make sure the first one sets the hook and offers an irresistible promise of a story that makes people click to expand. Then deliver.

Few people do this better than Hustle alum Trung Phan:

Planning Tweets

As mentioned above, it’s always best to post content straight from a platform, rather than using a third-party content scheduler. 

The one exception to this rule is TweetDeck, which was created as a third-party tool but is now owned by Twitter. You can use it to plan content and keep track of your mentions, and even reply to people directly, all from one dashboard.

For more on Twitter Strategy…

Check out these resources:

When to Hire

Social media takes a lot of bandwidth to do right. While there are certainly solo operators who are successful without a dedicated social media manager, it can pay dividends to hire someone to focus on this role. 

You’ll know it’s time to start or grow your social team if you:

  • Want dedicated social for multiple products: For example, at The Hustle, we use one catch-all social account to engage with people who read our daily email, our paid subscription Trends service, and our other products (podcasts, this guide, etc.). 

If you want each product to have its own dedicated social handles, and to perform well across multiple channels, you’ll want to think about dedicated managers who can own the channels for each product.

  • Want to dominate specific platforms: To truly dominate a platform — posting great content, responding to readers, and being first to comment on important threads from other influencers — you basically need to live inside a platform. So if you identify a single platform with lots of potential for your brand, and you want to go hard, consider a dedicated hire.

Traits of a Great Social Hire

When it comes time to hire for your first social media manager, you’re looking for four things:

  • Perspective
  • Empathy
  • Storytelling ability
  • Understanding of culture

Doing Community Right on Social

To wrap up this section, remember: Social media is supposed to be social. 

While it’s great if it funnels traffic to your landing pages, you’re missing out on major leverage if you don’t carry on a conversation with people on these platforms.

Some of our most popular tweets have nothing to do with business at all…

The Morning Brew does a good job of this, too:

Having that dialogue is valuable when things are going well. But it’s absolutely indispensable for those rare occasions when your audience is upset or giving you feedback.

3) Earned Media

Earned media is a fancy term for getting other content creators to talk about you. Whether it’s a guest appearance on a podcast, an interview on TV, or even simply mentioning your brand in an article, this channel is powerful because it grows your reach quickly.

It doesn’t happen by accident though (there’s a reason they call it “earned”).

To be successful, you need to be able to identify great opportunities, reach out in a compelling way, and capture the drive-by traffic that earned media can drive.

Most importantly, you need to be able to get the attention of busy journalists. In this section, we’ll cover the tools and skills needed to stand out.


The key to landing media coverage from other companies is to remember that their main goal is serving their audience, not promoting you. Therefore, you need to come up with compelling stories their audience will love, and pitch them in an interesting way.

How to Reach Out to Journalists

PR doesn’t happen by accident — you need to reach out to journalists with compelling story ideas.

This process breaks down into three steps:

  • Understand who your “look-alikes” are
  • Build your media list
  • Reach out to people on your media list with story ideas

Your look-alikes are companies you admire that get a lot of press and are a lot like you without being direct competitors.

For example, Patagonia’s look-alike could be Toms: both companies are driven by similar values, but they don’t compete over the exact same market.

Study the journalists and publications that cover your look-alikes, and compile them into something called your “media list.”

Here are three ways to build your media list…

You don’t need complex tools to build your media list. Feel free to copy our media list template here, or make one of your own. Then use the following steps to collect names and contact info for journalists who may be interested in your story: 

1. Search Google News for Stories About Competitors or Look-alikes ($0)

Read the articles, searching for key information about the journalists who wrote them, including:

  • Contact info
  • Hints about what the journalist likes to write about
  • What their audience responds to

This will help when you craft your custom pitch. Sometimes, journalists will put their email address directly in their byline on an article.

Other times, their social media profiles or personal websites will offer information on how to get in touch. 

This is because most of them want to hear story pitches that are worthwhile. For those times when a journalist’s info isn’t easy to spot, tools like or Voila Norbert can help.

Put this information, along with notes and links to relevant articles, into your media list. All of this will help you when it comes time to get in touch. 

2. Set a Google Alert ($0)

You can also use Google Alerts to stay updated on journalists who are writing about topics in your industry. Simply go to and type in a search phrase. Once created, Google will send you a regular email with all the new articles written about that topic from across the web.

You could set alerts for: 

  • Competitors 
  • Your industry name 
  • Key people you want to keep tabs on, and more…

When a new article is published that mentions that thing, it will land in your inbox.

This is especially powerful if you operate in a seasonal industry, as it will give you an idea for when publications like to write about your topic. That knowledge pays dividends and can help you stay ahead of your competitors when doing outreach.

3. Use Paid Tools, Like ‘A News Tip’ ($0-$400 per month)

Tools like Anewstip compile databases of journalists, the topics they write about, and their contact information. A free membership can help you turn up sources the same way Google News can, but still requires you to do some internet sleuthing to collect contact information. A paid membership, which ranges from $200 to $400 per month, gives you access to contact info right on the site.

Nitty Gritty: How to Make the Most of Podcast Appearances

One of the most interesting operators in this space is Codie Sanchez, founder of the Contrarian Thinking newsletter, which she grew to 10k+ subscribers in 30 days with no paid traffic.

Now, more than two years after founding, the newsletter is much, much larger.

One of her most effective growth levers, especially early on, was appearing on podcasts. To make the most of those opportunities, she does not just appear on a podcast hoping people will look her up afterwards and join her mailing list. Instead, she:

  • Focuses on doing a killer interview and providing tons of valuable answers to a podcaster’s questions.
  • Mentions one of several high-quality lead magnets she’s developed (whichever are most relevant to the audience she’s speaking for).
  • Offers podcast hosts a prewritten follow-up email they can send to listeners after the show with links to downloads, custom coupon codes, and any other special offers they have for that particular audience.

According to Sanchez, there are a few tricks to effective cold outreach. Check out the audio below to hear her talk through her approach.

Wrapping Up: Remember These Best Practices

  • Say interesting things in public: What do you believe, that others likely agree with but no one ever talks about? Tapping this well, and using it to share interesting or controversial opinions with the world, is a great way to get attention. For Sanchez, her social media (LinkedIn) presence is one of her biggest drivers of podcast invites.
  • Niche down to go big: Pick a relatively narrow area of expertise that you speak about publicly. This makes it easier for media operators to understand what your angle is, and how you might be interesting to their audience. Build authority there, then branch out.
  • Don’t just pitch big media: There’s less competition to land stories in smaller pubs. In his book Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday argues that landing press in smaller publications can eventually get you a spot in larger ones, since many large media outlets watch the small ones for story ideas.
  • Target at least 50 people for your media list. Adrian Salamunovic, author of Free PR, says that you can see response rates as high as 7% if you execute your pitch well.
  • For even more on PR — including tips on how to hire and train for this role — check out our complete solo founder’s guide to PR in the bonus section of this guide. 

2. The Money Lever: Growing Through Paid Acquisition

As you move into paid acquisition, the most important thing is knowing how much each reader is worth and the maximum amount you should pay to acquire them (something called your target cost per acquisition, or target CPA).

If you’re able to acquire readers at or below your target CPA, then there are only two real limits on how fast you can grow:

  • Your Total Budget: Unlike your target CPA (which we’ll get into below), the total growth budget is usually dictated by factors outside the growth team’s control, including founder goals, existing revenue, product development, and access to cash.
  • The “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs”: This law states simply that, over time, all marketing strategies ultimately result in shittier and shittier clickthrough rates. Customers initially respond to novelty. Once the novelty of a marketing tactic wears off, ad performance degrades and you’re on the hunt for a new way to catch people’s attention. 

Before you’re ready to explore the most popular paid tactics — like paid ads, paid search, and influencer marketing — we need to discuss the most important part of paid acquisition: your target CPA.

Figuring Out Your Target CPA

Simply put, your target CPA is the price you can pay for each reader without going broke. To calculate it, you need to first understand:

  • The revenue an individual reader brings your newsletter (known as customer lifetime value, or CLTV)
  • Your desired payback period — how soon will you break even on your investment?

Customer Lifetime Value

The lifetime value of a reader is the amount of money you can expect to earn from them.

While it’s common to think of lifetime value as a single fixed number, when you look closely, it’s usually a range. The longer someone stays on your list, and the more active they are, the more money they’re worth to you in either subscription revenue, or advertiser revenue.

CLTV is the most important metric in paid marketing because it tells you how much you can spend to obtain a new reader.

How to Calculate CLTV

For an ad-supported newsletter charging on a cost-per-open basis, there are a few variables involved in calculating CLTV:

1. Revenue Per Open (RPO): How much money you make each time someone opens the email. This is an approximation, since each client pays a slightly different price depending on budget and the type of ad they’re buying.

For example, if you charge advertisers $40 per thousand opens, then your revenue per open is four cents: 

$40 / 1k = $0.04 per open

This means that any time a reader opens the newsletter, you earn four cents.

2. Open Rate: Next, you need to consider how often any given reader can be expected to open the newsletter. In an ideal world, every reader would open every email, but of course, that’s never the case. Instead, you have a range, where some readers open often, and others not so much. Here’s one way to handicap it…

Low-Value ReaderMedium-Value ReaderHigh-Value Reader
Open Rate10%50%80%

3. Time: As time goes on, you send more and more emails — meaning more and more opportunities for people to open — and, as long as they’re still subscribed and opening,  readers’ CLTVs continue to climb. 

Let’s say that you send five emails per week. After two weeks, you will have sent 10 messages, meaning that you could predict the number of emails that high-, medium-, and low-value readers would have opened, like so:

Because you know how much you earn each time they open an email, you can calculate how much these readers are worth at any given point in time.

For example, after two weeks, the values of each would look like this:

This value would continue to go up for as long as each reader remains subscribed.

By combining your open rates and revenue per open, you can see how the value of each reader continues to grow over time.

CLTV is the maximum value that a certain kind of reader delivers before they unsubscribe from your newsletter (customer lifetime value).

If you know roughly how long readers stay active on your list, you can use the concepts above to determine your CLTV.

For example, if you happen to know that all readers typically stay active for ~18 months (about 400 emails if you’re sending five per week), then you can use that to identify your CLTV.

If you know this, then you know you must acquire high-quality readers for less than $12.80 in order to be profitable.

But how much less?

Once you know your CLTV, there are two ways to choose your target acquisition price…

  • By setting a desired “payback period”
  • Or by choosing a desired profit margin

The payback period is how long you want it to take to earn back the money you spent to acquire a customer. It’s the break-even point.

In our example so far, if you paid $3.20 to acquire a highly engaged reader, then your payback period would be roughly five months (20 weeks, sending five emails per week).

You can aim for whatever payback period you like, but our research shows that three to six months is fairly standard for ad-supported newsletters; up to 12 months is standard for paid subscriptions.

On the other hand, you may base your decision on your target profit margin. Let’s say for the sake of argument that you would like a 100% margin between the price you pay for a new reader and the value they ultimately deliver.

Based on a CLTV of $12.80, your target CPA would be exactly half of that ($6.40) giving you a 100% profit margin.

Putting It Into Action

Once you have the target CPA figured out, you can use it in several concrete ways. 

To begin with, channels like Facebook and Google charge based on CPC models, and allow you to set the rate you’re willing to pay.

If your target CPA is $2, and you have an (impressive) conversion rate of 50% on your newsletter’s landing page, then you can pay up to $1 for a click (your CPC), since roughly one of every two clicks will get you a new reader.

Aside from helping to set CPC budgets, having a target CPA can help you renegotiate prices with ad partners, and analyze where you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

As you’ll see in the following sections, your CPA is by far the most important metric you need to know when stepping into paid acquisition of any kind.

Paid Ads

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own method. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” 

         -Ralph Waldo Emerson

When most people think of paid acquisition, they think of paid ads. 

Paid ad platforms are like iPhones — every year a new one comes out.

It’s not possible to say where the most valuable readers come from, or where the best deals are, because every time someone does, everyone buys ads there, driving prices up and clickthrough rates down.

To succeed with paid acquisition you need to understand the principles so that you can get out of the herd and pick your own methods.

In this section, we’ll go through those principles with help from Scott Nixon, the general manager of The Hustle’s daily email.


Paid ads are all about one thing: your target cost per acquisition.

If you can bring in new readers at or below that cost, you’re in great shape, but your work is never done — the growth manager handling paid ads is on a never-ending quest to beat the best performing ad.


Paid ads can be used at the top, middle, or bottom of the funnel. They serve as a reliable way to get attention, and you use them to direct visitors through to landing pages, which are designed to build interest and convert readers.

Collectively, the text and images that make up an ad are known as “creative” — like creative assets — and companies are always testing new kinds of creative to see what works best.

Platforms like Facebook Advertiser, Pinterest Ads, and Reddit Ads allow you to upload your creative, set your own budget, and track how ads are performing. Ultimately, the ones you choose will depend on who you’re targeting, and where they hang out online.

Most newsletters tend to start with Facebook Ads…

Originally it was because Facebook was inexpensive, but now, the main reason advertisers start there is because Facebook has the best audience targeting of any platform currently available.

Not only does this help you to reach exactly who you want to reach, but Facebook will also give you data on who clicks which ads, which helps you better understand your audience.

You can then take those insights and apply them to other ad platforms.

When it comes to newsletters, there are a couple schools of thought on how to make paid ads as effective as possible:

  • Send readers straight to a squeeze page that prompts them to enter their email address.
  • Send readers through to valuable content that builds awareness and value.

You’re not limited to one of these; you can use both. Let’s look at a couple of examples from well-known newsletters, starting with TheSkimm.

According to Facebook’s Ad Library, TheSkimm has experimented heavily with Facebook ads.

They use a handful of interesting tactics to grab people’s attention, build interest and desire in the newsletter, and ultimately get them to sign up.

Let’s start by investigating this very simple ad for their financial newsletter, Skimm Money:

The conversion funnel is very short. After grabbing readers’ attention with promises of a better financial future, anyone who clicks is sent straight to this page where they’re prompted to input their email address:

In another example, they use bold colors and very slight movement on the screen (just a blinking line) to grab readers’ attention before sending them through a very similar funnel.

(Pro Tip: Just because this color scheme and movement worked once doesn’t mean they’ll work again — ad creative needs to be tested over and over.)

This animated ad draws your eye with a simple green line that flashes below the “5 minutes” text.

They’ve even tested more complex video ads, like the one below:

A much more complex animation, with moving characters and scrolling text. Very creative.

Readers who click are taken to a landing page similar to the one below. 

Each of the examples above shows how ads can be used to drive people straight to a landing page — a very short conversion funnel.

Short conversion funnels work well for free newsletters where you’re simply trying to capture an email address. For paid newsletters, email capture is often a middle step, as we first showed in our monetization chapter.

In this example, we’ll look at a paid newsletter company — The Motley Fool — whose ads sit at the top of a much more complex and nuanced funnel. For example, check out this brilliant ad that the Fool ran recently:

This ran on a day when Tesla, which had been trading at an all-time high, suddenly dropped 7%+.

Think back to our section on social media as we analyze what’s working here:

  • It’s extremely timely and uses a huge Tesla logo, which everyone in their target demographic (finance) would recognize, especially at the time the ad ran.
  • It hooks you with the promise of a story. The headline and description here force even the best-informed readers to say, “Hmmm… What’s up with that?” You almost can’t resist clicking.

If you click, the story continues with this article landing page:

Can you see how the The Motley Fool team is building interest and desire?

Recall earlier in this section where we said that the key to getting readers to engage with your brand is figuring out what your readers want most and giving it to them.

The Fool is promising to let you in on something most people don’t know about. Something that could make you rich.

What could be more interesting than being rich and knowing more than everyone else?

They don’t reveal the technology immediately, though; instead, they present you with an email sign-up form.

If you fill out the email sign-up, two things happen: 

  • You’re taken to another page, one step further in the funnel to their paid newsletter.
  • You receive an email, which again, is designed to lead you to their paid newsletter.

Notice how this is beginning to resemble the paid subscription sales flow from the monetization chapter?

This page is simple and designed to move you through to the next, which is a sales page.

If you do get distracted and try to click off the page, a time-sensitive pop-up appears, working once again to create a sense of urgency. This type of pop-up is often called a “bounce modal” since it’s designed to keep users from bouncing off the page.

Meanwhile, if that doesn’t get you, the email in your inbox might. It uses similar copywriting to promise a free report if you click through.

And where do you think that leads?

Right back here, to the intermediary sales page:

This may seem like a lot to put in place, and it is. The Motley Fool undoubtedly developed this funnel over years of testing and figuring out what worked best for their audience, and are likewise undoubtedly continuing to test and refine the process.

But once the landing pages and emails are set up, you can test dozens of different ads to try to bring people into your funnel.

Each of the following leads into the exact same sales sequence we just reviewed…

Look at how the headlines and descriptions are all a little different. 

Ad platforms make it easy to test as many different types of ads as you want, but here’s one thing you should always keep in mind…

Is an ad bringing in qualified traffic?

Qualified leads are people who are not only likely to sign up for your newsletter, but likely to read and share it as well.

This is crucial in any marketing scheme, but especially one you’re paying for.

Raffle off a Tesla and you may get tons of people signed up to your email list. But if they only sign up because they want a Tesla — not because they want to read your newsletter — then you’re wasting your money.

Similarly, you may find a really clever ad that gets lots of people to click and sign up, but if those people don’t become active readers, then you’ve wasted your money.

Attribution Tips

Similar to social media, you’ll want to be sure you set up ad tracking for the platform you’re using. This ad tracking usually just injects a small snippet of code into your website that allows you to monitor who clicks through to your site from a specific platform, and what actions they take.

Below are the support pages for tracking setups on the main self-serve ad platforms:

Best Practices

Here are some key best practices from our interview with The Hustle’s Scott Nixon.

  • Start with Facebook: Facebook has the best audience segmentation and targeting features of any platform right now. When you start here, you’ll learn a lot about who your audience is, which can save you money across other growth tactics.
  • Borrow ideas from competitors: Tools like Facebook Ad Library allow you to search by brand name and see the types of ads your competitors are running.
  • Test a lot: Run new tests each week. Even when you find an ad that works, you should start lining up new creative to test. Eventually, even the most effective ads will stop working, and there’s always room to perform better. Test things like:

💰 Price: Test the same product at different price points.

📅 Term: How often subscriptions renew (monthly, annually, every two years, etc.). For example, you could test $99/yr. against $150 for two years and see which is more successful.

👀 Ad copy and design: Constantly push yourself to beat your best designs.

  • Ownership: You need someone who owns the ad experiments and is responsible for reporting on them.
  • Daily review: Every day, the owner of your ad tests should be reviewing progress and analyzing what is/isn’t working.
  • Track results (but not too much): You should have a central repository for tracking the tests that are in-progress, their hypotheses, and outcomes. But inputting this data cannot slog down your growth team. Learn to strike a balance between doing and reporting

Nitty Gritty

Paid ad campaigns typically take one of two forms:

  • Cost Per Click (CPC): Typically, you’ll start here, using this model to test your ad creative until you’re confident you’ve found one that attracts the right kind of attention and gets your ideal readers to click through and sign up at or below your target CPA. 
  • Cost Per Mile (CPM): Once you’ve identified highly effective ad creative, it tends to become more cost effective to pay on a CPM basis. For a single price, your ad is displayed to 1k people, and you hope as many as possible convert. As with all things in advertising, this depends on your product and needs to be tested.

Beat Cold Man

Back in the day, The Hustle had a single, unstoppable ad. His name was cold man, and he converted readers like no one else.

Every company has their own “cold man” — the ad that supposedly can’t be beat. And yet, the goal of a paid acquisition team is to try new things with the goal of beating that all-time winner.

Your “cold man” represents the top of one peak, but you’ll never find the next unless you ditch it and try something new. When you do, like us, you’ll find that “cold man” can always be dethroned.

At any given time, you should be running a series of campaigns. Each campaign will have a few variations of the same general ad type — among those variants, you’ll find that one generally performs better than the rest.

Each week, you want to introduce at least one new test with the goal of beating the best variant you’ve found so far.

When things go well, take what you learn and apply it to your other campaigns, making your ads a constant work in progress.

How to Know When You’ve Cracked A Platform

As part of your ongoing testing, you’ll eventually diversify and try new platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Quora, etc.

Because every audience is different, and the way they engage with each platform is different, each new platform will require a new round of testing.

Some, you’ll find, simply won’t work for you or your audience. But you’ll know you’ve cracked a platform when your acquisition cost is at or below that all-important target CPA. That’s when you can step on the gas.

When to Cut Bait

When it comes to ad channels that just won’t work, at some point you need to make a judgment call about what to walk away from. Below, Scott Nixon describes how to think about when to cut bait on a platform or partner.

Paid search ads are the sponsored listings at the top, sides, and sometimes bottom of results on search engines like Google and Bing:

The two big players are Google Ads and Microsoft Ads, which manages paid search for Bing and Yahoo). In this section, we’ll break down the key insights newsletter founders need to know to approach this growth tactic well.


Paid search is an effective way to get in front of people who are searching for very specific keywords right now. To get the best bang for your buck, target niche or “long tail” keywords with little competition. Give campaigns two to three weeks to show results, and if they’re not working the way you’d hoped, cut them.


Paid search is similar to other types of ads in that you’re able to set your own budgets and test your own headline.

The difference comes down to interest vs. intent…

With ordinary ads on Facebook, you target people based on what they’re interested in. If they list baseball as a hobby, for example, and you write a sports newsletter, you might choose to target them with your paid ads.

They will see your ads at various times in the future, whether they’re reading about sports, or just reading the weather.

With paid search, you’re paying to get in front of someone who’s searching for something right now.

Every time someone searches for something on Google, something happens behind the scenes: Google has a near-instantaneous auction, and companies bid on the ability to advertise their website at the top of the results.

In a fraction of a second, Google decides who the winner is, based on:

  • How relevant the company’s website is to the search
  • How much a company is willing to pay if their ad is clicked
  • The quality score of the website itself, including the quality of the user experience
  • The CTR of the ad

Each winner’s ads are displayed as paid search results, and if a reader clicks on them, the advertiser pays a fee to Google.

We’ll get into the funnel in a second, but first, let’s talk about paid search strategy…

One of the biggest mistakes newsletters make when starting a paid search campaign is targeting broad keywords in the hopes that they will bring in lots of clicks.

Broad keywords are bad because:

  • They attract lots of competition, which drives prices up.
  • It’s harder to understand search intent, meaning you can end up targeting the wrong people.

The hardest thing about targeting broad keywords is that the broader the term, the more difficult it is to accurately predict someone’s search intent.

For example, check out these top search results for “best newsletter.”

Notice that one newsletter advertises here, but the rest of the results are for email marketing platforms, indicating that when people type this term in, their intent is often to find a newsletter building tool, not a newsletter to read.

The other problem with targeting broad search terms is that they tend to be expensive.

Let’s say you run an investing newsletter. It might be tempting to target this as a search term, since it seems like it will bring in the types of readers you want.

But a quick check with Keywords Everywhere shows that both the competition and price are high. 

The top results are major players with huge ad budgets, meaning the price of competing here is going to be really high — perhaps higher than the total LTV of each new reader you end up winning.

But let’s say that inside your newsletter, every once in a while, you talk about penny stocks. That opens up possibilities for much more niche paid search terms that are more likely to end up being profitable for you.

Take a look at the example below — not only does it get 4x as many searches as the broader “investing newsletter” search term, but competition and cost are both lower.

Of course, you need to be careful with these niche search terms, too. Sometimes they can be quite expensive.

Moving on down the funnel, paid search follows many of the same rules that paid ads do. Namely, that you want to follow the AIDA framework to build interest and desire, and to prompt action.

Here’s a look at one of the Fool’s landing pages from the search above.

Best Practices

  • Use Google first, then Microsoft: Bing knows that Google is the dominant player in the search engine wars (right now). They make it easy to import all of your Google settings straight into your Bing account. So refine your audience and bidding strategy on Google, then copy it over to Bing with one click.
  • Trust Google’s automated bidding strategies: Google offers a series of automated bidding strategies that use machine learning to figure out which of your ads perform best, and then optimize your ad spend based on your budget and goals. 

Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing is not new, it’s just more accessible than ever before. The internet and social media platforms have given rise to hundreds of thousands of micro-influencers, each with the ability to reach a specific audience.

It can be hit or miss, but when it hits, it can hit big. 

The classic example comes to us not from newsletters, but from basketball. After Adidas turned him down several times, Nike signed Michael Jordan back in 1984 with a goal of selling $3m worth of shoes in four years. 

As it turns out, they were aiming a tad low. By November of 1986, less than two years after the ink had dried on the contract, Nike had sold $100m worth of Air Jordans. In December of 2019 — 35 years after the deal was struck, and nearly two decades after Jordan had stepped off the court for good — Nike’s Jordan brand had its first $1B quarter.

Brands like Morning Brew generate most of their referral traffic from YouTube influencers, and Ryan Carr, one of our growth experts at The Hustle, says that working with micro-influencers should be a top focus for newsletters in 2022. 

In this section, we’ll break down some best practices for experimenting with this marketing channel.


The effectiveness of an influencer campaign often comes down to the quality of the influencer’s “read” — how well they read the ad. The more genuine enthusiasm an influencer puts into their ad-read, the better the results.

Whenever you can, work with influencers who are actually fans of your brand. Their audience will know.


One of the reasons good influencer marketing can be expensive is because influencers themselves are essentially replacing (and shortcutting) the entire funnel.

They are using their platform to grab attention, loaning you the trust they’ve already built with their audience, and urging people to take action.

As a result, the funnel can be quite short.

Take a look at this example from Packy McCormick, founder of the Not Boring newsletter, who we’ve worked with as an influencer to sell Trends.

The tweet links straight through to a Trends sign-up page. Notice the custom URL; this allows us to track all the sign-ups that come from Packy’s efforts.

Let’s look at some best practices for working with influencers:

Best Practices

  • YouTube > Podcast Reads: YouTube (and video in general) works well for driving people to a landing page, since people tend to consume video while sitting at a computer. Influencer podcast reads, on the other hand, are often consumed while people are doing other things and aren’t as effective.
  • Test When You Can: If you can do a small test with an influencer to get an idea for how engaged/aligned their audience is, that’s ideal.
  • Work with the Influencer: These are professional content creators, so rather than giving them a cold script, challenge them to come up with a message their audience will respond to, and give them room to experiment. 
  • Custom Landing Pages: We’ve found it works great if you can customize landing page copy to greet audiences from individual influencers.

Nitty Gritty

While influencer marketing is always hit or miss, when it goes right, it’s often because two things happen in tandem:

  • Alignment: their audience is looking for a newsletter like yours.
  • Engagement: their audience trusts them and takes action.

Often, you don’t have a ton of insight into these beforehand, so pricing for influencer marketing arrangements generally takes one of three forms:

  • Cost Per Acquisition (CPA): You pay the influencer for each person who actually signs up. This is more common for influencers with smaller audiences, since it’s harder to predict how many people will actually convert.
  • Flat Rate: You pay a flat rate no matter how many (or how few) people take action. This is more common with bigger influencers, who often work through agencies.
  • Blended Flat Rate + CPA: You’ll see flat rate minimums with CPA deals over a certain threshold, too. For example, a flat rate of $5k for the first 100 sign-ups, then $60 for each additional sign-up. This structure incentivizes the influencer to work harder — if you do it right, your blended CPA is much lower. 

In the case of a flat rate deal, the decision often comes down to an educated guess. 

Do your due diligence by looking at the type of audience they have, average engagement (i.e., views, likes, downloads) on their posts or podcasts, and project how many sign-ups you’ll get based on varying conversion rates.

Compare these to your target CPA to decide whether a test is worth it.

3. Audience-Based Growth

As your audience grows, it becomes its own growth lever, and your readers can help spread your message even further.

In this section, we’ll explore referral programs, and show you how they can be one of your most effective, and least expensive marketing channels.

Done well, they can be an incredible source of low-cost, high-quality subscribers — Morning Brew, for example, generates ~30%+ of sign-ups from their referral program, and regularly sees 1k+ referrals per day.

But most people are not Morning Brew.

In fact, most newsletters have terrible referral programs because they don’t actually understand the game they’re trying to play.

Let us show you how to tackle this like a pro…


The most important thing you need to know is that the vast majority of your readers (90%-95%) will never take part in your referral program. If you structure it right, that’s perfectly fine. It’s not supposed to reach everyone.

Instead, your referral program is designed to:

  • Get as many readers as possible to make one referral.
  • Appeal to the “whales” in your audience who can refer hundreds or even thousands
  • Stack prizes in such a way that your cost per acquisition goes down as you win more and more sign-ups

The Funnel

In paid advertising, all the costs are located at the top of the funnel; you pay to catch people’s attention whether or not they take action and sign up. 

With a referral program, all the costs are located at the bottom of the funnel. You pay for prizes that readers only earn by getting people to sign up.

Many newsletters set these up haphazardly, picking random prizes they think people want without understanding the economics of this growth lever. As a result, many referral programs fall flat.

To learn more, we spoke with Louis Nicholls, co-founder of SparkLoop. SparkLoop offers referral software specifically for newsletter creators, and they’re used by seven of the industry’s 10 largest referral programs (including one author who won’t be named, but is famous for a book about very short workweeks).

Few people in the world have peered behind the scenes into as many successful referral programs as he has.

Should every newsletter have a referral program?

Not necessarily. There are two traits that can predict whether a referral program is a worthwhile investment for you:

  • The Size of Your List: To some extent, referral programs are a numbers game. You can’t get everyone to participate, so you need to hit a certain threshold before building one makes sense. Similarly, you need to make sure you design your prize tiers to match the size of your list. More on both of these below.
  • Your Audience’s Social Sphere: How many of your readers know other people like themselves? This is an important question because it will dictate whether your audience is capable of sharing your message broadly. For example, if you write for college kids, most of them know tons of other college kids. Great. But if you write for divorce attorneys, they might only know a handful of others in their field, and even then, they may not be eager to share information with them.

When should you start a referral program?

While you can technically start at any time, they make the most sense for audiences of 30k-50k and up.

The reason is that only a small minority of your audience will ever participate. So you need a critical mass before the time and effort needed to run the program really makes sense.

The exception is if you’re trying to build a culture of sharing into your newsletter experience. Then, you can start as early as you like.

Who is the referral program for?

Expect 5% of readers to participate, Nichols told us. “You can reach for 10%, but 5% is a solid baseline.”

Rather than hoping to get everyone to make dozens of referrals, smart newsletters set up their prize tiers to spur two types of action:

  • Inspire as many people as possible to make at least one referral (and it will typically be only one)
  • Catch the attention of the “whales” in your audience — often readers with an audience of their own — who can make many referrals, and get them to do that.

You can think of this as a barbell strategy, where you have many readers at one end of the scale who are making a single referral, and a handful at the other end who can drive hundreds, or even thousands, of sign-ups.

How should you structure the referral program for success?

This is where we start to get into psychology, economics, and how to motivate people to act. Incidentally, those are all things that are studied in the field of game theory, which is why we sometimes say that a referral program is a “game.”

There are three popular ways to structure a reward program:

  • Milestone Rewards: In which readers win prizes for hitting certain referral goals (for example, branded stickers for three referrals, a keychain for five, coffee cup at 10, etc.).
  • Prize Draw Giveaway: In which there is one large prize (like a Tesla), and each referral a reader gets earns them one entry into the drawing for the prize.
  • First Across The Finish Line: In which you set a goal (say, 100 referrals) and the first person to achieve that wins a prize.

Notice how each of these is designed to appeal to different types of people and different audience sizes.

A milestone program, for example, appeals to ordinary people because it feels approachable. The barrier to entry is low, and each reader is not competing against others for any of the prizes.

By contrast, speed-incentivized events, like a first-across-the-finish-line giveaway, appeal more strongly to whales, who know that they could drum up entries fast by talking to their existing audience.

The most successful option is typically a combination of these, Nichols told us, with a milestone program that’s always running, and giveaways layered on every one to two months.

Best Practices

In order to drive home the best practices, let’s look at the case study of Morning Brew’s referral program. First, some quick stats. Their program:

  • Is built on custom software (outlined here)
  • Helped take their list from 100k to 1.5m in 18 months
  • Now accounts for ~30%-35% of their 2.5m+ subscribers

Now, you might see that last bullet and assume that more than a third of Brew readers are referring people. Not so!

According to interviews with key members of their team, as of 2019:

  • ~290k of their 2m+ readers (just one in seven) had referred at least one person
  • ~75k (less than 4%) had referred three or more people
  • Their remaining 330k+ referrals were driven by a tiny percentage of people, with a handful referring 1k+ people

So this bears repeating: Most of your readers will never participate in your referral program. You need to set it up so that that works to your advantage.

Let’s take a closer look at those prize economics…

Notice that the very first prize requires three referrals. But the vast majority of referrers only ever refer one person.

Know what that means?

That’s right — free growth.

Of the ~290k people who’ve referred at least one person, only ~75k reached the three-person prize tier, meaning the Brew landed ~215k+ new subscribers absolutely free.

That’s what we mean when we say that understanding the economics of this game can work in your favor.

Notice that their first prize isn’t even a physical product.

It’s access to an exclusive weekend newsletter. Now technically, that newsletter still costs them something, because they have to pay a writer to create it.

But it was smart of them to focus on digital products with low distribution costs. You could probably do even better by offering your readers:

  • Access to an exclusive Facebook group (no need to pay writers to create content for it)
  • A downloadable book or e-course with some of your best ideas
  • Shoutouts on your social media accounts or in the newsletter itself (bonus: this builds a sense of community among readers)

The big point here is that your prizes need to be both desirable and economically efficient. At each stage, you should calculate what you’re paying for each new reader, based on what it costs you to secure and ship the prize.

The cumulative costs of your prizes need to come in at or below your target CPA.

In the table below we’ve compiled some sample data based on the Brew’s program that shows how to calculate the cost for each new reader inside a referral program:

As you can see, the spacing between the prize tiers and their respective costs to the company are such that the actual cost per reader grows by a smaller and smaller amount at each stage.

This is good. But in an ideal world, you would choose prizes in such a way that the price per reader actually goes down as ambassadors work their way up the prize ladder.

You have two ways to do that:

  • Adjust your milestones: Setting higher targets will decrease the CPA
  • Choose different prizes: Lower-cost prizes also decrease your CPA

If we adjust the Brew’s milestones, the data could look like this:

Meaning that, after the initial cost of the stickers, their CPA would fall at each progressive step.

Would someone really refer 100 people just for a T-shirt?

You bet your ass they would.

Don’t take our word for it. Here’s a direct quote from Rob Allen, who was one of the Brew’s highest-referring “whales.” He referred 4k+ people as part of his mission to get their crewneck sweater:

“Was it a weird obsession? Yes,” he writes. “Did my girlfriend think I was nuts to keep refreshing my referral stats? Duh. But the simple fact was it was a game, and I wanted to win. So that’s what I set out to do.”

The job of your referral program is to find and inspire people like Rob.

How to get people excited to share…

Once you have a referral program in place, the final step is to activate it — you have to get people excited about sharing. 

Check out how Morning Brew does this using their social media channels, custom swag, and a little creativity.

In this case, they’ve created some limited-run joggers.

From back when these two weren’t as controversial as they are now…

Their designers worked some magic, riffing on a culturally relevant visual (like this photo with Elon and Kanye – NOTE: This campaign was made before either of these guys were so controversial. Times change. Keep that in mind when planning your own content).

Then (a subtle but genius move) they direct everyone to their inbox. Morning Brew could easily post a link in their bio that takes people straight to their ambassador page. But by doing this instead, they:

  • Get more eyes on that day’s advertisers, potentially boosting clicks
  • Remind people about the referral program and train them to use it from their inbox
  • Catch attention from non-subscribers who click through just for the photo

A word on the technology involved…

Morning Brew built their own referral platform from scratch. As Tyler Denk told us, they preferred to build custom software whenever they could because it made them less reliant on third parties.

The needs are relatively simple. You need to be able to:

  • Assign a unique ID to each user and give them a referral URL
  • Track whether someone signs up using another user’s referral URL
  • Ideally, give referrers a place to get their link and check their prize status

If you don’t want to build custom, you can use third-party referral tools. Some options recommended by various operators in the space include:

  • SparkLoop: Perhaps the most popular referral software, they integrate easily with different ESPs (for example, they are automatically included with ConvertKit) and currently run seven of the 10 largest newsletter referral programs in the world. 

One final note: “Providing free rewards and incentives always invites nefarious actors,” Tyler Denk told AppSumo. To make sure they’re getting real email sign-ups, they implement a double opt-in process, verify email addresses using NeverBounce, and maintain a blacklist of anyone who’s caught trying to hack the system.

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